The basic template for New Testament belief in any sort of life after death is the Jewish idea of the resurrection of a person from the dead at the end of the age—and probably the resurrection of the righteous Jew who has lost his or her life out of loyalty to YHWH (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). Personal resurrection derives from a theology of martyrdom (cf. 2 Macc. 7:9, 14), and I think that this pattern largely controls references to personal resurrection in the New Testament.
The personal resurrection of the martyrs, however, has to be related to two other “modes” of resurrection: the metaphorical resurrection of the people of God following judgment; and the final resurrection of all the dead in conjunction with the renewal of all creation, which in John’s apocalyptic schema is a “second” resurrection (cf. Rev. 20:5-6, 12-13).
Jesus’ resurrection entailed the metaphorical resurrection of the people of God—hence the significance of a resurrection on the third day (cf. Hos. 6:1-2). But it also anticipated—we might say ontologically—the final renewal of all creation. The resurrection of Jesus, therefore, is followed by his ascension or exaltation to the right hand of the Father in heaven until the final renewal of all things.
I think that the same is true for the suffering church that is called to share concretely in Jesus’ death and vindication in the course of eschatological transition. The martyrs are to be “raised” at the moment of Jesus’ final victory over the pagan aggressor in order to share in his reign as Lord throughout the coming ages (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17; Rev. 20:4).
This means that the only people who get to go to heaven in the New Testament are people who have been raised from the dead in advance of the renewal of all things. Jesus was raised on the third day; the martyrs are to be raised at the parousia, which I think refers—historically speaking—to the moment of Christ’s victory over Greek-Roman paganism and the deliverance of the churches from persecution.
This belief in the resurrection of the body some time after death is very different from—and on the face of it quite incompatible with—the Hellenistic and traditional “Christian” notion that the soul of the believer goes directly to heaven (or perhaps to purgatory) at death.
It is often argued—as a way of saving the traditional view—that the New Testament envisages an intermediate state between death and resurrection, when the believer in disembodied form is consciously in the presence of Jesus. I am not persuaded by this argument. I think that the texts usually cited in support of it point somewhere else, mostly in the direction of a narrative of national restoration.
Moreover, Paul’s argument about those who have “fallen asleep” in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 seems to me directly to rule out the idea that these dead Christians are already with Christ. Paul has to reassure his grieving readers that those who have already died will not be excluded from the eventual vindication of the suffering church at the parousia. He does not tell them—though the thought would have been deeply reassuring—that they are already with Jesus in heaven. He says that Jesus will descend from heaven (without the dead), that the dead in Christ will then be raised from death, the living will be “caught up together with them in the clouds”, and both groups “will always be with the Lord”.
It is then relatively easy to fit Paul’s very personal statements about his desire to be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:23) into this apocalyptic narrative. The thought of being away from the physical earthly body in which he suffers and being “with the Lord” or “with Christ”, clothed in a new imperishable resurrection body, simply compresses into a non-apocalyptic idiom the expectation that the dead will be raised at the parousia and so be “with the Lord”.