I’ve got little kids, so when a relative passes away, questions arise. The short, kid-friendly answer to “What happens when you die?” is "You go to heaven.”
Maybe the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard in my life was when my four-year-old was at his great-grandmother’s memorial service. It was open-casket, so he could see “Great-Great” lying there. But he also knew that she had died. Given our standard answer to questions surrounding death, his question to me was an obvious one. He looked at Great-Great, then looked up at me: “Is this Heaven?”
While Leo's question was a great one, I’ve heard statements surrounding the deaths of loved ones that lead us to believe that once someone dies, they immediately go to Heaven. Common phrases like this can cause us to reach that conclusion:
• He is now dancing with Jesus
• She’s got a new body now
• He has a new home
But does Christianity really teach that when we die, we immediately go to Heaven? Historically, no.
Traditionally, the Christian belief has been that human beings consist of two major parts: one physical, the other non-physical. Some divide these into more categories (flesh, soul, heart, mind) but we'll keep it simple and call it two: body and soul.
We come into this world with continually changing bodies and souls. Relationships, circumstances, choices, and other variables determine how we develop over time. But one thing is certain: body and soul are inseparable. They are intertwined, and both are irreducible parts of what makes us human.
But at the point of death, a terrible tragedy takes place. Whether a Christian or not, when we die, those two things are unnaturally and forcibly ripped apart. The body remains in an earthly state. It stays here, either in the ground or otherwise. The soul moves on to another place, to a new existence. But neither the body nor soul will have found its permanent resting place. That day—what Christians call Heaven—will not happen until later. But when?
There is a lot of debate on exactly when, but for centuries Christians have tied their final place of existence at or near the time Christ returns. Once Jesus returns to establish his kingdom, we are told that not only this earth, but of the heavens, will be transformed. Things will start over, with Jesus in full control. When that happens, our imperfect, lifeless bodies will be resurrected and—just as miraculously—reunited with our souls. Along with Heaven and Earth, we will also be made new.
So when we die, we don’t go immediately into Heaven, though our soul does get to enjoy a mysterious presence with God. And that presence is better than anything we could ever experience on Earth. But on the day when our soul can rejoin our bodies . . . that is what the Christian ultimately longs for. We join all of creation waiting for that time.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved.