Heaven is the dwelling place of God, His angels, and the destiny of those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Redeemer (John 3:16; 14:6; 1 Timothy 2:5-6).
When a believer dies, his physical body remains on earth and is buried. At the moment of death, the soul (or spirit) of that believer goes immediately into the presence of God— to the third heaven or paradise. This is what is meant by being “absent from the body and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8-10; cf. Philippians 1:21-23).
In this amazing text, we learn that when believers come together to worship God (in this life), they come not only into the presence of God in heaven, but also into the presence of “the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” The phrase “the spirits of righteous men made perfect” refers to our fellow believers who have gone to heaven before us (those who are absent from their earthly bodies and at home with the Lord).
The identification as “spirits” is a designation of the souls of believers which are separated from their earthly bodies until the resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, the apostle referred to his preference to be “ away from the body and at home with the Lord.” And we know that when Christ returns, the souls of believers will be reunited with their resurrected and transformed bodies. Philippians 3:20, for example, indicates that when Christ returns He will “transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body” (cf. Jn. 5:28-29).
But between death and resurrection, what is the nature of our existence in heaven?
In other words, if you died today, we know that as a believer you would go directly to heaven and leave your physical body here on earth. But would you exist as a disembodied spirit throughout the intermediate state between death and resurrection? This is a question that has been debated among Bible scholars. I am not suggesting I will be able to settle the debate, but we can look at a few related Scriptures.
In this text, the Apostle John observes “the souls” of believers who had been martyred because of their commitment to God’s word and their evident testimony for Christ. Their association with an altar perpetuates the understanding of heaven as a temple. “The Lord is in His holy temple, let the earth keep silence before Him” (Habakkuk 2:20; cf. Psalm 18:6). The altar presents a view of their deaths as sacrificial from heaven’s perspective (cf. 2 Tim. 4:6; Phil. 2:17).
It is interesting to note that these departed martyrs, these “souls” under the altar—“cry out with a loud voice” and are each given a “white robe” to wear (verse 11). What should we understand from this? Is it possible that they have some kind of intermediate body? It certainly appears to be the case.
This text reveals another group in heaven prior to the resurrection. They are described in ways that also imply bodily presence.
“After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a mighty shout, “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!”
Some are hesitant to construct firm doctrinal positions based on the descriptive language of Revelation. This is understandable because of its symbolic and sometimes cryptic nature. But those who believe in the provision of an intermediate body between death and resurrection also find support in 2 Corinthians 5:1 and Luke 16:19-26.
2 Corinthians 5 (in context: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
“If the earthly tent which is our house is torn down (i.e., if we die), “we have” (present tense) a house not made with hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Some argue that the “house not made with hands is a temporary phase of the eternal body of the deceased, just as our current physical body is a temporary phase of the eternal body until Christ’s coming (see also Luke 16:19-26).
Some of this cannot be as clearly defined as we might like but we can be sure that the souls of believers who die before the resurrection enter into conscious fellowship with God in heaven. They are not in a state of soul sleep as taught by the Seventh-Day Adventists. Scripture refers to those who have died as “falling asleep” or “those who sleep,” but the expression is used of the body, not of the soul. And it is a metaphoric expression designed to communicate the temporary nature of bodily death (as sleep is only temporary). (see, Matthew 9:24; 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13; 5:10)
When Jesus spoke to His disciples about the death of Lazarus, He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11). We should notice that Jesus does not say, “The soul of Lazarus is sleeping,” nor, in fact, does any passage in Scripture say that the soul of a person is sleeping or unconscious (a statement that would be necessary to prove the doctrine of soul sleep). Rather Jesus simply says that Lazarus has fallen asleep. Then John explains, “Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’” (John 11:12-13). Sleep is a metaphoric expression to teach that death is temporary.
Jesus said, “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, “‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).
Long after their physical deaths, Jesus spoke of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as the “living.” We know that they are alive, in conscious fellowship with God and with all other inhabitants of heaven. (Note that the destiny of unbelievers will also be conscious existence: Matthew 25:41, 46).
What Jesus said in Matthew 22:31-32 also indicates that individual identity in heaven will be preserved (identity continuous with our earthly identity). (See also Matthew 8:11 and Matthew 17:1-4 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
Here is a verse to memorize as a strong word of comfort: “ If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8).