Question: What happens when we die? Do we go to heaven right away or is it something else?
Short answer: We don’t know exactly.
Many people believe that Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:6-9, by saying “Absent from the body and present with the Lord” is suggesting that we are, in fact, immediately transported to heaven. But if you read the entire passage in context the argument is something less than convincing. This is especially true when we read 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 where Paul says, “51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. “ Which certainly sounds like whatever happens, waits for the second coming and the day of judgment.
On the third hand, we have Revelation 6:9-10 at the opening of the seals during the Great Tribulation and John says, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
So here, before the second coming, are the souls of the martyrs are in heaven under the altar of God. Where is everyone else? I don’t know. But scripture never mentions any kind of “in between” existence other than life on earth and life in heaven. This picture in Revelation describes only the *souls* of the martyrs and not the martyrs themselves so they seem to be existing without bodies.
On the fourth hand, James 2:26 says that “"the body without the spirit is dead." So if we’re dead, then the spirit has left, so where did it go? Ecclesiastes 12:7 says that at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” And in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 Paul says, “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Which indicates that the souls of the dead live with Christ and return with him on the day of judgment.
On the fifth hand, Jesus spoke of Moses, and Elijah and Abraham in the first person as if they were people that he knew, who were alive and able to carry on a discussion, not as people who were in any way “asleep” of somehow “in between.”
Also of interest is Jude 1:9 that hints that the archangel Michael was guarding Moses body/soul from Satan as he was carried to heaven and there are other references of angels “carrying” the souls of the departed to heaven.
In the end, there are two schools of thought. First that upon death we fall into some sort of “soul sleep” or “slumber” during which time we have no perception of the passage of time until that moment when Christ returns, we hear the trumpet, and meet him in the sky. To me, the evidence of scripture would seem to be strongly against this. The second is that we return to God immediately upon our death, but whatever body we have is not the body that will be given to us on Resurrection day. On that day, we are told, that we will be like Jesus with a body that is clearly different (and yet similar) from our earthly bodies. Bodies that will be without pain and suffering and which will be immortal and imperishable.
Scripture does not, in any one place, provide a clear picture of what happens. I can find no evidence at all of “soul sleep” or any sort of delay until Judgment Day. For me, all of the evidence points to us going to heaven immediately. How exactly that happens might be a little fuzzy, but I trust Jesus enough to trust him with the details.
Note: I invited our church and my online readers to write down any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general. This is a part of that series.
Other questions and answers in this series can be found here: Ask the Pastor
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