Read: Luke 23:39-43
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43, NRSV).
What happens to us—and our loved ones—at the moment of death?
I’ll come back to that question in a moment. For now, let’s start with a story.
I was teaching an adult Sunday school class at a local congregation. This is not usually a dangerous assignment, but there was a definite fear factor in the room that day. Of course, it didn’t help that I was a seminary student. I was zealous about my topic, and a good deal younger than most of the people in the class. In short, I don’t think they trusted me any further than they could throw me and my half-finished degree.
The topic? The resurrection of the body. Everything was going well until I pointed out that this was not the same thing as the immortality of the soul. This was news to them, and they did not receive it well. I found myself with my back, literally, against the sanctuary wall. When I realized that there was a carved-in-stone copy of the Apostles’ Creed on that very wall, I pointed to the relevant phrase in in the Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The class granted my point, but they weren’t happy about it.
I was not the only one who was afraid that day. In retrospect, I realize that they were afraid, too. They were afraid of losing the comfort that comes with knowing that we are instantly safe with God at the moment of death. For their money, the idea of the immortality of the soul seems to guarantee this. The resurrection of the body, on the other hand, seems to suggest an unspecified wait.
Nobody wants to wait around for the resurrection.
I could bore you with theories about the “intermediate state,” but this more of a pastoral problem than it is an intellectual one. We need comfort, not theories.
There is powerful comfort in Jesus’ words to the thief just one cross over. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he says. Today. But how does that square with the resurrection of the body? some will ask. How can it be “today” if we have to wait for the general resurrection?
Maybe we need to remember that God is the original Time Lord. After all, a thousand years in God’s sight are “like yesterday when it is past” (Psalm 90:4). Or maybe we need to remember Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:50-52. It’s a mystery, he says. “We will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” That’s a comforting phrase if ever there was one. It suggests that even if there is a “wait,” we won’t be aware of it.
I love the way Marilynne Robinson’s character, John Ames, reflects on this in the novel, Gilead. Contemplating his own imminent death, Ames says, “I imagine a kind of ecstatic pirouette, a little bit like going up for a line drive when you’re so young that your body almost doesn’t know about effort. Paul couldn’t have meant something entirely different from that. So there’s that to look forward to.”*
Ames also gives a nod to an analogy from earlier in the chapter, where Paul points out that “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies” (1 Cor. 15: 36). In the novel, the elderly Ames is writing a letter that he hopes his infant son will read after Ames is gone. His words read well for all of us in need of both comfort and courage:
While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been, in the strength of my youth, with dear ones beside me. You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man, and I live in a light better than any dream of mine—not waiting for you, though, because I want your dear perishable self to live long and to love this poor perishable world, which I somehow cannot imagine not missing bitterly…. I have wondered about that for many years. Well, this old seed is about to drop into the ground. Then I’ll know.
Ponder this short video by Todd Billings on his book, The End of the Christian Life. What does it mean to live and die in such a way that we “give ourselves over to love”?
Pray: Grant me on earth what seems Thee best, till death and Heav’n reveal the rest (Isaac Watts).
*From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 142. The passage quoted at the end of this reflection is from p. 53.