-by Pastor Ashley Brown
The Question at Hand
Over the past week I have received one question more than any other. What happens to believers between the time of their death and their resurrection when Jesus returns? I thought I’d answer that question to the best of my ability here. However, before I do, let me clarify: this question is not a matter of first importance. It is something on which Christians can hold different views and yet agree on the gospel.
Three Common Positions
In general, Christians over the millennia have held one of three positions on this issue.
- Souls go to purgatory, as deemed necessary by God, until the time when He brings them into His presence.
- Believers experience “soul sleep” until the time of the final resurrection.
- Christians immediately enter into God’s presence at the moment of physical death.
For the sake of space I will simply make a brief argument for my personal position without attempting to outline and address the arguments of the others.
My Personal Position
Personally, I am convinced the Bible teaches believers immediately enter into the Lord’s presence at the point of physical death. It teaches the “sleep” of the body, not the soul. I’ll highlight a few of the biblical concepts and passages that lead me toward this position. (There are other passages as well, but these are some of my favorite because of their personal impact for me.)
As the Apostle Paul is discussing his life’s work and his communion with Jesus he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” It is very difficult to logically insert the concept of either purgatory or soul sleep into this passage. Paul clearly says that he will be “with Christ” at his departure (death), and the sense is that of an immediate presence. Considering Paul’s conscious experience of being in Christ makes his life of suffering worth living, it makes no sense for Paul to desire death, in which he would “sleep” and lose his conscious experience of Jesus’ presence. He sees death as a gain, not because he will “sleep”, but because it will enable him to finally be fully, consciously with Jesus.
In Luke’s narrative of the crucifixion Jesus tells the penitent criminal, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” I know there are arguments about time not having meaning anymore once a person steps into eternity, so it would be “today” for the person who experiences soul sleep and then awakes at least 2000 years later. However, we have to read that philosophical construct into the text from outside. Quite simply, this philosophical construct regarding the relativity of eternity is a modern concept. Therefore, when Jesus said “today” I must conclude He meant today. If this is the case, it means there would be virtually no delay between the criminal’s death and his entrance into Jesus’ eternal presence.
Additionally, the word “paradise” is used at two other interesting points in the New Testament. In 2Co. 12:3 uses the word Paradise to speak of the heavenly realm. And in Rev. 2:7 Jesus promises those who conquer will be grant to eat of the Tree of Life, which is in the Paradise of God. This leads me to conclude that Jesus promised the penitent criminal would be experiencing the heavenly realm and eating of the Tree of Life along with Jesus before the day was out.
Ephesians 2:4-7 & Hebrews 4:16
In Ephesians 2 Paul says Christians have been raised and are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. Believers currently reign with Jesus in heaven. Furthermore, according to Hebrews 4, through prayer we enter into the very throne room of God. Both of these passages indicate believers simultaneously exist on two planes, if you will. We live on the physical plane, which is the dimension we readily see around us. And yet, there is an overlapping, spiritual plane or dimension in which we live. Heaven, Paradise, God’s throne room, is not a place way out there beyond the stars. It is right here! We are literally in it as we speak. However, as a consequence of living in this fallen world, we are currently unable to see the spiritual world around us. The concepts of soul sleep and purgatory require that believers, who are currently seated with Jesus in the heavenly places, will fall “asleep” and cease to be seated with Him for a time when they physically die.
We exist as multi-faceted beings. God created us in His image – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically. These various elements of our being relate and inter-connect. However, we do not cease to exist simply because our physical body “falls asleep”. The other aspects and facets of our being continue to exist… and even long for the renewal of our whole beings.