Various scriptures in the Bible seem to indicate that Christians and earlier people who 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, respectively, that David, Solomon, and Jeroboam “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 passages.]
In John 11:11, following the death of Lazarus, Jesus declares, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps. . . .”
And, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the Apostle Paul states, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.”
These scriptures suggest that, after believers die, they “rest” or “sleep” in their grave. On the other hand, other scriptures indicate that after they die, Christians will not spend time in their grave, in a sleeplike state or otherwise, but instead will immediately go to be with Jesus Christ.
One of the passages which seem to indicate that, after Christians die, they will immediately go to be with Christ is 2 Corinthians 5:8, in which Paul asserts, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” However, the NIV translation of this verse provides the following somewhat different perspective: “[W]e are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” Thus, the NIV translation does not indicate that Christians will be with Jesus Christ immediately after their mortal body dies.
Another relevant passage is Philippians 1:23, in which Paul declares that he has “a desire to depart [i.e., die] and be with Christ.”
So, can the two different viewpoints regarding what happens to Christians after they die be reconciled? Do Christians rest (or sleep) in their grave 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.
It is important to 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 passage 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] was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” Therefore, Christ is now with God the Father in heaven. And, apparently heaven is where the spirits of Christians will go immediately after their mortal body dies.
However, several biblical passages indicate that people who have trusted in Jesus Christ 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 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.” (“Abraham’s bosom” is apparently 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 passage to consider in this regard is Luke 23:42-43, which states that one of the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus 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 died, it is likely that Paradise is synonymous with Abraham’s bosom. Therefore, if either of these terms is synonymous with heaven, the other must be also. However, there is good 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. 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. . . .” [Note: 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 death and resurrection of Christ must have gone to Paradise (or Abraham’s bosom), not 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 and 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 this is correct, it is no longer necessary for those who have been justified by faith to spend time in Paradise, waiting to enter heaven, because the resurrection of Christ essentially made it possible for all the people who have been justified by faith to go directly to heaven when their time on the earth has ended.
There is ample biblical evidence that prior to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, people who were justified by faith in God went to paradise (or Abraham’s bosom). And, there is also ample biblical evidence that the spirits of Christians go immediately to heaven when Christians die physically. However, 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, after all the events that are mentioned in the Book of Revelation have transpired, including the passing away of the current heaven and the current earth.
[The issue of whether or not every person – both Christians and non-Christians – has an eternal spirit that continues to exist after the death of the person’s physical body is addressed in the Appendix that follows.]
Do Humans Have an Eternal Spirit?
Some people believe that humans consist of a mortal body with an eternal spirit (and/or an everlasting soul), whereas others argue that the spirit in a human is merely the life sustaining force that gives them breath and that, therefore, the spirit of a human ceases to exist when the person’s physical body dies. Which viewpoint is correct?
The Greek word pneuma that is translated as spirit in most passages in the New Testament may sometimes refer to breath, according to Strong’s Concordance. However, Strong’s also states that pneuma can refer to “the rational soul.”
So, what does the Bible say that can help resolve this matter? The following scriptures support the belief that the spirit that humans possess is eternal, rather than being just the breath that gives a person mortal life.
Luke 23:46: [W]hen Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit.” And having said this, He breathed His last.
Acts 7:59: [T]hey stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
First Corinthians 5:3, 5: [Paul says with regard to a man who apparently was a Christian, but had committed sexual immorality with his father’s wife] “For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged, as though I were present, concerning him who has so done this deed. . . . [D]eliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
The first passage indicates that Jesus Christ believed His spirit would go immediately to be with God the Father after He (Jesus) died, and the second passage infers that Stephen believed likewise. Since both Jesus and Stephen believed their spirit was going to be with God after their mortal body died, they obviously regarded their spirit as more than just the breath that gave them mortal life. Furthermore, in the third passage, Paul made a distinction between the fate of a person’s physical body and the fate of the person’s spirit. Thus, a person’s spirit is eternal – it does not cease to exist when the person’s mortal body dies.