Thursday, March 20, 2014

When do we go to heaven?

When do we go to heaven?

This might be a pretty good question.

At our church, our pastor has been preaching through the end of Revelation.  In our Bible study, we have been studying Matthew, and last week we did Matthew 24.  Most of the scripture I've been reading lately is about the End Times.

The End Times are not my favorite...

(1) Because they are scary to think about, and

(2) Because nobody really understands or agrees about how they will come to pass.

Back when God blessed me with a Bible study to lead, my ladies used to ask me about Heaven and the End Times, and it took me a long time to figure out what they were asking.  However, when I finally understood their question, I thought it was a good one.  Also, I did not know the answer.

Their question was:
If God makes the New Heavens and the New Earth after the end of time,
and if that is when He gathers the believers, living and dead, to join Him for all eternity in glory,
if that is when eternal life begins, then...

Where do we go when we die?  

At the point of death, where is a person?  When we stand around the casket at a funeral, is the person's soul in heaven or hell?  Or is the person somewhere else, awaiting eternity and the Great White Throne Judgment of Revelation 20?

When do we get to heaven?

I think our assumption that, "You go to heaven when you die," comes from a number of origins.

First and probably most valid is the scripture found in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 from which comes the adage, "Absent from the body, present with the Lord."  What scripture actually says is this:

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. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8, ESV)

That's Bible, and it's true, but it isn't completely clear, in my opinion.  Still, it does definitely suggest that when our souls leave our bodies they are immediately at home with the Lord.

Another source of this assumption is the story Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.  Lazarus, the poor beggar who suffered on earth, died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side.  The rich man died and went to Hades where he was in torment and anguish.  Here, clearly, at the point of death the people were ushered into either comfort or punishment.  This story invites some questions, though.   First, is it a true, literal story, or is it a parable?  Jesus mostly told parables.  Second, this story -- even if it is a true, literal story -- happened before the death and resurrection of Christ.  Abraham was the great father, but would he still be, in the wake of the crucifixion?  Would people who die in our time still be ushered to the side of Abraham?  Perhaps.  (see Galatians 3:29)

There is one more thing that supports the assumption that we go to heaven immediately upon dying:  the deathbed stories of people who talk about taking Jesus' hand and walking up a tunnel into the light.  Some of them get partway there and return to tell about it.  Some of them speak of what they see as they are dying.  It is, certainly, an undeniably recurring theme from hospice rooms.

A person's understanding of how it all works will necessarily hinge on his interpretation of the End Times, and whether he takes a pre-, post- or a- millennial view of things.  I think I will try to do a lay-woman's explanation of the differences between these views over the course of the next few posts.  It's too much for today.

In the meantime, we can rest assured of one thing:  Jesus promises that His followers will enjoy eternal life with Him.  As God is faithful to His promises, we can bank on eternal life.

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  (John 14:2-3, ESV)

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  (John 3:16, ESV)