Pastor’s Devotion #110

“Do You Go to Heaven Immediately Upon Death”

 

We all wonder what happens when we die. Eternity is shrouded in mystery. The Apostles’ John and Paul were both given an actual glimpse of God’s eternal Kingdom, but most of us are left wrestling with many questions.  I received a great question, in an email this morning. It originated this week in a small group discussion. The question was raised, “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Eventually, this question crosses the mind of every believer. The non-believer might get stuck with the simple question of whether there is the existence of an after-life at all. But for the Christian, heaven is our ultimate, eternal home. We are only sojourners on this earth. Our time on earth is temporary and passes away as quickly as the blink of an eye. King David records his awareness of this truth, in Psalm 39. He writes, “Show me, O LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreath; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” (Psalm 39:4-5)

King David points to the brevity of life on earth. But David’s son, Solomon, known as the wisest of all Israel’s kings, points to life beyond the grave. Solomon wrestles within himself regarding the meaninglessness of life on earth yet he still declares in the book of Ecclesiastes that God has made everything beautiful in its time. He also states, “God has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)

The book of Job, believed, by many, to be the first book written in the Bible, quickly acknowledges a life existence beyond the grave. In the midst of his suffering and turmoil, Job states, “I know my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh, I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart years within me.”  (Job 19:25-27) Job mentions both “skin” and “flesh” as he declares this eternal reality. The “skin”, he refers to, represents that element of the body which is temporary, fragile, and will die. The “flesh” seems to point to that which will continue to live and is the first expression in scripture of bodily (spiritual?) resurrection.  

So, indeed, what happens when we die? Do we go into a sleep state and await the Second Coming? Or do we immediately enter the Kingdom that has been prepared for us?

Let us first look at the words of Jesus. When Jesus returned to Bethany and discovered that Lazarus, his dear friend, had already been dead for 4 days, he has a conversation with Lazarus’ sister, Martha. In that conversation, Jesus states, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die, and whoever lives and believes in me WILL NEVER DIE.” (John 11: 25-26) Jesus makes a radical, audacious claim that anyone who lives and believes in him, they will not die. Jesus brings comfort, security, and assurance that as believers, there is no death. As believers, life here, shifts to life there with God.

This reality is confirmed in a conversation Jesus has with a criminal as he suffers on the cross. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus, turns to him and pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responds, “I tell you the truth, TODAY you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-43) There is no hesitation in Jesus’ reaction to the criminal. To this dying man, who is clearly suffering the consequences of his actions, Jesus extends the gift of grace and brings assurance that all will be well. Demonstrating heart-felt humility, Jesus declares the immediacy of being home with God.

The Bible also gives examples of Old Testament characters that are either immediately taken up to heaven, or come back to earth from heaven. Early in the book of Genesis, we are told that Enoch “walked with God”. Then the Bible states, “Then he (Enoch) was no more, because God took him away.” (Genesis 5:24)

Elijah is another Old Testament character that God “took away”. Elijah was a prophet, who confronted King Ahab and Jezebel with the Word of God. When his ministry was over and the baton was being passed to his apprentice, Elisha, the Bible reports that Elijah was taken up into heaven. 2 Kings 2:11 states, “As they (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”

So also, as Jesus was preparing to go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, he took his three close friends with him up a high mountain. There he was transfigured and his Father spoke encouraging words to his Son. In addition, God the Father sent, Moses and Elijah to speak to Jesus. These two pillars of the faith, descend from heaven to support, encourage and strength Jesus for the mission ahead. The Bible states, “As Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:29-31)

The Apostle Paul also speaks about the resurrection and eternity. Paul and the early believers understood that Jesus’ return, His Second Coming, was imminent. They believed that Jesus would return at any moment. Because of this, many early believers shed their normal daily activities and work. They believed that work was no longer necessary. But as time went on, and Jesus did not return, Paul had to address the Christian community and exhort them to continue their daily responsibilities while waiting. He finally addressed certain churches and members of the community saying that if anyone would not work, they also would not eat.  So also, during this waiting time, believers began to die. The question was raised, “What will happened to those believers who have already passed away (the Bible also uses the term – “fell asleep”).

1 Thessalonians is believed to be the first book written in the New Testament. Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica and addressing many issues among the believers. One of those issues involves Jesus’ return and believers who have “fallen asleep”. Paul states, “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men; who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own words, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

The people were discouraged that Jesus had not yet returned and that believers were dying. Paul expressed a pattern for what would take place when Jesus came back. The dead would rise first and then those who are still alive.

You also might be familiar with the phrase, “Away from the body. At home with the Lord.” This statement also comes from the Apostle Paul as he addresses the Corinthian church. He states, “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body, we are away from the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6) Many Christians and denominations have used this scripture to support the belief that if one is “away from the body” then they are “with the Lord”. The key is the sense of immediacy, and that there is no delay in going to heaven once a person dies.

Coupled with that are all the countless examples of people experiencing Near Death Experiences (NDE). It is estimated that there are millions of people who have experienced an NDE during their lifetime. Dr. Mary Neal, is one example, describing herself as a “casual Christian”, drowned during a kayak trip in Chile. She has written two books about her experience, being taken to heaven, and then being sent back to earth. She confesses to having met Jesus and seeing some of the incredible glories of heaven. Countless confessions from recovering patients echo the same themes having experienced in heaven: Jesus, angels, family members, music, lights, love, peace and a clear, true sense of being home – and the removal of fear – are all consistent messages given from messengers returning from God’s glory. 

So, what do we make of all of this? Jesus has still not returned and billions of people have died since his resurrection. One of the challenges we are faced with is living in a chronological time continuum. God operates outside of time and space. He entered our world in the person of Jesus for 33 years, but he operates simultaneously, eternally in the past, present and future realities of our world. Therefore, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not God’s ways. (Isaiah 55:8) When we attempt to press our limited knowledge and understanding upon the plan and function of God’s omniscience – our conclusions will always be insufficient.

So then, let us return to where we began. Let us return to the words of Jesus himself. In the midst of death and mourning, Jesus brings words of comfort, hope, and love to his dear friends. More than that he makes a declarative statement of truth upon which we all, as believers, can stand and remain. Jesus declares, “WHOEVER LIVES AND BELIEVES IN ME – WILL NEVER DIE.”

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After saying this, Jesus then turns to Martha and asks the penetrating question, “Do you believe this?”

May we respond with the same child-like triumphant faith as Martha! She responded, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”

So, to answer your question: “Do you go to heaven immediately upon death?” Yes, indeed, you will never die. You go directly home to eternal glory and into the arms of your loving Savior! Safe and Secure! No more fears, no more doubts, no more need for questions – only Truth – that Jesus has certainly prepared the way for each of us to go home – whenever our TODAY comes.

God Bless You All, Pastor Mark  



Pastor’s Devotions, #104

“You Will Never Die!”

Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:26

 

For the last nine months, on a daily basis, we have watched the media tally up the growing number of people dying due to Covid19. There are questions about the counting and whether the number should be larger or smaller – but in the end, the conversation centers upon death.

As human beings, we all share a similar fate. At some future date, we will breath our last and our life on this earth will be finished. As your pastor, I deal with death on a regular basis. And I would say that it’s pretty safe to say, I THINK about death AND life, every single day. Recently, Bill Williams and Doris Hatlen passed away.  Bill and Doris were wonderful, faithful, loving people that I had the privilege of knowing. Annabelle Birkestol passed away a few weeks ago and I will miss seeing her frail yet strong, faithful presence in the front row of the sanctuary every Sunday as we worshipped together.

Don’t get stuck thinking about death, keep reading!

Growing up in the church, with my dad, as a pastor, incidents of the sick and dying were a regular part of our life. Then, when my mom passed away in 1987, at the age 56, due to breast/liver cancer – death became much more personal. When my dad died in 2016, realizing that he was no longer there to lean on, there came a moment when the pall of death hung like a shroud over my shoulders. I can remember a moment when the magnitude of living this one momentary life hit me squarely between my eyes. The reality is that life on earth is but a breath. There is no going back, no do over’s, no second tries or repeats. When our life is over, it is over, really over – FOREVER. That seeming reality hit me like a sledge hammer and came on like a wave that swept me under, pulling me to a place of emptiness.

Don’t get stuck thinking about death, keep reading!

I wandered and wondered and wrestled in my mind over this experience for quite a while. Upon reflection, perhaps it was a type of Jacob wrestling or Jesus’ workout in the wilderness.

But by the grace of God, I did not get stuck thinking about death. I was given a gift! Keep reading!

I was given the opportunity, in my soul, to experience, what I would describe as “humanity without hope”. Looking at life through purely human eyes, there is a definite start and finish, and a clearly placed period at the end of our days. No more words – no more sentences – no more adjectives or adverbs – only blank white space.

Keep reading!

But Jesus came and sent the Holy Spirit to us, that we would see life and death and our future not through human eyes but with spiritual eyes! Life on this earth has a certain timetable, but life with God is eternal. This eternal life can only be seen and experienced spiritually. Jesus said, “The Spirit gives life, the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63) Paul expresses it this way, “The body that is sown perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44)

Can you see it? Do you believe it? This is the question Jesus posed to Martha upon his arrival at the mourning of her brother, Lazarus who had died.

Jesus said to Martha, “I AM the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Did you hear Jesus’ claim? He made quit an audacious and humanly speaking, unbelievable statement! He said that whoever lives and believes in him, WILL NEVER DIE! Recently, there has been so much talk about death, I think it is easy to lose the reality of life! Looking with human eyes, yes, the reality is that we all die. Yet, looking with spiritual eyes, the reality is, WE WILL NEVER DIE! When we close our eyes and breathe our last on this earth, in the next moment, our next reality will be opening our eyes to Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven that he has prepared for us, standing before us.

According to Jesus, Bill, Doris and Annabelle, as followers who lived and believed in him, never died – they continued to LIVE! Certainly, I watched each of my parents take their final breath here on earth, but it was the beginning of a new life in the Kingdom of God. Jesus guaranteed this inheritance through the presence of his Holy Spirit. Each one left their physical bodies behind and put on their spiritual bodies. In the blink of an eye, they went home, their true home, and all of earth’s experiences faded with importance. They stood before the throne of grace. All their pressing questions needed not to be asked because they were in the presence of eternal Truth. It’s not that their questions would not have value nor their identity on earth any significance, but their true identity has now been defined, clothed and created in Jesus Christ in a new way. Many things, we come to find out, even in this life, do not carry the weight or concern that they once did. (And we hear this confident, convincing confession of this truth from every single individual who has experienced a glimpse of Heaven and returned to tell their regal account.)

Since that time of personally experiencing, what I would call, the fear of human hopelessness, the Spirit of God has filled that void. God has poured more of his Spirit within me. New life and its certainty has emerged more fully. One marker of this outpouring has been the ability to write a continual stream of devotions for weeks on end during this pandemic. Yes, there will be plenty of dry days ahead, and I am sure more times that the Spirit will lead me down another path into the wilderness, but Life has revealed itself. Death has lost its sting!

Are you still reading? One final thought.

We are promised that we will NEVER die. So also, life in the Spirit and eternity exists TODAY! It emerges more and more as we meditate upon the life we have to live in Him here, than the death our flesh will face out there. Life here and life there – this is Jesus’ promise to us.

The promise is genuine, but the words, at times, can seem a bit hollow. Recently, I read a devotion written by Ravi Zacharias that might be helpful. He wrote about a visit to the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, with his wife and son. He commented how his wife would take her time to study and reflect upon each painting. Ravi, took more of a flyby approaching, glancing at each painting and quickly moving on to the next. Some years later, he reported reading about theologian and author, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen was so captured by a simple poster of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, that he traveled to the same museum in Saint Petersburg just so that he could be in front of the actual painting himself. He sat in front of Rembrandt’s painting for four hours – and it changed his life. After Nouwen’s encounter, he knew that he wanted to work with mentally handicapped children and joined a community in Toronto, dedicated to this ministry. Ravi commented on the difference between his glancing encounter with the work of art compared to Nouwen’s immersion of the piece. Then Zacharias followed with a quote from one of his favorite author’s A. W. Tozier. Tozier writes, “I have often wished that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No shortcuts exist…May not the inadequacy of much of our spiritual experience be traced back to our habit of skipping through the corridors of the kingdom like little children through the marketplace, chattering about everything but pausing to learn the true value of nothing?”

Ravi admitted to skipping through the museum, chattering much about nothing and missing the moment. It is easy to skip about and chatter, learning the true value of nothing. But let’s not miss the picture Jesus painted clearly before us.

He prayed and promised, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)

Consider the picture and the time you reflect upon life and death. Ask the Holy Spirit for spiritual sight. Let His Life be your light! I encourage you to imprint this scripture upon your heart and mind – John 11:26 – Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in me will NEVER die!”

Yes, it’s true. You will never die.

Now, no more readingIt’s Time to LIVE!

God Bless You All,

Pastor Mark