Do we go to Heaven when we die?
That may seem like a question with an obvious answer, especially for a blog on a church website. But you might be surprised to know that the answer is not straightforward. I will say right away in an effort to console the anxious readers out there, we do get to be in Heaven after death. There is just more nuance to the question.
What happens right after we die? Man cannot claim to really know the answer to this question. I can't fully put my trust into someone's account of their "near death experience," even though I am very encouraged by some of those stories... I want to get my perspective straight from the Word of God. Here's what the Bible actually says about this topic.
There is an indication that we exist, consciously, between our death and our ultimate resurrection.
There are four helpful Biblical passages for what happens to us between death and resurrection.
1. And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." - Luke 23:43
This is an oft-used scripture for this topic. The implication is that Jesus was promising to be with this thief who was also dying from crucifixion that very day in another type of existence. Jesus does not say the thief would be with Him in heaven (I'm not trying to split hairs, just stay with me...)
Keep in mind, Jesus would not return in his new, resurrected body for three days. Thus, wherever the thief was going would be 1) with God and most likely 2) without a body.
In the Old Testament, there is a word for the disembodied form of a person which contains their mind, will, emotion, etc. and it is "nephesh." A great example of the use of the word nephesh is Deuteronomy 6:5 - "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." The phase "all thy soul" is, in Hebrew, nephesh. That same word is used to speak of the part of the body that departs and goes back to God upon death. (See Genesis 35:18, 1 Kings 17:21-22 for examples of the nephesh described as the departing soul.)
There are other words that contribute to the Old Testament authors' vocabulary as it relates to life after death. One is the Hebrew word ruach which can be thought of as our "spirit" and also as God's "breath of life." This is the animating power that brings life to things on earth. This, too, comes from God and returns to God. The other is found in relation to the dead in "sheol" who are called rephaim and are sometimes described as being asleep (as in Job 3:13).
So, there is a Biblical basis for seeing the soul as a distinctly "you" part of you that continues to exist after your body has died but apart from a resurrected body.
2. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord- for we walk by faith, not by sight- we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. - 2 Corinthians 5:6-8
3. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will meanfruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions,having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. - Philippians 1:21-24
Paul indicates in both of these passages that when we are no longer in our bodies, we are with the Lord. Again, that is not to say that we are "in heaven" in the sense that we often think of heaven, but that we are in the presence of God (reading part one of this series, you know heaven is where God is).
In the 2 Corinthians reference, Paul speaks of this disembodied state as being "unclothed" as opposed to our mortal "clothed" state.
4. When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; - Revelation 6:9
This scripture backs up what has been found in the other passages - the souls of the dead return to God. Again, we realize that here in Revelation, the resurrection has not yet happened.
With all of this in mind, it seems as though there is some state of being, sometimes referred to in the Bible as "sleep," in a location sometimes referred to as sheol, paradise, or Abraham's bosom. It seems, basing our view purely on what the Bible gives us in little snapshots, that there is a temporary form of existence that we enter while awaiting the resurrection. Looking back on that passage from Revelation, the souls of the martyrs are pleading with God to finish His work and bring about the resurrection and the final judgment on evil. Thus, as much as we are anxiously awaiting Christ's return, those who have died and gone on are awaiting this promise as well.
The real prize, of course, is Heaven. So, when and where does Heaven come about?
The apocalyptic literary style of Revelation makes it difficult to know what parts of it are literal visions of the future and what parts might be better thought of as symbols. It's hard to understand exactly how the world will end and what that earthly judgment will look like. There is, however, a fairly clear depiction of the "new heaven and earth."
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.
Then I heard a loud voice from the throne:
Look! God's dwelling is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.
Then the One seated on the throne said, "Look! I am making everything new." He also said, "Write, because these words are faithful and true."
He then carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain and showed me the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, arrayed with God's glory... I dd not see a sanctuary in it, because the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb are its sanctuary. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God's glory illuminates it and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk int its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Each day its gates will never close because it will never be night there. They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. Nothing will profane will ever enter it: no one who does what is vile or false, but only those written in the Lamb's book of life.
Then he showed me the river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from teh throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the broad street of the city. On both sides of the river was the tree of life bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His servants will serve Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. Night will no longer exist, and people will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.
Revelation 21:1-5, 10, 22-27; 22:1-5
So, let's sum it all up: When we die, we will likely enter some temporary state of existence where we have no physical body but are in the presence of God and Jesus. Once God ends time and sends Jesus back to earth to pronounce His final judgment, the world will be destroyed in fire.
At that time, God will create a brand-new heaven and earth and give us incorruptible new bodies in which we may inhabit His new heaven and earth - a fully-overlapping heaven/earth (read the other parts of this blog to understand that reference) where "our space" and "God's space" are one and the same. In this true heaven, there will be no death or pain and the tree of life will be available for us for eternal life and healing.
I hope this account of our future is uplifting to you. We have a beautiful future ahead of us in the presence of God and, eventually, in His perfect heaven. Of course, this will be YOUR future only if you accept Jesus' sacrifice, acknowledge Him as your Lord, and ask Him to cover your sins with His precious blood. Make that decision today if you have not already and Jesus Himself will "prepare a place for you" in His father's house!