I’m showing my protestant raising here but I’m still confused about the Saints. I’m in agreement that they are in glory but it’s confusing when I read scriptures about the resurrection of the dead (hope of resurrection) 1 Corinth 15-33; and expounded on further in the same scripture.
Do our spirits go to God when we die but the body lies in the ground (corruptible) until that glorious day when Jesus comes and transforms our bodies from corruptible to incorruptible? And if so, what scriptures can we use as a ‘defense’ when we get attacked by those who don’t share the same belief?
Good question and you are on the right track. Also you were very right to go to 1 Corinthians 15 because it is all about the resurrection of the dead. In addition we can make some educated inferences about the afterlife from looking at the activities in heaven as recorded in the Revelation to John.
First it is important to rid ourselves of cultural notions about heaven. When we die we don’t become angels. They are a different order of creation. (Sorry but this means Clarence will never get his wings). Also our ultimate state is not sitting on clouds behind some pearly gate guarded by St. Peter. The promise of the Scriptures is a new heaven AND a new earth (Rev 21). We will dwell in this new heaven and earth with the Lord and with each other in our resurrected bodies. This is what Bishop NT Wright calls “ the life after the life after death.”
What happens until then? Our bodies return to the earth (“remember thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return”) while our spirits are taken to be with the Lord and we await the resurrection when we will receive our incorruptible bodies. Those spirits presently with the Lord are the saints we read about in the Revelation to John who are making intercession and who are crying out “how long?” (Rev 6:9-11; 8:4).
There are some who mistakenly believe that we are unaware of anything between the time of our death and the resurrection of the dead because St. Paul uses the term “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thess 4:14). But that is a euphemism for death and the dead are nor more asleep than there was actually a bucket for them to kick. How do we know that? First because St. Paul says “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). Again we have the saints in heaven praying (Rev 8:4) as well as elders worshipping (Rev 4:10). Third at the Transfiguration Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah who were aware of what was going to happen to HIM, even though the disciples did not (Mt 17:1-13). Fourth, when Jesus told the story of the beggar Lazarus and the rich man, both dying and going to their respective rewards, they were not asleep but were aware of one another’s condition (Lk 16:19-31).
Thus after the writer of Hebrews dedicates a whole chapter on the actions of the saints that have gone before us he says, “Therefore since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” It would be difficult to be encouraged by a great cloud of witnesses if they were all asleep.
Instead the picture the writer of Hebrews gives us is that of a stadium where we are on the field engaged in a race while those who have gone before us are surrounding us and cheering us on. There is a prayer in the BCP that captures this so well.
“Almighty God, by your Holy Spirit you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth: Grant that in our
earthly pilgrimage we may always be supported by this
fellowship of love and prayer, and know ourselves to be
surrounded by their witness to your power and mercy. We
ask this for the sake of Jesus Christ, in whom all our
intercessions are acceptable through the Spirit, and who lives
and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP p395).
Therefore when we die, we join the cloud of witnesses and pray for and cheer on the Church that is running the race after us. With them we all await the resurrection of the dead when we will receive our incorruptible bodies and live forever with the Lord in a new heaven and new earth. It will be the ultimate answer to our prayer “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”