What Happens to Christians When They Die?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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Rhoda was a committed follower of Jesus and a member of a congregation I served. Although only 42 years old, she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and quickly succumbed

to the ravages of the disease. I sat at her hospice bedside and saw her intense physical pain. Although Rhoda was barely conscious because of her painkilling medications, she was still able to communicate to me that she longed to be with her Lord Jesus. Her hope reflected the desire of all followers of Jesus—that someday, we’ll be ushered into the presence of the Lord Jesus, when all the pain and difficulties of this life will have passed and we will be in glory. This isn’t just pie in the sky but our actual confident expectation.

Is this view of the afterlife valid or should believers expect an extended period of soul sleep before the resurrection from the dead, when we will at last see the Lord Jesus? What do the Scriptures have to say about this?

The Reason for Confusion About Heaven

The source of any confusion about heaven versus soul sleep arises from 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. This passage was intended to comfort those who were concerned that their loved ones who had already died in the Lord would therefore miss the return of the Lord Jesus and not be with Him forever.

Three times Paul describes those who have died as being “asleep” (1 Thess. 4:13–15). The phrase “those who have fallen asleep” does not actually teach some sort of doctrine of soul sleep. Rather, the word “sleep” is a euphemism for death. It describes the condition of the physical body of a Jesus follower who has died. Upon physical death, the inner, immaterial person goes to be with the Lord immediately. But our bodies become empty vessels, separated from our spirits and even look as if they are sleeping.

The comfort Paul gives is that when the Lord returns, we will be “caught up” to be with Him (1 Thess. 4:16–17).[1] We will not precede those who have died when entering the Lord’s presence. Rather, those who have died in the Lord will be resurrected before those who are caught up to be with the Lord. At that time, the bodies of those who have died (“fallen asleep”) will reunite with their spirits which have been present with the Lord since physical death. The believers who are alive will then be snatched up and receive glorified bodies without ever dying. Then, we will be together forever, both the resurrected believers and those who were taken up by the Lord Jesus. At that time, we will be reunited and have glorified, immortal bodies, just like the resurrected body of the Lord Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42–49).

The Biblical Case for Immediate Heaven

So what do the Scriptures say will happen when a follower of Jesus dies? The Bible clearly states that those who have believed that Jesus died (taking the punishment for their sins) and was raised from the dead (proving He is God) will go to be with the Lord immediately upon death.

“Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise”

How do we have this assurance? The first passage that comes to mind contains the words of the Lord Jesus to the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (a first-century Jewish word for heaven; Luke 23:43). Clearly, the Lord was promising that the penitent thief would go to heaven immediately upon death.

Those who hold to soul sleep argue against the simple meaning of this verse, saying (correctly) that the original Greek did not have commas. Therefore, it’s only the English translators who put the comma after the phrase “Truly I say to you” and not after the word “today.” They contend that the correct translation of the Lord’s words are: “Truly, I say to you today, you shall be with me in Paradise (someday after the resurrection from the dead).” In summary, some assert that the word “today” refers to the time when the Lord was speaking and not to the time of the thief ’s arrival in heaven.

There are two basic problems with this interpretation. First, although the Lord frequently uses the word “Truly” to begin a statement, nowhere else does He say “Truly I say to you today.” If the Lord Jesus only meant that He was saying something on that day, He certainly would have used that expression elsewhere. Second, placing the comma after the word “today” results in a meaningless redundancy. Of course, Jesus was saying it that day. When else would He be saying it? Placing the comma after “I say to you” and beginning the next clause with “today” makes an important point of emphasis— that very day the thief would be with Him in heaven.

To Depart and Be With Messiah

A second support for believers in Jesus going to be with Him immediately upon death is found in Philippians 1:21– 25. This passage describes the tension Paul feels about life and death, saying “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Phil. 1:23–24). Paul “was torn by a win-win situation.”[2] On the one hand he wanted “to depart [die] and be with Christ,” plainly indicating that at the moment of death, he would immediately go to be with Jesus. In the apostle’s view, this would be far better than any other experience. On the other hand, Paul saw the necessity and benefits of remaining “on in the flesh” to minister to the Philippians. That’s why he wrote, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (v. 21). Paul’s earthly life was filled with joyful service for Jesus the Messiah but dying would be even better because he would see his Lord face to face.

Home With the Lord

A third passage that teaches that followers of Jesus go to be with the Lord upon death is 2 Corinthians 5:6–8. There Paul describes circumstances of life and death. While we are alive in this life (“at home in the body,” 2 Cor. 5:6), we are not in the immediate presence of the Lord Jesus (“we are absent from the Lord,” 2 Cor. 5:6). Alternatively, the apostle wrote that his preference was “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). By this he meant that when we leave this life, we go directly into the presence of the Lord in heaven, our true home. The testimony of both the words of Jesus and Paul confirm that followers of Jesus go to be with the Lord immediately when they die.

Final Thoughts

We need never fear death nor grieve uncontrollably for Jesus followers who have died. We who believe that Jesus died and rose again (1 Thess. 4:14) can have the confident expectation that at the moment of physical death, our immaterial part (soul, spirit, mind, heart) will enter into the presence of the Lord. All followers of Jesus who have died (“fallen asleep”) will immediately be in heaven and stay with Him until His return. When the Lord Jesus does return, two events will take place. Those who have died in Jesus will be resurrected, uniting their bodies and spirits in new glorified, immortal bodies. Those who are still alive will then be caught up to Him, their bodies being translated to glorified, immortal bodies as well. That will be a great reunion of all believers in Jesus, together with Him. This hope of “the mortal putting on immortality,” is so great that Paul declared, “Death is swallowed up in victory. . . . O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55). Death, which we mortals fear most, will give way to glory, once and for all.

[1] The Greek word translated “caught up” (1 Thess. 4:17) is harpazo, and means “to snatch or take away.” In the Latin translation of this verse, this verb was translated by the Latin word rapturo. This is why the event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 is frequently called “the rapture.” Although there are a variety of views of when this will occur, my own is that the church will be snatched up before a future seven-year period of terrible tribulation on earth (this view is called the “pretribulational rapture”).

[2] Gerald Peterman, “Philippians,” Moody Bible Commentary, eds., Michael Rydelnik and Michael Vanlaningham (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 1860.

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