Growing up, I gained a lot of experience with death, or at least, with funerals; my mother took me to every funeral we had in our church. Also, when I was not yet two years old, my younger brother died prematurely, only hours after his birth. I remember many times in my elementary school years: sharing with other children on the playground, or wherever else we had our serious conversations, about my younger brother who had died. How much my brother’s death and all those funerals impacted me, I cannot say, but death was always a topic of great significance to me personally.
What happens after death was also one of the nagging questions that went unanswered year after year in my Protestant surroundings, and which ultimately paved the way to the Orthodox Church. For, as I reasoned (and from time to time questioned the pastors around me), if the dead will rise with Christ at the second coming as St. Paul clearly states in 1 Thessalonians 4, how do we also have Christ telling the thief on the Cross that he would be together with him in Paradise that very day, or even the over-stated phrase, “she’s in a better place” or “he’s with Jesus now”? It did not all fit together.
If it were some obscure theological point, I would not have been so bothered, but it was about life after death! Is that not a fairly important point on which we should be quite clear?
Instead of looking to the explanation of this or that theologian or saint—not all of us would be terribly willing to trust that when we hear it—I am going to draw from retellings of those who have passed beyond death: from the lives of saints, to some not so happy endings retold by saints, and (just for more modern confirmation) even from the likes of the Heaven Is for Real retelling of a Nebraskan three-year-old’s experience in heaven.