Note: I have often asked our church youth and adults to ask me any questions that they had about faith, the church, or life in general and I would answer them. Often that happened at youth group meetings. This one came from a friend.
Question: A friend is asking a good question on Facebook and I think you would have a good answer. “Do you believe that when we as Christians die, we go immediately to be with Lord in Heaven, or do we sleep until He comes back for all of us and reunite with everyone who has passed?
My best answer is… maybe.
In theological discussions there are plenty of people, and denominations, on both sides of this issue and many of them are way smarter than I am. But, that said, I think that we do, and we will, and there are several good reasons to think so.
First, there are several verses that may lead us to believe that we fall into some sort of “soul sleep” until the return of Jesus Christ, our resurrection. the final Judgement. One of these, which is commonly read at funerals (I have used it a great many times) is 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, which says:
51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53 For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.
Paul’s use of the word “sleep” might make us think that we will be sleeping between our death and resurrection, but we need to remember that Paul, and other writers, often used the word sleep as a kinder, gentler, way of saying die, death, or dead. If we read that verse again with that in mind, Paul is simply saying that at the time of the last trumpet, not everyone will be dead.
On the other hand, many people use Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:8 as proof that we do not sleep, but that passage is problematic too. It says,
8:1 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
In some translations (such as the New American Standard) it is rendered as “…to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” But that passage, alone, doesn’t confirm anything definitively. In that passage, Paul is talking about looking forward to wearing his new body, which many believe that we won’t get until after the judgement.
So far, what we have is ambiguous and more than a little confusing. It isn’t hard to see why even theologians argue about such things. But remember that I said this passage… alone… doesn’t confirm anything definitively? The thing is, this passage isn’t alone. While this may not be a profound theological argument, there are a couple of other verses that come to mine when I think about this. The first is Revelation 6:9-11 which says:
9 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. 10 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?” 11 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.
Here, before the judgement, under the altar of God, are the souls of the martyrs who are waiting for justice and judgement. If we all sleep, then how did these folks get here? Are we to believe that only the martyrs see God before the judgment? It seems arbitrary and a little cruel that they would be singled out as the only ones who are awake, who are watching the events of the earth, and who must suffer and wait for justice. It seems more likely that everyone is awake, but the martyrs get “front row” seats.
And then in
Hebrews 12:1 after an extensive list of the saints and heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11 we hear this:
12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.
The implication of this verse following immediately by a deliberate listing of the saints and heroes of God is that these people are alive, and aware, and watching the things that we are doing. Similarly, Jesus often referred to Abraham, and others, in the present tense and not in the past or future tense. Jesus was deliberate in saying that Abraham worships God… at this present moment.
And remember that moment when Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-3 where we hear:
17:1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter, James, and John watch and stand witness as Moses and Elijah appear in front of them and minister to Jesus. Are we supposed to understand that God woke them from their sleep just for this one moment, that they somehow understood who Jesus was and what was going on, did what they had to do, and then fell back asleep? Or, isn’t it easier to understand that they have been awake the entire time, carefully watching the unfolding spectacle of time, the birth of the Messiah and the entire Gospel story, and then answered the call of God to enter back into our story? The second one makes a lot more sense to me.
There are many more passages like this.
So, yeah, while not everyone agrees about this, I think that when we die, our trip to God’s side is immediate and there is no “sleeping” in between.
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