I was recently asked, “What happens to the follower of Jesus who dies? Do we go into some sort of sleepy holding pattern or do we go immediately to heaven with God?”
First, it should be said that people who entrust their lives to Jesus Christ can face death and what lies beyond with confidence.
The first-century preacher Paul writes in the New Testament portion of the Bible: “...we know that if the earthly tent we live in [our bodies] is destroyed, we have a building from God...eternal in the heavens.” [Second Corinthians 5:1]
From Jesus Himself, we have the assurance that all who believe in Him won’t forever be erased or go to hell, but live with God forever, something He tells us in the Bible’s most famous passage, John 3:16.
Jesus-Followers know that whatever lies ahead, they belong to Jesus Christ. period.
But the Bible seems to say two different things about what happens to followers of Christ when they die.
There are numerous passages that intimate believers fall asleep, awaiting what the Bible calls “the day of the Lord,” when Jesus returns and brings them back to life again.
In the Old Testament, for example, the book of Daniel says, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake; some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” [Daniel 12:2]
In a New Testament account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we’re told that Jesus knows that his friend, Lazarus, has died and says of it that Lazarus has “fallen asleep.” [John 11:11]
Paul, in another place in the New Testament, spoke of the more than 500 believers who had seen the risen Jesus, and then noted that while most were still living, some had “fallen asleep.” [First Corinthians 15:6]
On the other hand, there are passages of the Bible which intimate that the Christian’s transfer to heaven follows death immediately.
For example, there are the words Jesus spoke to one of the criminals executed on a cross at the same time as He was. The criminal turns from sin and pleads with Jesus, Who hardly had the look of a king at this point, “Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” Jesus replies, “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Pardise.” [Luke 23:39-43]
So, what are we to make of these seemingly conflicting teachings? An important principle to apply in understanding the Bible is this: When confronted with such apparent conflicts, we should avoid the easy-outs of harmonizing or of choosing one teaching over another.
Christians believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God. [Second Timothy 3:16] Nothing is there accidentally.
Beyond that, particularly as it relates to the New Testament’s witness for Jesus, the Bible is a far more historically-reliable document, written closer to the events it describes, than almost any other historical writings we have from the ancient world. The whole Bible deserves a fair hearing from fair-minded people.
So, I would say that these seemingly conflicting perspectives on what happens to the Christian who dies are both true.
I believe that these two teachings--death as sleep, on the one hand, and immediate transfer to heaven, on the other--are really two perspectives of the same experience.
From the earthly perspective, the believer has fallen asleep. They’ll remain that way, as Jesus’ dead body had from Good Friday through the first Easter Sunday morning, until Jesus returns and wakes them to life again.
But from the perspective of eternity, which is a state of timelessness, what C.S. Lewis called “the eternal now,” believers who have died already are in heaven, already in God’s presence.
This is what I believe. I could be wrong. But no matter the actual facts, believers in Jesus know, as Paul writes, that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” [Romans 14:8]