There is a loud chorus of voices these days denouncing, in a somewhat condescending way, the long-standing belief among evangelicals that when Christians die they go to heaven. In one sense, this outcry is good and constructive. It is an understandable and much-needed response to the unbiblical gnosticism of some “fundamentalist” Christians who denigrate material creation, diminish the reality of a future bodily resurrection, and fail to reckon with the centrality in God’s redemptive purpose of the New Heavens and especially the New Earth.
So, is my answer to the question posed in the title, No? Not quite. My answer is: Immediately, Yes. Eternally, No. Or again, to simplify, when a Christian dies he/she immediately passes into the conscious presence of Christ in heaven. But when the day of resurrection arrives, he/she will be given a new and glorified body in which all of God’s people will live and flourish on the New Earth (of Revelation 21-22).
What we’re talking about is known as the intermediate state, that period and/or experience of the individual believer between (hence, “intermediate”) the time of physical death and bodily resurrection. The biblical evidence for the intermediate state is unmistakable: see 2 Cor. 5:6-9; Phil. 1:21-24; Luke 16:19-31; Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 6:9-11 (and perhaps 1 Thess. 4:13-18). Our focus here is 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. But first, a brief word about 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 is in order.
In these verses Paul speaks of his desire to be alive when Christ returns, for then he would not have to die physically and experience the separation of body and spirit, a condition he refers to as being “naked” (v. 3) or “unclothed”. Paul’s perspective on life and death may therefore be put in this way: It is good to remain alive on this earth to serve Christ (Phil. 1:21a,22a,24-26). On the other hand, it is better to die physically and enter into the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21b,23). However, it is by far and away best to be alive when Christ returns, for then we avoid death altogether and are immediately joined with the Lord in our resurrected and glorified bodies.
According to 2 Cor. 5:3, if the believer remains alive until Christ returns she will be found by the Lord clothed with a body (the present, earthly one), and not in a disembodied state. To be without a body is to be “naked” and thus in a very important sense unnatural and less than ideal. Clearly, Paul envisaged a state of disembodiment between physical death and the general resurrection (cf. “unclothed” in v. 4). Verse 4 I take to be an expanded repetition of v. 2.
We now turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 5:6-9. There Paul writes:
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:6-9).
Note first of all the contrast set forth in vv. 6 and 8. The contrast is not primarily between two modes of human existence, as if one is in the body and one out of the body (although this is a valid contrast); nor is the contrast primarily that between two possible relationships to the Lord: one with the Lord and one away from the Lord (although again this is valid enough in itself). Paul’s primary contrast is between two successive spheres of Christian residence or existence: now in the body and then with the Lord. The major point, therefore, is that life now in the body is to be followed immediately by life then with Christ.
IN the body = ABSENCE from the Lord
OUT OF the body = PRESENCE with the Lord
As one must be either in or out of his body (for there is no third alternative), so he must either be absent from or present with the Lord (for there is no third alternative). In 2 Cor. 5:1-5 Paul has shown that physical death means the loss of bodily existence. Here he explains what this entails for the Christian. There are but two possible modes of existence for us: if we are physically alive and in our bodies we are absent from Christ / if we die physically and leave our bodies we are present with Christ. The two experiences are mutually exclusive. Departure from mortal corporeality on earth marks the beginning of residence with the Lord in heaven.
Is the transition immediate? It would appear so, as the following facts bear out: (1) in v. 6 residence in a physical body is contemporaneous with absence from direct presence with Christ, clearly implying that when the former ceases so also does the latter; (2) note the temporal indicators –“while we are in the body, we are absent from the Lord;” (3) v.7 has “walking by faith” and “walking by sight” set over against one another as opposites with no interval between them; when death occurs, faith gives way to sight and hope to fulfillment; (4) that physical death of the believer issues immediately in conscious presence with the Lord is the teaching of Paul in Phil. 1:20-24.
Thus to be “at home in the body” = to be in one’s homeland; among one’s own people, and to be “absent from the Lord” = to be out of one’s homeland; to be in a foreign country.
It would seem that v. 7 is designed to soften the blow of v. 6b, or to explain in what sense being “in” the body entails “absence” from Christ. Our absence from Christ is only spatial, not spiritual (cf. Matt. 28:19-20; Col. 1:27; John 17:23,26). While in the body we do not literally see Christ (at least, most of us don’t!), but rather walk by faith in the physically absent and unseen Lord. Death brings us into spatial proximity and visible contact with Christ. Thus death, rather than severing our spiritual relationship with Christ, heightens and enhances it! Death brings us into the immediate vision of our Savior and the increased intimacy of fellowship which it entails.
This passage thus stands in direct opposition to the doctrine of soul sleep, orpsychopannychia, which says that Christians at death enter a state of complete inactivity and unconsciousness, to be “awakened” at Christ’s return. What, then, does the NT mean when it refers to death as “sleep” (see Mt. 27:52; Luke 8:52; Jn. 11:11-13; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 7:39; 11:30;15:6,18; 1 Thess. 4:1)? Three things, most likely. (1) Sleep implies rest from earthly toil, the cessation of activity in this realm. Thus one is asleep to this world, but alive and “awake” in the next. (2) The imagery of sleep is used to describe death because the body does sleep, in a manner of speaking. I.e., it is at rest, without activity or life. But nowhere does the Bible say that the “soul” or “spirit” sleeps or is unconscious. (3) Sleep is used to illustrate that the pain of death as a penalty for sin is gone for the Christian. Death for the believer, rather than something to be feared, is like dozing off for a nap (see esp. Lk. 16:19-31; Mt. 17:1-8; Mark 12:26-27; Rev. 6:9-11).
In summary: the intermediate state for the Christian is immediate transition upon death into the presence of Christ in heaven, during which time we experience holiness (no longer being at war with the flesh, although final glorification awaits the resurrection), happiness, a heightened sense of consciousness, and knowledge of Christ in its fullest. But the “intermediate” state is not our “final” or “eternal” state.
So, do Christians “go to heaven” when they die? Yes, but only temporarily, as they await the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth.