Every couple of years in our church, it seems we lose a young person to some tragic accident. When the young person is a believer there is hope and comfort, but still a whole host of questions that are difficult to answer. Death gets us thinking about the things that really matter. It relativizes a great many lesser concerns, and it provides an opportunity for young and old to come together and share with one another the wisdom and the comfort of the Scriptures.
In the wake of a recent tragedy involving a young man who knew and who served the Lord, I was asked if I could share a pastoral letter I had written a few years before. The letter was in answer to an email I had received from a hurting congregant. The original question had to do with heaven and what happens to the souls of our loved ones who pass on ahead of us into the presence of the Lord. I share it here in the hopes that it may be an encouragement to others who are processing similar losses.
The details of the letter have been slightly modified and the names of everyone involved have been changed out of a concern for privacy.
I know without a doubt that Jordan is in heaven but the hard part is that I can’t picture him there. As humans is it even possible for us to picture heaven? I feel like I need a new picture for my head. My other question is (and I feel slightly embarrassed asking this, especially when I’ve been a Christian for so many years) I’ve heard people say that their loved ones are watching over them, but is that really true? I mean, can Jordan really see us down here on earth? Does he even care or is he just completely praising God? I know these are probably very strange questions but its all I can think about lately…
The death of a friend who was so young and so full of life and so on fire for Christ is a very destabilizing event. I was 18 years old when my first Christian friend died and I found it nearly impossible to process. Like Jordan, she was young, full of life, filled with purpose, headed toward marriage to a great Christian friend and seemingly right in the centre of God’s favour and will. And then, like Jordan, she died in a car accident. So sudden; so final; so many questions left behind. Thank you for trusting me with your confusion. I do believe that the Bible has answers and it’s my privilege to show you some of the truths that comforted me in my struggle so many years ago. Let me see if I can break your questions down into some more “bite size” pieces.
The first thing I heard you say was, “I know without a doubt that Jordan is in heaven”. Sometimes I hear that said at funerals and I know that it is only wishful thinking. I know people are saying that, and maybe even believing that, but it’s clear that they are simply whistling into the dark. They don’t really “know” that their friend is in heaven, they simply want to know and it feels good to pretend that they do. That isn’t the case with Jordan. We do know that Jordan is in heaven because the Bible says:
“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Romans 10:9–11 ESV)
We know that the word “believe” is stronger than many people think – we know it means more than simply believing some facts about Jesus. The devil believes that Jesus was the Son of God, the devil believes that he lived a perfect life and kept the whole law for his people, the devil believes that Jesus died on the cross to pay for human sins and the devil believes that on the third day Jesus rose again. The devil believes all of that very well – he had a front row seat for most of it – but the devil is not a Christian and the devil is not going to heaven. Jordan had more than the faith of the devil. Jordan BELIEVED. The word used for “believe” in the Bible means to trust in; it means to rely on; it means to rest in and to delight in. It is the sort of belief that lodges in your heart and comes bubbling up out of your mouth. It changes who you are and it changes the way you speak. That’s why Jesus said:
“out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45 ESV)
Jordan had that kind of faith. It came out of his mouth, heck, he couldn’t wipe it off his face! The joy of the Lord was all over him and everybody knew it. Jordan loved the Lord and he was glad in the Gospel. That’s why you KNOW that he is in heaven.
The second thing I heard you say was: “I can’t picture him there. As humans, is it even possible for us to picture Heaven?” Actually, it is possible. There is a lovely little picture of what theologians call “the intermediate state” in Revelation 6:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” (Revelation 6:9–11 ESV)
This little vision seems to be depicting all the souls of believers gathering around the throne of God during the whole time period between the ascension of Jesus and his victorious return. This will be a time when the Gospel will go forth to all the nations of the world. People from every tribe, tongue and nation on earth will put their faith in Christ – but not without difficulty and not without cost. The vision describes those gathered out of this season as “martyrs”. They are witnesses in a time of trouble and many of them pay the ultimate price. The picture seems to suggest that when a Christian dies, their soul goes immediately to be with the Lord and it waits around his throne for the return of Christ and the general resurrection. We teach this to our kids in the Children’s Catechism we use at the church. In section 8 the first question asks:
1.What becomes of the righteous after death?
The answer given is:
Their body returns to the dust and their spirit goes to be with the Lord.
2 Corinthians 5:8
The Scripture cited reads:
“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:6–8 ESV)
The Bible seems to teach that a believer is either “in the body” or “at home with the Lord”; there are no other options.
Therefore, we can conclude that Jordan’s spirit is now at home with the Lord. He is waiting and eager for the consummation of all things. He wants to see Christ vindicated and he wants to have a body again so that he can live as God intended him to live. God is comforting Jordan and providing for his needs. “Wait a little longer my son,” God says, “until I gather all of your brothers and sisters to myself”.
The vision in Revelation 6 seems to indicate that the spirits of departed believers are given some sort of temporary covering as they wait for the final resurrection. The vision talks about spirits being given “a white robe” and told to wait a little longer. That means that right now that Jordan is not a disembodied soul – he has form and shape and substance, but it isn’t yet the body he will have for all eternity. That will come to him on the same day it comes to each of us. The Apostle Paul said:
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 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 shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 55 “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:50–57 ESV)
When Jesus returns victoriously to the earth, Jordan will be resurrected – alongside every true believer who has ever lived!! The souls gathered now around the throne of God will be united to a new body – a real body! A physical body, but also a heavenly body. It will be like Jordan’s old body, but also different – kind of like the continuity that exists between a seed and the tree that grows out of the seed – so we should be able to recognize him and each other. At that point, Jordan will be everything humans were meant to be before sin began to spoil, rot and ruin us. He will be imperishable and he will be, finally and forever at home. Praise the Lord!
The third thing I heard you say was, “can Jordan really see us down here on earth?” That’s an interesting question. It may be that he can see us but we aren’t sure. Hebrews 12:1 says:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV)
The text seems to be emphasizing the theme of general awareness, wider team and familial continuity. The main idea seems to be that we all run our leg of the race and then we take our seats and wait for those who come behind us to finish theirs. We are a part of a really big family that stretches across time, across the covenants and across the nations! But there is no indication of how much – if anything – these folks can see. I remember sitting way up in the bleachers at the old Exhibition Stadium watching Blue Jay games as a kid. I could see the game, but I couldn’t see the faces. Is that how it is from up in heaven? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that when the Bible provides motivation for righteousness it never says: “Grandma is watching” or “your best friend is watching”; rather it says:
“Understand, O dullest of the people! Fools, when will you be wise? 9 He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see? 10 He who disciplines the nations, does he not rebuke? He who teaches man knowledge— 11 the LORD—knows the thoughts of man, that they are but a breath.” (Psalms 94:8–11 ESV)
“For the LORD has an eye on mankind and on all the tribes of Israel” (Zechariah 9:1 ESV)
The message of the Bible is always: “God is watching”, “God sees”, but it never tells us that anyone else can see. One day every person will stand before God and give an account – but praise the Lord – it seems that we will give our account to Christ alone. That makes me very glad. Like David, I would rather fall into the hands of God than the hands of men! God will see everything, God will charge my sins to Christ’s account and declare me “Paid in Full”. All my sins will disappear under Christ’s powerful, redeeming blood and I will enter into glory as a new man. No more crying, no more SHAME – thanks be to God!
I’m sorry that you are hurting and confused by Jordan’s passing, but I’m glad that you are thinking about these things. The Apostle John said that thinking about our present riches and our glorious inheritance in Christ is a great motivation for Christian growth. He said:
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1–3 ESV)
I know Jordan is in heaven, I know he’s eager for the new heavens and the new earth; I’m not sure if he can see you, but I do know that if he could talk to you, he’d tell you that it’s glorious, it’s wonderful, and you should get ready.
Thanks again for your question and for including me in your struggles. If you’d like to see some more teaching on this topic click here. It will take you to a 5 minute video clip of David Platt addressing the movie “Heaven Is For Real” and talking about what the Bible says about life after death for the believer.
I’m praying for you my dear sister, and I’m here to help.
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. Pastor Paul will be releasing a podcast series on 1 Peter beginning May 14th which you will be able to find here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.