Will we know one another when we die? This was the concern of a good friend whose sister-in-law is in the final stages of cancer. “I was interested in your comments on ‘beyond death’ [in my blog Seeing God Face to Face]… However to someone who has not steeped herself in scripture, not as helpful or encouraging as for those who do know their Bibles! I have suggested to her to think in terms of her parents and grandparents welcoming her (all wonderful Christians).” My friend wondered what biblical support there was for such recognition, and whether it was right to talk to his dying sister-in-law in this way. Although I confess that the Scripture evidence for recognition is not strong, nonetheless I dare to believe that we shall recognise loved ones who have gone ahead of us.
In the first instance, Paul wrote that when Jesus returns, we shall be reunited with loved ones who have died in Christ. He described the Thessalonians as his “crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (1 Thess 2.19); similarly, within the context of Jesus’ return, Paul described the Philippians as “my joy and crown” (Phil 4.1). Ben Witherington commented: “Paul envisions a grand celebration, perhaps like that at the end of the Olympic games, where the victors are given their wreaths and there is much rejoicing” (quoted by Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians, Apollos 2009, 280. Then in 1 Thess 4.13-18 there is Paul’s description of the coming of the Lord: whatever else this passage means, it surely “encourages” (4.18) Christians to believe that we will meet up with one another. To quote Witherington again, “It will be the ultimate family re-union with the king” (1 & 2 Thessalonians, Eerdmans 2006, 141).
In the second instance, Paul argued for the resurrection of the body, which involves not only change but also a continuing sense of identity: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not so the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain” (1 Cor 15.36,37)..This analogy of the seed illustrates that one living thing, through death, can have two modes of existence. Indeed our bodies experience change already in this life. Biochemists inform us that during a seven year cycle the molecular composition of our bodies is completely changed. In one sense there is no relationship between our bodies as children and our bodies as young people, let alone our bodies as old people, and yet there is continuity. This continuity is expressed through personality. At death, however, our bodies undergo far more radical change. The “seed” of our earthly bodies dissolves, and yet the new life which God gives has a relationship with the old. It is a ‘fruit’ of the old. In spite of all the changes, it is the same person. Changes to the body do not affect the essential personality. Just as a message is still the same message whether spoken in words or transmitted through electronic mail or flashed through in Morse code, so we shall be the same persons, whatever the ‘material’ form in which our personalities are expressed. Here is another basis for heaven as a place of re-union.
Thirdly, John in his description of the new heaven and the new earth says that in the new world that is coming, God will be with his people: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Rev 21.3,4). The most distressing aspect of the death of loved ones is our sense of loss, and the fear that we shall never see them again – but the implication of John’s words is that we shall see one another again.
As for Jesus, he affirmed the concept of resurrection, and often likened the coming kingdom to a heavenly banquet, he did not say anything about reunion. He said that marriage will not be a feature of the world to come (see Mark 12.25; Luke 20.36), but rather present relationships will be transformed into something yet more glorious. So James Edwards commented: “The life to come constitutes a new taxonomy of existence, “like the angels” (Luke 20.36)… God’s power to create and restore bursts the limits of both logic and imagination. Heavenly realities are no more predicated on earthly experience than postpartum life is predicated on life in utero” (The Gospel according to Luke, Apollos 2015, 580). But although physical sexuality and exclusive relationships will cease, this does not necessarily rule out the idea of reunion. Indeed, according to Stephen Travis, “If Jesus promised, ‘Many will come from the east and the west and sit down at table in the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (Matt 8.11), he presumably meant that Abraham and the others would be reocognized”. Travis went on: ” Just as Jesus’ followers were able to recognize him after his resurrection, so we shall know each other – that’s one reason why we shall have ‘spiritual bodies’. But it will be knowledge on a deeper level, with fuller love and understanding too than we have ever known before” (The Jesus Hope, Word 1974, 78).
In the light of these Scriptures there are grounds for describing heaven as a place of reunion. So the third-century Bishop Cyprian wrote: “There are a great number of dear ones awaiting us, and a dense crowd of parents, brothers, children, is longing for us, already assured of their own safety, and longing for our salvation. What gladness there will be for them and for us when we enter their presence and share their embrace!” However, it is important to stress that heaven is more than a place of reunion. So Karl Barth, when asked at a conference of pastors’ wives, ‘Will we see our loved ones on the other side?’, replied, ‘Yes but with others too’. Or as John Bunyan wrote: “There you shall enjoy your friends again that have gone thither before you; and there you shall with joy receive even every one that follows into the holy place after you”. Indeed, Justin Thacker suggested that “In the new earth we will interact with one another primarily in terms of our oneness in Christ, that is, as brothers and sisters in him. This does not mean that other concepts – strangers, friends, wife, husband, children colleague – will no longer apply. I do th8ink we will be able to say, ‘Oh yes, we used to work together’, or ‘we once were married’. However our shared identity in Christ will be so dominant that these other means of relating will simply be irrelevant” (‘Heaven’ 119 in What are we waiting for? Christian hope and contemporary culture, Paternoster 2008, edited by Stephen Holmes & Russell Rook).
Yes, relationships will, be transcended and extended, but in ways which are beyond our imagination, for “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived.. God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2.9). Nonetheless, as I wrote in a booklet for the bereaved, “relationships there will be. Being re-united with our loved ones is part of our hope, but our relationships will be transformed in God” (A Loved One Dies, Baptist Union of GB 2005, 31).