In this episode of TGC Q&A, H. B. Charles Jr. and Ligon Duncan discuss what the Bible teaches about the moment believers die. They emphasize the hope Christians have in being immediately found in the presence of Christ following death. The comfort of Christ points not only to an eternity in which all suffering ends after his return, but also to the joy of being with Christ the instant we sleep in death. Such joy caused Paul to vacillate between a desire to serve Christ in the world and leave by death to experience the presence of Christ.
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Ligon Duncan: The Apostle Paul says, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” And so, one of the things that Bible-believing Christians believe about the intermediate state, meaning what happens between the very moment that you die and then what happens between that time and the final resurrection, the coming of Christ, the setting up of the eternal kingdom.
What’s so important for believers to understand now is that we go immediately to the presence of Christ and that’s important for assurance of salvation and it’s important for comfort in the wake of the death of a loved one. I have so many Christians that ask me questions about that and I bet you’ve gotten a million questions like that over the course of your pastoral ministry.
H. B. Charles Jr.: Yeah. And, just this past weekend I buried a dear member and just her remarks from how very active he was in the fraternity and other things in the community. And, even though those wonderful things were affirmed, the congregation sat there waiting for hope that transcends all of that. And, I totally agree with all that you have just said biblically. And, moreover that it is the hope of the believer that, “life is Christ,” in Paul’s words again and that “death is gain.” And, death is gained because of the hope that we have of what happens the moment that we die, that our souls go to be with the Lord in all of eternity. It’s an important hope and assurance for the believer to live by.
Ligon Duncan: Right. You know, there’s been a lot of evangelical writing I would say in the last 20 or 25 years that has, I think trying to be a corrective, has downplayed the hope that believers have in the intermediate state and has up-played the final resurrection and the new heavens and the new earth and all of it. And, obviously, those things are huge for believers. We really care about the coming of Christ, the final resurrection, the future glory, the new heavens, and the new earth. Those are huge truths that do need to be emphasized in the Christian life.
But, if the greatest thing in all of life here or hereafter is the experience of the presence of God, to know that the moment that you die, immediately you are in the presence of Christ, there is no greater comfort than that. And, if you think, you know, Moses in the wilderness longs to see God, to experience the presence of God. Paul longs, you know, he can’t decide talking to the Philippians, “Is it better for me to be here serving you fruitfully, serving the Lord, or better with Christ? Well, better to be with Christ! But, I stay here for your sakes.” If that’s the case, the comfort that we know and experience and can be assured of the presence of Christ the moment we close our eyes, at last, is absolutely huge for the Christian life. And, that shouldn’t just be for preachers. I mean, yeah, we’ve been heralding this from the time we were very young. We’ve been doing this all of our lives, pointing people to him, talking about him, studying the word. But, all believers ought to want that more than anything else – to be in the presence of Christ.
H. B. Charles Jr.: Absolutely. While you mention one extreme, another extreme that Christians can fall into is just being too preoccupied with the here and now and forgetting that our hope is in a reality that transcends the present state of things. And, being reminded of what Paul said to the Corinthians that if our hope in Christ is just in this life, we’re the most pitiful people in the world. We’ve missed the party. But, the hope of the believer is that we will be with the Lord and that our hope transcends the grave. And, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hope for the future resurrection of the believer.
Ligon Duncan: Amen, it’s a pledge of what’s coming for us as we trust in him. We love and serve a resurrected Lord and the principle that Jesus constantly teaches his disciples in the Gospels is what happens to the master happens to the disciples. And, the hard thing on that is just the suffering and the trials of life that we experience. But the glorious thing is if he is raised, so shall we. I love “Jesus Lives and So Shall I,” is one of my favorite hymns and that hope and that reality changes everything.
H. B. Charles Jr.: Indeed.