Every Christian at one time or another will ask the question “where do Christians go when they die?” Of course, the answer is heaven. But as we have seen throughout this series, our eternal home will be on this earth. Since this world is still under the curse of sin, where do Christians go when they die before the Second Coming of Christ? This article, the last in this series, will examine the passages that speak of the present heaven. Christian scholars call this place “the present heaven,” the “contemporary heaven,” or the “intermediate state.” For this article, I will call it the present heaven.
Do Christians go immediately to heaven when they die?
There are some Christians who believe in something called “soul sleep.” This is the belief that Christians will be unconscious between their deaths in this life and the Second Coming of Christ. However, there are some passages that clearly teach the opposite of this. The first passage to begin at is Philippians 1:21-23. Here Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.”
Paul clearly states that it better for a Christian to die and go be with Christ, rather than continue to live on this sin cursed world. How can he be so excited to be with Christ after his death when he would be unconscious? (These verses do not, of course, mean that a Christian is to commit suicide to hurry up and get to heaven. Christ will take you to the present heaven when he deems fit.)
A second passage is 2 Corinthians 5:8. This states that when we die and are absent from our current bodies, we will be present with the Lord. Thirdly, Jesus depicted Lazarus and the rich man as being conscious immediately after death (Luke 16:22-31).
These three passages show that there is no such thing as “soul sleep.” But what about when 1 Thessalonians 4:13 uses the phrase “fallen asleep?” Randy Alcorn says that this passage uses this phrase as “a euphemism for death, describing the body’s outward appearance.” He continues:
“The spirit’s departure from the body ends our existence on Earth. The physical part of us ‘sleeps’ until the resurrection, while the spiritual part of us relocates to a conscious existence in Heaven (Daniel 12:2-3; 2 Corinthians 5:8). Some Old Testament passages (e.g, Ecclesiastes 9:5) address outward appearances and do not reflect the fullness of New Testament revelation concerning immediate relocation and consciousness after death.”
It is clear that when a Christian dies, they are immediately transported to be with the Lord.
Comfort (and memory) in heaven
Scripture also teaches that we will be comforted while in the present heaven (Luke 16:25). “This comfort implies memory of what happened. If there was no memory of the bad things, what would be the need for or nature of such comfort?” We are also to give an account of our lives on earth (2 Corinthians 5:10; Matthew 12:36). The comfort that we receive in heaven and the fact that we must give a detailed account of our current lives shows that we will remember our past life.
Jesus told the dying thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus calls the present heaven “paradise.” The word paradise comes from the Persian word pairidaeza, which means “a walled park” or “enclosed garden.” In the Septuagint, the Greek
Translation of the Old Testament, the Greek word for paradise is used for the Garden of Eden. Later, Jews would use the word paradise to describe the eternal home of the righteous, and also to a lesser extent, the present heaven. A park or garden is meant to be a place of comfort, joy, and beauty. The fact that Jesus used this word of the present heaven is very telling.
Bodies and Souls
Are we to be only spirits in the present heaven, or will we have some sort of physicality while we are there? Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” This clearly seems to teach that only our spirits will go to the present heaven.
However, there are a few different passages that seem to imply some sort of physical existence in heaven. First off, Jesus has a body in heaven. Second, Enoch and Elijah were both taken to heaven in their bodies. Third, Moses and Elijah both appeared to Jesus and three of the disciples (Matthew 17:1-13). Moses and Elijah were clearly recognizable to the disciples. They clearly had some kind of body. Fourth, it is also interesting that angels will appear sometimes to people in temporary bodies.
These verses imply some sort of physical existence in the present heaven (or at least some kind of way of holding onto our identities). So will we be given some kind of temporary body? Alcorn says, “God may grant us some physical form that will allow us to function as human beings.” (I personally doubt we will be given temporary bodies as this seems like it would make the resurrection pointless.) Whatever the case, this existence, whether physical (least likely) or spiritual (most likely), is only temporary until the Second Coming of Christ. To be human is to have both a body and spirit, not just one of them. It is interesting to note that in Genesis 2:7 God created the body first, and then He breathed into it the spirit.
But doesn’t Revelation 6:9 call those in heaven “souls?” The Greek word translated “souls” (psuche) does not normally mean a disembodied spirit. It is instead normally used for a whole person, who has both a body and spirit, and of animals. Psuche is also used in Revelation 12:11 to describe the martyrs, who “did not love their lives so much to shrink from death.” The emphasis is more on their bodies since spirits do not die.
It is also interesting that in 2 Corinthians 12:3 Paul mentions that he didn’t know whether he had a body or not when he was caught up to the third heaven. The fact that he didn’t know shows that he could have had a body while he was visiting heaven. He didn’t dismiss the idea of having a body in the present heaven.
Revelation 6:9-11: A great passage on the present heaven
Let me conclude this article with an examination of Revelation 6:9-11. “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters,were killed just as they had been.”
We get a number of things from these verses about the present heaven:
1) These people were killed for Christ while on Earth. This shows continuity between our identity on earth and our identity in the present heaven.
2) “They called out.” This means that they are able to express themselves.
3) The martyrs are fully conscious, rational, and aware of each other, the situation on earth, and of God.
4) These people in heaven are free to ask God questions. This means that they are with God while in heaven.
5) These people, since they ask God questions, seek understanding and pursue it.
6) They know what is happening on earth. They know enough to understand that those who killed them have not been judged.
7) The martyrs in heaven have a concern for justice and retribution. They do not develop a dispassionate interest for earth and those living on it. They clearly remember their lives on earth, even remembering that they were killed.
8) Those people in heaven are distinct. “Each of them was given a white robe” indicates that each person is unique.
9) God answers their questions. This shows that we do not know everything while in heaven. This shows that there is learning in the present heaven.
10) There is time in the present heaven since the martyrs ask God “How long.”
The present heaven seems to have many characteristics that most do not think about. We will be conscious, comforted, have memory of our lives on earth, among other things. Although the present heaven is not our final destination, it is much better than our current lives on this sin cursed world.
 Randy Alcorn. 2004. Heaven. Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 46-47.
 Alcorn, 68.
 Ibid. 55.
 Ibid. 59-61.
 Ibid. 57.
 Ibid. 57.
 Ibid. 58.
 Ibid. 59.
 Ibid. 65-67.