In attempting to answer this question concerning which there seems to be much perplexity in the minds of many sincere believers, it is hardly necessary to go outside of the fifth chapter of the second epistle to the Corinthians, though one would include with this the last three verses of chapter 4, which properly belong to the chapter that follows. We will read from the 16th verse of chap. 4 to the 10th verse of chap. 5.
"For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven; if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened; not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now He that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight). We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad."
You will notice that this passage abounds in striking contrasts. I want to point out a full dozen, or more, of them; and doubtless a careful analysis would show several others, and some that I will mention could be subdivided, and thus add to the number.
First, we have the "outward man" contrasted with the "inward man." Notice this carefully. The outward man is the physical man; the inward man is the spiritual man. Materialists of all types deny the personality of the spiritual man, but verse 10 distinctly affirms it.
In the second place, "perish" is contrasted with "renewed." The physical man wastes away. As soon as we begin to live we begin to die; but the inward man is renewed from day to day.
Then in verse 17 we have three more decided contrasts: "light" is contrasted with "weight," "affliction" with "glory," and that "which is for a moment" with that which is "eternal." Affliction often seems to the tried and distressed saint to be heavy indeed and long-continued, but the Spirit of God calls it "our light affliction which is but for a moment," and we realize this in all its blessedness when we see it in full contrast with the "far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory," which is to be our portion throughout the ages to come.
The sixth contrast is in the 18th verse, where "the things which are seen" is put in apposition with "the things which are not seen." The former are declared to be temporal and the latter eternal. This sixth contrast is of great importance in connection with the present discussion. It is often said, by the advocates of conditional immortality and other materialistic systems, that the word generally rendered "eternal" in the New Testament does not necessarily bear that meaning. But here we have this very word put in direct contrast with the word "temporal." Temporal clearly means that which has an end. Eternal, therefore, must mean that which has no end. If we think of several other instances in which the same word is used we will perhaps realize more than ever the truthfulness and solemnity of this statement. We read of the eternal God, the eternal Spirit, eternal redemption, eternal inheritance; and on the other hand, of eternal punishment and eternal judgment. Who, with any regard for the authority of Scripture, would dare affirm that eternal means one thing when referred to what is good, and to Deity itself, but quite another when it has to do with the punishment of the wicked?
The seventh and eighth contrasts are found in the first verse of chap. 5. There we have "our earthly house of this tabernacle," and side by side with it, "a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." The one may be "dissolved," the other is "eternal." Observe that this is the third time we have the word "eternal" used in this remarkable series: once more it is in direct contrast with that which passes away, or comes to an end; that which is temporal may be dissolved, but that which is eternal will never know dissolution.
We next have the contrast between being "unclothed," which refers to death, and "clothed upon," which is clearly resurrection. Mortality will then be swallowed up of life.
The last three pairs of contrasts to which I now desire to direct your attention are found in verses 6 to 9, where we have, "at home in the body" in contrast with "absent from the body;" "by faith" contrasted with "by sight;" and, lastly, "absent from the Lord" contrasted with "present with the Lord."
I am persuaded that any thoughtful person, desiring to be taught of God, who will weigh carefully this full series of contrasts, will have no difficulty with regard to the future state of those who know the Lord Jesus Christ as their Saviour; but we will now proceed to look somewhat carefully at the passage as a whole.
In the first place I call your attention again to the fact that we are not to confound the "outward" man with the "inward" man. I am not my body. Man is distinctly said to be spirit, and soul, and body. The body is the outward man. The spirit and the soul together constitute the inward man. The spirit is the seat of the intellectual being, a distinct entity, as we shall see when we come to consider this special topic in a separate lecture. The soul is the seat of the man's emotional nature. These two, spirit and soul, are never separated. Scripture alone distinguishes between them; that is, it shows us that they are distinct but it does not separate. Now all men, as created by God, consist of spirit, soul, and body; but the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ has that which the natural man does not possess. Being born again, he has received a new nature, and this new nature is also called "spirit;" it is the characteristic feature of the inward man. "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again."
Unless it should be our happy lot to be among those who are still living in the body when the Lord Jesus Himself descends from heaven with that assembling shout spoken of in 1 Thess., chap. 4, we who believe in Him must go the way of all flesh. Our earthly house of this tabernacle must be dissolved— that is, the body will die. What then will be the state of the believer? When my body sleeps in death, do I, the inward man, go to sleep in the body? Or will I leave the body and ascend to another sphere?
Scripture gives no uncertain testimony in regard to this. The body is but the tabernacle in which the inward man dwells. The tabernacle may be broken down, and the man himself moves out. This is clearly what the apostle here teaches and it is confirmed by the words of his brother-apostle, Peter, in his second epistle, chap. 1, vers. 13 to 15. He there says, "Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance; knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shewed me. Moreover I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance."
Observe: while left on the earth he was in the tabernacle of his body; at death he put off his tabernacle. He speaks of this as his decease; this word here translated "decease" is the word "exodus"—the same as the title of the 2nd book of the Bible. That book is called "Exodus" because it relates the going out of the people of Israel from the land of Egypt. Peter's exodus took place when the inward man moved out of the earthly tabernacle. And so with Paul; for in another very striking scripture (Phil. 1:21-25) he tells us,
"For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour; yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ, which is far better; nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith."
Observe that here we have the same truth put in a slightly different way. Life here on earth is life in the flesh, that is, in the body; death is to "depart," that is, to go out, and to be with Christ which is far better. But for the then present time the apostle was convinced that he would still abide in the body. The great point is, the man himself is not confounded with his body. He is "far more than a living, breathing mass of clay," as one has well said; a veritable living spirit indwells this clay tenement for a brief period, moves out at death, but returns at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, when the body, raised in glory, and suited to heaven, becomes our soul's and spirit's eternal dwelling.
May I here use a very homely illustration? A number of years ago I was returning to my home-city from a gospel tour. My wife met me at the station, and as we came up through town on the way to our house I noticed that an entire block of stores had been vacated, as the whole building was being made over. Apparently an arrangement had been made with the tenants of all the stores to move out temporarily and return when the renovation was complete. In every window we noticed signs reading somewhat as follows: "Such and such a firm temporarily located at such a place, moved out until this building is renovated and repaired." I said to my wife, "What a striking picture of death for the believer! If I should be called home to be with the Lord before you, and you wished to put a slab of some kind where my body lies, you might have it read something like this: 'Henry A. Ironside, saved by the grace of God, moved out until renovated and repaired.' That would tell the whole story."
Months went by, and again I had been absent on a trip telling out the glad tidings of the grace of God, when upon my return I passed once more this same block of buildings. One would hardly have recognized it so great was the change, and yet it was the same original foundation, the same walls and floors, but marvelously altered both within and without, and all the firms were back doing business at their old stands. I thought when I looked at it, What a picture of the resurrection, when that which has been sown In weakness shall be raised in power, that which has been sown in dishonor shall be raised in glory, and the inward man shall dwell in the renewed body—identical with, yet different as to condition from the body that once wasted away.
I know the thought of some is that the building of God is a spirit-body of some kind which clothes the inward man between death and resurrection, but the verses which follow clearly negative this thought. In this present tabernacle we groan, earnestly desiring, not to die, but to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven when we are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Like Paul, we are set for the first resurrection, and if when raised or changed we are in Christ we shall not be found naked.
It is well to remember that resurrection does not necessarily involve salvation. There is to be "a resurrection both of the just and of the unjust"—a resurrection of life and a resurrection of damnation (John 5: 29). There are those who in their resurrection body will be clothed in Christ's likeness, and those who in that day will be as they are now— poor and wretched, blind, miserable and naked.
But the fact that people are saved does not preclude them from groaning. We once groaned in anguish under the weight of our sins. From that groaning, thank God, the believer has been delivered; but we still groan and yearn for deliverance from the vicissitudes of this present life and from the conditions which so often hinder spiritual growth. We look for the redemption of the body—this body which so often hinders our spiritual aspirations. How many times we are made to realize that the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak, and so we groan, desiring not that we be unclothed, but clothed with a body like that of our Lord. No right-minded Christian is yearning to die, for he should say with Paul, "For me to live is Christ;" but we do yearn for the glad hour when we shall be clothed upon; when mortality shall be swallowed up of life, when our bodies shall be conformed to His body of glory. Now we have eternal life in dying bodies; but in that blessed moment of our Lord's return, His quickening word will impart eternal life to our very bodies.
It is for this very thing that He has been working in us up to the present moment, and has given us His Spirit to dwell within us as earnest of the blessedness which shall be ours in that resurrection day. Meantime, though encompassed with infirmities, we have full confidence, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord; whereas, if called to leave the body, we shall not go out to wander in space, nor sleep in unconsciousness, but shall at once be at home with the Lord. Walking, not by sight, but by faith grounded in the written Word, we have a confidence in view of death which enables us to say with Paul, "To depart and be with Christ is far better." "Therefore, we are willing to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord."
Let no one rob you, dear believer, of the preciousness of those four words, "present with the Lord." A better rendering would be, "At home with the Lord." Now we are at home in the body and absent from the Lord, then we shall be absent from the body and at home with the Lord. When you think of the dear departed ones in Christ, comfort yourself with these heartening thoughts. They are at home. Oh, the sweetness of that word "home!" They were strangers and pilgrims here on earth; for His blessed name's sake they voluntarily relinquished the earthly claims. Now the wilderness journey, with all its trials for them, is in the past, and they rest at home. How could they enjoy this if in an unconscious condition between death and resurrection? If this cold thought were true, how could the apostle speak of being with Christ as "far better?" Surely he had not in view a sleep of unconsciousness.
It is true that in many places he does speak of death as a sleep; but mark, that which sleeps is that which is to be awakened. The body of the believer is put to sleep, and it will be awakened at the Lord's return. Notice the 14th verse of 2 Cor., chap. 4: "Knowing that He which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you." This clearly is the body which is to be raised up by Jesus, even as God the Father raised the body of Jesus from death.
Again in 1 Thess. 4: 13, 14 we read,
"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him."
The expression used in the 14th verse, "them also which sleep in Jesus" might be better translated "them also who have been put to sleep by Jesus"— just as a mother takes her tired, fretful, and suffering child, quietly soothing it to sleep, so the Lord Jesus puts His beloved people to sleep. By and by, when He returns from heaven, He will raise them up again. Then 1 Thess. 4:15-18 will be fulfilled.
"For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent (or, precede) them which are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first; then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
Some may ask, Do those who are absent from the body and at home with the Lord know anything of what goes on in this world? The best answer to that may be another question: What does Scripture say about it? And to this the answer would probably be, Nothing. Then, certainly, it is not wise for us to speculate. But is there nothing in Scripture which intimates that the redeemed in heaven have between death and resurrection at least some knowledge of things taking place on earth?
There is a passage in the beautiful 15th of Luke which is most precious in this connection. There we read, in verse 7: "I say unto you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, who need no repentance." I quote from the Revised Version, and would lay special stress on the expression "even so." The friends of the man who found the lost sheep were called upon by him to share his joy over its recovery. "Even so" are the friends of the Good Shepherd called upon to joy in His gladness over the salvation of a soul. In Luke 16 we see Abraham and the rich man in the full possession of their faculties, the one in paradise, the other in hades. They are competent to enter into communications, the one with the other, though separated spiritually by a great gulf that can never be crossed. How much more will the redeemed in heaven hold communion with each other and with their Lord, and thus enter into His rejoicing when a sinner repents. It is not only angels who exult, but all in heaven.
At the close of a meeting some years ago a young man who had led a wild reckless life yielded to Christ. For over an hour several of us were seeking to help him from the Word of God. He was in great anguish of soul as he mourned over his past wickedness, and it was some time before he could see the simplicity of salvation through faith alone in Christ; but when at last he caught a view of that finished work, his soul entered into peace. With mingled tears of joy and grief running down his face he said to me, "Oh, if my dear mother were only living that I might send her a telegram to-night to let her know that I had yielded to Christ. She prayed for me for many years: my ungodliness broke her heart; she died praying that I might be saved. How glad I would be if I could only get word to her that at last her prayers are answered." I said, "My dear young man, you need not grieve over that. I am certain she knew the moment you trusted Christ. Up there in heaven every redeemed one is rejoicing over another sinner that repenteth."
And so we gather from these scriptures that there is no such thing as unconsciousness for the believer between death and resurrection; the moment that he leaves the body he is in the presence of the Lord, and waits there expectantly until the first resurrection at the Lord's return.
"When the weary ones we love enter on their rest above,
When their words of love and cheer fall no longer on our ear,
Hush, be every murmur dumb! It is only 'till He come.'"
In that glad day the bodies of the sleeping saints will be awakened and the living will be changed in a moment. Then, throughout eternity, in bodies glorified, and wholly like the blessed Lord Himself, they will dwell in His presence, and be with Him in happiness unmarred and joy unclouded, in the home of the saints, the New Jerusalem.
From Death and Afterwards: For the Christian; For the Christless; Spirit, Soul, and Body by H. A. Ironside. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, [n.d.].
>> More H. A. Ironside