The after life of the believer is most powerfully expressed by those who have faced death and shared with us their expectations and experiences. When Stephen was being stoned for his testimony to Christ he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). As he breathed his last he prayed two prayers: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” and then “fell asleep” (7:59,60). In so doing he gave us two expectations for what will happen to us when we die.
At death, because our spirits are separated from our bodies, and “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26), our bodies, in Christian parlance, fall asleep. When Jesus was ready to raise the ruler’s daughter back to life (Matthew 9:23-25), he told the mourners, “The girl is not dead but asleep.” By this he was describing the temporary nature of the death of the body and that it was about to be resuscitated. This foreshadows the resurrection of the body for believers. It is not our souls that are asleep, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, but our bodies.
Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 that our bodies are like tents housing our spirits. Our spirits have another home in heaven when this one is “destroyed” and so we know
that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord….We are confident…and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. (verses 6-9)
If we, at death, are absent from the body and with the Lord, then where do our spirits go at death? To heaven! Paul told the Philippians, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (1:21). How could it be gain? He explained, “I desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is better by far” (1:23). Like Stephen, when our bodies “fall asleep” our spirits are received by Jesus in heaven and we begin a new level of existence free from the sin nature, not because we are free from our bodies, but because we are in the presence of the living Christ. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, we “have come…to the spirits of righteous men made perfect” (12:23).
If this is the promise we have on dying, we too may call out with our last breath, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” We don’t need to fear the consequences of our death. The process of our bodies “going to sleep” is often painful and depressing, but the prospect of being with Jesus is part of what removes the “sting of death” (1 Corinthians 15:56). Separation of our spirits from our bodies does not, as is the case with unbelievers, mean that we are separated from God. Instead, the level of closeness we have had with Christ here takes a quantum leap when we die. The connection becomes even more immediate and realized. The One we have loved having not seen (1 Peter 1:8), who yet has brought us “inexpressible and glorious joy,” will fill our lives even more when we see him face to face.