“For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
God’s ultimate goal is to transform each of us into the image of Christ. I believe this refers not only to giving us spiritual bodies like Christ, but the shaping of our characters, as well. This being the case, I would assume that God will not be finished with us immediately after we die, perhaps not even after we receive our resurrected spiritual bodies.
Paul referred to some of the Christians in Corinth as mere “babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1), and some of them were sick and dying because of their sin (1 Cor. 11:30). It is obvious from these passages, and from simple observation, that Christians do not enter life after death with fully reformed characters. Some, perhaps most, Christians think that our basic character will be instantly changed at the rapture, when our bodies are transformed, but is this really the case? If God were to change our characters instantly in this way, the only way He could do it would be to reprogram our brains, as with a computer or robot. Would the result be an authentic change in character, or the loss of our basic humanity and “genuine” character, instead? Only through genuine life experiences can we develop genuine qualities of character, especially, that of Agape love which involves, by definition, sacrifice and selfless acts of kindness. Also, an important facet of genuine love is “empathy,” or the ability to feel what others are feeling and identify with the sufferings of others. This can only be genuinely learned from actual human experience. If God were to instantly create these attitudes, feelings and qualities of character, without exposing us to the actual living conditions under which they are authentically produced, they would not be real, in my view. That is why, when he created us, he placed us in a flawed world, and gave us the freedom to make both right and wrong choices, suffer the consequences of such, and in the process develop genuine qualities of character. One of my favorite Scripture passages, that describes this process, is found in the book of James:
James 1:2-3 “Consider it pure joy, my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
According to the above passage, “perseverance must finish its work.” If this work has not been finished by the time you die, then it may logically be assumed that more time will be required after death. If we view salvation as a process, rather than an instantaneous event, then the warning that James gives in Chapter two of his epistle, regarding the relationship between faith and works would apply to Christians, even after death. We are saved by faith, not of works, but our salvation is an “ages-long” process and will not be complete until our character fully conforms to that of Christ.
By the time Christians die, their characters have only been partially developed. Why should God, all of a sudden, change our character by fitting us with “artificial” Christ-like character “parts,” as with Cyborgs of StarTrek fame? This would result in “artificial,” not “real” character. Regardless of whether you take literally or figuratively the Old Testament and New Testament prophecies regarding the Kingdom ages to come, the message appears to be the same. All sorts of things go on during those ages. Many are brought to Christ and many continue to rebel. Various forms of rewards and judgment occur. Some Christians mistakenly feel that the process of transformation wrought in them by the Holy Spirit is some kind of a magical process which requires no effort on their part. I have heard many ardent Christians repeat over and over again how they have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit and are now “new creatures” in Christ. When confronted with the sin in their lives, they will attribute that to their “old flesh” nature, which has been replaced with their “new nature.” They look upon their transformation as something that happened instantaneously, but in their spirit, not their flesh. They look upon their new self, their spiritual self, as their “real” self, and their old self, and their old sinful nature, as something that is no longer real or relevant, or at the very least, something that will be instantly done away with when they die. In my view, both natures are “real” and you are not yet in conformity with the image of Christ until the two natures match. The old nature must be completely defeated and replaced by the new nature.
Sometimes the Bible expresses truths from a “positional” point of view, from the viewpoint of our position in Christ. Positionally, according to Ephesians 2:6, we have already been seated with Christ in the heavenlies. From God’s point of view, who can view the events of history from a timeless perspective, the process of our transformation into the likeness of Christ has already been accomplished. He views us “in Christ” through the cross of Calvary. But in our human experience, we view this transformation as a process that occurs over time. Expecially in the writings of Paul, many of these truths about our relationship with Christ are expressed as “positional” truth, while at other times they are expressed as “experiential” truth. That is why the writers of the New Testament seem to contradict themselves so often. These conflicting views of our salvation may be easily resolved if you view salvation as a continuing process from our human “experiential” perspective, but a completed process from God’s perspective.
Various aspects of the salvation experiences are described in past, presently continuous, and future terms. Some verses tell us that we have been saved and that we have been given eternal life, and so on, while other passages speak of these same experiences as something that we must currently work on, or “work out,” while other passages speak of these experiences as things that we patiently wait for and look forward to in the future. According to Titus 3-7, God saved us (past tense) and we were justified by grace and became heirs of the promise. We now have the “hope” of eternal (aionian) life. In Philippians 2:12b-13, Paul tells us we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. According to Rom. 8:18-25, we have already received the “first-fruits” of our salvation, the Holy Spirit. We wait eagerly for our ultimate redemption. We don’t have it yet. We hope for it and wait for it patiently. Hebrews 9:28 states that Christ will come again to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
For reasons given above, I believe that this salvation process continues after death.