Waiting for Resurrection
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
Their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
When the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
But the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:6-8).
On Sunday and Wednesday evenings, we attempt to have family devotions during dinner. With four children between the ages of seven and two, this time is rarely serene or profound. Typically someone needs to go to the bathroom in the middle of the Bible reading while another child is spilling food on the floor. With it being Advent, this past Wednesday we read from Isaiah 40:1-11.1 Before reading the passage, I gave my children a 90-second synopsis of the historical context–Assyrian invasion in the days of Isaiah and Hezekiah (2 Ki 18-19), Babylonian conquest, exile, and return. I helped my children to see how the prophet’s words had a level of meaning to Israelites in the 5th century BCE, but they gain new meaning as we read them today. Now we await the day when Christ returns and God resurrects the dead. In the middle of this passage, though, is a poetic expression of human mortality. Imagine trying to explain to a table of small children that human life is relatively short, fragile, and transitory! This opened the door for my oldest son to ask questions about what happens to us after we die.
I quickly did my best to summarize the confession of the Nicene Creed and the main points of NT Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. I paraphrased from 1 Corinthians 15, telling my children that our hope is resurrection. When we have a funeral and bury a body in the ground, we look forward to the day when “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (1 Cor 15:52).” I explained that the resurrection body is ultimately a mystery, but we know it will be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual (1 Cor 15:42-44). As John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2).” This prompted my son to ask, “So what happens to us after we die, but before we are resurrected?” My wife raised an eyebrow and looked at me, “That’s a good question.”
Knowing that different Christian denominations have different teachings about what happens to the soul before resurrection and knowing that the Bible is a bit vague on this topic, I hesitated briefly before answering. If I was in a classroom of college students, I would attempt to be as objective and unbiased as possible, giving students a smattering of different ideas. In the moment, I decided my children probably did not want a short lecture on the topic. So I did my best to keep things simple.
In his letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul, no stranger to struggle, imprisonment, and persecution, articulates his desire to leave this world. As he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ (Php 1:23).” However, he recognizes that God has asked him to continue to labor in the body and minister to the believers. Elsewhere, Paul encourages Christians who are suffering in the “earthly tent” of the body (2 Cor 5:1), that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8).” For myself, and most of the Christians I know, these words from Paul are enough to convince us that the soul goes to heaven to be with God while the body waits for resurrection.
Furthermore, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul suggests that when Jesus returns he will “bring with him those who have died (1 Thess 4:14).” This seems to imply that the souls of the dead have been waiting in heaven for the day of resurrection. Paul offers these words as a comfort to Christians who are grieving the loss of their brothers and sisters. The hope taught by Paul indicates that our souls will be rejoined to our resurrected spiritual bodies, and that our future self will be a unity of soul and spiritual body. This new creation will then live in God’s new heavens and new earth, where God will dwell amongst his people in the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:1-4).
The Life to Come
During Advent, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah that remind us of our human mortality. The nature of life has a way of distracting us from realizing this truth. When we are young, it is hard to fathom that one day our bodies will wear out, decay, break down, and die. When we become career-driven adults and parents, the busyness of life prevents us from thinking about our temporariness. Living within the boundaries of time, our lives appear to us to be long and our futures seem secure. However, the reality is that human life is like grass or a flower that grows for a season but withers as winter arrives. The coming of Jesus into our world offers us a hope in spite of our mortality and weakness. Our hope is that when this life comes to an end, we will be with God and that one day God will raise and transform our bodies just as God raised and transformed Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday.
(1) For our family devotions, I usually read one of the passages for the upcoming week in the Revised Common Lectionary.