What Happens When A Christian Dies? Does He Immediately Go To Heaven?
New Testament passages that allude to the state of the righteous between death and resurrection come largely from Paul. In the context of anticipating the possibility of his own death (Phil. 1:20-22), the apostle indicated that after death he would be “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), a state that was the obverse of remaining “in the body” (Phil. 1:24). Further, he says that “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,” and he looked forward with hope to being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Co. 5:6-9). Christians who die should not be unduly grieved (1 Th. 4:13), for those who have died in faith await the resurrection in which their mortality will be transformed into immortality (1 Co. 15:50-57). At his second coming, God will “bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Th. 4:14). Presumably, this means that he will bring their spirits in order for there to be a union of their spirits and bodies in resurrection. In turn, this implies that after death but before resurrection, the righteous are with Christ.
The paucity of material about the intermediate state has engendered several theories among Christians. What is the nature of existence for the deceased between death and resurrection? Three primary theories have been propounded. The classical Protestant view is that the dead have a conscious existence. When believers die, they are at once with Christ. The Medieval Church developed the further theology about Purgatory, that not only is there consciousness after death but also purgation (punishment) for unconfessed sins. Another approach is that there is no consciousness between death and resurrection, a view called psychopannychy or soul sleep.
I am inclined toward the classical Protestant view. The appearance of Moses and Elijah to Christ at the transfiguration seems to require consciousness for at least these two (Mt. 17:3; Mk. 9:4; Lk. 9:30). Jesus’ statement about the patriarchs that God is not a God of the dead but of the living implies that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are consciously in the presence of God (Mk. 12:26-27). The story of Lazarus and Dives certainly describes a conscious existence, both for the righteous and the unrighteous, even if the genre is parabolic (Lk. 16:22-31). Jesus’ promise to the dying thief also suggests a conscious bliss immediately after death (Lk. 23:43) as do Paul’s statements mentioned earlier (Phil. 1:23; 2 Co. 5:8). Finally, John’s vision of the souls of the martyrs under the heavenly altar who continually pray for retribution upon an evil world seems to require consciousness (Rv. 6:9-11).
Pastor Dan LewisAugust 1, 2014