“We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:6,8)
I was recently asked by a group of Chinese believers, “What happens to believers when they die?” This issue was perplexing them because someone had told them that the souls of Christians go to a shady region of the underworld known as “Sheol” where both the souls of the righteous and the wicked supposedly dwell together until the judgment.
This is a subject that has seen a lot of controversy in the church over the centuries. There have been some in the church who have taught that the believer’s soul goes into a state of unconsciousness when he or she dies. Seventh Day Adventists believe this. Then again, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the souls of most believers go to a place called Purgatory. This is because Catholics believe that they need to undergo further refinement and discipline (by fire) before God will welcome them into heaven. Even amongst Protestants there are those who believe that Christians do not go directly to heaven itself at death.
The problem that the Chinese were struggling with was that they had been told that believers go to “paradise”, which is apparently a place separate from heaven. It is a region of bliss beyond death but it is not heaven itself. “Paradise” is supposedly another name for “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). However, neither expression is supposedly the equivalent of heaven.
This peculiar line of reasoning seems to assume that heaven could only have one name. This is rather extraordinary logic, to say the least. The Bible uses different expressions to refer to heaven, such as “My Father’s house” (John 14:2), or “with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). It is therefore hard to understand why “paradise”, “Abraham’s bosom”, and “heaven” cannot indicate the same place. After all, we have no difficulty about referring to a house as a “residence”, “mansion” or “dwelling”. Why can’t we use more than one word to speak of heaven? Paul does this very thing where he uses “paradise” and the “third heaven” as synonyms in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4.
The Bible teaches that the Christian goes to heaven when he or she dies. The Psalmist says, “You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24). When Jesus ascended, He went “into heaven itself” (Hebrews 9:24). He went there as “our Forerunner” (Hebrews 6:20). To be “with Jesus” means, accordingly, to be in heaven. This is why Paul says that “to depart” means “to be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23). Hence, when the believer dies, he or she goes to be with Christ in heaven. Paul confirms this interpretation in 2 Corinthians 5:8 when he says that to be, “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord”. In other words, the Bible is very clear that when Christians die their souls go to be with Christ in heaven.