Does a Christian go to heaven when he dies? And, when does he receive his “body of glory” (Phil. 3:21)?
The quick and perhaps easy answer is that when Christians die we are “with the Lord” as the apostle tells us: “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23) There are a number of passages that emphasize that we are “with the Lord” when we die. But, what does it mean to “be with the Lord” and giving a more detailed answer requires that we consider what words like “heaven” and “paradise” mean? The second question is answered generally by “when the Lord comes for us.” (Phil. 3:21 with Jn. 14:1–3) Yet, we can profit by digging a little further.
Many spiritual truths are revealed in the New Testament that were under a cloud in the Old Testament (Matt. 13:17, Eph. 3:4-5, 1 Pet. 1:10-12, . So, we can start with the Old Testament view as a background. A well-known Old Testament passage is prophetic of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus stating, “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Ps. 16:10) This passage was quoted by Peter (Acts 2:27) and Paul (Acts 13:35) supporting Christ’s resurrection. But, Sheol is also used more generally in the Old Testament for all those who have died. There are many examples, a few are Genesis 37:35; 1 Kings 2:6; Job 7:9; and Ecclesiastes 9:10.
In the New Testament it is further made clear that Sheol, now referred to as “Hades” in Greek, may be described as a place of “torment” (Lk. 16:22b–23) for the ungodly or “paradise” (Lk. 23:43) for those who trust God. The term paradise deserves special comment. The first place it is used is in the Lord’s comforting words to the thief on the cross (Lk. 23:43). In Luke 16:19–31, we have a very solemn account of a “rich man” and a beggar named “Lazarus.” The condition of the two are distinguished as “being in torment” and “comforted” at “Abraham’s side,” respectively. This shows that even in Hades there is awareness of one’s relationship to God either in judgment or blessing. So, for the believing thief on the cross, even though he might be condemned on earth, the Lord encourages him with this promise of being in a special place of blessing with Himself when he died.
Sheol must be distinguished from “hell” (Matt. 5:29; etc.) which is the place of torment to which the demons (Matt. 25:41, Lk. 8:31 with Jude 6) and those who reject God’s grace in salvation are ultimately consigned. (Rev. 20:11–15)
Turning to the New Testament there is a widening of the warnings of judgment as well as an opening of the scope of blessing. We first learn of “hell” in Matthew’s gospel, also termed “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12), and “Gehenna”. (Matt. 10:28 footnote) But, if warnings abound, the scope of blessing broadens much more. If the believer dies and goes to “hades” (Sheol) that is “paradise” and is with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8; etc.). So, “hades” simply refers to the disembodied state and for the believer, his conscious spirit is in the presence of the Lord. Some believe that we will know what goes on in the world, others believe that we will not. I know of no Scripture that decides this question. What we do know plainly is that we will be in communion with our Lord and Savior. Is this “heaven”? This word has many connections but from the perspective of this post, I think we can say, “yes.”
What about the “body of glory”? Philippians 3:21 describes the consequence of the resurrection. The appearance of the resurrected Lord among His disciples (Lk. 24:36–43; Jn. 20:19–29) provides interesting details that hint at the condition of the resurrected body. In addition, we have the promise of future moral perfection (1 Jn. 3:2). This new condition is a complete change, and is described in 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Revelation chapter 21, and a number of other passages. When will this take place?
The disciples asked the Lord when He would return and He simply said it was not for them to know (Acts 1:6–7; Matt. 24:36). What we do know clearly is that He will come for His present-day saints before the “great and awesome day of the Lord.” (Joel 2:31; Mal. 4:5 with Rev. 11:1–14; 1 Thess. 1:10; ; etc.) We look for the Lord’s imminent return to receive us in resurrection unto himself. (1 Thess 4:13–18) Then, there will be “great tribulation.”1
Grant, F. W.. “Facts and Theories as to a Future State.” Accessed June 20, 2022. https://stempublishing.com/authors/FW_Grant/FWG_Future_State.html.
1. Norman L Geisler, “The Tribulation and the Rapture” in Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House 2011), 1450–1496.William Kelly, The Second Coming and Kingdom of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Accessed 8/22/2022).