In my last article, dear Theophilus, I set out to explain that Christians will spend eternity in a perfected, glorified, physical New Creation, not heaven per se. The article explains that eventually, God will bring about a new creation where we dwell forever with Him, not as disembodied souls, but as physical beings.
However, that is the end state, and a few people had some questions about what happens between now and then—what about those who have already died? Do they simply transport to this new creation, because time is irrelevant to God? Do they fall asleep, remaining unconscious, and then wake up at the end (a notion known as soul sleep)? Where are our dearly departed right now?
So I will address this issue very briefly, and hopefully provide an answer to the question of what happens between death and the final resurrection.
Physical and spiritual beings
Once again, Scripture doesn’t actually give a huge amount of information about this, but there certainly are some clues.
First of all, we need to remember that humans are both spiritual and physical. We sort of consist of two parts—the physical body that we can see and poke and grab, and our non-physical, or spiritual, component which consists of our mind, consciousness, and spirit/soul.
I should add here that some people break this non-physical part down into soul and spirit. This is known as a tripartite view, which sees humans consisting of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. Others, however, believe that Scripture teaches that soul and spirit are synonymous terms for the same reality. This is seen as a bipartite view, in which humans consist of only two parts: body (physical, or material) and soul/spirit (immaterial). This whole discussion is interesting to look at, but is ultimately unimportant for this present article.
Anyway, humans are physical and non-physical (spirit and/or soul). This is not, however, the same as the Platonic view of last month, in which there is a sharp distinction between the original, good, spirit world, and the evil, corrupted, physical world. Our souls are not trying to escape our fleshly prison-bodies. Humans are created by God with both a physical body and non-physical spirit. Both are good, part of God’s original design, and eventually eternal.
Temporarily absent from the body
This distinction helps understand what happens between now and the resurrection. First, the Apostle Paul declares that he “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 8). Here he seems to indicate that upon death, we can spiritually be absent from our physical body but present with God. Similarly, in Philippians chapter 1, verses 21-23, Paul can state that for him death is gain, for his “desire is to depart and be with Christ”.
Finally, Jesus declares to the thief on the cross next to him, before they die, that “today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke Chapter 23, verse 43). Now when they died, Christ’s body remained on earth (presumably the criminal’s did also), yet Christ could make this promise.
So it appears that for now, upon death our bodies and spirits are temporarily separated. Our bodies stay behind, while our spirits go to ‘heaven’ or ‘paradise’, as some sort of spiritual intermediate state, with Jesus. Yet this is temporary: as discussed in the last article, our eternal state will be a perfected physical creation after the resurrection. In fact, in Revelation chapter 6, verses 10-11, the souls of martyrs in heaven call out to the Lord, asking when they will be avenged, and they are told to wait a little longer. So even the souls in heaven seem to know that they are not yet in the perfected end-state.
Hope for the futures
For now, then, the souls of the departed are absent from their bodies, but conscious in a temporary state. Then, when God’s plans with this world are accomplished, He will resurrect and judge all people—some will receive eternal life with Him, others will receive eternal judgement (John chapter 5, verse 28-29). At this point, our bodies and souls will be ‘reunited’, so to speak, and we will physically and spiritually spend eternity with God in His glorious new creation.
So as we live in the world, we have a wonderful hope for a two-fold future. For those who have responded to Christ in repentance and faith, we have a hope for our eternal future, where we will have a perfect existence with Him. Until that time however, we have a second hope for ourselves and for those who have already departed. Those that have died in Christ are, as you read this, spiritually present with the Lord! What a beautiful, comforting thought. One day we will also be with Him, until the resurrection and consummation of His glorious Kingdom.
Haydn Lea is an Ordained Minister and is currently serving as an Air Force Chaplain in Adelaide. He is married to Shamsa Lea, is the father of Amira, and loves running, boxing and studying history and theology. If this article has also left you with more questions than answers, feel free to ask Haydn to address it. If it’s too hard for him (which is pretty likely), he will probably try to change the subject and then ask one of his smarter friends to help him.
Haydn Lea’s previous articles may be viewed at https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/haydn-lea.html