Q: What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death?
A: The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves until the resurrection.
John 5:28-29: Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Many of you know that in April of 2014, my beloved brother Peter was suddenly and unexpectedly called home to glory. At his funeral, Dr Michael Rogers at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Lancaster preached a sermon entitled, "With Jesus Forever". Drawing from the narrative of the thief on the cross in Luke 23 and 2 Corinthians 5:8 where Paul speaks of his desire to be away from the body and present with the Lord, Dr. Rogers reminded the 500 or so people in attendance at the funeral of the great reality which my brother is experiencing now. The great reality of being a perfected soul in the presence of Jesus Christ. This is a reality that my brother talked about often, and is the hope upon death for all believers.
I can't help but wonder why we speculate beyond this concerning what happens to a believer upon death. There are so many misconceptions, especially among Christians, as to what the Bible says concerning this matter. After my brother died, many Christians would talk to me as if my brother was "an angel", in particular, a "guardian angel" who is with me and watching over me. I'm sure this was meant to comfort me, but it is simply not reality. Where does this idea come from? A believer, upon death, does NOT become an angel. Angels are their own created beings. They are not human. They are not the souls of humans who died. Humans who die do not transform into angels. There is nothing that would even suggest that humans, upon death, transform into an entirely different species of created being, such as an angel. We become perfected souls in the presence of Jesus Christ (this is particularly seen in Hebrews 12 when the author is describing the inhabitants of the heavenly Jerusalem and the author mentions "the spirits of the righteous made perfect"). So let's put to rest this talk about so-and-so dying and becoming your guardian angel. When people die, they remain human. When believing humans die, they become perfected souls, free from the burdens of the sinful flesh, and enter into the presence of Jesus Christ. Yes, in the presence of Christ. Not in my presence, not hovering around loved ones invisibly, watching over and guarding us. In the presence of Jesus Christ! Let us not cheapen the reality of the loved ones who die in the Lord. They are with their Lord and Saviour, and that is far better a reality than anything the human imagination will ever dream up.
And yet, that is not as good as it gets. Our hope is not JUST in becoming a perfected soul. Notice the catechism here speaks about our bodies. The writers of the Shorter Catechism realized something very important about mankind. We are not merely souls trapped in a sinful body, but rather, mankind is an embodied entity. We are soul AND body, and while at death the two may be temporarily disunited (although I believe the authors are right to speak of the body as still being united to Christ), on the last day when Christ comes in glory, we will be reunited with our new resurrected and glorified bodies. The hope of the Christian is not to spend eternity in Heaven floating around as spirits. Rather, it is that we will exist for all of eternity in resurrection bodies, inhabiting the New Earth!
This is what the Apostle's Creed means when it says, "I believe...in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting". That statement is not about Christ's resurrection, as some have supposed (and which the creed confesses earlier), but rather, it's about OUR resurrection! And all of this is the great hope of the Christian. The resurrection of the body, the life everlasting, and WITH JESUS FOREVER.