If a believer dies before the time of the resurrection of his body, will he exist in heaven as a disembodied spirit or will he be given a temporary body until the time of the resurrection of his body?
While we cannot be definitive about everything on this subject, it seems that we can be certain that the souls of believers who die before the resurrection enter into conscious fellowship with God in heaven.
We can also be certain that their existence will be personal and identifiable. Further, they are not in a state of soul sleep as taught by some groups.
Sleep and death
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.
Descriptions of people in heaven prior to the resurrection of the body
Luke 16:19-26 – The story of the rich man and Lazarus
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
“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.”
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
II Corinthians 5:1-8
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
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.”
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).
Hope and comfort
We can celebrate victory over death through Jesus. He said, “Because I live you also will live” (John 14:19). He promised that, “… everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40).
“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21).
“See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. For this reason the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (I John 3:1-2).