I was recently asked this question:
I have a question about 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Here is something that’s always confused me: at the end of the chapter it talks about how, when we die, we will “rise” after Jesus decides to come back. I have always wondered why so many people say when a loved one dies that they are in heaven. But really, this verse is saying we do not rise from the grave until the day Christ returns, correct?
This was my response, and I hope it helps others!
This is a great question and one that has been asked about for centuries. One of the best rules of thumb when understanding the Bible is to make sure we are looking at the whole counsel of Scripture, to help us with the parts that are less clear. Just to restate the question, we are asking how it is that believers think they will be in heaven immediately when they die, but also rise from the dead at a later time. Both are true!
The best clues for answering this are found in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians in chapter 5. He says, “For in this tent we groan…”
The “tent” he is referring to is our body. Just as the tabernacle (tent) of God housed God’s Presence in the wilderness, so our soul has a tent.
Paul goes on to say this:
“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Paul is saying here that before Christ’s return, either 1) we are in these earthly bodies and *away* from the Lord or 2) we are away from these earthly bodies and *with* the Lord.
In other words, before Christ’s return, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Our bodies are our “tent” and it is our spirit that will be with God immediately after death.
Now, we were never meant to be without a body! In Genesis 1 we read that God made us with bodies and he pronounced that it was “very good.” Even though sin and death has come into the world, God’s plan is to restore the earth and give us new bodies.
To be “unclothed” is what it means to be without a body. Look what Paul says about being “unclothed” or “naked”:
“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 about our new bodies:
“There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.”
So, in summary: 1) when those who have trusted in Christ die, our spirits are with God in heaven and 2) when Jesus returns our bodies will be raised “imperishable” like Jesus’s body. But not until then will our old bodies have been made new. When Jesus returns, the spirits of those who have perished that also trusted in Christ will return to their bodies, which will be made new and glorious.
I look forward to that day! Thank you for the question! God bless!