Various scriptures in the Bible seem to indicate that Christians and people who lived before Jesus Christ was crucified, but trusted in God, did not go immediately to heaven when they died. We will consider several such scriptures.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless noted otherwise.]
First Kings 2:10; 11:43; and 14:20 indicate that after their death, David, Solomon, and Jeroboam, respectively, “rested with his fathers.” [Note: The traditional King James Version of the Bible uses the word “slept,” rather than “rested,” in all three of these scriptures.]
And, in John 11:11, following the death of Lazarus, Jesus declares, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps. . . .”
Likewise, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the Apostle Paul states with regard to certain people who have died, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”
The preceding scriptures suggest that, after believers die, they “rest” or “sleep” in their grave. On the other hand, other scriptures indicate that after Christians die, they will not spend time in their grave, in a sleeplike state or otherwise, but instead will immediately go to be with Jesus Christ.
Several translations seem to indicate that 2 Corinthians 5:8 is one of the scriptures which support the belief that, after Christians die, they will immediately go to be with Jesus Christ. For example, in the NKJV Bible, Paul asserts, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” And, The Living Bible (TLB) states, “And we are not afraid but are quite content to die, for then we will be at home with the Lord.”
However, several other translations of 2 Corinthians 5:8 provide less definite verbiage regarding whether or not Christians go immediately to be with Jesus Christ after they die. For example, the New International Version (NIV) translation says, “[W]e are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” And, the American Standard Version (ASV) says, “[W]e are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord.”
A more clearly relevant scripture is Philippians 1:23, in which Paul declares that he has “a desire to depart [i.e., die] and be with Christ.” (NKJV) And, the other versions of the Bible that we checked provide a similar perspective.
So, do Christians rest (or sleep) in their grave after they die or do they go to be with Jesus Christ immediately after the death of their physical body?
On page 195 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., express the belief that, “’Sleep’ is an appropriate figure of speech for the death of the body since death is only temporary, awaiting the resurrection when the body will be awakened from its sleep.” In other words, when a person who has genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior dies, his (or her) body will, figuratively speaking, “rest” or “sleep” where it is buried, until the day of its resurrection. However, that person’s spirit will instantly go to be with Christ.
Note that although it is the mortal body of Christians that initially will be resurrected, that body will be instantaneously changed into an immortal body. This is made clear in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, which indicates that the mortal body of every Christian will be miraculously changed into an immortal body at the time of the Resurrection. This scripture states,
But, if when a Christian dies, his (or her) spirit goes immediately to be with Jesus Christ, where exactly does it go (i.e., where will Jesus Christ be)? Mark 16:19 tells us that when Jesus left His disciples for the final time, “He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.” Similarly, Luke 24:51 says, “He [i.e., Jesus Christ] was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” Therefore, Jesus is now with God the Father in heaven. And, apparently heaven is where the spirits (and the souls) of Christians will go immediately after their mortal body dies. [Note: For a discussion of people’s souls and their spirits, click on the title of our article “What Is the Difference between a Person’s Soul and Their Spirit?”]
Conversely, several scriptures indicate that people who have trusted in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation do not go to heaven when they die – at least, not immediately. For example, Luke 16:19-31 records the anecdotal story that Jesus Christ told about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. In verses 22-23, Jesus says, “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
Clearly, Lazarus went to a very different place than the rich man. “Abraham’s bosom” is a somewhat nebulous term that Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible says, “is used of a place of blessedness with another.” This implies that “Abraham’s bosom” is not another term for “heaven,” as we will explain below. Hades, on the other hand, is “the region of departed spirits of the lost,” according to Strong’s. “The lost” are those who have not been justified by faith in God.
A second scripture to consider in this regard is Luke 23:42-43, which states that one of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus Christ asked Him to “remember me when You come into Your kingdom,” and that Jesus replied, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Because there is no apparent reason to believe that this criminal went to a different place than the beggar named Lazarus after they had died, it seems likely that Paradise is synonymous with Abraham’s bosom. And, if either of these terms is synonymous with heaven, the other must be also. However, there is vslid reason to believe that heaven is different than Paradise and Abraham’s bosom.
Consider John 20:17, in which Jesus Christ tells Mary Magdalene after His resurrection, “I have not yet ascended to My Father.” Since God is in heaven, Jesus had not been to heaven subsequent to His resurrection. And, because Jesus did go to Paradise after He died, Paradise cannot be another term for heaven.
Another scripture that indicates Paradise (or Abraham’s bosom) is not the same as heaven is John 3:13, in which Jesus Christ, before His death and resurrection, said, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man. . . .” The Son of Man is a name by which Jesus frequently referred to Himself. [For a discussion of the significance of the term “the Son of Man,” click on “Is Jesus Christ the Only Son of God?”]
Thus, everyone who died before the resurrection of Jesus Christ must have gone to Paradise (or Abraham’s bosom), rather than to heaven. So, how can Christians be in the presence of Jesus Christ when they die, if He is in heaven with God the Father, but they are in a place the Bible calls Paradise?
Gleason L. Archer, on page 367 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, conceptualizes that Paradise was “exalted” to heaven, after Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, following His resurrection from death. If Archer is correct, it is no longer necessary for those who have been justified by their faith in Jesus Christ to spend time in Paradise, waiting to enter heaven, because the resurrection of Jesus essentially made it possible for both the soul and the spirit of everyone who has been justified by faith to go directly to heaven when their mortal life has ended.
There is ample biblical evidence that, prior to Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on a cross, people who were justified by faith in God went to a place that the Bible refers to as paradise or Abraham’s bosom. However, there is reason to believe that, following the resurrection of Jesus from death, everyone who has been justified by their faith in Him will go directly to heaven when their mortal life on the earth has ended.
In any case, heaven is not the place where Christians and others who have been justified by faith will ultimately spend eternity. Instead, they will spend eternity on a new earth. Revelation 21 provides glimpses of the new earth – a world that is perfect in every respect – where everyone who has been justified by faith will subsequently live forever, following the events that are mentioned in the Book of Revelation, including the passing away of the current heaven and the current earth.
[For a discussion of what eternity will be like for Christians, click on “What Will Eternity Be Like for Christians?”]