My mom was killed most unexpectedly in a car crash in May 2013. We buried her in a quiet grave yard in rural Tennessee, behind the Old Philadelphia church building with a view of Ben Lomand Mountain rolling beautifully in the distance. The evening following her funeral, my family gathered inside that old church building to sing hymns.
When you step inside the Old Philadelphia building, you step back in time. This building, built in the early 1800’s, with creaky wooden floors, uncomfortable wooden pews, and oil lamps above each window, stands as a memorial to many of the faithful Christians who have worshiped there over the last 200 years, many of whom are buried in the same field as my mom.
My whole family was there; my grandparents, my fiancée, my siblings, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my dad. But we all knew somebody was missing.
As we sat there singing, my mind kept questioning: Where was my mom? Of course we knew her body was in the grave, but where was she? I wondered, if in some sort of spiritual sense, if my mom was there in that old church building with us, singing right along. Was she in some sense aware of what we were doing? Did she have any sort of spiritual consciousness at all? What is heaven like? What is paradise like? In what way is her existence right now, as dead, different from what her existence will be like after the judgment day when Christ returns?
As I sat there singing familiar songs about heaven, my mind drifted to all the other faithful dead Christians lying in that field. I’ve never met any of them, but I know I hold a common bond, a common faith, and a common hope along with them. Could they hear us sing? Were they cheering us on? Had they met my mom yet?
And then as my mind continued to wonder, I had an almost creepy thought: What will that field be like on the resurrection day? I shuddered to myself as I imagined zombie-like creatures coming out of the graves. Then again, I tend to think that the resurrection day will be much more glorious rather than creepy, but the mystery and unknown of what all that day will entail has continued to capture my imagination.
All of these weird thoughts and questions have stuck with me. I feel as though I will never be able to answer most of these questions, at least not in this life. But every time I think about my mom, my mind goes back to these thoughts. What is the Christian hope? What will it be like when I get to see my mom again?
The Redemption of Our Bodies
Romans 8:23 describes the Christian hope simply like this:
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
The Christian hope is for the resurrection from the dead.
The Biblical description of this hope is very different from what many people think the Bible says about heaven. Many people have this idea of dying, and then going directly to either heaven or hell, in a direct, post-death journey. Here, in heaven, Christians will enjoy some sort of spiritual, non-physical, non-bodily mystical (or perhaps angelic) existence with God and the angels. This existence in our minds is very vague and difficult to understand in light of the physical world we now enjoy, but it is trusted that it will be worth it.
Some people hold to a very similar view, but they understand that there will be a preliminary stop on the way to heaven. This belief goes something like this: upon death, Christians go to paradise. Then, at the end of time, on the judgment day, when the world is destroyed (and with it, all that might remain of our current bodies), faithful Christians will complete their journey into heaven where they will enjoy some sort of spiritual, non-bodily existence (or if we do have a new body, it will be an unimaginable, non-tangible kind of “body”).
Both of these misconceptions leave out the very important Biblical teaching of the resurrection from the dead. Or at the very least, they try to incorporate the resurrection as a small detail, or perhaps only a symbolic description of the eternal life we will one day enjoy.
Consider the lyrics to some of the songs we frequently sing.
There’s a beautiful place called heaven
It is hidden above the bright blue
Where the good who from earth ties are riven
Live and love an eternity through.
Above the bright blue, the beautiful blue,
Jesus is waiting for me and for you.
Heaven is there, not far from our sight,
Beautiful city of light.
“Above the Bright Blue” – Charles Pollock, 1903
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!
Land of the true, where we live a-new,
Beautiful Isle of Somewhere!
“Beautiful Isle of Somewhere” – Jessie Pounds, 1897
O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an unclouded day
“O They Tell Me of a Home” – Josiah Alwood, 1890
Some glad morning when this life is o’er,
I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.
“I’ll Fly Away” – Albert Brumley, 1932
What do all these songs have in common? They all describe the Christian hope as heaven, where loved ones are currently waiting for us. We are told there is a beautiful isle that is somewhere above the bright blue, and this heaven is the ultimate Christian hope.
Yet, none of these songs mention the resurrection from the dead. It’s not that these songs outright deny the resurrection, but the resurrection is at best marginalized into a minor detail not worth mentioning while we continually sing about and emphasize the ultimate hope of heaven.
If we commit ourselves to describing the Christian hope using Biblical terms, we find that the resurrection from the dead is not just a small, insignificant detail. It is not as if we are buying a car that happens to not have power windows. If we miss the resurrection of our bodies from the dead, we are missing the engine that drives the whole vehicle of our hope.
What Happens to Christians When They Die?
How does Scripture describe death? What happens to Christians immediately upon death but prior to the resurrection day? Do they have a continued existence right now? If so, how is that existence described, and where do they currently exist? Can we rightly say that “Christians go to heaven when they die?”
The Body Remains Asleep and Lifeless
James compares dead faith to a dead body.
For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. – James 2.26
Upon death, the body of the Christian lays in the grave motionless and spiritless. Death is therefore sometimes referred to as falling asleep.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. – 1 Thessalonians 4.13
Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7.60
That is, the body itself is asleep. It is lifeless. This sleep can be described as a “rest.”
And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them. – Revelation 14.13
The Christian Departs
Although the body lies dead, there is a part of the person that continues on after death. Paul spoke of his death as if he himself would be departing on a journey.
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. – 2 Timothy 4.6
So the question is “where do we depart to?”
For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better. – Philippians 1.21-23
We are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. – 2 Corinthians 5.8
Just as Paul expected to depart and be with Christ, similarly we read the words of Jesus Himself to the thief on the cross:
And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise. – Luke 23.43
So what happens to Christians when they die?
- Their bodies are dead, remaining asleep, breathless, spiritless and lifeless.
- They themselves depart, and are separated from their bodies, and go to be with Christ.
Does this mean that Christians can expect to “die and go to heaven”?
Although the Bible never uses the word “heaven” to describe our destination upon death, I don’t have a problem with those who wish to describe this temporary destination with that word. After all, Jesus is currently “seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven”, and we are departing to be “with Christ”.
So is it fair to say that dead Christians are currently in heaven? Sure. But would it not be simpler to describe this temporary destination in the same way the Bible describes it? The Bible describes this temporary destination as being “with Christ” in a place that Jesus referred to as “paradise.”
According to Scripture, there is some sort of continued, non-bodily existence after death and prior to the resurrection. Some will call this “life after death.” Some may describe this as “flying away” to a “beautiful isle of somewhere” that is “above the bright blue.” This is a place where we can anticipate that “loved ones are waiting for me and for you.”
But it is very important to realize that this is not the end of the story. “Going to heaven when we die” is not the final Christian hope. This is not what the New Testament teaches is the final destiny for Christians. For Christians, our hope is found in the resurrection of our bodies.