Shorter Catechism Q. 37
Q. 37. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A. The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graces, till the resurrection.
Luke 23:43; John 5:28–29; Phil 1:21–23; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Rev 6:10
What happens when we die? In general mankind answers this question in one of three ways. Some answer this question with another question, “Who knows?” For them death is the great unknown. But with something as big and significant as death shrouded in darkness, life cannot remain untouched by it. How do you indeed live your life if you’re completely in the dark about what happens after you die? What is the meaning of life then? Is there final justice for people who suffer innocently? Does this mean life has no consequences? Well, I'd hate to live next door to someone who thinks like this.
Another answer is, “Nothing.” Some people actually believe - now, “believe” is a funny word in this context, isn’t it? - or maybe we should say they “hope” nothing happens after death. We are just atoms and molecules that disintegrate after death. If so, how can life be anything but madness? The rich and the poor, the just and the unjust, the beautiful and the ugly all become nothing in the end. So what is the point of working hard? What is the point of family? What is the point of love?
Neither of these answers, whether the answer is “who knows?” or “nothing” can give meaning to life. But Christians have a meaningful answer, for God is our Lord not only for this life, but for eternal life.
When we die, we will temporarily experience a separation between our body and soul. Our body will lie in rest. Nature will run its course. But our soul will be active. The believer’s soul will be in the presence of the Lord. Thus Paul says for him to die is to gain. Think about that for a moment. When believers die and go to be with the Lord, their “death” hardly deserves to be called a “death.” It is far better to be with the Lord. Perhaps we ought to call dying to be with the Lord our “first resurrection.”
The unbeliever’s soul will also be active while their body lies in death. Yet for them there will be no resting in peace. Only a bitter and too-late realization they have squandered every opportunity and call to repent and believe. Oh what torment that will be!
One day the Lord Jesus will come back to judge the living and the dead. Then the bodies will be raised. For those who died in the Lord, the resurrection of their bodies will be “a second resurrection.” The Lord will unite once again their sanctified soul to their glorified body, no longer weak and frail, no longer subject to sin and death, but made like the glorious body of Jesus Christ. Then our true life begins! It is time for the marriage feast of the Lamb to begin.
As for the unbelievers, their bodies will be raised also and reunited with their souls. But this hardly deserves to be called “resurrection,” since they will now face God’s wrath body and soul. This will be to them “a second death.” How will they bear God’s wrath for eternity? What dread and regret will fill their heart! The sad thing is that they have been warned.
As for us, this hope of resurrection gives comfort and meaning to life. Comfort, because we know our suffering is not in vain. God will repay. Also, hard work, life, love, all have meaning, for their fruits will be enjoyed in the life to come. For us, then, like Paul, to live is Christ and to die is gain. It is far better to be with the Lord. But we will serve the Lord in the mean time, and know that our labor is not in vain. Praise the Lord!