In the book of Revelation we find powerful images of the saints who have gone on before us. We catch a glimpse of twenty-four elders who, along with myriads of angels and other heavenly beings, fall down before the Lamb, worshiping Him in heaven because He alone is worthy to open the scroll (Revelation 5:8-14). In another place we see a portrait of the souls of our brothers and sisters who were slain because of their witness of Christ, longing for God to judge the inhabitants of the earth and to avenge their blood. They are given white robes and told to wait just a bit longer until their fellow siblings and servants join them (Revelation 6:9-11). Again, we catch another scene of a great multitude of people who have come out of the great tribulation—people from every tribe and nation—all standing before the throne of the Lamb in worship (Revelation 7:9-17).
Christians have long held differing views on the timing of when these heavenly events take place, whether in the past or in the present or in the future. Regardless of the timing, we can, nevertheless, capture deep theological truths about the afterlife and our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone on before us. Namely, these heavenly scenes bring us hope, not only eschatologically, but in the here and now.
Death is the great neutralizer. It is the enemy that none of us escapes. It snatches up our loved ones, bringing heart-wrenching pain and suffering into our lives. Yet these heavenly scenes remind us that we are not to grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Biological death is not the end; it’s just the beginning. Our hope is ultimately in the Lamb of God who was slain for the sins of the world. For the same Lamb who was slain is also the one who rose triumphantly from the grave. He has gone before us, and we too shall receive a resurrected body in His likeness. As the Apostle Paul describes it in his first letter to the people of Corinth, “the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-43, NIV). Though our bodies may die, we can be assured that that’s not the end. Our brothers and sisters are waiting in anticipation of having a resurrected body, just as we are. The Lamb has defeated death, and His victory has swallowed it up and taken away its sting (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). We who are alive (bodily), along with our brothers and sisters in heaven, await the day when the Lamb of God brings about His sovereign judgment and puts the world to rights.[su_pullquote]The Lamb has defeated death, and His victory has swallowed it up and taken away its sting.[/su_pullquote]
These portraits of the afterlife also remind us that heaven is not a place of inactivity. Because of our limitations, it’s difficult for us to keep in our purview that heaven, and the activities of the saints therein, is just as much a part of reality as our own existence. Though we can’t know the exact goings on of heaven, these scenes provide for us a hopeful glimpse.
Each year Christians from all over the Western world take November 1, or the first Sunday in November, as a time to commemorate the saints who have died. Protestants recognize saints to include all who have been baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ. This is what it means to be a part of the church universal, which includes all saints, at all times, who have been united by a common salvation in Christ.
All Saints Day is a time to celebrate the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us. It’s a time to reflect on and to thank God for their lives. It is also a time to await in eager anticipation when God will one day reunite His family. All who are in Christ will be raised and we will see the coming together of heaven and earth. We can rejoice that there will one day be no more death or mourning or weeping or suffering. God will dwell among us. We will be His people, and He will be our God. All things will be made new (Revelation 21:1-5). Maranatha!
Image:"John Martin - The Last Judgement - Google Art Project" by John Martin - dQEGwOc0m1PjWQ at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum - Tate Images (http://www.tate-images.com/results.asp?image=T01927&wwwflag=3&imagepos=6). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Martin_-_The_Last_Judgement_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg#/media/File:John_Martin_-_The_Last_Judgement_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg