Barbara Simpson, November, December 6, 2022
What we all want to know; what we all have pondered; what, were we to know, so we think, would make the greatest conceivable difference to all of us who knew and loved Barb, is just this: what exactly happened when her heart stopped beating? Her body died. No one has any doubt about that. The activity in her brain ceased. She grew still and then cold. And now her body is buried and there it will await the resurrection on the Great Day. But what of her soul? She has entered what, in Christian theology, is referred to as “the Intermediate State,” that condition of life – for wakeful life it is – when the body is separated from the soul; when the Christian soul – that is, the believing person in her mind and heart – is alive in heaven. Barb is awake; her soul is pulsating with new and perfect life in the company of the saints, the church triumphant. Her body is dead, but she remains alive. Somewhere in this wheeling universe Barbara Simpson is living life in a far better world. But how did Barb get to heaven? What happened when her heart stopped beating?
It may well be that a moment or moments after she died, she suddenly found herself awake again. And not only awake but alive in what she could immediately tell was an utterly new kind of life. She could tell that she was herself, to be sure, the Barbara Simpson she had always been. But she was now a new, better version of herself; indeed morally and spiritually perfect. We read in Hebrews that believers have already come in principle, but, upon their death, will have come in fact and experience not only to “innumerable angels in festal gathering,” but also to “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” What will that feel like?
It may well be that, at the moment of her death, there was a person or were persons – human or angelic – to greet her and to take her to heaven, wherever heaven may be. Souls meeting her soul. And it may be that soon, perhaps very soon, while those mourning her departure were still gathered about her bed, she had been whisked away to that other world. Moments after her death she may have been alive as never before; happy as she had never been happy before; utterly transfixed by what she was seeing and feeling, and where she was going, and with whom she was going there.
Her body she had left behind; there was no trace of this glory in that motionless and silent part of her that lay in stillness on her bed. And, for all we know, it may have been but moments before she was in the presence of the glory of God, conscious that she was surrounded by the saints, overwhelmed that she was finally, really, actually, in heaven. She had, of course, always believed in this place; she had believed she would go there when she died; she had expected something wonderful, but, I suspect, she had never imagined this!
Surely, all of that is likely enough. After all, the Bible teaches us that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” If that statement of the Apostle Paul means anything, it means 1) that the soul is separated from the body at death; 2) that the soul can be wide awake when the body is dead; and 3) that the soul can experience the presence of the Lord in some way quite different from what we have experienced in this world. The soul has no eyes or ears, it cannot hear the way the body hears or see the way the body sees, or touch as we touch one another. But remember, God doesn’t have a body; He is pure spirit. The angels don’t have bodies either. But both God and the angels see and hear and touch; they communicate and enjoy fellowship with one another; they understand; in some ineffable way they have an emotional life, they experience sadness and joy. They may lack a body but they are fully persons, living a fully personal life. So, however mysterious this may seem to us now, a body is not essential to human life. The body has been and will forever be, after the resurrection, the perfection of human life. Soul and body together will ever be the truest humanity; but the soul can live without the body.
Again, did not the Lord tell the thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” If that statement means anything, it certainly means that conscious life continues after death and that it continues in a world surpassingly wonderful. And, when we read in Ecclesiastes that when a person dies the body “returns to the dust and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” once again we are being told that death in this world means the separation of the soul from the body. And when that happens, the soul – we are speaking now of the believing soul – goes to God and to heaven.
In the Lord’s parable in Luke 16, we read that when the poor beggar Lazarus died, the angels carried him to Abraham’s side, another beautiful and meaningful metaphor for heaven. Abraham was already there; Lazarus joined him there. Two persons who once lived on earth are now together in heaven communicating with one another. It is a parable, to be sure, and we can’t press the details of the story, but the general idea, that when a believer dies, he or she goes immediately to heaven is and continues personal life there, is after all, what we are taught throughout the Bible. Indeed, in commenting on Heb 1:14, where we read that the angels are ministering spirits sent to serve those who are to inherit salvation, Augustine writes, “The angels await our arrival.” [City of God, 19.4] What a beautiful thought! No wonder that the Apostle Paul should have said so bluntly that for a Christian to die is not only better than to live, but better by far!
So, is that what happened to Barb in the moment of her death? Was she carried to heaven? Did she have any sense of traveling from one place to another? After all, souls must move in quite different ways than physical bodies. Or was it something different. Did she wake up already in Paradise?
It is a fact not often enough acknowledged and too off forgotten that the Bible describes heaven – as it describes hell – and the entrance of souls into either place, almost entirely with metaphors and other figures of speech. “Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” is a beautiful and emotive way of describing the death of the saints, and what happens to them when they die. But we have no way of knowing how a soul is carried. Obviously, a soul doesn’t weigh anything. It isn’t a body that can be taken up in arms. A soul has no hands, so, presumably, one does not go “hand-in-hand” with an angel to heaven. But the image conveys what matters: the dead in Christ are soon, if not immediately, alive in heaven. Their troubles lie behind them, joy unspeakable and full of glory fills their hearts, and other similarly happy people surround them.
The Lord’s famous parable paints a lovely picture and, for all we know, it may reflect in some more literal way what actually happens to the dead in Christ. After all, both Enoch and Elijah went directly from earth to heaven and, at least in Elijah’s case, he traveled. He wasn’t there at once; he went there. And certainly, the experience of Enoch and Elijah must be at least something like that of the saints in general; that is, traveling from one place to another. Perhaps angels do come to escort them to heaven. Angels are, we read in Hebrews, ministering spirits, and they would know how to communicate with and how to “carry” or “lead” another spirit to heaven; wherever heaven is and however far away. Obviously, the Lord Jesus, in the midst of his terrible suffering, was being more literal when he told the thief being crucified beside him that on that very day he would be with Jesus in Paradise (both of them, that is, as souls, for their bodies would lie in their graves on the earth). But he didn’t tell the man precisely how he would get there or precisely what would happen to him at the moment he drew his last breath.
Why is this the case? Why is there not a more literal description somewhere in the Bible, some straightforward account of precisely what happens to the believing soul at the moment of death? Why is there not some description of the life of a soul when it is separated from its body; some explanation of how souls live without their bodies? Why doesn’t the Bible anywhere satisfy what is, after all, our perfectly natural curiosity? After all, to know precisely what happens when a Christian dies, and to know what life is like for a soul without a body, would make such a great difference to those gathered around their loved one’s bed. But not only do we not have such an account in the Bible, the absence of an explanation is never explained.
We know that we are called to live by faith and not by sight and, to some extent, that must explain why the Bible is often not more explicit. Since death is our last enemy, and a dark specter that looms over even a believing life, it is not hard for us to believe that here, of all places, we must live by faith and not by sight. We must trust in the truth of what we have been told; we must believe the Word of God. But there may be other reasons why the Lord has left us to face death with less than a complete understanding of what will happen when we die. Perhaps, for example, the Lord wants us to experience this wonder of wonders as a complete surprise! Like a Christmas present, it is the not knowing that so increases the pleasure upon discovery! I’m sure it was so for Barb!
Some of you may remember that as C.S. Lewis lay dying, his friend Walter Hooper recalls that on one occasion Lewis had awakened from sleep and asked for a drink of water. As Hooper went to fetch it from a bedside table, Lewis suddenly pulled himself up and stared intently across the room. Hooper saw nothing but thought that Lewis must have seen something “very great and beautiful,” for there was a rapturous expression on his face unlike anything Hooper had seen before. Lewis kept staring and repeated to himself several times, “Oh, I never imagined, I never imagined.” My sister, some of you will remember, a good friend of Barb, had a similar experience just before she died. Surely the Bible says enough to convince us that death must be like that for Christians, as they, all agape, see for the first time and take that first step into that wonderful world where Christ is, seated at the Right Hand of God? “Oh, I never imagined!” [Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 162] It is wonderful to think of it, is it not, all the more since this must be true. Today you will be with me in Paradise! Words to ponder if ever there were!
Or perhaps this is the reason why we are not told precisely what happens after death; precisely what we will experience in those moments after the death of our bodies. Perhaps it is because we are simply incapable of understanding what we would be told. Our minds are simply too small, too weak to take it in. We imagine that were we to be given such an explanation or description or account, it would wonderfully encourage us in the hour of death. And so we wonder why the Bible doesn’t tell us more than it does. But in our finitude and with our minds darkened by sin as they remain while we live in this world, I say, perhaps we simply could not grasp the description we would be given. Perhaps this is why heaven is described only in figures of speech; why it is always compared to things we know from this world: gold and fine jewels, clear running rivers, a beautiful city, and the like. Heaven is simply far, far beyond such things, far beyond even the most wonderful and beautiful things we see or know in this world.
In the first canto of Dante’s Paradiso, Vergil tells us,
Within that heaven which most receives His light
I have been, and seen things past knowledge
Or power of any who comes back to tell –
Is that why the Apostle Paul was forbidden to describe what he saw, when he, alone of all human beings who have ever lived, was given the privilege of peeking into heaven? He tells us that he heard and saw something of what life is like there. But he was forbidden to attempt a description. Was it because he could not have done justice to what he saw? Was it because any description he might attempt would fail to do justice to what he saw. Was it because he hardly knew himself how to describe what he had seen? Was it because the attempt at description would only confuse us? We cannot say. Remember, Paul saw heaven as it now is; not as it will be after the resurrection of the dead and the recreation of this world into the eternal home of those made righteous in Jesus Christ. Only souls, not bodies reside there today. If souls are invisible – or are they when once in heaven? – what was it that Paul saw? How could we, so completely defined by our bodily life, understand how souls would live without the body, how they would see, or hear, or sing? Yet Paul had no hesitation, seeing what he had seen, to say that for a Christian – even for a Christian like Paul whose life here was so rich, so consequential, so fulfilling – to die is better by far than to live in this world.
We know that heaven is a place and a condition wonderful beyond words. How it is better, precisely how we will find it better, and, today, how Barb Simpson is now finding it better, this we cannot say. At least, we cannot say in any detail.
I suppose when we are in heaven, we will hear many fascinating stories of the moments following a person’s death. Who arrived to take him or her to heaven, if in fact someone came? What was the journey like, if journey there were? But for some of us in this sanctuary today, one story we will very much want to hear is Barb’s. What was it like for you dear? For you, Mom? After being imprisoned in your dying body, what was it like to soar free? We will have our own stories to tell, and we’ll laugh and cry and somehow, even as souls, hug one another as we tell our stories one by one. But, remember this, it is the fact that she will have such a story to tell that will be the most wonderful thing of all!