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One time—and one time only—a prominent figure in the Bible was asked specifically about what happens right at death. This person was the apostle Paul, and he was responsible for roughly half of the books in the entire New Testament.
Next to Jesus himself, Paul was the perfect person to ask to about such matters.
The believers at the church in Thessalonica, like a lot of us, were very concerned about what would happen to them at death. They were particularly concerned because many years had passed since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and there had been no sign of his return. Along the way, their fellow believers had passed from this world. We know this exact topic had come up, because Paul specifically addressed it in 4:13 (below).
This situation led them to ask Paul—their spiritual guide and mentor—a very important and succinct question: what happened to all of the believers who have died?
This was Paul’s chance; he could settle the debate once and for all, right here and now. But what would he tell them? These are his exact words:
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 The 4:13-18, NASB)
The following is taken directly from The Death Myth, and it describes the significance of what Paul was telling them.
“If Paul’s perspective was that the human soul would enter into a conscious existence elsewhere after the death of the body, then it is worth wondering why he took such pains to not say that. Paul could very easily have said something like this:
‘But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who have died, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For we know that those who have died in Christ are already present with him, enjoying the heavenly existence that was promised to us.’
Clearly, the words in italics are my own and not Paul’s, but any statement of the sort would have clarified that the dead consciously reside in heaven (or elsewhere). I would suggest that if Paul had said such a thing, whether in this passage or another, then there would be no need to debate the nature of the interim period at all. But instead of attempting to discuss the dead in any sort of conscious way, Paul compared death to sleep. Moreover, Paul placed the entire basis of our hope in the afterlife in the future: at the return of Christ. It strikes me as odd that when the opportunity presented itself—and again, presented itself perfectly—to affirm that believers enjoy a conscious, heavenly existence at death, Paul clearly chose to go a different direction. If he believed that, he really blew the opportunity to say it! . . . it is certainly worth remembering that Paul was unwilling to openly state that the souls of the dead enter into a conscious existence after death, even when the opportunity to do so was slapping him in the face.” (pp. 19-20)
I find this to be fascinating. Where is the talk of becoming immaterial spirits after death? Where are the statements about realms for the dead, and life between this world and the one that is to come? Indeed, if that was Paul’s view on the matter, he really missed his chance to say it. He missed the best chance that anyone in the Bible ever had to say it.
There is no better example in all of Scripture to point to. The biblical view of the afterlife is all about the resurrection and the return of Christ. Like Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, immaterial spirits and interim periods should not enter the picture.
They simply aren’t a part of it.
Rossiter, Brian. The Death Myth: Uncovering What the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife. pg. 136. iUniverse. Bloomington, IN. Copyright, 2018. Print.