Well-meaning people often ask those they care about if they are “saved.” They want to know that if you were to die today, that you would “go to heaven.” This is a nice sentiment, but is it reality?
What Really Happens When We Die?
Popular Christian belief is that believers in Jesus go to heaven when they die and unbelievers go to hell. What do the scriptures say?
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. — Ecclesiastes 9:5
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. — 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. — Psalm 146:4
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. — John 3:13
So then, what really happens when we die? We are dead (or sleeping in Christ) and we await the resurrection. None are ascended into heaven but Jesus, and the dead know not a thing. From our perspective though, it would be as if we die and then immediately the resurrection comes, even though for many there are thousands of years that pass.
There are two resurrections: the resurrection of life and the resurrection of damnation (truths often confused with the rapture). That is something we will get into another time. Some scriptures for now:
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. — 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day. — John 6:39-40
Problems With The Traditional View of Heaven
The idea that loved ones are enjoying heaven and looking down on us can be very comforting, and it’s not an issue I would push on people — especially if they are grieving. But, there are some ways in which the traditional view of heaven is damaging:
- Heaven is often described as a place of carnal enjoyment, rather than a place where we will be serving God for all eternity. This is not some fleshly utopia where you can eat all you want, play all day, and basically do anything you please (without sin, of course…or at least certain sins aside from gluttony and fulfilling selfish desires, for example).
- Jesus is not in heaven building us a mansion. Who do we think we are? This idea came from scriptures that, in reality, are about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit “making His abode — or mansion — with us.” See John 14. We will be serving Christ in heaven, not the other way around.
- The idea that we die and go to heaven does not recognize the truth of the Kingdom of God. There is the kingdom that is now through the Spirit — bringing us freedom from sin and the prince of this world. Then there is the kingdom that will be established after the return of Jesus (the time of the first resurrection and 7th trumpet also).
What about the scripture, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”?
The answer to that scripture is within another: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. — Ecclesiastes 12:7
When we die, our spirit which brings us life returns to God. The body lies in the dust, and our soul, which is our being, sleeps.
What about the scriptures about “Abraham’s Bosom” and Lazarus and the rich man?
The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31)
Here are my thoughts. Note that this is how I deal with this in light of other scriptures that show a different picture of heaven and hell than what is commonly taught in Christian traditions, so this is not to be taken as literal truth, so you’ll have to judge for yourself.
The story of Lazarus and the rich man is not to be applied to eternal punishment or heaven necessarily, or taken in a super literal sense, but instead as a parable showing us how we are dead and apart from the true seed of Abraham (Abraham’s bosom) without Christ.
This is about our general separation from God and from His living water which is the Holy Spirit. Without Christ, there is a gulf between us and God. We cannot even taste of the living water, but instead we are in a state of torment and death. Jesus is the only way to bridge the gap for the true descendants of Abraham. The law of Abraham was not enough to bridge that gap, nor did it bring the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we go from the torment of this early flame, separation from God, and inability to drink the living waters to being able to approach God, live in communion with God, and partake of His living waters that not only quench the fires of death in this life but also eternally!
One thing I will say is true, we must die to go to heaven.
In this present world, we must die to self and rise in newness of Christ in order to participate more fully in the present kingdom of God. We will also have to die in a literal sense and then be raised from the dead at the coming of Jesus Christ in order to live with Him in the kingdom to come. As far as the problems with the traditional views of hell, we will hopefully get into that soon (study in progress).
Challenging our traditional beliefs can be difficult, but the more we see a fuller picture of the truth, especially as it pertains to the gospel of the kingdom of God and salvation through Jesus Christ, the stronger our faith becomes. As always, if these things are difficult for you, or if I did not provide a sufficient explanation, feel free to email me.