If you grew up in the church like I did, you are probably pretty familiar with the idea of loved ones being immediately with Jesus in heaven upon death, assuming they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. It’s pretty common. I hear it all the time. And it’s a great comfort to those of us who have lost loved ones. There is a question, however, that has to be asked about this. What does the Scripture say about what happens after death and before Jesus’ 2nd coming?
Most people that don’t ask this question believe those that pass away are immediately in heaven because it is what they have always been taught. I know that’s where I was at just a few years ago. I never even thought about whether this was correct or not. When my dad passed away when I was 15, that’s what I was told by many people. It was the same as when my grandparents passed away. It really wasn’t until I was doing my internship for my college degree that this was even questioned. It was questioned then because the Sr. Minister (who is now my Father-in-Law) at the church I interned at strongly disagreed that believers were immediately in heaven when they passed away. At the time, even with hearing this brought up, I didn’t give it much thought. What does it matter if that is the truth or not? It helps people in their grief, and to me that made it the right thing.
A couple of years ago, however, our Sr. Minister at Crossroads Christian Church preached a sermon that touched on this subject. After hearing this sermon, it made me really start to think about this. While thinking through things, I realized that if the Bible does deal with this topic, and those who pass away do not immediately go to heaven, then it does matter if this is being said or taught. While this comforts those mourning the loss, it would be considered a lie, and therefore would not be something that we should participate in.
That was about as far as I got with this thought until just about a month ago. While attending a funeral, I listened to a preacher state numerous times that this person was now with Jesus. I realized something at this moment; it irritated me now to hear this. But I had never done the study myself to see what Scripture says. So, what does the Bible say about what happens between death and Jesus’ 2nd coming?
Do those that are saved go immediately to heaven upon death? That is the question that I started with.
If the answer to the first question is no, then where do they go and are they with Jesus before the 2nd coming?
Let’s go to the Scriptures! (I will reference the passage and give a summary of it, but for the sake of space, will not quote the entire passage here)
First of all, Jesus, in his teachings and conversations, makes an apparent distinction between the terms heaven and paradise along with hades and eternal fire (hell). The thief on the cross that confessed Jesus as the Christ was promised to be in paradise with Jesus that same day. (Luke 23:39-43) Before this event, Jesus taught about a rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. In this story, two men die; one righteous and one evil. The rich man (evil) was in constant torment, while Lazarus (righteous) was being comforted. They were separated by a great chasm to where they could not cross over to each other, but they could see each other and communicate. Lazarus was with his faithful ancestors and being comforted as stated before. The argument can be made that Lazarus is in paradise, while the rich man is in hades. So the thief on the cross is promised this paradise with Jesus, but Jesus leaves this paradise three days later in his resurrection. Then Jesus ascends into heaven. I Peter 3:18-22 tells us that during the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, He preached to those that were in “prison”. This is believed to be paradise/hades, depending on your standing with Christ.
But is this “prison” or “holding cell” our final resting place? Is this referring to heaven and hell? Matthew 25:31-46 is the story of the sheep and the goats. In it, Jesus is teaching about the final judgement day, where all will be judged and will either enter their reward (heaven) or be cast into eternal flame (hell). Jesus indicates that this is a one time event. It would appear that whether saved or unsaved, we do not enter heaven or hell immediately upon death. Other evidence to this is found in John 14:1-14, in which Jesus tells his disciples that He is going to prepare a place for them, and if He goes to prepare a place for them, then He will surely return and take them to this place (reference to 2nd coming). The entire chapter 15 of I Corinthians talks about the resurrection of Christ, resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection body. In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul tells us that as Christians, our citizenship is in heaven and we are waiting for Christ’s return to go there. Finally, I Thessalonians 4:13-18 shows that the dead in Christ (those that are saved but have passed away before the 2nd coming) will be raised to heaven followed by those of us that are saved but are still alive.
Evidence throughout the New Testament seems to point out that saved and unsaved alike go to a temporary “holding cell” after death until the 2nd coming of Christ. Once dead, there are no more chances to have a relationship with Christ. There is a chasm between the two sides (paradise and hades) that cannot be crossed. Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56), preparing a place for those of us who have accepted Him as our Lord and Savior (John 14 again). Then, at the 2nd coming of Christ, and final judgement, we will either enter our reward in heaven, or be cast into eternal fire in hell.
Does saying that someone that has passed away is now in heaven with Jesus really matter? It really isn’t a salvation issue. It is, however, a matter of sticking with tradition versus actually studying what Scripture says about certain topics. It is a matter of teaching truth verses saying things just as a comfort, whether they are true or not. All-in-all, I think it comes down to our consciences. I would never walk up to someone who has just lost a loved one, and tell them that their loved one is not in heaven with Jesus, just because they are saying their loved one is there as a way of comforting themselves. They are more than likely saying this because it is what they have always been taught. This would not, however, be a good time for correction. I will also never tell someone who is dealing with the loss of a loved one that their loved one is in heaven with Jesus. I cannot, in good conscience, after seeing what Scripture says, tell anyone this. What I will do, is to always look to Scripture and try to apply the teachings of Scripture in my life on a daily basis.
What are your thoughts?