Last year was difficult for the congregation I serve as pastor. While deaths and funerals are regular parts of congregational life, we suffered more deaths than most years and said goodbye to many saints as they entered the church triumphant. In this particular season, most were male, and many grieving widows remained.
Sensing a need for ongoing pastoral care and support, I gathered these women to meet for conversation and prayer. During these conversations, we unearthed and explored a deep need to know the whereabouts of their beloveds. The most pressing concern that came up repeatedly was the question, “Where is my husband now?”
When a widow is grieving her late husband, she is not interested in the general concept of resurrection, but rather in the particulars: Where is my husband now?
In these sacred conversations I began to see that the church at the level of the local congregation has a sorely underdeveloped doctrine of resurrection. This deprives those mourning of the comfort and assurance grounded in our hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It also leaves them with many unanswered questions about their loved ones.
I believe we can do better through teaching and affirming what the church has taught for centuries and what our creeds and confessions help us to comprehend. With Paul, I agree we need to proclaim Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2) and that we also need to proclaim the great hope we have in resurrection. Because Christ lives, so, too, may we live! Jesus himself assures us of this truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (Jn 11:25-26).
MINING THE PARTICULARS
Resurrection hope is regularly proclaimed during the season of Easter and can indeed lead us into great joy. However, often when we speak about the implications of Christ’s resurrection for ourselves as mortal creatures, we slip into generalities. It stays abstract. The truth is, when a widow is grieving her late husband, she is not interested in the general concept of resurrection, but rather in the particulars: Where is my husband now? What is he doing? Does he miss me like I miss him? These questions are not born in the abstract, but in the agony of a particular and poignant loss.
It is these particulars of belief and doctrine that have, I fear, been left out of our conversations about death and eternal life in Christ. Clarity about the general resurrection and the Day of the Lord is lacking.
As a pastor, I am guilty of speaking in generalities, especially at the tender time of death. “Your loved one is with the Lord,” we say in comforting tones and with a gentle embrace. But we don’t often say, “And there is even more yet to come!” While in a mysterious way our deceased loved ones are present with the Lord now in an intermediate state, our resurrection hope continues; we await a final fulfillment, the ultimate restoration and renewal when God will make all things right.
According to Isaiah, “The Day of the Lord of Hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low … and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day” (Isa. 2:12,17). On “that day” God’s will for all of creation will be fulfilled and God’s righteousness fully manifested. Indeed, all things will be made new. Why then is the Day of the Lord not something we often preach or proclaim?
Teaching a two-stage eschatology whereby we distinguish the intermediate state immediately after death from the final state of bodily, physical resurrection may serve to increase the hope of those who grieve. Death does not have the final say. The body in the casket or the ashes in the urn is not the end. Our hope lies in resurrection and, as such, our “telos,” our end, is the resurrected body in the glorified new creation. There is indeed hope beyond hope.
A REAL RESURRECTION
Even though this is very good news, we don’t often talk of a final future fulfilment when Christ will come to make all things new. Admittedly, the time of death may not necessarily be the best time for this conversation, but we do a disservice to our congregations if this teaching is neglected.
This goes straight to the heart of the “already/not yet” aspect of the gospel. The truth that your loved one is indeed already with the Lord needs to be held with another truth – that one day your loved one will be even more fully with the Lord. In other words, in the fullness of time which hasn’t yet arrived, we will all be gathered into the glory of the coming Kingdom.
The idea that we (or our loved ones) could in one sense be with Jesus immediately after death and yet still await a final fulfillment in Christ is difficult to grasp. It is indeed a mystery, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (15:51-52).
While mysterious, God’s will is not completely hidden. God does reveal the mystery of his will in and through the Word made flesh, and Scripture can assist us in our understanding. We read in Ephesians, “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (1:10).
The historic confessions of the church can also be of help. In my own Presbyterian tradition, the Westminster Shorter Catechism gives a specific answer to widows wondering about the whereabouts of their husbands. Question 37 asks: “What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?” The answer given is this: “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united in Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection.”
While it remains in the realm of mystery, we can be assured that the souls of believers pass immediately into the glory of God’s presence; yet our bodies rest in the grave until the resurrection, the Day of the Lord. Something wonderful happens upon death – we are in the presence of God, and yet something even more wonderful is to come! A time of complete cosmic renewal and restoration awaits us. A glorious time of healing and wholeness: a return to the deep shalom God desires for all creation. A time when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more … (for) the one seated on the throne says, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Rev. 21:4-5).
This is the hope I want to proclaim! This is the hope that gives true and lasting comfort, even in times of deep sorrow and loss.
Where are they now? Where are the husbands and wives, the mothers and fathers, the friends and family – our loved ones whose deaths we grieve? They are with the Lord! Embracing hope beyond hope, we can take further comfort in the knowledge that a day is coming when all who put their trust in Christ will be raised up in glory to live forever in God’s eternal realm. Thanks be to God!
Ann Conklin pastors First Presbyterian Church, Mesa, Arizona.