I recently visited a dying woman. When I arrived, she was sleeping so deeply that she had to be gently shaken awake. It took some persistence. She was quite exhausted. Dying must be hard work. As soon as she had shaken off her sleep she was bright, alert, and clear. Her eyes opened, and a huge smile came over her face. She was thrilled to have woken to friendly, familiar faces. We talked and laughed for about an hour before it was time to go. She was likely asleep again before we left the building. One of these days she is going to go to sleep, and she is not going to wake up again. At least, we will not be able to shake her awake.
Knowing that a dear friend had died, Jesus said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” I like how Jesus refers to Lazarus’ death as if it were nothing more than a deep nap. This is precisely what the disciples thought Jesus was referring to. Not wanting Jesus to put himself at risk of being killed by the Jews in Judea who had already tried to stone him, they decided to explain to Jesus that Lazarus sleeping was not something he needs concern himself with. “Lord,” they said, “if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” That is, after all, what sleeping people do. They wake up. They recover from the affliction of sleep. Maybe they need a good shaking, but they don’t need a Messiah to raise them from it. Unless, of course, that sleep is the sleep of death.
Almost all of our theology of what we commonly refer to as heaven, the intermediary place where we will spend our time upon entering the sleep of death, is drawn from Revelation 6:9-11:
“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. 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?” 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.”
Remember a time when you were a child, and you had fallen asleep on the car ride home. Recall how you were barely conscious when your parents pulled into the driveway. Perhaps your father picked you up in his strong arms, and you continued drifting, half asleep, but not quite awake. You floated into the safety and warmth of your home and were placed in your bed. Soft blankets were piled on you to encourage you to continue your restful slumber.
Perhaps that is what heaven will be like. Except, instead of blankets, you will be given a white robe, the beautiful, safe, comforting robe of Christ’s righteousness. And you will be encouraged to continue resting awhile longer, not in a bed, but under the altar where your rest was won and sanctified by the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God. This is where we go when we fall asleep for the last time.
But this intermediary state is not your final home. Heaven, the way we often think of it, isn’t God’s best for you. We can certainly say that it will be better than life this side of death, but it won’t be the best that is yet to come. For one thing, the saints under the altar are without bodies. They are not whole and complete. In the unnatural rending of their souls from their bodies in death, they have become something other than what God had intended for them to be.
I am very uncomfortable with the modern notion that we are souls with a body. This contradicts what Scripture teaches. Paul tells us that when God had formed Adam from the dust and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils “The first man Adam became a living soul” (1 Cor 15:45).
A living soul was not placed into the body Adam, but that body formed from dust and animated by the breath of life became a living soul. Adam, body and all, was the soul that had been given life. It is unnatural and contrary to what God has revealed to imagine that the soul can somehow live on apart from the body. And if it were not for God, preserving us beyond death in some mysterious fashion, we would just cease to exist at all. Beyond death, there would merely be… nothing.
But we know that to be away from the body is to be with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). And so we believe that when we die, we go, as John saw in the Revelation of Jesus, to be under the altar in the presence of God where we will rest until the Last Day. On that Day, when God the Father gives the command and Christ returns in glory, all of us who have died will be brought with him, united with resurrected bodies, and all those living will join us, having been changed in the twinkling of an eye.
As he did with Lazarus, Jesus will come to us and awaken us as only he can. After we have fallen asleep and have gone to rest in robes of white until the number is complete, Jesus does not intend to leave us in that state. The Resurrection and Life has already shown us what he plans to do. At the appointed time that only the Father knows Jesus will say, “My friends have fallen asleep, but I go to awaken them."
Shaking off our sleep, bright and clear, we will open our eyes and huge smiles will come over our faces as we see the familiar faces of so many friends. Some will be the faces of those we last saw falling asleep never to wake up again. Others will be the faces we last saw just before we fell asleep for the last time. Like my friend, the woman I visited, I expect it will be like waking from a much-needed rest to be surprised by some of our favorite people who have just shown up by our bedside for a visit. Only it will be far better than this, in every way.