So where do Christians go when they die?

In my sermon last Sunday, as well as my Easter sermon, we looked at the biblical teaching that the Christian’s future is a bodily resurrection on a new/renewed/restored earth. The idea of eternal “heaven” being a purely spiritual existence in some other dimension is not a biblical one. The eternal kingdom of God will be heaven on earth, with physical bodies that are just like Christ’s glorious body (Phil 3:20-21). If that’s a new concept to you, please listen to my sermon from last Sunday as well as the one from Easter Sunday (Apr 12).

So the question then arises, if we receive our resurrected bodies when Christ returns, then where do believers in Christ go when they die? Let’s answer that by looking at a few passages in the Bible.

The first is 2 Corinthians 5:1-9:

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it” (Today’s New International Version).

Admittedly, this passage can be kind of confusing in some parts. The apostle Paul is using a lot of metaphors and analogies that were more common and understandable in his day than perhaps in ours. But I think the notes found in the ESV Study Bible on this passage are very helpful here. (I’ve adapted the notes just a bit to help it make more sense to readers here.)

The ESV Study Bible from 2 Cor 5:1-8—
The “tent” that is our earthly home refers to present human bodies that will die. “We have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven” refers to the resurrection body believers will receive on the last day (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13–18; Rev. 21:1–22:5). Paul groans for the resurrection (i.e., longing to be clothed; v. 1) in order to not be found naked or unclothed, which likely refers to the intermediate state in which believers’ spirits are with God but they do not yet enjoy their resurrected bodies. Away from the body and at home with the Lord refers to the “intermediate state” between a Christian’s death and the resurrection of all believers’ bodies on the day Christ returns. Paul means that when he dies, though his physical body will be buried here on earth, he expects that he (as a “spirit” or “soul” without a body) will go immediately into the presence of Christ, and will be present with Christ in that condition until the day of resurrection (cf. Luke 23:43; Phil. 1:23; Heb. 12:23).

Theologians call the time between a believer’s death and resurrection the “intermediate state,” where only the believer’s soul/spirit goes to be with Christ. But this is not the eternal heaven the Bible promises those who are believers in Christ. This is just an intermediate state of existence of just the soul without a body. The promise of heaven is a bodily resurrection on a renewed/new/restored earth. But even this temporary, intermediate state is still said to be far better than our existence now in our body this side of death.

Here’s what the apostle Paul writes in Philippians 1:21-24:

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Today’s New International Version).

Paul is talking about if he dies now he departs his body and goes to be with Christ, which is better by far than remaining in the body. But it is not yet his resurrected body. He’s talking about being with Christ in the intermediate state immediately when he dies, not the resurrection.

This intermediate state is the “paradise” that Jesus promised the repentant, dying thief on the cross he would immediately go with Jesus in Luke 23:43:

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Talking about when the resurrection happens, here’s what the apostle Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (English Standard Version).

The ESV Study Bible note on the last verse above is helpful—

Dead Christians rise from their graves to the realm of the living, and then the living and the dead together are caught up from the earth into the air to meet Christ. The Greek for “caught up” (harpazō, “to grab or seize suddenly, to snatch, take away”) gives a sense of being forcibly and suddenly lifted upward (see John 6:15; Acts 8:39). together with. The dead Christians would suffer no disadvantage (cf. “we who are alive . . . will not precede,” 1 Thess. 4:15). clouds. Probably not earthly rain clouds but the clouds of glory that surround the presence of God (cf. Ex. 13:21; 33:9–10; 40:38; Num. 12:5; 1 Kings 8:10–11; Ps. 97:2; Dan. 7:13; Matt. 17:5; Mark 13:26; Acts 1:9; Rev. 14:14). to meet. The Greek term apantēsis is often used of an important dignitary’s reception by the inhabitants of a city, who come out to greet and welcome their honored guest with fanfare and celebration, then accompany him into the city (cf. Matt. 25:6; Acts 18:15; a related term hypantēsis is used in Matt. 25:1; John 12:13). It may indicate that the subsequent movement of the saints after meeting Christ “in the air” conforms to Christ’s direction, thus in a downward motion toward the earth.

The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44a, 52b-54

“But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ …What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. …So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. …For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” (English Standard Version)

Here the apostle Paul speaks of a believer’s physical death as like sowing a seed/kernel into the earth that will be raised imperishable, in glory, in power, spiritual (in the sense that we will see and interact with God and the spiritual unhindered), and immortal. But it will nonetheless be a resurrected physical body, with both continuity and discontinuity with our physical bodies now. A seed/kernel is sown into the earth (i.e., death of the physical body), but it still raises a plant (i.e., resurrected body) that is continuous with the properties of that seed (i.e., our “fallen” earthly body). But this raised body will also “be changed” into something far more glorious and splendid than what it was as a mere seed/kernel. That’s the resurrection of the believer that happens when Christ returns to establish his eternal kingdom on earth, which is the Bible’s promise of eternal heaven.

So, where do Christians go when they die? Their soul goes immediately to be with the Lord, which is far better than their life here on earth this side of Christ’s return. Their soul with Christ, they await with Christ for his return and their resurrection on the new earth. So the apostle Paul writes in 1 Thes 4:18, “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

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