What Really Happens to Christians When They Die?

Question:

Much has been written as to what occurs upon the death of a Christian. The information varies from one going to a Paradise such as Abraham’s bosom to one entering the sleep of time until the judgement day or even the beginning of tribulation. Can you help me find scripture which speaks to this issue? Within six months my wife and I experienced the loss of both our mothers. We are middle-aged and these deaths are a part of life. We do however often find what appears to be disparity in the next phase. 

Thank you for your question. I know that this is a very personal issue for you. I too am middle-aged, and I have lost both parents and a sister. As a result, I have probably had many of the same questions that you have. In searching the Scriptures for exactly what happens when a believer dies, I see distinct differences in the Old and New Testaments as a result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I believe that when the Old Testament saints encountered death, their souls were not taken directly to heaven, as is now the case with New Testament believers. Instead, the Old Testament believers were taken to a place called paradise (Luke 23:43, 2 Corinthians 12:3-4, Revelation 2:3-7), or Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:3-23). Then, upon the event of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, these Old Testament saints were resurrected (Matthew 27:3-52). Today, now that Christ’ resurrection has already occurred, when Christians die, we are taken directly to heaven. The strongest argument I find for this is 2 Corinthians 5:3-8, which says, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” This seems to say that for we believers of this age, being in this current body is mutually exclusive from being in the presence of God in heaven. So, at the point of death, we’re no longer in the body, but with the Lord.

Incidentally, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:3-23 refers to a place called Hades, which is where the rich man was. This seems to be the opposite of the place of paradise where Lazarus was. This would imply that, in Old Testament times, those who died were taken to one of these temporary chambers, awaiting their transaction either from paradise to heaven or from Hades to Hell. This probably also explains the origination of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, which would equate to Hades in this case.

You may also be interested in my article at Resurrected Saints vs. Hades. It is also related to your question in that it examines the mystery in Matthew 27:52-53 where saints arose from their graves and appeared to many in the holy city.

As a side note, I remember having another question when I lost loved ones. I wondered whether or not they could look down upon me from heaven. I found my own personal resolution for this in Revelation 21:3-4, which says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Although this is specifically referring to the new Jerusalem on the new earth, I believe that this lack of mourning and crying is now what heaven is like as well, since the new earth has not yet come. As a result, I believe that our loved ones in heaven do not look down upon us in this life because they could not look from their vantage point upon their loved ones in a sinful world without shedding tears.

As I wrote this, I prayed that you will find the answers to your questions, and that your grief will transform into peace and comfort.

Thanks,

Owen

Thank you for your thorough and insightful analysis of the scriptures surrounding the afterlife. While my question was certainly offered from a personal perspective, I asked the question as it relates also to my work. My wife and I are clinical social workers work primarily with first responders from the NYPD and the FDNY. My wife does much the area of grief and trauma. Many of my first responders to the World Trade Center are now contracting illnesses which often times result in fatal outcomes. Faced with their own mortality they search their faith for their beliefs in what will happen next. Fear and grief overwhelm them and they look for desperate reassurance that there will be a paradise awaiting those who believe. I will certainly place your information in my grief library. I often reflect upon how a few minutes of time devoted to questions such as the one I posed to you can actually have such long-lasting impact and provide such comfort for those in despair.

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