“What happens to me when I die? Do I go straight to Heaven, or does my soul sleep in the grave for a while?” It’s a question that comes up every month, even more often after the death of a beloved friend. The Bible doesn’t define the process precisely, but when you put all the relevant verses together you come away with a pretty clear picture.
Imagine a guy named Max, a devout follower of Jesus, and let’s use him to illustrate my take on the question. As it is for everyone, death is a process for Max; not actually a moment. His organs begin to shut down and finally his heart stops beating. Momentarily or even ten minutes later, his brain calls it a day. At some point in this process, his soul evacuates his body, which is no longer viable for life.
Max’s body is not fitted for eternity: flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 15:50) For the moment it’s in the way, so Max’s family will have a mortuary make the body more manageable, either through embalming and burial, or through cremation. But the Bible teaches resurrection– not simply the immortality of the soul- so this is not the last chapter for that inconvenient body once called Max.
The soul that belongs to God is immediately translated into God’s presence in Eternity. Some have wondered about limbo or purgatory, a kind of temporary storage facility, but the Bible says nothing about that. Places like that may belong to Roman Catholic tradition, but are not taught in scripture.
Rather, Jesus promises the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) Some have argued that Jesus did not ascend to heaven until days after his death; would not have been there that Friday. That’s debatable, but there’s no question that Jesus is God. And God was always in Heaven. And on the day that former thief passed away, he was with God in Heaven. Elsewhere in Revelation 6:9, we also read a description of souls already in heaven. The martyrs who have just been executed, presumably by the Romans, are huddled by the altar asking God, “How long will the bloodshed continue?” The Father assures them there is a appointed time and He is still in control. They are curious because their souls have just escaped the fiery persecution, and they are alive in the comforting presence of God.
But let’s return to Max. His soul, his life force, has now been ushered into Heaven by the angels. His body has been buried and has already begun to decay. That’s okay: no one is trapped there. Nobody’s home at all. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Paul explains that as long as he survives on the earth, he is at home in the body but away from the Lord. He goes on to exclaim he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. In the same text, he compares his body to an aging and deteriorating tent: “while we’re still in the tent we groan and are burdened.” Like Max, Paul escaped those burdens when he was executed and his soul departed from that bleeding, lifeless mound of flesh in favor of Eternity.
Which brings us to the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:51 we are assured, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [die,] but we will all be changed; in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” The word sleep is the same euphemism Jesus used for Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:52) who was quite dead and required a miracle to recover. God promises we will not all die, but we will all be changed- instantly.
The second resurrection happens on the day when Christ returns in judgment to the Earth. Here’s how it is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
When Christ returns, the bodies/bones/ashes of the saints will instantly be changed! Like the resurrected Christ walking through a locked door, these resurrected bodies will rise through the Earth to be instantly reunited with their souls. Resurrection means that we live again body and soul! The Day of the Lord begins with a very personal kind of reunion or reintegration for the saints!
Some have scoffed, “Come on, doesn’t that sound outrageous to you? In one moment, you have all these restored bodies emerging from the ground, and living souls descending out of heaven; and they are all finding their way to each other? Really?” I suppose that might have presented a practical, intellectual problem fifty years ago. But today, UPS is able to track millions of packages of all sizes as they travel all around the world. At any moment, the man in brown can instantly tell me whether my package is shipped, or has departed the terminal, or is waiting in Topeka, Kansas, or is in a local vehicle en route to my house! If UPS can track millions of packages accurately and instantly, I have no worries about God’s ability to have invisible chips in every body in order to guide souls instantly to the correct address!
So be comforted. If you belong to Jesus Christ, you will never be consciously or unconsciously sleeping in the ground. (Good news for claustrophobic believers everywhere!) Your soul will be with God only moments after you check out here, and your body will remain disconnected and inactive until it can be fitted for life in eternity, body and soul. Don’t grieve like others who have no hope.
And lift up the Cross!