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Where Do Christians Go When They Die?
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The premise of this study is contrary to mainstream beliefs within major Christian denominations. I was taught just the opposite (“when you die, you go to heaven”) and believed such for some 50 years of my life. After my wife passed away, many friends and family offered comfort by telling me “she is in a better place today” or “she is looking down on us and smiling”. Thinking about this later, I decided to go to the source and see exactly what the Bible said on the subject of Heaven and death.
It says a lot. I am going to separate this study into two parts. The first will offer support for the premise that Christians that have died are
currently in heaven. They will
be someday. Just not as of this writing. The second part will analyze the arguments that support the more common point of view, that when believers die they immediately go to heaven.
Christians go to heaven when Jesus returns and raises them from the dead.
1 Thessalonians 4 16-17
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.
Paul has described a clear sequence of events and describes what will occur and when with two classes of Christians. There are the “dead in Christ” and those that are “alive and remain…” at the time the Lord returns to earth for His people. Those Christians that are dead, shall rise first. Christians that are still living will follow them and all will
meet the Lord in the air
This scripture states that our Lord will raise the dead
when He returns
. Since He has not yet returned, those that are dead in Him have not been called to Heaven. They are still on earth. The purpose and significance of the Second Coming of Christ is for all believers to be called to heaven to be with Him forever.
There is no mention of those that are dead in heaven coming down. Just the opposite is stated. Our Lord
followed by those on earth
to meet Him. Any Christians in heaven would need to
The last few words in that verse are significant, “
and so shall we ever be with the Lord”.
As Christians, we look forward to the time we are with our Father in heaven. Once we join Him, we would never willingly leave Him and there is no scripture that states we would have to do that. This scripture confirms we shall ever be with the Lord. Thus, it would be contrary to scripture to believe Christians die, immediately go to heaven and then are returned to Earth to be raised again during the Second Coming of Christ.
Consider what the Apostle Paul had to say concerning the
of the resurrection:
1 Corinthians 15:13-18
But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 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.
The Sleep Analogy.
Let’s go back a few versus in Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 4 13-17
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.
As it is obvious from this passage, God does not want us ignorant about those "who have fallen asleep" i.e. the dead ones. In contrast, He wants us informed, which in turn means that He has also provided all the information that is necessary for the elimination of any ignorance or misunderstanding.
the dead in Christ
as being “asleep”. We know these people have died. We also know they are not awake. And we know they have not risen. He compares them to being asleep. However, we know they are not really asleep in the normal sense. Sleeping, however, is a good analogy. Here are some thoughts about being asleep.
Sleep is a requirement of the body. Deprived of sleep long enough and the body will go to sleep on its own. We have the power to temporarily postpone sleep. But that is all.
There is no consciousness of time or space.
No productive work is done.
Sleeping takes place in a limited amount of time. It ends when a person awakens.
There is a continuity of the person before and after sleeping. A person wakes up as the same person that fell asleep.
Now, let's look at New Testament scripture. Jesus spoke of the dead being asleep just as the Old Testament did. Mathew, Mark and Luke record this example.
While Jesus was still speaking someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. "Your daughter is dead," he said. "Don't bother the teacher any more."Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, "Don't be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed."When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child's father and mother. Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. "Stop wailing," Jesus said. "She is not dead but asleep."They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, "My child, get up!" Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up.
This scripture teaches us that Jesus described the dead as being asleep and that her spirit had left the dead body. Once her spirit returned, she awoke from this state.
John records Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Here is the beginning of that story.
After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up."His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.So then he told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him."Then Thomas (called Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."Jesus Comforts the Sisters John 17-26 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was less than two miles[
] from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home."Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
When a person dies, Jesus describes them as being “asleep”. They will rise from this state in the resurrection when Jesus returns. Martha, the sister of Lazarus understood the biblical truth about the state of the dead. She knew (v24) Lazarus wasn't going to awaken until the last day at His second coming.
The book of Job also mentions the length of sleep for the dead.
So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
Notice the word
in that verse. This means the dead will not, or cannot awaken until the last day as Martha calls it in the previous verse shared.
Daniel speaks of the dead and what will happen to them.
"Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt."
Another way of learning from scripture is to see what is
said. There is also an often overlooked verse describing what happened the moment Jesus died on the cross.
The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
In this and the other examples of the dead being brought back to life, they
appeared to many people
. We know the daughter of Jairus and Lazarus awoke to family and close friends. If these saints died and immediately went to heaven, then were returned to earth don't you think there would be at least one account in the bible of what these previously dead people said heaven was like? We will be conscious in heaven. Family and friends would certainly ask those that have been there how they felt and “what do you remember?” They would probably tell them how disappointed they were to have to leave heaven and come back to earth. There are no such accounts, and the apostles were present and taking notes.
Another possibility is that when they died, they were dead and buried with no conscious thoughts. If they were asleep, as Jesus explained, they would have no conscious memory of the time between their death until the moment they arose from the dead.
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do `it' with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest.
For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
Taking the scripture literally, it seems clear that the dead are just that...dead. The dead cannot remember, they cannot thank anyone, they cannot praise God, they cannot think, there is no knowledge or wisdom, they cannot even dream because the verse says, "his thoughts perish." All their abilities have perished, "
the dead know not any thing
." But just as a person awakens in the morning after a night's sleep, Christians will awaken from their death as our Lord and Savior has conquered death.
When Will The Dead Go To Heaven
That is pretty clear throughout scripture. As stated in John…
"For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."
Simon Peter asked him, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus replied, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later."
"I go to prepare a place for you ...I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also."
These verses explain it all in one place.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23
But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits 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 first fruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming.
There is an order of resurrection. Jesus is the “first fruits of them that slept”. And then those that are believers in Jesus will “be made alive”. Not leaving anything to speculation, Paul continues and tells us the order that the Lord established for this to happen. Jesus is the “
” and then those that are His followers “
at His coming
This scripture states there will be two changes when Christ returns and the trumpet sounds. The
dead shall be raised
they shall be changed
1 Corinthians 15:52-53
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
A mortal body is subject to death. We are mortal. We will be made immortal
in the twinkling of the eye at the last trumpet
The alternative view would have Jesus saying, “As soon as you die, you will be with Me.” In other words, you are immortal right now. Although a popular misconception, nowhere in scripture is this stated.
As Peter spoke to the Jews about the resurrection of Jesus, he explained that David was not (yet) in heaven.
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. … For David is not ascended into the heavens...
This verse was written
the death and resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some believe those that died before the resurrection of Christ followed Him to heaven at the resurrection. (Until that time, they remained in Gehenna, Sheol, Hades or some other place.) It seems even the early believers thought David was already in Heaven. But Peter made it plain that was not the case.
Unless you or I are still alive when Jesus returns, we will be entering heaven to be with our Lord and Savior at the same time David arrives.
When people die they are dead. Their soul is not living elsewhere. Jesus describes this as being in a state of sleep. There are no thoughts or conscious memory while in that state. When Jesus returns at the resurrection, Christians will awaken from this state. As He promised, He will raise them from the dead. They will come alive again. They will then ascend to meet Him. However, to every Christian that period of death (whether days or centuries to the resurrection) will seem like only a moment in time as the dead will be unaware of the passage of time.
Other Points of View
Let’s also look at scripture that many have interpreted as saying Christians immediately go to heaven when they die.
The thief on the cross is promised to be with Jesus in heaven on that day.
Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
This memorable statement to the thief on the cross next to Jesus seems to directly contradict the spirit being asleep, since it would be going to heaven. Let’s first look at the punctuation. The original texts of the Bible (Greek for the New Testament and Hebrew and some Aramaic for the Old Testament) used no punctuation. None of our modern marks of punctuation are found in Bible texts until the ninth century.
"Assuredly I say to you today you will be with Me in Paradise."
Placing a comma (a pause)
'today' provides a totally different meaning. A comma
today would mean Jesus misspoke, as Jesus did not go to paradise or heaven the day he was crucified. He
died and was buried in the grave
. He rose and ascended into heaven on the
day. Thus, the only interpretation can be that he was promising the thief that he would be in paradise at some point in the future.
The phrase in verse 43, “I tell you the truth today,” was a common Hebrew idiom used to emphasize the solemnity and importance of an occasion or moment. Here are a few other examples.
I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day that you will quickly perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will not live there long but will certainly be destroyed.
30:18 I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed. You will not live long in the land you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.
4:39-40 Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. Keep his decrees and commands, which I am giving you today, so that it may go well with you and your children after you and that you may live long in the land the LORD your God gives you for all time.
One pundit explains it this way. “Jesus is saying I don’t look like a King today. I don’t look like I’m a Lord today. Everyone around here is mocking Me; but I’m telling you today, even though I look defeated, you’re going to be there with Me. The emphasis is today – when the moment looks the darkest and the valley is the deepest – I’m making a promise to you that you and I will be in the Kingdom together because you believe in Me.
Christ told Mary shortly after He had been resurrected.
“Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father.”
Christ had not gone to the Father yet, some three days after He died. The Bible says the Father is in paradise. How could Christ be with the thief in paradise on Friday if He still hadn’t gotten there by Sunday?”
The Greek word here translated "paradise" is
It is used two other times in the New Testament. In both cases it refers to the place of God's presence. In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 Paul describes a vision in which he "was caught up into Paradise." Paul says this paradise was in "the third heaven"—the dwelling place of God.
Jesus tells us that "the tree of life" is located "in the midst of the Paradise of God" (Revelation 2:7). Revelation 22:2 explains that the tree of life is to be in the New Jerusalem. God will come
with this New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:2-3) after the resurrections of the dead mentioned in Revelation 20. Only at that time will men dwell with God in this paradise.
When we are absent from the body we are present with the Lord.
Let us look at that chapter.
5:1-10 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Taken in context, 2 Corinthians 5 is not saying that as soon as we leave our earthly body we are with the Lord in heaven. Rather, it is explaining we cannot have it both ways. If we remain in our body we cannot be with our Lord. Our earthly body is but a tent compared to the eternal house we have waiting for us in heaven. Although we are now in our tent, we yearn to be in our heavenly dwelling. It is our preference. Our want and desire.
Verse 8 says that Paul's preference is to be at home in heaven. But no matter where we are (on earth or in heaven) our goal of pleasing the Lord is the same. Verse 10 further confirms the point that what we do here on earth (while in the body) makes a difference when we appear before our Lord on judgment day.
Paul repeats this conflict in Philippians.
"I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far."
John Gill put it this way in his expository. “Life and death; or between these "two counsels", as the Arabic version reads; two thoughts and desires of the mind, a desire to live for the reasons above, and a desire to die for a reason following.”
When we are absent from the body we are present with the Lord.
Did the Disciples See the Real Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3)?
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record an account of the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-10, Luke 9:28-36). Notice Christ's instructions to the disciples as they descended the mountain: "Tell the
to no one" (Matthew 17:9). A vision is not a material reality; it is a
scene observed in the "mind's eye."
Moses was dead and buried long before this event (Deuteronomy 34:5-6), as was Elijah. The disciples saw these men only in the glory of the resurrection—an event which will not actually occur until the second coming of Christ. So, the three disciples seeing Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration did not see ghosts or spirit beings of any kind but a vision of how they would look—glorified—in the resurrection.
The account of the transfiguration in Matthew 17 also explains Matthew 16:28 "Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they see the Son of man coming in His kingdom." Since God's Kingdom has
yet been established here on earth and the disciples all died, the obvious meaning is that some of the disciples were to be shown the splendor of the Kingdom in a vision. And so they were, through the transfiguration.
The “spirit” of a man goes to be with the Lord at death.
The Bible states that man was made in God’s image.
“And God created Man in his image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”
It also describes a man has a body, soul and spirit.
1 Thessalonians 5:23
“Now the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly: and your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Some believe that the spirit of man will leave the body at death and will go to be with the Lord. This is partially true. The spirit is no longer in the body upon death. We know that from scripture
“They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, "My child, get up!" Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up.”
But the nature of the spirit of man is misunderstood. This is not intended to be a study of the body, soul and spirit, but let me summarize by saying the spirit of man is how man communicates with God. It is not a separate being. The believer consists of all three elements, including body and soul. Scripture does describe separate and independent spirits, but as being agents of the Devil. What I found to be a good explanation of trinity of man is by Lehman Strauss, found here:
Knowing that all scripture is true and that scripture must support scripture, let’s look at what this theory is attempting to accomplish and what the Bible says or doesn’t say.
If this theory is true, our spirit ‘beings’ would be in Heaven with our Lord upon our death. Thus, at the time of the second coming, Jesus would be returning for only our
, since we would already be in heaven. This begs the question, ‘for what purpose?’ We are to be given new spiritual bodies (1 Corinthians 44) when raised from the dead. Thus, if our
is already in heaven, there is no need for our bodies, which have been described as ‘dead’, and having ‘no thoughts’, ‘nor knowledge nor wisdom’. Lumps of dust, in other words. Does Christ return to retrieve our bodies just so He can recreate them into spiritual bodies, even though our spirits are already in Heaven?
This theory further undermines the many scriptures describing the second coming of Christ. Within the New Testament, Christ’s “arrival” or “coming” is written about 17 times. Clearly, this is an important event and a promise of Jesus to His followers we are to respect, look forward to with hope and always remember.
“Wonder not at this, for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear his voice, and shall go forth; those that have practiced good, to resurrection of life, and those that have done evil, to resurrection of judgment.”
"I go to prepare a place for you ...I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also."
1 Corinthians 15:52
In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
However, if the dead are already in Heaven in one form or another, His promise of returning for “those in Christ” is undermined as quite unimportant. However, we know that is not the case. His return is important. It is the hope He gave to all Christians.
“I will come again and will take you to myself”
For whom is the “
in this scripture describing? If the spirit and / or soul is already in heaven, who is Christ coming for? Is He coming for a perishable body that must be imperishable and immortal? No, He is returned for
. Scripture does not say, ‘when you die, you will be in Heaven with me and I will return to get your bodies later’.
The dead are just that. Dead. And they will remain that way until, as Christ promised, He raises us from the dead just as Jesus was raised. God cannot raise us from the dead until we are dead. Thus, we must die. The belief that our soul and spirit does not die, but are immortal, conflicts with scripture.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
“Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ So the rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, father – send Lazarus to my father’s house (for I have five brothers) to warn them so that they don’t come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they must respond to them.’ Then the rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He replied to him, ‘If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
That is a parable. The parable was used to teach a different point than what is being discussed here. If taken literally it would contradict other verses throughout scripture. Those that believe this is not a parable and should be taken literally would need to support with other scripture the following:
The timing of this conversation is specified as within the generation of the rich man as he speaks of his brothers he left behind and are still living. But the dead have been judged (at least separated in some way) and sent to heaven and hell
the return of Jesus Christ and
the Day of Judgment.
Does Heaven now exist as a place for believers? Revelation 21:1 states God will be creating a
heaven and new earth where his people will be living with Him. Isaiah 66:18-24 state the new heavens and the new earth will be created following the rebellion and the battle of Armageddon while Peter 3:10-13 connects the new heavens with the coming ‘Day of the Lord’.
The body or corpse of the dead described here are respectively in heaven and hell, rather than buried in the earth. If the argument is that only their souls went these places, then why was the rich man asking for water for his tongue?
Can believers and unbelievers see each other after they have died?
Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 the mortal, perishable body will be made immortal and imperishable ‘at the last trumpet’. This is when believers will receive their resurrected bodies. The rich man and Lazarus are described as already having bodies. Were they made immortal and given new bodies earlier than what was promised?
Why isn't David in heaven when others are already there? Acts 2:29,34 says 'For David is not ascended into the heavens...'
John quotes Jesus as saying that the dead will be raised 'at the last day' and 'I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.' How did Lazuras get to heaven early?
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Additional studies by Bob Roenigk are available at bobroenigk.wordpress.com.
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