Do Christians "go to heaven" when they Die?

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  • Do Christians "go to heaven" when they Die?

    There is a loud chorus of voices these days denouncing, in a somewhat condescending way, the long-standing belief among evangelicals that when Christians die they go to heaven. In one sense, this outcry is good and constructive. It is an understandable and much-needed response to the unbiblical gnosticism of some “fundamentalist” Christians who denigrate material creation, diminish the reality of a future bodily resurrection, and fail to reckon with the centrality in God’s redemptive purpose of the New Heavens and especially the New Earth.

    So, is my answer to the question posed in the title, No? Not quite. My answer is: Immediately, Yes. Eternally, No. Or again, to simplify, when a Christian dies he/she immediately passes into the conscious presence of Christ in heaven. But when the day of resurrection arrives, he/she will be given a new and glorified body in which all of God’s people will live and flourish on the New Earth (of Revelation 21-22).

    What we’re talking about is known as the intermediate state, that period and/or experience of the individual believer between (hence, “intermediate”) the time of physical death and bodily resurrection. The biblical evidence for the intermediate state is unmistakable: see 2 Cor. 5:6-9; Phil. 1:21-24; Luke 16:19-31; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 6:9-11 (and perhaps 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Our focus here is 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. But first, a brief word about 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 is in order.

    In these verses Paul speaks of his desire to be alive when Christ returns, for then he would not have to die physically and experience the separation of body and spirit, a condition he refers to as being “naked” (v. 3) or “unclothed”. Paul's perspective on life and death may therefore be put in this way: It is good to remain alive on this earth to serve Christ (Phil. 1:21a,22a,24-26). On the other hand, it is better to die physically and enter into the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21b,23). However, it is by far and away best to be alive when Christ returns, for then we avoid death altogether and are immediately joined with the Lord in our resurrected and glorified bodies.

    According to 2 Cor. 5:3, if the believer remains alive until Christ returns she will be found by the Lord clothed with a body (the present, earthly one), and not in a disembodied state. To be without a body is to be “naked” and thus in a very important sense unnatural and less than ideal. Clearly, Paul envisaged a state of disembodiment between physical death and the general resurrection (cf. “unclothed” in v. 4). Verse 4 I take to be an expanded repetition of v. 2.

    We now turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. There Paul writes:
    “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:6-9).
    Note first of all the contrast set forth in vv. 6 and 8. The contrast is not primarily between two modes of human existence, as if one is in the body and one out of the body (although this is a valid contrast); nor is the contrast primarily that between two possible relationships to the Lord: one with the Lord and one away from the Lord (although again this is valid enough in itself). Paul's primary contrast is between two successive spheres of Christian residence or existence: now in the body and then with the Lord. The major point, therefore, is that life now in the body is to be followed immediately by life then with Christ.

    IN the body = ABSENCE from the Lord
    OUT OF the body = PRESENCE with the Lord

    As one must be either in or out of his body (for there is no third alternative), so he must either be absent from or present with the Lord (for there is no third alternative). In 2 Cor. 5:1-5 Paul has shown that physical death means the loss of bodily existence. Here he explains what this entails for the Christian. There are but two possible modes of existence for us: if we are physically alive and in our bodies we are absent from Christ / if we die physically and leave our bodies we are present with Christ. The two experiences are mutually exclusive. Departure from mortal corporeality on earth marks the beginning of residence with the Lord in heaven.

    Is the transition immediate? It would appear so, as the following facts bear out: (1) in v. 6 residence in a physical body is contemporaneous with absence from direct presence with Christ, clearly implying that when the former ceases so also does the latter; (2) note the temporal indicators –“while we are in the body, we are absent from the Lord;” (3) v.7 has “walking by faith” and “walking by sight” set over against one another as opposites with no interval between them; when death occurs, faith gives way to sight and hope to fulfillment; (4) that physical death of the believer issues immediately in conscious presence with the Lord is the teaching of Paul in Phil. 1:20-24.

    Thus to be “at home in the body” = to be in one's homeland; among one's own people, and to be “absent from the Lord” = to be out of one's homeland; to be in a foreign country.

    It would seem that v. 7 is designed to soften the blow of v. 6b, or to explain in what sense being “in” the body entails “absence” from Christ. Our absence from Christ is only spatial, not spiritual (cf. Matt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:27; John 17:23,26). While in the body we do not literally see Christ (at least, most of us don't!), but rather walk by faith in the physically absent and unseen Lord. Death brings us into spatial proximity and visible contact with Christ. Thus death, rather than severing our spiritual relationship with Christ, heightens and enhances it! Death brings us into the immediate vision of our Savior and the increased intimacy of fellowship which it entails.

    This passage thus stands in direct opposition to the doctrine of soul sleep, or psychopannychia, which says that Christians at death enter a state of complete inactivity and unconsciousness, to be “awakened” at Christ's return. What, then, does the NT mean when it refers to death as “sleep” (see Mt. 27:52; Luke 8:52; Jn. 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30; 15:6,18; 1 Thess. 4:1)? Three things, most likely. (1) Sleep implies rest from earthly toil, the cessation of activity in this realm. Thus one is asleep to this world, but alive and “awake” in the next. (2) The imagery of sleep is used to describe death because the body does sleep, in a manner of speaking. I.e., it is at rest, without activity or life. But nowhere does the Bible say that the “soul” or “spirit” sleeps or is unconscious. (3) Sleep is used to illustrate that the pain of death as a penalty for sin is gone for the Christian. Death for the believer, rather than something to be feared, is like dozing off for a nap (see esp. Lk. 16:19-31; Mt. 17:1-8; Mark 12:26-27; Rev. 6:9-11).

    In summary: the intermediate state for the Christian is immediate transition upon death into the presence of Christ in heaven, during which time we experience holiness (no longer being at war with the flesh, although final glorification awaits the resurrection), happiness, a heightened sense of consciousness, and knowledge of Christ in its fullest. But the “intermediate” state is not our “final” or “eternal” state.

    So, do Christians “go to heaven” when they die? Yes, but only temporarily, as they await the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth.

    Source: Sam Storms: Oklahoma City, OK > Do Christians "go to heaven" when they Die?

  • #2
    This is an excellent post. Too many Christians seem to be unaware of the fact that our residence in heaven will be only temporary. God created the earth to be our home and in the end his purpose will prevail despite the interruption caused by sin.
    Clyde Herrin's Blog
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    • #3
      Good post.

      The belief that we will be disembodied spirits in Heaven is widespread, and. . . it is wrong. It might seen like a harmless error, but all ideas have consequences. The consequences of this false belief is that we can ignore material creation in favor of our heavenly home. The material creation, including people's bodies, can be neglected and harmed with a faulty view of our status and address upon our death.

      Heaven is not our home. We will visit, but we are bound for a new Earth.
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      • #4
        That's how I view the context of the word "sleep" as well. I find the in body/out of body equation proposed interesting; I'd love for it to be certain. What really gives me peace is Revelation 21:4.
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        • #5
          This is a good question, and as Willaam mentions, it is also one that biblical scholars have debated for many years now. The story of the rich man pleading with Lazarus , who was "in the bosom of Abraham" would make it seem to say that there are two distinct places that our spirit can go when we die, and the two are aware of and can actually see each other.
          Quite how this can be is hard to imagine; but if it is happening spiritually, then it could easily be possible.

          For all of her life, my mother believed that she would live to see Jesus return, and that she would be caught up with him in the air.
          It is one of the first things that she told me as a young child, and I can still remember lying on the grass out in the yard and watching each cloud that floated overhead, hoping that one of them would have Jesus riding on top of it.
          Not knowing anything about the nature of clouds back then, this seemed totally possible to me.
          My mother never made any preparations for death because she thought she would see Jesus coming any day, any minute, and that is how she lived her life. When she was in her 80's, her heart gave out, and we had to take her to the hospital. She wanted to go home; but Daddy and I kept telling her that she needed to stay there until she was better.
          The next day, when we went to see her, she was telling me about a little Mexican family that was down in the basement, and that she was helping to take care of them and the children. I knew that there was no little Mexican family living in the basement of the hospital; so I thought that if Mom was indeed helping to care for them in a basement somewhere, she must be helping ministering angels, and was going back and forth from one reality to the other one.
          The next day, she had passed away; but i really believe that she went happily wherever the angels were ministering to that family. My mother had a heart for helping people all of her life, and I believe that if she is in Heaven right now, she is probably still helping the angels take care of hurting people somewhere......
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