When people speak of heaven, they often use images of their favorite places (i.e., the beach, or Yosemite), or they describe some sort of disembodied existence where their immortal soul will finally be set free from the limitations imposed upon it by the human body. I’ve heard many people who should know better speak of heaven in terms of pearly gates (manned by St. Peter himself) and streets of gold, where daily existence is supposedly centered upon the pleasurable activities (usually the favorite hobby or activity) the departed enjoyed while still on earth. Sadly, none of these images accurately reflect the biblical teaching regarding heaven.
To remedy this sad state of affairs, whenever we speak of heaven we need to carefully distinguish between the intermediate state (which deals with the question of where, exactly, the soul goes when we die) and the eternal state (which speaks to the nature of human existence after the resurrection of the body at the end of the age).
As for the intermediate state, the question “where do we go when we die?” was answered indirectly by Paul, when, in his second Corinthian letter he wrote “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). To the church in Philippi, Paul wrote that “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philppians 1:23). Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And then, the author of Hebrews describes the church as, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). Where do believers go when we die? We immediately enter into the presence of the Lord at the moment of death.
As for the related question about the intermediate state, “what is it like for those who have died in Christ, and then entered into the presence of the Lord?” the only description given us is that found in Revelation 4-7. We are told by John that there is one seated on the throne (the Lord God Almighty–Revelation 4:8), surrounded by the twenty-four elders (Revelation 4:4), the four living creatures (4:6 ff), the lamb who had been slain is also present (Revelation 5:6 ff.), there are myriads of angels (Revelation 5:11 ff.), the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel (Revelation 7:4 ff.), and then, finally, there is that great multitude of the redeemed (Revelation 7:9), a multitude so vast they cannot be counted, and who are presently crying out in unison (v. 10), “salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Of this multitude it is said, “they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” When believers die, we enter into the presence of the Lord, awaiting the resurrection of our bodies at the end of the age. Those who have died in Christ currently behold these glorious mysteries described in these remarkable chapters of Revelation.
When it comes to the eternal state and the resurrection of our bodies, there are several important things to consider. As recounted in Luke 20:27-33, Jesus was asked a trick question about the resurrection by the Sadducees. If a man was married and then died, and each of his six brothers married the man’s widow as required in the law, and then each of the six brothers died, who would be married to the woman in the resurrection, since she had been married to all seven brothers? Our Lord’s answer to this question tells us a great deal about the eternal state after the resurrection. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him” (Luke 20:34-40). According to Jesus, we are raised bodily from the dead at the end of the age, but after the resurrection life is completely transformed beyond ordinary sexual and family relationships we know in this life. We are said to be equal to angels and described as children of the resurrection.
When someone in the Thessalonian church was confused about this matter, Paul explained what happens to those already in heaven before the throne when Jesus returns (as depicted in Revelation 4-7). The apostle writes, “but we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an 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, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Therefore, those saints depicted before the throne will receive their resurrection bodies when Christ returns.
Finally, when we consider the eternal state, we need to keep in mind that heaven is not disembodied existence in a mythical place. In Revelation 21:9-27, John is given a vision of our eternal home–a new heaven and earth where the saints of God dwell in resurrected bodies. Yes, the heavenly city has streets of gold and is filled with precious gems–a way to describe the New Jerusalem’s unspeakable glory by analogy to earthly beauty and wealth. But what really matters in John’s description is that Christ’s church, that bride which he has redeemed, is present with the Savior in her midst. John writes “`come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb’” (Revelation 21:9). And then John sees something quite remarkable. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth swill bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:22-27).
The great panorama of redemptive history has taken us from creation, to the fall of our race, to the redemption which is ours in Christ. But the story ends with a magnificent glimpse of that glory which lies ahead. So let us long for that day, and as we do, look to Jesus “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”