Sadly many in the secular world echo the atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell who once said, “when I die I rot and nothing of my ego will survive.” In contrast is the glorious hope of the Christian who sees a renewed world and existence opening up before them beyond the grave.
But we need to be careful in what we say in detail about life after death. Our Anglican forefathers seemed to advise caution lest we are more dogmatic than Scripture about what happens when we die and when “in Christ shall all be made alive… at his coming” (1 Corinthians 15.22-23). For originally there were 42 Articles (of faith) that Archbishop Cranmer produced. But they were reduced to the famous 39 by among other things excluding the two that related to life after death and what happens before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ at the end of world history as we know it.
The human experience of time
The perplexing issue seems to be “time” itself and the fact that human experience of time is very different to God’s experience of time. C S Lewis points out that because in our lives one moment disappears before the next comes along, we take for granted that, I quote:
“… this time series – this arrangement of past, present and future – is not simply the way life comes to us but the way all things simply exist. We tend to assume that the whole universe and God himself are always moving on from past to future just as we do. But many learned men do not agree with that. It was the theologians who first started the idea that some things are not in time at all; later the philosophers took it over; and now some of the scientists are doing the same” (Mere Christianity).
The divine experience of time
Leaving aside philosophers and scientists, we need to heed the theologians. Many have taught that God was not “in time” as we know it. That is because of a straightforward reading of the Bible. For it seems to teach that God created time. So he must be thought of as being outside time. Take Genesis 1.1 and Genesis 1.5, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth … and there was evening and there was morning the first day.” And then take John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So William Craig writes of the Word who became flesh in Jesus as follows:
“It is not hard to interpret this passage in terms of the Word’s timeless unity with God – nor would it be anachronistic to do so given the first century Jewish philosopher Philo’s doctrine of the divine Logos [the Word] and Philo’s holding that time begins with creation.”
And there are a number of other passages, in the Old and New Testaments, that teach that God is outside time or time being different to God. Here are a few examples: Jude 25, “to the only God, our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 1.9, “[God’s] purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began [Greek before times eternal]”. And, Psalm 90.4 says, “For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past or a watch in the night.” So the Apostle Peter can say (2 Peter 3.8), “But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”
The prophet Isaiah is clear (Isaiah 55.9): “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my way higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” That means there is a radical contrast between our “ways” and God’s – between how we experience things in contrast to God. So, while all “our ways” - all we do - is in a four-dimensional world (three of space and one of time), God’s reality will be infinitely greater. And while how we think about things is based on our life in this spatio-temporal world, how God thinks about things, as Isaiah says, is infinitely “higher” than our thinking and understanding and even imagining (“as the heavens are higher than the earth”). On that basis C S Lewis has constructed a helpful analogy with regard to time:
“If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn. We come to the parts of the line one by one: we have to leave A behind, before we get to B; and cannot reach C, until we leave B behind. God, from above, outside, or all round, who contains the whole line, sees it all” (Mere Christianity).
Yes, that is beyond our imagination. But that is why we cannot be dogmatic about what life is like once we transition to eternity and the eternal world (into life beyond death and into God’s time and into existence as God experiences it). All we can do is trust what has been revealed. As Deuteronomy 29.29 makes so clear: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
That is why the Bible has to use analogies (or picture language as in the book of Revelation) that help our human imagination understand something of the nature of God and the eternal world and the experience of life in it. And that is sufficient for our trust and obedience now in this world - for doing “all the words of this [God’s] law [or, Hebrew, teaching]”. Paul himself explains the situation with his well-known analogy: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been known fully” (1 Corinthians 13.12).
“Face to face”
Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 13.12 there are only two alternatives - seeing “dimly” and seeing “face to face”; and the transition to seeing face to face is instantaneous. In 1 Corinthians 15.51-52 Paul says: “Behold I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye [i.e. instantaneously], at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed”. That is for those who are alive when Christ returns.
But, on the other hand, Paul speaks as though he will be with Christ immediately he dies. This is in 2 Corinthians 5 (see JPC sermon on 4 October 2020) which is the same as Philippians 1.21: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ which is far better.” And. of course, the repentant dying thief on the Cross was told by Jesus, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Maybe C S Lewis suggestion about God’s view of time is helpful in reconciling Paul’s statements. Viewed from the human time frame, there is a delay in the resurrection of individuals; but our experience in God’s time must be very different. That is why for the believer there is no delay so “to die is gain.” And remember Jesus words in John 14.3, “if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Because of that promise, John Stott asks:
“is it fanciful to suppose that when the dying martyr Stephen said he saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand, Jesus had in fact risen from his throne in order to fetch or welcome him?”
Certainly there was an immediacy for Stephen.
Let me conclude with John Stott’s summary of John 14.1-3:
“There is no need for us to speculate about the precise nature of heaven. We are assured on the authority of Jesus Christ that it is the house and home of his Father and ours, … that this home is a prepared place containing many rooms or resting places, and that he himself will be there. What more do we need to know? To be certain that where he is, there we will be also should be enough to satisfy our curiosity and allay our fears.”