One can be full of life one minute and dead the next. A traffic accident, a terrorist attack, heart failure, etc., can snuff out one’s life in an instant. At the same instant the soul enters heaven – or hell.
For those who find their salvation in Jesus Christ alone there need be no fear of death. It’s the gate to Paradise, the place preferred to earth. The apostle Paul said he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) but saw the necessity of continuing his work on earth for the sake of the church. Believers who see the end of this earthly existence drawing near through a breaking down of the body because of long-term illness or old age may truly look forward to being in the paradisiacal presence of the Lord. And it’s no less a comfort for those caught up in the busyness of this life.
Matthew Henry says:
The happiness of the future state is what God has prepared for those that love him: everlasting habitations, not like the earthly tabernacles, the poor cottages of clay, in which our souls now dwell; that are mouldering and decaying, whose foundations are in the dust. The body of flesh is a heavy burden, the calamities of life are a heavy load. But believers groan, being burdened with a body of sin, and because of the many corruptions remaining and raging within them. Death will strip us of the clothing of flesh, and all the comforts of life, as well as end all our troubles here below. But believing souls shall be clothed with garments of praise, with robes of righteousness and glory.[i]
To be sure, we have a foretaste of this future state now already as we, through faith, experience God’s grace and the blessedness of belonging to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, knowing that for His sake our Father turns all things to the salvation of those who belong to Christ. This is our faith, for today we live by faith. But when we leave this life we will live by sight. Today we are still in the body, away from where the Lord is; but then we shall be with Him. How comforting is the knowledge of the life everlasting!
[Paul’s comment in 2 Cor. 5] shows clearly the happiness to be enjoyed by the souls of believers when absent from the body, and where Jesus makes known his glorious presence. We are related to the body and to the Lord; each claims a part in us. But how much more powerfully the Lord pleads for having the soul of the believer closely united with himself! Thou art one of the souls I have loved and chosen; one of those given to me. What is death, as an object of fear, compared with being absent from the Lord![ii]
Of course, our ultimate desire is for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. “Our soul awaits the great Redeemer.”[iii] We look forward to when He will create a new heaven and a new earth. It’s a day we may anticipate with great longing. That anticipation will continue to apply also to the souls that are immediately taken up to Christ, their Lord, out of this life before He comes on the clouds. Those souls, too, will await the resurrection of the body.
Yet that waiting is a waiting in Paradise. That is what Jesus promised the 11th hour converted criminal crucified beside Him. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”[iv]
In Paradise! What’s it like up there? Evidently brilliant beyond compare. The Apostle Paul had received a glimpse of it when “he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor. 12:4). So marvellous was it that he was not allowed to speak of it lest he be exalted in the eyes of the believers above the other apostles, the other ministers of the Word. It would have meant speaking of what he had seen and thus committing the sin of preaching “beyond what was written” (1 Cor. 4:6).
And “what is written” about the life everlasting offers wonderful comfort, as we confess in LD 22. At the moment of death my soul, I myself, will immediately go to Christ. There I shall “possess perfect blessedness, such as no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived – a blessedness in which to praise God forever”.
Lamentably this comforting confession has, over the years, been under attack from various sides. Unbelievers, of course, believe that death is the stone end of life. But even amongst ‘believers’ there have been attacks on this Scriptural comfort. The late Rev J Francke says:
“Rome inserts purgatory between the hour of death and the heavenly glory. Others teach a soul-sleep between death and resurrection. Again others believe that at death the whole person ceases to exist, only to continue living in God’s memory until the last day, when body and soul suddenly come to life.”[v]
But these theories rob us of the truth of God’s holy Word. They rob the believer of Christ’s comfort. The Lord Jesus clearly said to the repentant murderer on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
“Not tomorrow, not on the last day; no, immediately in the hour of death. Paul, too, taught no different. This is our comfort about our loved ones who died in the faith. This is our own comfort.”[vi]
[i] Matthew Henry Commentary, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8.
[iii] Psalm 33:6, Book of Praise, Premier, Winnipeg, 1984.
[iv] Luke 23:43
[v] Joh. Francke, De Unieke Troost: Bijbels Dagboek, J Boersma, Enschede, p. 163.