“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:43
Every day we hear about many of our fellow human beings who have just experienced the mysterious transition from time to timelessness. Mysterious, that is, for any who have not yet crossed that river. Today, as every day, we learn of those of every age who exit this life for another. Unlike my elderly neighbor’s belief, to whom I witnessed about what happens when we die, it is not a departure from life to nothingness, from being to extinction. Rather this is a transition from time to timelessness, from temporal life to eternity. What exactly happens when you die? Not sometime in the future, but what happens immediately, in the twinkling of an eye? According to Scripture you begin a timeless existence.
Jesus made a promise to a repentant thief as both were being crucified, telling him that today, the same day he would die alongside Jesus, you will be with me in Paradise. Take note that Jesus’ body, as the thief’s, still hung on the cross as they took their last breath. Jesus’ body was buried as we expect the thief’s was. So how can you know they immediately, spiritually, were transitioned into heaven, the home of believers, or, like the unrepentant thief, into hades, the place of the dead?
St. Paul’s testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:2 gives a Spirit-breathed glimpse into heaven. The “third heaven” of which Paul speaks here in terms of first century cosmology, apparently refers to the place where God’s courts are, rather than this earthly world, the first “heaven,” or interplanetary space, the second. This was an experience in which Paul says it did not matter as far as his own senses were concerned whether he was in the body or not, the experience was the same for him as if he were in the body. This has to be a glimpse into what we will experience when we are separated from this earthly body and are not yet united to an eternal body. We converse, fellowship, relate to others much like we would as we have always experienced, except sinless.
The disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration saw Moses and Elijah in their bodies conversing with Jesus, yet Jesus was transfigured, whatever transfigured means. It was something perhaps, “out of this world,” yet familiar, for Jesus immediately afterwards conformed to his previous state with his disciples. Later the Apostle John witnessed heaven; yes, in a vision, recounted in Revelation, but with recognizable human and angelic figures which he describes in familiar terms.
We must be very careful about relying on various human visions of heaven written about today in books or depicted in movies as being authoritative, but Paul can be accorded the sure authority of God-given revelation. When my first wife was dying, in the final moments before taking her last breath, she spoke clearly with an incredible look in her eyes and upon her face just prior to her own entrance into glory, of seeing familiar people in heaven whom she had known before they entered heaven and a few others who she knew by faith from Scripture; maybe a non-authoritative glimpse for us of entrance into heaven, which we await.
But as Paul clearly tells us of the believer, “absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” The parable Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus gives a not so happy experience and place for those like the rich man who die in unbelief. A believing Lazarus-situation is far different (Luke 16:19-31). But there is nowhere in Scripture where it is even indicated that man transitions from this life into a state of extinction upon his demise. One may believe nothingness is the case if he so desires, but with what evidence? There is none; only uninformed and unbelieving speculation.
The Bible testifies to an immediate fellowship with Jesus and with those believers who have gone before upon taking your final breath. But the Bible says that those who have died already, accompany Jesus in his return to join those believers who are still living at His second coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15). In Romans 8 we read that nothing can separate the believer in Jesus from the love of God which is found in Jesus, “not life nor death, angels nor demons, present nor future, nor any powers.” The believer can securely rest in the fact that God’s love for him is always present and operative to protect his person from any harm or evil. If Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” you can surely rest in this truth spoken from the Savior’s mouth.
There is a fear of actually dying, natural to most every one of us. It is fear of something we have never experienced, but it is accompanied with a confidence in the promises of God and the companionship of Jesus each step of the way. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me!” The fear of extinction has to be morbidly paralyzing. Not knowing or finding out the mysteries of this life. Not seeing justice restored. Not knowing what happens beyond your consciousness. How does history truly turn out? What happens to your children? Are you consigned to extinction never to find out? This is not the plan of a just and holy God. It is not the order of a God who loves so perfectly. There is no rationality to such an existence, and if anything God is a God of reason. This is not the end of a being created in God’s image; a rational, sentient, hoping person with a soul.
The unbeliever needs to think long and hard about his future, approaching death and timelessness spiritually unprepared. The believer looks with eager expectation to an eternal relationship with his Savior and all fellow believers.
“The sands of time are sinking, the dawn of heaven breaks, the summer morn I’ve sighed for, the fair, sweet morn awakes; dark, dark hath been the moonlight, but dayspring is at hand, and glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land.”
(1st verse of Samuel Rutherford and Anne Cousin hymn, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking,” 1857)