What happens when we die? This question has plagued mankind since we ate of the fruit and were expelled from the Garden. I’m sure one of the first questions out of Adam’s mouth East of Eden was, “So we’re going to die…but then what?”
Because, if there is one thing our immortal soul recognizes, it is that death is not the end. It’s not the end for any of us. No matter how good or wicked our lives have been, death is just the beginning, and we know it.
It’s not just the realization that death is not the end, but that the life to come is so much longer than our mortal lives that makes what we think about life-after-death so important. In fact, the Bible is consistently reminding us that our life is just a vapor (James 4.14) and a shadow (Job 8.9), so that we might grasp the significance of eternity.
You would think that if eternity was so important, we would guard our thoughts on this most vital of subjects. But that is oddly not the case. The reality is that when dealing with death and the life to come is there are so many unbiblical views of what the next life will look like, and many of those are not just wrong, they are unhelpful. We say things about the next life that are simply not true, things that we have made up, because we think they are what people need to hear. But these misrepresentations of eternity actually do more damage than good, because they hide from people the greater and more comforting truths found in the gospel. We don’t need to make things up about the life-to-come, in fact, we’ll see that what we make up is actually less than what the Bible promises us.
This is the first installment in a series that looks at some of the most common misconceptions of the afterlife, why they’re wrong, and why it’s important to fix them…
Misconception #1: We become angels when we die.
“Heaven gained a new angel today.”
As a pastor, this is probably the distortion of eternity that I hear the most, and every time I hear it I want to shout, “No! No! No!”Not because I don’t like angels or I’m some sort of theological grump. It irks me not just because it’s not true, but because it actually is less than what the Bible tells us. In our attempt to assuage or comfort someone, we are actually giving them less than what the Bible promises. We aren’t building hope for them. We’re stealing it.
The Bible is clear: people don’t become angels, and the truth is you shouldn’t want them to.
First, angels and people are different. They might both have been created by God but they are different creations. Sometimes we seem to forget how different we are from the angelic. We have no problem telling a grieving person that their loved one is now one of “God’s little angels”, as if, when we die, we sort of morph out of this mortal coil and put on an angelic existence with wings and halos and cloud-floating. But the Bible actually teaches us that angels and people are not the same.
True, we may often see angels taking a human appearance in Scripture, but the Bible is clear that though angels may look like people sometimes, people and angels are very different. Imagine for a second telling someone that when their loved one died they became a donkey in heaven. That would probably not be well received. It would seem ridiculous and rude. Why? Because people and donkeys are different.
In the same way, the Bible tells us that angels and people are two very different created beings, more different than even people and donkeys.
The second reason we don’t want to tell people that their loved ones have become angels is that not only are people and angels different, but when it comes to eternity being a person is actually better than being an angel.
We may call people God’s new angels because we think being an angel has to be some sort of afterlife upgrade. Angels seem so majestic, so close to God. But the truth is that when it comes to life after death, humanity is more majestic and closer to God. Telling someone their loved one has become an angel wouldn’t be an upgrade, it would be a demotion.
Let’s look at the majesty of angels and people as laid out in the Bible. It is man, not the angelic, that stands at the pinnacle of all God’s creation for he alone bears the image of God. Nowhere in Scripture does it tell us that angels were created in the image of God. Not only that, but when the Bible does compare the afterlife of angels and people in 1 Corinthians 6.3, it tells us that people will actually judge angels. Whatever that might mean, it cannot mean less than that mankind sits in a greater position than the angelic in the life to come.
I feel that one of the reasons we make people into angels is because we think that angels are somehow closer to God. But again that’s simply not true. As humans, we actually have a greater closeness to God than the angelic. As once fallen people, we have a story that the angels do not have. We have a redemption story. We have the gospel. The Bible is the story of how God redeemed mankind for His glory. We have no account of any redemption story for the angels. When the angels fell, God sent no Son. There was no salvation hope, only judgment and wrath. The angels in heaven may be able to join us in singing about God as our Creator, but they cannot praise God for all eternity as their Redeemer. That is a story they simply do not know. In fact, it is one that puzzles them and that they wish they knew more about (1 Peter 1.12). Here’s the crazy truth: if anything, it is more likely that angels would want to become people, not the other way around. The simple reality is that being a person will be an eternal experience more enriching than that of the angels. Why would we want to give our loved ones a less amazing afterlife, one that is devoid of the praise of the redeemed?
But is all this really such a big deal? If it makes people feel better, what’s the harm in giving them angel trinkets or telling them that their loved one has become their guardian angel? It’s not so much that it does harm, but that the hope of our loved ones becoming angels is significantly less than what God says. We’re not trying to steal their mental image of a lost loved one as an angel. We’re letting them know that in Christ their loved one is something greater.
The desire to want to comfort people is a good one, but if you really want them to be happy don’t give them a hope that is less than they might actually have. Don’t demote the dead and don’t downplay the gospel. If the person who died was a believer in Jesus Christ, they haven’t gone on to be an angel, they are something better. They are a child of God, created in his very image, redeemed by his Son, and they sing a new song in heaven, the Song of the Redeemed. The angels may sing the notes, but they haven’t lived the story.
This series is brought to you by Chris Gore who pastors at First Baptist Church in Beggs, OK.