The Land of the Living
I can recall many moments growing up when I would think about the future and all the wonderful things I had to look forward to. The first big moment for me was entering junior high. It felt like such a big step into a new world where we changed classrooms and teachers every hour, where lockers were our own little closets, and where there was no more recess like the “little kids” still had.
There were many other moments like that. Sixteen, and the ability to get my driver license. My senior year of high school. Turning eighteen, then twenty, then twenty-one. So many milestones in the early years of life. Graduation from high school, then college. Marriage. Kids. My first real job. Our first house.
Looking Forward to Heaven
The privilege of looking forward to such things is undoubtedly part of the greater sense of pain we feel at the death of a young person in comparison to the death of someone in their eighties or nineties. At some point, we lose any sense of there being something to look forward to, and death seems more acceptable. More palatable.
Christians find comfort in the fact that the Bible promises a conscience existence after death. Believers in Jesus who die, though disembodied, are said to be with the Lord (Phil 1:23). Indeed, this life after death is a direct result of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. Because Christ “died for us,” we are sure to live with him whether we are physically alive or physically dead (1 Thess 5:10).
The Disadvantage of Death
But the Bible makes it plain that there are disadvantages to being dead. Despite the glorious hope of heaven, of life after death, the biblical worldview favors life over death. In fact, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the intermediate state but encourages us instead to long for the life of earth. Fifteen times (in the ESV) we find the phrase “the land of the living.” The Psalmist prefers to “look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Psa 27:13). He is thankful that God has delivered him from death so that he can “walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Psa 116:8-9). So while in one sense Christians need not fear death, for to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8), in another very important sense, death is no friend. Indeed, it is a great enemy, the very last enemy that will be defeated (1 Cor 15:26).
While the Christian has heaven as a comfort given the harsh reality of death, the Bible tells us that it is not some intermediate state that promises the greatest comfort. Rather, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead points the way to our own hope for resurrection; “If we have died with him, we will also live with him” (2 Tim 2:11). As glorious as heaven must be, it pales in comparison to resurrection into the new creation where death is no more.
The End of Grief
Thus, Christians should never long for heaven, at least not as they long to be resurrected from the dead, back into the land of the living. The Christian should be looking for the arrival of the day of the Lord, the Second Coming of Jesus, the day of their resurrection. Paul urges us to find our comfort in the death of another Christian not in the fact that they are with the Lord in heaven (though that is certainly true), but in the fact that they will not at all miss out on the greatest moment in history yet to come, the day of the Lord’s return. On that day, the dead in Christ will rise first and then, together with those Christians still living, will meet the Lord at his coming (1 Thess 4:16-17).
The grief of death for us as Christians is not so much a grief for the Christian who has died, for we are certain that in death they have gained heaven. But we still grieve because they are not here with us anymore in the land of the living. They are now dead. And apart from them being raised, our only hope of seeing them again is found in our own death and departure from life.
But then our own death will continue the conveyor belt of grief, for our own loved ones will have lost us from the land of the living. And on and not it goes. Death is a separator, not a uniter. It separates spouses and friends, and parents from their children.
But resurrection promises to unite what death has separated. And that is something to really look forward to.