Now, I can understand in one sense the comfort that this kind of thinking can bring to those who are left behind. It's indeed comforting to know that our loved ones in the Lord are no longer suffering or in pain, but rather are in a much better place, heaven. However, in making these kind of comments they reveal that maybe they don't really know what the Bible teaches concerning the state right now of those who have died in Christ.
Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Paul tells the believers in 1 Thessalonians 4 that our hope and comfort in death is that one day the body (that has been in the ground) will be reunited with our spirit (which has been in heaven). As the first martyr of the church, Stephen, is being stoned to death, he says, "Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit." (Acts 7:59-60) The author of Hebrews refers to those in heaven as "the spirits of the righteous made perfect."(Heb. 12:23) Clearly, the scriptural teaching is that upon death, for the believer, the body and soul (spirit) are separated, with the body being buried and the soul (spirit) entering the presence of the Lord in heaven. As much as it may comfort us to think of our loved ones as playing board games or horseshoes with others who have gone on before them, it is not possible because they don't have bodies.
However, even if it were possible for them to be playing board games or horseshoes in heaven right now, there is an issue more important about this that makes me stay on the Soapbox a little longer. And it's an issue of much greater importance. The reason it bothers me so is that for us who are left here while our loved ones in Christ are in heaven, to find "comfort" in them playing board games or horseshoes in heaven is such an inferior comfort. To think that way is to miss out on the real, biblical comfort of the Gospel relative to those who have died in Christ. How so?
I recently read an exceptional book from Cruciform Press entitled Grieving, Hope, and Solace: When A Loved One Dies In Christ by Albert N. Martin. Upon the death of his wife, Rev. Al Martin sought to answer from the Bible, "What precisely happened to her, where was she now, and what was she experiencing?" The following is a summary of how he answered that question from the Bible:
- The moment our loved ones breath their last, their spirits, in the full consciousness of their existence, are immediately made perfect in the moral likeness of Christ. (Rom. 8:29;Heb. 12:23)
- Those who die in Christ retain the full consciousness of their existence and are immediately ushered into the very presence of Christ. (2 Cor. 5:6-8; John 17:24; Phil. 1:23-24)
- Those who die in Christ retain full consciousness of their existence and are immediately brought into the company of all the blood-washed saints of Christ. (1 Thess. 4:16-17; Heb. 12:23)
- Those who die in Christ retain the full consciousness of their existence and are immediately ushered into the promised rest of Christ. (Rev. 14:13)
Isn't that much more comforting than board games and horseshoes? Again, my purpose in writing this is not to ridicule those who have mistakenly thought this way, but rather to encourage them with a much greater hope and solid foundation of truth of what our loved ones in Christ are experiencing right now in this very moment as they wait, along with us, for that day when we will worship the Lord as sinless souls in deathless bodies.
Al Martin shares this reflection which I think points to that encouragement that we can have about our loved ones who have gone on before us in the Lord. He writes,
For several months after Marilyn's death I would awake every Lord's Day morning especially conscious of the aching loneliness of being a widower. As I would make my way to the kitchen to prepare my morning coffee, I tried to picture what that day would be for her in the presence of Christ. I pictured here looking down at me with a pitying, yet sinless look and saying, 'Oh, Al, you poor creature, still tied to the 'body of your humiliation.' There you are, trying to wake up thoroughly before you go to your study to worship and pray. I have been worshiping all through the night while you slept, and I'm not a bit tired. I will be worshiping all day today, and I know it will not be a wearisome activity. I will not lack for words to give vent to my felt joy and gratitude, nor will I struggle to find abundant substance for my praise. My spirit has been released from every sinful inhibition and distraction. With abandoned joy I will be engaged in worshiping Christ all day today. And when you go to bed tonight, weary from your labors among God's people, I will still be engaged in worship. No night, no weariness, no need to sleep--nothing but blessed rest from all the struggles of the life I lived when I was still there with you.'
I do not believe our loved ones actually view us here on earth, for I see nothing in Scripture to warrant such an assumption. Rather, I share this bit of fantasy to say that in the midst of our grief, dwelling upon what our loved one has gained will strengthen and encourage us, lightening our load and making it easier for us to exercise personal discipline, so that we may carry out our obligations before God more effectively.
This past Sunday, my Granddaddy who died a few years ago, was honored at one of the churches he had pastored--actually the church where he had pastored the longest. They had recently built a new educational building and they named it the "Eason Educational Building" in honor of my Granddaddy, Nathan Eason. I hate I couldn't be there to see that, but my Granddaddy didn't hate that he wasn't there to see it. I guess it would be comforting to think of him last Sunday of looking down from heaven and experiencing great joy at what was taking place. But the reality is that he had better things to do and experience and it wasn't board games and horseshoes, but rather all the blessings Christ had purchased for him in this in between time where he waits the reunion of his now sinless soul with his then deathless body, enjoying the presence of the Lord now as He will then.