The Bible’s View
Transition or Resurrection—Which?
THE famous American poet of the last century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote: “There is no death! What seems so is transition.”
Is this view correct? Or do people who die remain unconscious until God may choose to bring them back to life in a resurrection? What do you believe?
Many are confused about the matter. One such person wrote the evangelist Billy Graham: “After death [do] people have to remain in their graves until the resurrection? I thought that our souls go to be with God at death.”
Graham replied: “At death, the soul and body are separated. The body disintegrates, while the unbelieving soul is held in captivity in hell or Hades.” Of righteous believers, Graham said: “In their cases, the death of the body means the immediate release of the soul to be with Christ.”
This is the commonly held religious view. Yet it raises the question: If at death a person immediately is united with Christ in heaven—or, if wicked, is immediately sent to hell—what further need is there of a resurrection? This contradiction is one that Church theologians have long wrestled with, but without resolution.
Yet when the plain statements of God’s Word are accepted any confusion disappears. The Bible explains that at death human thought and existence end. “Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man,” the Bible says, “he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts do perish.” (Ps. 146:3, 4) Yes, “as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” “In death there is no mention of you”—Almighty God.—Eccl. 9:5; Ps. 6:5; 115:17.
When Jesus Christ died, he could no longer mention his heavenly Father, praising Him. Jesus was dead, he was unconscious, out of existence. Death did not mean a transition to another life for Jesus; rather, nonexistence. But on the third day of his death God restored him to life. “This Jesus God resurrected,” the apostle Peter said.—Acts 2:32.
Jesus died as a human of flesh and blood, having a physical body like ours. But he was resurrected by God as a spirit person, with a body invisible to human eyes. The apostle Peter explains: “Even Christ died once for all time concerning sins . . . he being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive in the spirit.” The Bible observes: “If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual one.”—1 Pet. 3:18; 1 Cor. 15:44.
Jehovah God, Christ Jesus and the angels all have spirit bodies, and those who go to heaven receive similar spirit bodies. How big the bodies of spirit persons are—whether God, for example, has a much bigger body than Christ or the angels—or what their bodies look like, we do not know. The apostle John did not know, as he explained: “As yet it has not been made manifest what we shall be. We do know that whenever he [God] is made manifest we shall be like him, because we shall see him just as he is.”—1 John 3:2.
When near to dying the apostle Paul was confident that he would receive the reward of heavenly life. “I have fought the fine fight, I have run the course to the finish, I have observed the faith,” he wrote. “There is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me as a reward in that day.”—2 Tim. 4:7, 8.
“That day”—the day when Paul would receive the reward of heavenly life—was a day then far in the future; it was not the day of Paul’s death. Death was not a transition for Paul to life with Christ in heaven. No, death meant for him unconsciousness, an end of existence. But Paul explained what would happen to him and faithful Christians like him at a future date: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a commanding call, with an archangel’s voice and with God’s trumpet, and those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first.”—1 Thess. 4:16.
Yet someone may ask: ‘Doesn’t the Bible indicate that at death there is an instantaneous change—“in the twinkling of an eye”? And doesn’t this show that at death there is a transition immediately to another life?’
Let us examine this matter. The apostle Paul wrote the Corinthians: “Look! I tell you a sacred secret: We shall not all fall asleep in death, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised.”—1 Cor. 15:51, 52.
Note that this quick change to spirit life, of which Paul here speaks, occurs “during the last trumpet.” In his letter to the Thessalonians quoted above, the sounding of “God’s trumpet” is shown to occur when the Lord “descends,” that is, turns his attention toward earth to resurrect his beloved followers. At that time, “those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first.”—1 Thess. 4:16.
But what about anointed Christians who are yet alive on earth when “God’s trumpet” sounds and Christ “descends” to resurrect those dead in union with him? “Afterward,” Paul explains, “we the living who are surviving will, together with them [Christians who died prior to Christ’s return], be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”—1 Thess. 4:17.
Thus such Christians who are resurrected “in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet,” are those who die after Christ “descends.” At that time—after Christ resurrects those who are dead in union with him—there is no need for heaven-bound Christians who thereafter die to sleep in death. So at their death these ones are changed immediately, “in the twinkling of an eye,” to join those already resurrected into heaven. They die as humans, but receive a resurrection in a spirit body.
It should be noted, however, that not all Christians will join Christ in heavenly glory. Only a limited number will. The Bible explains that those who go to heaven to be with Christ have “part in the first resurrection,” and they “will rule as kings with him.” The Bible reveals that only 144,000 persons are so resurrected to heavenly life to “rule as kings over the earth.” (Rev. 20:6; 5:10; 14:1-3) What, then, about the rest of humankind that eventually gain God’s favor?
These will, in time, enjoy everlasting life on earth, just as God originally purposed for humankind when he placed the first human pair in a paradise earthly home. They will be earthly subjects of God’s kingdom. The Bible promises: “The righteous themselves will possess the earth, and they will reside forever upon it.” How grand it will be when all of God’s marvelous purposes are eventually realized!—Ps. 37:29; Rev. 21:3, 4.