Death and dying is a subject on the minds of people from preschoolers to senior citizens. Some nine-year-old children were asked what they thought of death. “When you die, they bury you in the ground and your soul goes to heaven, but your body can’t go to heaven because it’s too crowded up there already.” “Only the good people go to heaven. The other people go where it’s hot all the time like in Florida.” “Maybe I’ll die someday, but I hope I don’t die on my birthday because it’s no fun to celebrate your birthday if you’re dead.” “When you die, you don’t have to do homework in heaven, unless your teacher is there, too.”
The more mature we become in our faith, the more we understand the difference between our convictions and our theology. The Apostle Paul struggled with that distinction. Our conviction is what we personally believe whether or not we can prove it or substantiate it. Our theology is what we believe that we can prove or historically verify.
This struggle is clearly evident in Paul’s writings on the issue of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In the Seventh Chapter of First Corinthians, he writes and we find that struggle between theology and convictions. 1CO 7:6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. The issue is sexuality and a husband and wife. There is no ruling in scripture and Paul is uncomfortable is the direction that he feels compelled to go. 1CO 7:10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord). The issue is divorce. It is theology because Paul has scripture to back up what he is saying. 1CO 7:12 To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord). If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. There is no scripture but Paul has convictions.
I go through this struggle so that we can better understand Paul’s struggle with the resurrection. Paul’s conviction (what he personally believed) was that when we die that our spirit (our soul) will instantly return to Christ. (Philippians 1:21-24) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (22) If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! (23) I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; (24) but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Clearly Paul’s conviction is that when his eyes close he will be with Jesus. After all Jesus did say to the Thief dying beside Him, LUK 23:43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” Even though as a Pharisee, Paul had been taught that there would be one great resurrection. Even Jesus echoed this belief of the Hebrews. (John 5:28-29) “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice (29) and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.
When the Apostle Paul sets down to write the small young churches in Asia Minor, about 30 years has elapsed between the writings and the ascension of Christ into Heaven. For a new Church, 30 years was a long time. When Paul rises to the front of the church they have one question, “When will Christ return?” Writing to Thessalonians, Paul says that it will be like a thief in the night. It will come at an unexpected time. To the Corinthians he likens death unto the unexpectedness of Christ’s return. “…we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye…”
But now Paul has a dilemma, he cannot just write what his personal conviction is, but must write his theology, of what he knows! Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. There was not to be fear in death nor was there to be sorrow. 1CO 15:54 “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
In First Thessalonians, Paul puts down his theology to the Church. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. Note that Paul meshes his Jewish teaching with his new understanding of the resurrection. Jewish teaching held that everyone (good and bad) went to Hades. On the cross, Jesus destroyed Hades. At that moment Heaven and Hell took there respective place. When Jesus descended into Hell, He gave an opportunity for everyone who had never heard the good news. God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep. Paul doesn’t like using the word “dead.” For the Christian they are only “asleep.” According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. Now we are talking about group number 2. These are the ones still in the graves. All believers who have died from the time of Christ’s resurrection up and until Christ’s return. Paul sees the details of that “great resurrection” this way: For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. The graves give up all the dead, their spirits. (1Corinthians 15:51-53) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. The believer that is alive, will be called to Christ. And so we will be with the Lord forever.