The traditional view is that when Christians die, they go to heaven. This notion is almost as erroneous as the view that the unsaved will be subjected to an eternity of unalloyed suffering in “hell”. Both beliefs are distortions of the biblical perspective and—I modestly propose—should be erased from the Christian consciousness and the popular imagination as soon as possible. They are wrong in themselves, and they contribute to a serious misunderstanding of the identity and purpose of the church.
The New Testament does not teach the departure of a Christian “person”—in any shape or form—to heaven at death. Not even Jesus went to heaven when he died. The New Testament teaches the resurrection of the body, which conceptually presupposes, at one level, the restoration of God’s “new creation” people following judgment, and at a further level, the final restoration of all things.
Jesus went to heaven—by way of the ascension—only after he had been raised from the dead. When the New Testament speaks of others going to be with Christ, who is at the right hand of the Father, the same sequence applies. Those who have fallen asleep, who have died, will be raised from death at the parousia in order to be reunited with the living; then all those who have believed “will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). We find the same argument in 1 Corinthians 15:22-23. Because of our solidarity with Adam we all die; but at the parousia of Jesus, those who died “in Christ” will be made alive—they will be raised from the dead. In a rather different idiom, John relates his vision of the souls of the martyrs who had resisted the idolatry of Rome, who “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years”. This was the “first resurrection”, preceding the thousand year reign of Christ and the martyrs (Rev. 20:4-5).
Nothing in these texts suggests a conscious intermediate state. People die in Adam; they are raised to life at the coming of Jesus.
Three passages from the Gospels that are sometimes adduced as evidence for the continuing existence of the soul after death are examined elsewhere: the destruction of body and soul in gehenna; the story of the rich man and Lazarus; and Jesus’ promise that the penitent “thief” would be with him in paradise. My view is essentially that they have to be understood in the context of the narrative of judgment against Israel and the hope of national restoration. They should not be used to construct a generalized account of what happens to people when they die.
Largely on the basis of Philippians 1:23, however, Tom Wright argues that between death and resurrection the believer is somehow consciously in the presence of Jesus. Here are three quotations in order of increasing scholarly weight:
We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep.1
Had Paul thought that, I very much doubt that he would have described life immediately after death as ‘being with Christ, which is far better’. Rather, ‘sleep’ here means that the body is ‘asleep’ in the sense of ‘dead’, while the real person—however we want to describe him or her—continues.2
What we have here, therefore, is a reinforcement of what we saw in 1 Thessalonians 4: between death and resurrection, Christians are ‘with the Messiah’. Paul describes this in such glowing terms (‘better by far’) that it is impossible to suppose that he envisaged it as an unconscious state. He looks forward to being personally present with the one who loved him and whose love will not let him go.3
Actually, Paul does not say in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 that dead Christians are “with the Messiah”—rather the dead must be raised first if they are to be with the Lord. Nevertheless, Paul expresses the conviction that he and the apostles have been called to imitate Christ in an exceptional way, and it is in this context that we find statements about dying or departing to be with Christ in a more immediate sense.
In Philippians 3:10-11 he expresses a driving apostolic ambition—that “I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”. This is not abstract theologizing: it reflects the extreme circumstances of his ministry.
Similarly, the statement about being “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) belongs to an extended passage about the ministry of the apostles, who are “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal bodies” (2 Cor. 4:11). Paul does not speak on behalf of all Christians here. He speaks on behalf of that particular group that finds itself led in triumphal procession (2:14), that has a ministry that surpasses the ministry of Moses (3:7-18), that “has this treasure in jars of clay” (4:7), that is afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down, that carries in the body the dying of Jesus (4:8-10), that would love to relinquish the “outer self” or put on over it a new resurrected body (4:16-5:5).
Even then, it is not so obvious that when Paul speaks in such an exceptional context and quite realistically of dying and being with the Lord, his words are in tension with the resurrection statements. Arguably, the death-resurrection sequence has simply been compressed under the weight of the overwhelming personal experience: his desire is to depart life now—not least because it is so painful—and be with Christ when he is raised at the parousia.
But I will also make the point again that this whole argument about the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the parousia needs to be framed historically. It has reference to a particular state of affairs—the intensifying persecution of the churches and the anticipated victory of Jesus over aggressive, idolatrous pagan imperialism.
Paul’s personal conviction that having suffered with Christ he will be raised and vindicated with Christ sits right at the heart of this eschatology and gives it much of its immediacy and poignancy. It is in the fierce cauldron of suffering that the belief that nothing—not even death—can separate him from his Lord is generated. But I don’t think this disrupts the basic schema, which, to my mind, is that the suffering communities of Jesus would be raised in conjunction with the victory of Jesus over Greek-Roman paganism and would reign with him throughout the coming ages as a “reward” for their faithfulness unto death.
Then, as John has it, the rest of the dead are raised—a second resurrection of all the dead—to face a final judgment; and those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death (Rev. 20:12-15).