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Heaven: “Present With the Lord” vs. “Soul Sleep”

Do we go straight to heaven when we die, or is there some kind of a "waiting period?" This is all very confusing to me. Christians talk a great deal about "going to heaven," but Scripture never once indicates that anybody moves straight into the presence of God at the moment of death. Instead, it describes a Day of Resurrection at the end of the age. Someone told me that the human soul simply "sleeps" until that time, and I tend to think he's right. I also hear many people say that we will see God "face to face" when we get to heaven, but the Bible clearly states that no man has seen Him at any time. Can you clear up these misunderstandings for me?

First, you’re correct to insist that, according to the Bible, “No man has seen God at any time” (John 1:18; cf. 1 John 4:12). But it’s important to remember the second part of this verse: “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” In other words, John asserts that we have seen God. We’ve seen Him in the face of Christ.

In the same passage the same apostle says that the world was created through the Son, who is Himself the visible incarnation of the invisible Father (John 1:3, 10; see also Colossians 1:16). In Jesus, then, a sizable number of people have already spoken with their Creator “face to face.” We are solemnly assured that many more of us will enjoy the same privilege in the hereafter; for “when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).

Where heaven is concerned, we’ll grant you that the scriptural evidence is a bit fuzzy. But this doesn’t mean that we’re entirely in the dark about the nature of the life to come. Most Christians have believed that those who die in Christ enter into an immediate, conscious, spiritual relationship with the Lord. They have further affirmed that in this state the saints await the resurrection and renewal of their bodies on the Last Day.

These beliefs are based on clear biblical testimony. The apostle Paul, for instance, says that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Many passages can be cited in support of this view. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Philippians 1:23, and John 5:25-29. As for those sections of Scripture that seem to provide evidence for the alternative theory of “soul sleep” (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14), we’d suggest that there are other ways to interpret these verses. In fact, since most of the evidence points in the other direction, it seems that different interpretations are not only possible but necessary.

If you would like to discuss these concepts further, call our staff of pastoral counselors.

 

Resources

What Every Christian Ought to Know Day by Day: Essential Truths for Growing Your Faith

The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters

Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know

Mere Christianity

50 Days of Heaven: Reflections That Bring Eternity to Light

Other books about Heaven

Referrals

Christian Research Institute

Insight for Living

LeeStrobel.com

Articles
Becoming a Christian

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