The question one might raise is whether these pictures of the afterlife and their fundamental notions are really congruent with what New Testament authors wrote. Where was their hope? What did they reply to those curious about the question of death? There is actually much that could be said, but the following will note some key texts that build up the overall picture of this hope.
The first text to look at is I Thessalonians 4:13-18:
"Now we do not wish you to be ignorant, brothers and sisters, concerning those who are asleep [that is, dead], so that you are not distressed like the others who do not have hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so also we believe that, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who had been asleep. For we say this to you by means of a word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will in no way precede those who had been asleep. We say also that the Lord himself will descend from heaven with an authoritative shout, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words."Here, in one of the earliest Christian documents, the apostle Paul responds to a concern about those who die before Jesus comes again. Where does Paul exhort them to center their hope? He focuses their attention upon the resurrection of the dead to occur at the second coming and grounds their hope upon the resurrection of Jesus. Rather than dwelling upon spirits who have departed and are existing in another realm, Paul places the reward of the faithful in conjunction with the second coming.
The apostle Paul does not speak in this manner only in I Thessalonians. In 2 Timothy 4:6-8, Paul presents his personal hope as he nears the end of his days.
"For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has arrived. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is stored away for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day; and he will give one not only to me, but to all those who have delighted in his appearing."Although he does not speak explicitly of the resurrection of the dead, Paul does pinpoint the reward as being given at the second coming ("that day") after a period of storage.
As for other related texts, please note I Corinthians 15 (where Paul speaks of the resurrection of the dead as tied to that of Christ), 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:10 (in which Paul speaks of his longing to be clothed with the heavenly body of the resurrection), and Philippians 4:20-21 (where Paul connects the second coming with the transformation of the body).
Is this only Paul's view? Jesus, himself, is recorded as having similar views. John notes Jesus on this topic in John 5:24-29:
"Truly, truly I say to you that the one who hears my word and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and does not come into condemnation, but that person has passed from death to life. Truly, truly I say to you that the hour is coming and now is when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who have heard will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he permitted the Son to have life in himself. He also gave him authority to judge, because he is the Son of Man. Stop being amazed by this, because the hour is coming in which all those who are in the graves will hear his voice [that of the Son of God] and those who did what is good will go out to the resurrection of life and those who did what is bad to the resurrection of condemnation."Here Jesus not only speaks to eternal life as a believer's present possession, but he goes on to speak of the ultimate fulfillment of that life in the resurrection of life. Jesus is portrayed as speaking in a similar way in John 6:35-40. There also Jesus speaks of eternal life as a present possession and focuses its ultimate fulfillment in the resurrection. There the resurrection is connected with "the last day," referring to the second coming. In both cases the focus is upon the resurrection and not upon some conscious existence right after one dies.
Although it does not speak to the resurrection, John records Jesus in John 14:1-3 as implying that the reward will be given at the second coming and not before:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God and believe in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have said that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself, so that you may also be where I am."The agreement between Paul and Jesus comes into clearer focus as one also looks in Matthew, Luke, and even Revelation.
"Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wishes to follow me, let that person deny himself or herself and take up his or her cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his or her soul will lose it; and whoever loses his or her soul for my sake will find it. For what will a person gain if he or she gains the whole world and loses his or her soul? Or what will a person give as an exchange for his or her soul? For the Son of Man is about to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will repay each person according to his or her conduct. Truly I say to you that there are some who are standing here who will definitely not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.'" Matthew 16:24-28
"Now when the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory; and, all the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them from one another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come you who have been blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . .' Then he will say also to those on his left, 'Go from me, you who have been cursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. . . .' These will depart into eternal punishment and the righteous into eternal life." Matthew 25:31-46 (cf. Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43)These verses in Matthew do not explicitly mention the resurrection, but they do deal with the rewards given to the faithful and unfaithful. The time for this is when the Son of Man comes in glory with the angels. While it is foreshadowed in the transfiguration, its ultimate fulfillment is at the second coming as can be seen by comparing the above passages with Matthew 24:29-31 (cf. parallel passages in Mk. 13:24-27 and Lk. 21:25-28).
"Now he said to the one who had invited him, 'When you have breakfast or dinner, do not call your friends, your brothers, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, lest also they invite you in return and it becomes a repayment for you. But when you have a banquet, call the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; and you will be blessed, because they do not have the ability to repay you, for it will be repaid to you in the resurrection of the righteous.'" Luke 14:12-14These verses in Luke do not mention the second coming, but they do connect the time of reward with the resurrection of the righteous.
"Behold I am coming quickly, and my reward is with me to give to each person as his or her work is [that is, in accordance with that person's work]." Revelation 22:12Like Matthew, the words of Jesus in the vision of the Revelation point to the second coming as the time of rewards.
In this short essay, some of the many verses in the New Testament that speak to the subject of the afterlife have been surveyed. From these one can begin to grasp what is the Christian's hope after life as reflected in the early Church:
(1) The resurrection of the dead is a future reality because of Christ's resurrection.
(2) The dead are considered to be metaphorically asleep and literally in their graves.
(3) The second coming is the time at which the righteous dead come back to life.
(4) The second coming is the time at which the righteous and wicked are divided and appropriate rewards are given.
(5) The second coming is the time when the righteous will be with the Lord.
Here is the hope for the believer! But to partake of the hope one must be a believer. Here the words of Jesus in John 14:4-7, which come after the promise to return for the disciples, are appropriate.
"'And you know the way to where I am going [that is, the place to which he will eventually take the disciples].' Thomas said to him, 'Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?' Jesus said to him, 'I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me. If you have known me, you will know my Father. From now on you know Him and you have seen Him."Have you taken a good look at Jesus and seen who God is? Have you accepted His love and the gifts he offers? It is this author's hope that you will.
**All translations in this essay are that of the author. Help in translation was given by The Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament by Fritz Rienecker and Cleon Rogers and The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament by William D. Mounce. Help in writing this essay was given through a booklet entitled What Happens When You Die? The New Testament Teaching About Life After Death by Marvin Moore.**