Life is brief. Even if the Bible said nothing about how brief it is, we would be aware of how quickly time passes. Old age usually comes to the body much quicker than it does to the mind. One of the shocking things as we grow older is when we hit that point that our mind tells us we can still do some things so we try, but find that we aren’t able to do what we thought we could. No wonder the Bible says life is just a vapor or steam that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.
When we watch one we love pass through the dying process and carry their body to a cemetery for burial, it seems like the end of everything. Knowing the body returns to the dust and we can’t see the spirit at all, we tend to question everything beyond the physical. There have been numerous books written and tons of people going on religious television shows to tell of how they died for five minutes or thirty minutes and what they went through as they were awake in heaven. It is less common, but also happens that some say they died and found themselves in hell before they returned to the earth. I can’t reconcile the books and testimonies given with Paul’s statements in 2 Corinthians 12 when he said he knew a man over fourteen years ago who was caught up into the third heaven, into paradise, whether in the body or out of the body he didn’t know but he knew that God knew. This man heard unspeakable words, unlawful for a man to speak. Why were these words unspeakable for Paul and unlawful for him to speak but the modern folks can come back from a few minutes visit and tell all kinds of information about the after life?
During Jesus earthly ministry he made three remarks that are important about the afterlife. The first was in Luke 16:19-31. He told the story of the rich man and Lazarus the poor man who was laid at the rich man’s gate. The rich man had plenty to eat with fine clothes and servants to provide all his needs. The poor man begged for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs came and licked his sores but the rich man didn’t offer him anything. The rich man died and awakened in hell in torment in the flames. The beggar died and was carried by angels to sit down beside Abraham and be comforted by him. The rich man could see Lazarus in comfort and cried out for Abraham to send Lazarus to just dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. It is a very minor request. But the answer was “no”. He was reminded that there was a great gulf between the two places and no one could pass from one to the other. He was also told to remember what it was like during their life time. Then he had the good things while Lazarus had nothing, but now Lazarus is comforted while you are tormented. He then asked for Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his five brothers who were still on earth not to come to this awful place. Abraham told him they had Moses and the prophets and should hear them. He responded that they would be more likely to listen if one went to them from the dead. But Abraham said, “If they refuse to hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if one went to them from the dead.”
There have been numerous discussions as to whether or not this is a parable or a story from Jesus memory from when he was in heaven before he came in a body to this earth. While I believe it is a story from Jesus life in heaven, the truth is that either way it teaches the same point that after death one goes immediately to either punishment or reward and that they have their memories and personalities in the next life the same as one does in this life. The reasons I don’t believe it is a parable is that it doesn’t have the sound of any of the other parables Jesus told. It names different people in the parable and puts words in the mouth of Abraham. If it is a parable, did Abraham really say these things or is Jesus just putting words into his mouth? More significant it seems to me is what Abraham said with regard to the brother’s back on earth. He said they have Moses and the prophets. Parables typically are about the following kingdom age, or Christian age that we are part of now. If this one had been about the present age Abraham wouldn’t have said they have Moses and the prophets but that they have the law of Christ.
Either way, we should learn that this life is short and when we die we will immediately go to either comfort or torment based on how we have lived in this world. We should learn that opportunities to change our destiny are only in this life. Once we leave this world there is a great gulf between hell and heaven and no one can change from one to the other.
One may object that this story is about an intermediate stage and that the words heaven and hell only refer to the final dwelling places. But I can’t see any evidence that the Bible makes such a distinction. The whole idea of referring to Abraham’s side or bosom as the place for comfort between death and the resurrection seems silly to me. It wasn’t that the place was Abraham’s. It was that Abraham was one of the inhabitants in the place and happened to be the one who comforted the new arrival. If one calls it paradise and tries to make a distinction between heaven and paradise it will bring numerous difficulties. First in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul used paradise and the third heaven interchangeably. The third heaven was the place where God is so this would mess up the thought that paradise was some in between state. Also in Revelation 2:7 the Lord promised those who overcome that they would take of the tree of life in the midst of the paradise of God. But in Revelation 22 the tree of life is on either side of the river of life in heaven. But the primary point is what ever you call it one goes immediately to punishment or reward as soon as they go through death.
The second statement of Jesus was in John 14:1-6 just before Jesus was executed on the cross. He foretold that the disciples would all forsake him and Peter would deny him three times. Then he said, “Don’t let your heart be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. In my father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you and if I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and receive you unto myself that where I am there you may be also.” The major thing from this statement is that heaven is a place with plenty of room. It is a prepared place for prepared people. This time Jesus speaks of the home prepared as one he will return for us to take us to. Between death and the resurrection the soul or spirit of a person goes on to punishment or reward but the body waits for the resurrection that will happen when the Lord comes again. This text is anticipating that second coming and the end of this world for us to go to the new heaven and new earth where righteousness dwells.
The third statement Jesus made was from the cross. Two thieves were crucified with Jesus. At first both thieves were joining in the harsh words being said by the rest of the people around the cross. But one of them realized what he was doing and changed. He said to the other thief that they were receiving what they deserved for their evil lives but Jesus hadn’t done anything wrong. He turned his attention to Jesus and asked, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Notice the power of what was said. He would leave this life today instead of lingering on the cross for days in agony. He was going to be with Jesus after his life ended on earth. The place where he would be with Jesus was paradise.
It has been argued that Jesus couldn’t have meant heaven in this statement because of what he said to Mary after the resurrection. He told her not to cling to him for he had not yet ascended to heaven. The point made is that Jesus hadn’t ascended to heaven yet so paradise must be a different intermediate state that he went to between death and the resurrection. I think that is making more of the statement Jesus made than was intended. Jesus went to paradise that day in his spirit. Ascension will happen when he goes back to heaven bodily after the resurrection. The point Jesus was making to Mary was that there was no reason for her to cling to him because he hadn’t left yet and their was time for her to have his company before he would ascend.
What stands out from these three statements from Jesus is that this life is not the end of it all but the preparation for what will happen when we leave this world to go to our final home. There is life between death and the resurrection. During that time the soul or spirit goes immediately to reward or punishment. But there will come a day when Jesus will return with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God and the dead will be raised. Then we will meet the Lord in the air to forever be with the Lord in a new heaven and new earth prepared for us.
The challenge for us is to be ready to go to the home prepared for us.