What Happens When We Die?

As I opened my email the other day I see a subject heading: Theology Question. I was both excited and nervous to open the email and discover the question. I was excited because I love talking theology. I was nervous because I was not sure which theology door I was about to walk through. Would this be another in a string of questions about Calvinism vs Arminianism, or continuation vs cessation, or some other theological horse that has been beaten to death. No, it was not. I was pleasantly surprised to find a fresh question.

Why do we believe that believers go straight to heaven when we die?

I’ll admit, I had to think about that question for a minute. I believe we go to heaven when we die, but why do I believe that? Does this simply fall into the category of things I was taught as a child and never questioned? Is there any biblical basis for this belief?

My mind was immediately drawn to the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise (Lk 23:43).” My mind settled a little, but I still wandered if that was the extent of the Bible’s teaching and support of this doctrine.

Over the next couple of days, I searched through the Scriptures and theology books to find the answer to a simple question: What happens to believers when we die? As I searched I tried to be objective. I tried not to read what I already believed into what I was now reading. I read familiar passages that reminded me why I held this belief in the first place. I read familiar passages that challenged my belief. And I read some new Scriptures that I never thought was connected to this doctrine.

As I finished my quest I began typing my response to this question with a renewed understanding and a stronger conviction of what I believe.

I believe when believers pass from this earth, their soul goes into the presence of Christ while their body stays here on earth. And then when Christ returns, their bodies will be resurrected and reunited with our their souls in a new, glorified body.

Or at least that is the simple statement of my belief. But let me also say, I might be wrong. There are some passages that seem to contradict my belief. There is not a chapter and verse that explicitly and clearly teaches this doctrine, so I might be wrong. If I am, then I pray God would teach and correct me from His word.

Further, I wish to point out that this doctrine is not a primary gospel doctrine. I have brothers and sisters in Christ who believe differently and we still join together in fellowship.

In what follows, I hope to share my journey through this doctrine with you, beginning with Scripture and then working through the doctrine in a more systematic manner.

 

Scriptures

Psalm 115:17-18. The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forevermore. Praise the Lord!

While the dead do not praise the Lord, we praise the Lord from “this time forth.” Therefore, we must praise the Lord somehow in and through our death. As I read these words I was encouraged to see the doctrine I held supported in the Old Testament.

Luke 23:42-43. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

If Jesus tells the thief next to Him that he will be with Him in heaven on that very day, then it stands to reason that we will also be with Jesus on the day of our death. I was encouraged by these words that came to my mind as I first contemplated the question, but I still needed to dig further.

John 14:2-4. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.

John tells us that Jesus is, at this very moment, preparing a place for us for the moment He returns. But, how can those he is preparing a place for, also be present with Him at this very moment. Maybe, afterall, we are not present with Him in heaven. My belief was shaken, but my quest was not complete.

1 Corinthians 15:20-23. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

If Christ has been raised from the dead and is currently in heaven (Acts 1:9-11), then we must be present in heaven as well. Except that Christ’s body was raised, whereas our bodies are not yet raised. Since Christ is present in heaven in bodily form, is it possible that we can be present without a bodily form? Maybe I was beginning to doubt. My mind was stirring. Where else would my quest lead me?

2 Corinthians 5:8. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

As I read this verse I was encouraged to find the Apostle Paul believed it was possible for the body to be separated from Christ, but to still be with Christ. Did Paul think the soul could be with Christ even if the body was not?

Philippians 1:23. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

Paul desired to both continue on earth to teach the gospel and to depart and be with the Lord. If Paul believed that his body and soul stayed on the earth until the resurrection of the dead, then Paul would have also believed it best to stay alive on earth as long as possible. Paul’s desire to be with Christ only makes sense if he believes he will be in Christ’s presence immediately following his death. I was beginning to feel my belief revived, but I knew I needed to continue my search.

Hebrews 12:23. And to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.

Did the author of Hebrews believe that all the Christians who died before him were present in heaven? I was not sure. Is he speaking about those enrolled in heaven or those present in heaven? While this passage was relevant, it was not particularly helpful in my journey.

Revelation 6:9-11. When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”

If there are believers present in heaven as God is ushering in the end times, then maybe the souls of those believers are present in heaven as I type these words. But what if the rapture has already taken place at this point in Revelation and that is why there are Christians in heaven? I could not be sure, but there was one more passage on my list.

 Revelation 7:9-10. After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

As I read these verses, I had the same struggle as with the earlier verses in Revelation. Whatever view I had on the rapture would effect how I read these verses. While I initially believed these verses supported my belief, I could not be certain how these verses impacted the question about what happens when we die.

Revelation 21:5.  And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.

While this verse did not speak to our body and soul before Christ’s return, I finished with it because it pointed to our hope that whether our soul and body and separated for a him or held together, our hope is in Jesus Christ making us new as He ushers us into the new heaven and the new earth.

And here I came to the end of the Scriptures. There were plenty of Scriptures that supported my belief, but there were others that led me to question whether my belief was, in fact, true. Of the nine passages I listed here, more than half supported my belief (and there were nine other verses that are used to support my belief too). But that is not how doctrine works. I felt comfortable with my belief, but I still had another question to answer: if our souls do not go to heaven after we die, then what does happen? It was at this point that I turned to the many systematic theology books sitting on my shelf.

 

Three Views of the Intermediate State

The doctrine we have been considering is called the doctrine of the intermediate state. It seeks to answer what happens between death and the resurrection of the dead. As I researched I discovered there were three main views within orthodox Christianity.

  1. Disembodied State. The belief the soul separates from the body at death and enters the presence of Christ in heaven. Then, at the resurrection of the dead, the body is resurrected and rejoined with the soul in a new glorified body.
  2. Soul Sleep. The belief the soul and body enter a period of unconscious sleep at death and are awakened at the resurrection of the dead.
  3. Purgatory. The belief the soul is separated from the body at death and enters a place of purification until the resurrection of the dead. There are different variations regarding the purification place, methods, and what happens to that soul at the resurrection of the dead.

Since I did not find any evidence that would point me to a purgatory-like state, I knew my options were soul sleep or a disembodied state. I felt that I was still heading in the right direction with my belief of a disembodied state, but there was one more task I needed to complete before I rested in my quest.

 

Arguments Against a Disembodied Intermediate State

I believed it would be wise to take a look at the arguments against my view of a disembodied state. I came across six arguments against my belief.

  1. The doctrine of a disembodied state is more Platonic than biblical. While this may be true, Plato had to be right about some things, right?
  2. The doctrine of the disembodied state diminishes the reality of death. If we are transported straight to heaven when we die (if we are believers) then death seems to not be that big of a deal. I agreed with this statement and felt comforted by the fact that the Apostle Paul agreed too (Philippians 1:21-24, 1 Corinthians 15:56-57).
  3. The doctrine of the disembodied state denies the significance of the body. I once again agreed with this argument. But then again, the doctrine of the bodily resurrection infuses significance back to the body.
  4. The doctrine of the disembodied state diminishes the significance of the resurrection. Again, I agreed. If the soul is raised to heaven as soon as the body dies, what’s the big deal about the bodily resurrection. I would have to wait until I looked at the other arguments before deciding how much weight to grant this particular objection.
  5. The doctrine of the disembodied state diminishes the need for a final judgment. Wait, that’s right. If we are already in heaven, then the final judgment is either incredibly delayed or irrelevant. What I thought was the solid ground of my belief was once again shaken. But there was still one more objection to consider.
  6. The doctrine of the disembodied state individualizes the resurrection. While I agreed with this objection, I did not give it too much weight for two reasons. First, the judgement is individualized so why not a disembodied state. Second, the resurrection of the dead would be the community event. So this last argument I easily dismissed.

Four out of the six arguments I considered did not point me away from a belief in the disembodied state. But two were serious objections. How did the doctrine of the disembodied state fit in with the doctrines of the resurrection of the dead and the final judgement. I did not have an answer for either of these objections.

My final task was to consider whether these two objections outweighed the Scriptural evidence for the disembodied state. Afterall, no doctrine is without some limitation in the human mind.

At death the souls of believers (i.e., the believers themselves, on ongoing person) are made perfect in holiness and enter into the worshiping life of heaven (Heb. 12-22-24).  In other words, they are glorified.
-J.I. Packer

As I considered this final question I finally found peace. While there were some reasons to question the doctrine of the disembodied state, I believed the Scriptural evidence was more than enough to overcome the objections. While there were still questions to consider, I believed that God could raise the souls of believers to heaven and still place significance on the bodily resurrection and the final judgement.

And with that, my quest was complete. Well…not complete. While I chose to hold onto this doctrine in faith, I also knew that my quest would go on as I continued to struggle with some lingering questions, because the task of theology is never complete.

 

Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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