The Believer’s “Intermediate State” (between Physical Death and Bodily resurrection)
What does the spiritually-regenerated believer experience after physical decease and before bodily resurrection? In this article we will examine the Scriptures concerning the believer’s “intermediate state” between physical death and bodily resurrection. Here are the two views:
- The commonly understood position is that the disembodied souls of believers go straight to heaven when they die, awaiting their bodily resurrection.
- A deviating view is that, like Old Testament saints, the souls of spiritually regenerated believers go to Sheol (Hades) at the point of physical decease to “sleep” in death until their resurrection.
The latter position is embraced by many who adhere to literal destructionism (i.e. conditional immortality), which they support by citing 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and John 5:28-29.
If we genuinely want to know the truth on any given biblical topic it’s important to be honest with the Scriptures regardless of our current view or sectarian bias. We must staunchly follow the hermeneutical rules of “context is king” and “Scripture interprets Scripture,” meaning our interpretation of a passage must harmonize with the surrounding text and with the rest of Scripture. The more detailed and overt passages naturally expand our understanding of the more sketchy or ambiguous ones.
With this understanding, the New Testament denies point blank that believers lie dead in Sheol (Hades) until their resurrection and clearly supports Christians going to be with the Lord in heaven in a disembodied state. I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it so let’s examine evidence from the Scriptures and draw the obvious conclusion, starting with Paul’s statement that…
“I Desire to Depart and be with Christ, which is Better by Far”
Paul is second only to Jesus Christ as far as New Testament characters go, and the LORD used him to write more of the New Testament than any other person, about one-third (not including Hebrews, which many believe he wrote); and half of the book of Acts is devoted to his missionary exploits. What did God inspire Paul to say on the issue of the believer’s intermediate state between death and resurrection?
Paul made a few plain-as-day statements on the matter. Notice how clear he was about where born-again believers go when they die:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Paul wrote this epistle while imprisoned in Rome and the issue of living or dying comes up in verse 20, to which he declares, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” For Paul and all believers, the purpose of life itself is the LORD and dying is actually gain, not loss. I think we can all agree that going to Sheol is not gain! In verse 23 he points out that if he “departs”—that is, he physically dies—he’ll “be with Christ,” which is “better by far” than staying. Verse 24 shows Paul disregarding his yearning to be with the Lord in order to stay and build Christ’s church on earth, which he calls “fruitful labor” in verse 22.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say anything at all about ‘sleeping’ in death in Sheol until he’s bodily resurrected. No, he plainly says that dying is “gain” and that it means to “be with Christ, which is better by far.”
Since the first stage of the bodily resurrection of the righteous doesn’t take place until the Rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), * this would mean that—if believers went to Sheol when they physically died—Paul and other believers throughout the Church Age would be dead in Sheol until the time of the Rapture. In Paul’s case (and all believers from the 1st century) we’re looking at around 2000 years of sleeping in death until their resurrection. To be frank, this makes utter nonsense of Paul’s statements in Philippians 1:20-24. After all, how is being dead in Sheol for the next 2000 years “gain” over living for the Lord and producing “fruitful labor” building his church? Why would Paul “desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” if, in fact, he wouldn’t actually be with Christ for another 2000 years?
* If you’re not familiar with the stages of the resurrection of the righteous, see this article.
Those who hold the position that believer’s go to Sheol when they die argue that—since believers are literally dead in Sheol—their resurrection would seem like a moment of time, even if it took 2000 years. This frankly comes across as forcing one’s biased interpretation into a passage rather than allowing the text to say what it naturally says. The former is an example of eisegesis (ahy-sah-JEE-sis), meaning to import into the Scriptures, whereas the latter is exegesis (ek-sah-JEE-sis), to draw out of the Scriptures.
The plain-sense meaning of Philippians 1:20-24 is that dying is gain because Paul—and, by extension, all believers—go to be with the Lord in heaven unhindered by earthly burdens. Remember the hermeneutical rule: If the plain sense makes sense—and is in harmony with the rest of Scripture—don’t look for any other sense lest you end up with nonsense.
Paul backs-up this position later in this same epistle by calling believers citizens of heaven in Philippians 3:20. Believers are born-again of the seed of Christ by the Holy Spirit and are therefore citizens of heaven. We’re not citizens of Sheol—death! Death has no power over the spiritually regenerated believer!
“Away from the Body and at Home with the Lord”
Here’s another clear statement by Paul about the believer’s intermediate state:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
2 Corinthians 5:1-10
The “earthly tent” that Paul mentions in verse 1 refers to the human body. The “eternal house in heaven” and “heavenly dwelling” mentioned in verses 1-2 do not refer to heaven itself, but rather to the glorified (heavenly) bodies that believers will receive at their bodily resurrection, which takes place when Christ snatches up his church and, later, returns to the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 & Revelation 20:4-6). The nature of these awesome immortal bodies is detailed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, which is covered in this article.
In verse 4 Paul points out that while we are in the “tent” of our earthly, mortal bodies “we groan and are burdened” because we naturally yearn to be clothed with our “heavenly dwelling,” our imperishable resurrection bodies. At the time of our bodily resurrection Paul says that what is mortal will be “swallowed up by life” (verse 4). The next verse stresses that God has created us for this very purpose—to give us immortality and eternal life!
Then in verse 6 Paul says that “we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” The obvious implication is that when we leave these bodies, we will be with the Lord, which perfectly coincides with Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:23-24 from the previous section. If there’s any doubt, Paul states in verses 8-9 that “we are confident… and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”
You tell me: Doesn’t verse 8 strongly suggest that being away from the body means to be at home with the Lord in heaven? And verse 6 too? To reinforce this, Paul stresses in verse 9 that we should make it our ambition to please the Lord whether in the body—that is, alive on earth—or away from it. This presents a problem for the view that believers are dead in Sheol during the intermediate state; after all, how exactly can we make it our goal to please the Lord if we’re dead in Sheol and non-existent as far as conscious life goes? It doesn’t make sense, but it does make sense if we go to be with the Lord in heaven and serve in one capacity or another, which we’ll look at momentarily.
There’s no getting around the fact that both of Paul’s statements in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5 show that being absent from the body (i.e. physically dying) means to be present with the Lord, but only for the believer who’s born-again of the imperishable seed of Christ. Death—Sheol—has no hold on born-again believers. I’ve heard some weak attempts to explain away these two passages, but they always come off as strict sectarians (usually Adventists or JWs) grasping for straws in face of clear Scriptural proof that contradicts their position.
“Whether We are Awake or Asleep, We May Live Together with Him”
Let’s observe one more statement by Paul that makes it clear that believers go to be with the Lord in heaven when they physically die and not to Sheol to ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection.
He [Christ] died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
1 Thessalonians 5:10
“Awake” here refers to believers alive on this earth while “asleep” refers to believers who have passed away. The latter concerns the body ‘sleeping’ in death and not the soul in light of Paul’s clear statements above as well as further crystal-clear evidence we’ll look at in a moment. With this understanding, Paul says that, whether alive on this earth or physically dead, we—believers—will “live together with him,” Jesus Christ.
This of course presents a serious problem for those who say that Christians lie dead in Sheol until their resurrection, but it presents no problem for those who believe—as Paul believed—that we go to heaven to be with the Lord at the point of physical death. After all, you cannot very well “live together with him (Christ)” if you’re dead in Sheol with no consciousness whatsoever until you are resurrected at the Rapture of the Church.
This is a crushing blow to the position that believers go to Sheol when they die.
Peter Will Soon Put Aside “the Tent of his Body”
Consider how Peter phrases his imminent physical decease in this passage:
I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.
2 Peter 1:13-15
Notice how Peter refers to living in this world as living “in the tent of this body” in verse 13 (other translations say “tabernacle” instead of “tent,” but that’s what a tabernacle is—a tent). He then describes dying in terms of “putting aside” the tent of his body. Peter knew he was going to physically die soon because the Lord made it clear to him (verse 14). He then refers to dying as his “departure” in the next verse.
This agrees with Paul’s statements in the previous three sections: When believer’s physically die it’s only the death of the body because we’re born-again of the seed of Christ and have eternal life in our spirits. As such, our dying is merely a “putting aside of our earthly tent,” a “departure” to go be with the Lord in heaven. Praise God!
Human Souls “Under the Altar” During the Tribulation
Let’s now turn to the book of Revelation to see even more proof that believers go to heaven when they die:
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.
The sixth chapter of Revelation involves the seal judgments that will take place during the 7-year Tribulation period that’s coming at the end of this age; this passage details the fifth seal judgment. The text plainly shows tribulation martyrs in heaven in a disembodied state, conscious and speaking to the Lord. In fact, each of them is given a robe and instructed to be patient. Please notice that they are in communion with the Lord in heaven, which coincides with Paul’s statements in previous sections that dying for the believer means to depart this earth and be “at home with the Lord” or “be with Christ,” living “together with him.” Revelation 6:9-11 shows this literally happening in heaven. These are obvious facts about the passage.
Now, someone may “spiritualize” the text and maintain that it’s symbolic of this or that and therefore shouldn’t be taken literally, but we should only spiritualize passages in this manner if there’s clear indication that the language is indeed symbolic. Not to mention make sure there are no passages in the same general context that support a literal interpretation.
The obvious problem with teachers freely allegorizing certain passages without valid scriptural justification is that there are no rules and the interpreter can spiritualize at whim according to the lens of his or her theology. This type of “methodology” can then be used to “prove” practically anything! Needless to say, if you see a minister doing this it’s a big red flag.
I admit that the reference to souls being “under the altar” in Revelation 6:9-11 sounds somewhat fantastical, but two things: 1. What do we know about the dynamics of this altar in heaven? There could be room for innumerable people under this altar. And 2. nowhere does the passage or context indicate that the language is symbolic (as, say, Revelation 1:20 does). Again, the text plainly shows believers in heaven—referred to as “souls”—conscious, speaking, given garments and instructed to wait. They ask the Lord a question and are instructed—by the Lord—to wait until the full number of their fellow servants are likewise martyred. It sounds like literal souls in heaven to me. Not to mention this passage is backed up by an even clearer reference to martyred believers in heaven in the very next chapter. Let’s look at it…
Tribulation Martyrs “Before the Throne of God” Serving Day and Night
Notice what Christians during the Tribulation will be doing in heaven after they’re martyred for Christ:
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with
16 ‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
This passage shows the multitude of Christian martyrs that will come out of the Tribulation, now in heaven, wearing the robes given them in the previous chapter. This answers the question of when this is taking place. The elder speaking in the passage explains who these people are, where they are and what they’ll be doing while there (verses 14-15). There is no symbolism—these are disembodied believers in heaven. What are they doing? They’re “before the throne of God and serve him day and night in the temple.”
They’re not yet on earth reigning with Christ during the Millennium because this won’t occur until the second stage of the bodily resurrection of the righteous (Revelation 20:4-6). Again, the events of Revelation 7 take place during the seal judgments, which are the first in a series of three multi-faceted judgments. The second stage of the resurrection of the righteous doesn’t take place until after the Tribulation right before the Millennium. (See this article if you’re not familiar with the stages of this resurrection).
How do people who reject the idea of believers going to heaven when they die explain this passage? I’ve actually heard some say it applies to the Millennium or eternity. If this were the case, the passage would appear somewhere in Revelation 20-22, not Revelation 7. If it’s a “flash forward,” as they suggest, we’d see evidence of this in the text—even a hint—but there isn’t any. The passage is an account of martyred believers during the Tribulation serving the Lord in heaven. It even expressly states this.
People who try to write this passage off—as well as Revelation 6:9-11—do so out of rigid sectarianism. The idea of believers going to Sheol when they die and ‘sleeping’ in death until their resurrection is a traditional doctrine of their sect and so they desperately try to cut & paste Revelation 7:9-17 and 6:9-11 and place them somewhere in chapters 20-22. It’s sad that people resort to such unsound interpreting measures, obviously due to the pressure of religious tradition. However, mature believers aren’t concerned with what human religion teaches; they’re interested in discovering what God’s Word actually says. Needless to say, cutting & pasting Revelation 7:9-17 and 6:9-11 and placing them in Revelation 20-22 is an example of un-rightly dividing the Scriptures, that is, incorrectly interpreting them. I’m not saying that we can’t consider this as an option in our search for truth on the issue of the believer’s intermediate state; I’m just pointing out why this option must be rejected.
Believers are Born-Again of the Seed of Christ by the Holy Spirit
All the above is rooted in the fact that believers are born again of the imperishable seed of Christ:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,…
23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.
1 Peter 1:3,23
Peter’s talking about spiritual rebirth here, which is a blatant truth of the new covenant:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
For further evidence, Jesus said that people must be born-again to enter God’s kingdom and explained what he meant by saying, “Flesh gives birth to flesh but Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:3,6). Just as your mother gave birth to you, so the Holy Spirit gives re-birth to a person’s spirit when he or she turns to the Lord through the gospel. This spiritual rebirth is what Peter was referring to in 1 Peter 1:23-2:3. He even says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (2:2).
Let’s focus on Peter’s statement that believers have “been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). The “word of God” in this verse refers to the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ. We’ve been born of Jesus’ imperishable “seed.” Notice how this passage puts it:
No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.
1 John 3:9
In this passage “seed” is the Greek word sperma and should be translated “sperm.” As such, we’ve been born again of the imperishable sperm of Christ. This is obviously a spiritual rebirth as our physical bodies will wither and eventually die, but we have the hope of the bodily resurrection where we’ll receive a powerful, glorified, spiritual, immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), Praise God!
So what’s my point? Due to spiritual rebirth through the sperm of Christ and power of the Holy Spirit believers have eternal life, which is the life-of-the-age-to-come. We don’t have it outwardly yet—that is, physically—but we have it inwardly. Notice how clear this is in the Scriptures:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
1 John 5:13
Because believers intrinsically possess eternal life, death—Sheol—has no power over them. The only part of our being that can die is our body because it’s not redeemed yet. Notice how Paul put it:
…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.
Why does Paul specify the redemption of our bodies? Because believers are already redeemed inwardly via the seed (sperm) of Christ; it’s our bodies that need redeemed. This redemption takes place at the resurrection of the righteous when we’ll receive imperishable bodies (1 Corinthians 15:42-46 & Revelation 20:4-6).
Our inward self, however, possesses inherent eternal life, which is why the born-again believer doesn’t go to Sheol when he or she dies. Death holds no power over us except for our aging natural bodies. As such, when our bodies die we go to be with the Lord in heaven, awaiting our forthcoming bodily resurrection.
I repeat: Death holds no power over blood-bought, spiritually regenerated believers who intrinsically possess eternal life!
This is not to say, however, that a believer can’t lose their eternal life sometime after being born-again while still on this earth if they choose to walk in unbelief. After all, if it takes faith to be saved, one cannot very well be saved if he or she no longer has faith. Consider it like this: Just because a baby is born into this world doesn’t mean it will make it to maturity. If the infant’s not cared for properly it will perish. Just the same, someone can be genuinely born of God and not make it to spiritual maturity if they’re not cared for properly, which is why the LORD holds ministers accountable (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). See my article Once Saved Always Saved? at the Fountain of Life website (dirkwaren.com). *
* For more info on how God holds ministers responsible for the vulnerable believers under their care see this article.
Believers “have Faith and PRESERVE their Souls”
The above explains something about the believer’s soul:
But we are not of those who shrink back to destruction, but of those who have faith to the preserving of the soul.
Hebrews 10:39 (NASB)
But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Hebrews 10:39 (ESV)
But we are not among those who shrink back and thus perish, but are among those who have faith and preserve their souls.
Hebrews 10:39 (NET)
and we are not of those drawing back to destruction, but of those believing to a preserving of soul.
Hebrews 10:39 (YLT)
Because believers are spiritually born-again of the sperm of Christ they have eternal life inwardly and therefore death has no power over their inward selves—mind and spirit. Only their bodies are subject to death. Believers are “those who have faith and preserve their souls” when they physically die. As such, they escape death and Sheol altogether and go straight to heaven when their bodies perish. Why do you think Jesus said:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
Unless they’re raptured by Christ, the only death born-again believers will experience is physical death. They will never see true death—Sheol—because their souls are preserved from death. When they physically perish they don’t consciously expire; they go to be with the Lord in heaven.
Objections to the Believer’s Intermediate state in Heaven
I’ve heard the argument that there’s too little elaboration on the believers’ intermediate state in heaven between physical death and bodily resurrection, yet the multiple passages we’ve looked at plainly paint the picture of believers alive in heaven with the Lord serving before his throne day and night. What else needs to be said? How much more detail do we require?
I’ve also heard the scoffing objection: “Do we go to heaven, only to be pulled out at the time of the Rapture and then put back in heaven for seven years until the Millennium?” The clear scriptural exposition on the believer’s intermediate state, bodily resurrection, the Millennium and eternal state will set people free on the matter (as Jesus said, “the truth shall set you free”). I realize that religious tradition limits the nature of eternal life to going to heaven and living on a cloud playing a harp forever and that’s about it, but God’s Word tells something different, something more, much more.
Believers only exist in a non-physical state in heaven until their bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42-44), which takes place at the Rapture, as shown in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. For Christian martyrs during the Tribulation they only exist in a non-physical state in heaven until their bodily resurrection at the end of the Tribulation, as seen in Revelation 20:4-6. Those who are bodily resurrected at the time of the Christ’s return for his church—the Rapture—do go back to heaven and later accompany Christ when he returns to the earth to establish his millennial reign, which is when the second stage of the “first resurrection” takes place, again shown in Revelation 20:4-6. This passage shows that the partakers of this resurrection—martyrs of the Tribulation and those still alive on earth at the end—don’t go back to heaven but rather “reign with Christ a thousand years,” which of course refers to Christ’s millennial reign on earth, not heaven.
After that, believers temporarily go “back in heaven” while the LORD renovates the earth and universe, removing all vestiges of sin and death (2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1-4 & Romans 8:21). When this is accomplished, the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, will “come down out of heaven from God” to rest on the new earth (Revelation 21:2,10 & 3:12). This is the eternal home of believers, not that we’ll be limited to the confines of the city any more than you’re limited to the confines of your current home and neighborhood. Since God at this time makes his dwelling with humanity “and he will live with them” in this new eternal era (Revelation 21:3), you could say that heaven and the physical realm somehow intersect. And it’s going to be more awesome than we can possibly imagine! See the this article for details.
Although this is a little complicated, it’s what God’s Word plainly teaches and we’ll examine the sequence of events in more detail next chapter, as well as provide diagrams to help you visualize human eschatology. It’s really not that difficult to grasp. In any case, to mock the reality of these events because they’re not simplistic is irreverent and foolish. Besides, they are simple in a sense: There will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous, just as Jesus and Paul said (John 5:28-29 & Acts 24:15); it’s the details of these events that get complex. Furthermore, since when do we reject the reality of something because it’s complicated? Is the human nervous system simple or complex? How about the billions of galaxies in the universe? Need I go on?
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Let’s now look at the passage people use to support the idea that Christians don’t go to heaven when they die:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage each other with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Although some people use this passage to support the belief that Christians ‘sleep’ in death in Sheol when they physically die it ironically supports the position that Christians go to heaven to await their bodily resurrection.
Let’s first address the question: Who are “those who sleep in death” whom Paul mentions in verse 13? This is a reference to believers who have already died. “Sleeping in death” here only refers to the body sleeping in death in the grave (or tomb or whatever the case); it’s not referring to the believer’s soul sleeping in death because the New Testament repeatedly shows that believers are alive in heaven during their intermediate state between death and bodily resurrection, as we have plainly seen in this chapter. In fact, this passage itself proves that believers who have died go to heaven because verse 14 says that, at the time of the Rapture of the church, “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Those who have “fallen asleep in him” is a reference to believers who have already physically died—their bodies “sleeping” in the dust. Notice that these believers will come with Jesus from heaven at the time of the Rapture. How so? Because that’s where they already are, not their bodies, but their souls!
Verse 16 shows that the “dead in Christ”—meaning those who have already died and whom “God brings with Jesus” from heaven—will “rise first,” referring to their bodily resurrection where they’ll receive their glorified immortal bodies. Then those believers who are still alive on earth at the time of the Rapture will be transformed physically, receiving their imperishable bodies:
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 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. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
55 “Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:50-57
As noted in the previous section, the resurrection of the righteous occurs in stages. Jesus’ resurrection is the first stage, the time of the Rapture is the second stage and the beginning (and end) of the Millennium is the third stage (Revelation 20:4-6). All three together are the resurrection of the righteous. We’ll address this next chapter.
Speaking of which, the “first resurrection” that takes place right before the Millennium offers even more proof that believers go to heaven when they die awaiting their bodily resurrection. Let’s look at that…
“I Saw the Souls of Those Who had Been Beheaded”
The book of Revelation shares John’s revelational vision, which is actually “the revelation of Jesus Christ” according to Revelation 1:1. In this next passage John depicts events taking place in heaven after the Tribulation and before the Millennium:
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 5 (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
John describes what he sees in Heaven and says he “saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony” during the Tribulation. Let me repeat: John is in heaven (via his vision) and he sees the souls of believers who were martyred during the Tribulation. They’re in heaven! Nothing is said whatsoever about these souls being resurrected from Hades (i.e. Sheol), as is the case with unbelievers after the Millennium at the resurrection of the unrighteous, (Revelation 20:13).
Now some might argue that verse 4 says that “they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years,” which of course suggests that they were fully dead, but this simply means that they came to life physically since their souls are already shown alive in heaven after being martyred for the Lord, just like the martyrs in Revelation 7:9-17 and the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11. Remember the hermeneutical rules: “Context is king” and “Scripture interprets Scripture.” With this understanding, here’s what verse 4 is saying: “they came to life [physically] and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” You see? The addition of one simple word clarifies the statement and settles the matter.
What more proof could anyone need? God’s Word is clear on the issue: Believers go to heaven when they die—in a disembodied form—awaiting their bodily resurrection.
Christ’s Statement about the Resurrections of the Righteous and the Unrighteous
We’ve observed from the Scriptures that the resurrection of the righteous takes place in three stages. With this in mind, let’s look at a statement the Messiah made about the resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous:
“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
Jesus mentions two resurrections here—a resurrection to life for the righteous and a resurrection to condemnation for the wicked. The Lord doesn’t provide details in this simple statement and the wording makes it seem like there’s only one resurrection of the righteous and that the resurrections of the righteous and wicked take place simultaneously. This is why we have the hermeneutical rule “Scripture interprets Scripture” so we can interpret non-detailed passages like this one with passages that provide more exposition. The other Scriptures that we examined in this chapter prove that the resurrection of the righteous takes place in stages, starting with Jesus’ resurrection, then the Rapture of the church (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and, lastly, the resurrection that occurs after the Tribulation (Revelation 20:4-6), which presumably includes one that occurs at the end of the Millennium. Only the last one would occur at the same general time as the resurrection of the unrighteous.
Now some will point out how Jesus says that people in their graves will hear his voice and come out, suggesting that believers are sleeping in Sheol, but the word for “graves” here isn’t Hades but rather mnémeion (mnay-MY-on), which refers to a tomb, grave or monument. Hence, for the righteous, Jesus is referring to a bodily resurrection. Furthermore, as we have seen in this chapter, the rest of the New Testament clearly shows that the souls of believers are in heaven awaiting their bodily resurrection.
Of course, this isn’t the case with the unredeemed. They lack redemption and eternal life and therefore go to Sheol when they die to ‘sleep’ in death until their resurrection to face the Great White Throne Judgment where “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire,” which is the second death (Revelation 20:14-15).
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