There are several matters of contention among Christians, and the question of our experience of death is one of them. To my knowledge, there are two main camps of thought. One is the idea that when a Christian dies they immediately join Jesus Christ in heaven. Therefore, there are believers in heaven presently.
The other idea is that Christians are currently in a state of unconsciousness and awaiting the promise of resurrection that occurs when Jesus returns. Therefore, there are no believers in heaven aside from some who might be an exception to this rule.
Remembering What Matters Most
Whichever interpretation of the scriptures we lean toward, it is important to remain humble and understand that such doctrines are debated for a reason. Not everything is so cut and dry, and it is not honest to say that one view or the other is not scriptural. Each has compelling scripture to back up their view.
*Jesus does not rebuke Christians because we have doctrines about heaven or hell wrong.He rebukes because we deny the teachings of Jesus that profit us in the things of the kingdom of God: the things of salvation.* See Amendment at the bottom. This particular question is not a strict salvation issue. However, having a solid Christian worldview is very helpful to our faith, and one false doctrine can corrupt much.
Therefore, it is good for us to study these things and come to better understanding, that is, if we can do so without neglecting the more important matters concerning how we deal with our brethren. If we are so attached to doctrines of little salvation importance that we cause conflict and division, then we are proud. God will humble us so that we do not become blinded by our pride.
This being said, I have been instructed in these things and put effort into considering which view seems most consistent when weighing scriptural evidence on both sides. As with most things, I think it is largely a matter of perspective.
The Problem of Human Perspective
The Bible does not contradict itself, and neither does God. However, Christians can read the same books and have many differing ideas. Sometimes, I think the reason this happens is because we are all looking to the things of God with a limited perspective—one of the greatest limitations having to do with the concept of linear time as we experience it versus eternal time as God experiences it.
To God, all things are now. He is ever-present. He inhabits every moment of time seamlessly, and we cannot wrap our minds around that.
Therefore, when dealing with doctrines that have to do with time, we fall short. Do Christians go to heaven now or later? That somewhat depends on a concept of time which we cannot fully grasp.
As for our constraints that come with a liner time perspective, I believe that the saints of God are awaiting the return of Jesus in a state of unconsciousness (which is why many use the phrase “soul sleep”). We do not perceive the passage of time. Therefore, experientially it is as if we die then are raised immediately at the coming of the Lord, Jesus along with all of those who died in Christ before us.
Ideas to Keep in Mind
Before I get into why I believe this way, there are some ideas to keep in mind. As mentioned, all doctrines affect our Christian world view. Many like the idea of their loved ones enjoying the kingdom of heaven now. I understand why that is a comfort, and as also mentioned, there is room to hold that view. It depends on perspective—and if we could stretch our minds beyond linear time, our loved ones are in heaven.
However, the doctrine fitting our linear time still matters because the way we view this connects with other ideas, specifically pertaining to:
- The nature of man as body, soul, and spirit: what happens to each part when we die?
- The manner in which Jesus Christ will return
- The first resurrection
- The idea of the rapture
These issues are addressed within this article. For starters, I think we should discuss this teaching in the most basic terms by considering one key idea: our experience is foreshadowed by Jesus Christ.
In the Likeness of His Death and Resurrection
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection (Romans 6:5).
Everything we need to know about our salvation is shown in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the best way we can attempt to understand what happens when we die is to look at what happened to Jesus.
Jesus Gave Up the Ghost
When Jesus died on the cross, we are told that he “gave up the ghost” (John 19:30, Mark 15:38, Matthew 27:50). This is the same spirit that animates mankind (John 6:63). When God breathed the breath of life into Adam, man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). When the spirit of life is divided from the soul, man dies. We are told that the word of God can divide soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). God pronounced that the punishment for sin is death, and so it shall be.
Where does the spirit of life go when we die?
In the gospel according to Luke, we are told that Jesus commanded his spirit depart and return to God the Father.
And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost (Luke 23:46).
Here is further evidence:
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 man dies, the dust (or the flesh which was formed from the dust of the earth) will return from wince it came. The spirit returns to the Father who gave it. Man is made of body, spirit, and soul. If the body goes back to the dust and the spirit back to the Father, then where does the soul go?
Jesus Went into The Grave
What is our soul? Our soul is the essence of who we are. Our soul is animated by various spirits, including the spirit of life without which the soul dies. When Jesus died, where did he go? Where did his soul go?
Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses (Acts 2:29-32).
The scripture the Paul the apostle refers to is Psalm 16:
Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth: my flesh also shall rest in hope. For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16: 9-11).
Notice what Paul wrote about David. David is dead and buried, not presently in heaven with the Father. Also notice that Christ’s soul was “not left in hell.” Hell in this case is translated as the grave. This is not the hell which many teach today as a place of never-ending conscious torment. Rather, this is a place of unconsciousness: a place in which all the dead go and await the resurrection and judgment (the lake of fire and the second death). Here is further evidence:
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).
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish (Psalm 146:4).
What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave? Selah (Psalm 89:48)
Again we see the idea of man returning to the earth when his breath (spirit) leaves the body. Without the spirit of life our flesh and soul die and there is no conscious existence whatsoever. There is nothing but everlasting darkness apart from the mercy of God that raises the dead back to life. Jesus tasted this death for every man (Hebrews 2:9).
The reason many call this death sleep is because we know that through faith in Jesus our death is not a permanent state. However, we all will taste death at least once (Hebrews 9:27). The only way we can escape the “second death” – from which there is no return – is through faith in our salvation given by the Son of God.
Jesus Rose from The Dead
The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of the Christian faith (Mark 16, Luke 24, Matthew 27, John 20). His resurrection is a promise to those who believe in Him. If we believe in Jesus, then we believe that he is the Son of God who was slain to atone for our sin. We also believe that through faith in Jesus, we can escape death and live eternally.
This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ (Acts 2: 32-36).
There are two resurrections. The first is the resurrection of life and the other is the resurrection of judgment.
Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:28-29).
The hope of the Christian lies within the first resurrection.
Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years (Revelation 20:6).
When does our resurrection take place? It takes place when Jesus returns after the 7th trumpet (Revelation 11:15-19). Here is further evidence:
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. 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 4:13-17).
For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power (1 Corinthians 15:16-24).
Is the first resurrection an on-going event? No. This occurs at a single point in time when Jesus returns. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Christians are not currently in heaven, but rather they wait in “the grave” until Jesus returns. Since we have faith in the resurrection, it is fitting to call this first death “sleep.”
Jesus Ascended into Heaven
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).
You can read about Jesus’s ascent into heaven in Acts 1, Luke 24, Mark 16, and Matthew 28. The important thing for us to take away about the ascension of Jesus is this fact:
This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven. Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey (Acts 1:11-12).
For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be (Matthew 24:24-27).
When Jesus returns to earth from heaven, the dead in Christ are raised and they live with Jesus for one-thousand years. We do not die and go to heaven. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is coming to earth. Make note of the above and keep in mind that Jesus cannot return until the “man of sin” is revealed. Jesus cannot return at any time without the signs being show first. See 2 Thessalonians 2 and Mark 13.
Also make note that when Jesus returns, those who are alive and remain are transfigured into a new kind of body. If one comes claiming to be Christ and the dead are not rising and those remaining are not transfigured, then this is a false Christ.
Teaching that the dead in Christ rise already can be dangerous because we need to know what marks the true coming of Jesus. This helps us avoid deception of antichrist. Teaching the rapture can also be dangerous because this replaces the teaching of the first resurrection, leads many to believe they will escape tribulation and the hour of antichrist, and again takes away from a key distinction that can help us avoid strong deception.
When Jesus was crucified, his spirit returned to the Father. His flesh died. His soul went to hell (the grave). It is the same for us. When we die, our spirit is divided from the soul. The spirit returns to the Father. Without the spirit of life the flesh and the soul die. This is the first death. This is a state of unconsciousness because it is truly death. Yet, through faith in Jesus, our death is not permanent. We will be raised from the dead at the coming of the Lord, Jesus. Unbelievers will partake of the second resurrection and the second death.
And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20: 11-15).
For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living: for all live unto him (Luke 20:38).
God is present everywhere, even in the grave. If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there (Psalm 139:8). The only way to be apart from God is for the soul to die. God is a God of the living, meaning those who live in Jesus Christ. When a Christian dies, we do not count them as dead because we have faith in the resurrection. Again, consider the problem of our liner timeline perspective. To God, all things are accomplished. Therefore, in some dimension of time all who belong to God live with Him.
And Jesus said unto him, verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).
We have to consider all scripture. You might recall when Jesus saw Mary and told her “do not touch me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Jesus did not go to the Father right after he died. He went to the grave along with his flesh. We also need to consider that in the original text there was no punctuation. If you remove the commas, the sentence can read very differently. It could read something like, “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”
For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better (Philippians 1:23).
Considering that Paul wrote the epistle to the Philippians as well as that to the Corinthians and Thessalonians (mentioned above), we can deduce that Paul had some knowledge of the first and second resurrection. He understands that in death we do not perceive the passage of time. Therefore, from our perspective, after we die the first thing we will see is Jesus coming in the clouds, and we will meet him in the air! That is something to look forward to!
We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
This scripture is often taken out of context and used to support the idea of immediate resurrection after death. When we read this in context, Paul is talking about walking after the Spirit and not after the flesh. If we walk in the Spirit, we are walking with the Lord. In that sense there is a present-day resurrection as we die to the things of the flesh and are renewed by the Holy Spirit.
Stephen saw Jesus just before he died in Acts 7.
This might seem problematic. I had considered that perhaps the dead were in their grave until Jesus died and raised, then from that point on every Christian that died was immediately raised and met Jesus. That idea however does not fit with the timing of the first resurrection (at the 7th trumpet) or scriptures that state things like “David is dead and buried.” When considering the full counsel of the scripture, I take this as a vision of the future given to Stephen at the moment of his death as a way to comfort him while giving Jesus glory.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
Jesus spoke many parables, and it is my belief that the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a parable and not a literal event. The teachings of death, the resurrection, the nature of the kingdom and the nature of hell do not line up with this as being a literal event. It makes more sense to consider this a parable or as something to be taken metaphorically then it does to consider scriptures to the contrary as metaphorical, because the first is given as story while the later are given as points of fact and doctrine.
Also consider that Jesus came debunking many beliefs the Scribes and Pharisees held. This includes their ideas about a place called Abraham’s Bosom and other ideas they had about purgatory and the like before the teachings we received after Jesus. This is not a literal place, but a myth they held.
The Souls under the Alter in Revelation 6
To God, the blood of Abel is still crying out from the ground. It is also true that to God, Ablel is busy at work in the kingdom of heaven. This harkens back to God’s eternal perspective. It is the same for all the righteous blood shed since that time. To God, the saints of God are crying for vengeance and awaiting the coming of the promised kingdom. To God, the saints of God are already with Him. Of course, that crying out is a metaphor. It seems silly to think that God has souls literally shoved under the alter continually crying out for vengeance.
The rapture doctrine has replaced the true teaching of the first resurrection. When Jesus returns, those who are “asleep” will awaken from the grave and meet him in the air. This includes many who give up their life for the faith. Jesus does not take us away before the tribulation, but rather, we must endure the tribulation and keep our faith until the very end. It is true that Christians are not appointed to wrath. Though terrible, the end times is not wrath against those who are faithful, but those who have fallen away. Any suffering we endure is part of our sanctification, which we will likely need in order to cleanse us from the falsehoods of modern Christianity that leads to complacency and worldliness.
It is chastisement from a Father that loves us. It is for our good and for the destruction of the wicked. It is vanity to think Christians should not suffer. They have always suffered, and in many parts of the world they suffer and are killed. Only spoiled Western Christians would think they are too good to suffer as Jesus Christ suffered.
For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:298).
Is the author of KindlingTruth a Seventh Day Adventist?
For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection (Romans 6:5).
The question about where a Christian goes when they die should be framed according to the resurrection. There are two resurrections. The first occurs when Jesus returns. Therefore, the dead in Christ are not in heaven at this time. They are dead. However, God is without the limits of time therefore if it comforts you to consider the dead as being with the Father, then there is nothing wrong with that so long as we do not neglect the teachings of the first and second resurrection along with the first and second death.
Amendment 1: “Jesus does not rebuke Christians because we have doctrines about heaven or hell wrong.He rebukes because we deny the teachings of Jesus that profit us in the things of the kingdom of God: the things of salvation.”
There is a good lesson here in being careful when stating things about what the Lord rebukes or judges. The Bible makes mention of the importance of sound doctrine, so it makes sense that Jesus would in-fact rebuke false doctrine. However, if on one side you have a Christian who is so proud of their true doctrine that they become puffed up, hateful, or accusatory of their brethren as fake Christians, but on the other side you have someone with false teaching who is humble, willing to learn, and treats other Christians with patience, then who is at greater fault? That is something to think about. I tend to think the first has greater fault. Depending on the teaching that is. Some are so grievous that little to no patience should be shown it.
I think we need to consider this present time and weigh which false teachings are most worth fighting over, because there are a lot of false teachings, and harping over each one can cause resistance to discussion of the most important things. If we think about the ministry of Jesus and His warnings to the 7 churches in Revelation, I think we get an idea of what matters most for us during this present time: Judgment, Mercy, and Faith. I think these are the fundamentals of the gospel, what salvation means, the function of grace and forgiveness, and esteeming the cross with more reverence. These ideas are most twisted in modern Christianity, and with the fundamentals set in order, the rest follows.
For better clarification, I will write a “What Matters Most” article as soon as I can.
Link: What Matters Most