“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 2:9-10a
What happens when we die? What is heaven like? Those are two gigantic life questions. A recent trendy view is that there isn’t any existence after death. When I was a kid going to school on the bus, we’d gleefully sing songs to pass the time and have some fun. One of the songs we sang went like this, the worms go in, the worms go out, they eat your guts and they spit them out! We’d sing those words over and over again in our youthful ignorance. The trend today is to remain in such a childish mindset denying any afterlife. It’s sad.
There is an afterlife. We know there is in part because One has defeated death and been risen from the dead. Jesus has risen from the dead and has promised that His followers will follow Him in resurrection. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believers in Me, though he my die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). This teaching is addressed to those who answer “Yes” to Jesus question. But what exactly does happen when we die? What is heaven like?
God has answered those questions in His word. The Bible is God’s love letter to humanity. It is His manual for life. The Bible tells us the meaning and purpose of life. And the summary culmination of what life is all about is to know God in Christ and to spend eternity with Him. Life’s meaning is discovered in proportion to our knowing God. And we know God through His inspired word. Many believe truth but some who believe stop when it comes to the idea of God revealing or disclosing anything about the afterlife. The Christian Church today and unfortunately, many Christians, are woefully ignorant about what happens when we die and what heaven is like. In this short teaching I’d like to whet your appetite a bit by considering some evidence disclosed by God about those two questions: What happens when we die? What is heaven life?
When we study the Bible, we should see ourselves as a detective. We are investigating. Not so much the scene of a crime, (though God has revealed crimes of sin in His revelation history) but more a treasure map. It’s not that God hides treasures from us, it’s that He walks us through and helps us discover truths and profound treasures that we, because of sin, spiritual dullness or spiritual immaturity, aren’t able to readily see. The Holy Spirit comes to open our spiritual eyes to see wonderful things from God’s word. We should be praying, “Open my eyes, that I may see, wondrous things from Your law” (Psalm 119:18). We walk through the pages of the Bible prayerfully making observations, listening to the Holy Spirit who will help us to ask the right questions, and following His lead in collecting evidence which will help us answer those heaven-sent questions. This is the attitude to help us see what we need to see and acquire the right perspective on this life, as well as the next.
When we look at the evidence in the Bible, we see heaven is an actual place that people are often ignorant of which adds to the pain of grieving (i.e. 1 Thessalonians 4:13). The Apostle Paul was given a glimpse of heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-7) which caused him to later comment about him, “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). When you know about heaven and what God has planned for those who love Him, you’ll be eager to leave this earthly existence and get on with your eternal life.
God by the Holy Spirit, has revealed details about heaven to us:
1 Corinthians 2:9–14 (NKJV) – 9 But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God. 11 For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God. 13 These things we also speak, not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.
Some people stop at the “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” and assert that we can’t know about heaven. But if you look further and the context of the passage it states exactly the opposite to that assertion. It actually states that “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.” The Bible, the God-breathed revelation of God’s truth (i.e. 2 Timothy 3:16-17), does provide us with information about heaven, the place God has prepared for those who love Him.
So, what can we glean from God’s word about what happens when we die and about heaven? Let’s look at some of the evidence God has provided in His word about heaven.
First, the present heaven is an intermediate state; presently temporal but will be made eternal. I want to begin here by making what you might receive as a bold statement about the present heaven. The present heaven, is a temporary intermediate state. I say this based on the scripture in Revelation which states, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Revelation 21:1a). If the present heaven (and earth) will at some point pass away, that means they are not permanent but temporary. The present heaven is a glorious place, but it is only a transitional intermediate place until it is replaced by a permanent eternal heaven.
Second, we go to heaven at the point of the Rapture or at death. We have already gone in to great detail about how born again of the Spirit Christians will go to be with Jesus at the Rapture of the Church. The other way a person goes to be with Jesus is at their death. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The moment a person breathes their last breath, their heart stops beating, and their brain functions stop, at that moment they go immediately into the presence of Jesus.
Third, only those who have been born again of the Holy Spirit go to heaven. Jesus said it quite clearly, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3; see context of John 3:1-21). This is the good news of the Gospel: that as a gift of God’s grace (e.g. Ephesians 2:1-9; Titus 3:4-7) through faith in Christ (e.g. Romans 1:16-17; Ephesians 2:8-9) our sins (which separate us from God – e.g. Isiah 59:1-2; Psalm 66:18; Habakkuk 1:13) can be forgiven (e.g. Acts 13:23-41; 26:13-18; Ephesians 1:3-8; Colossians 1:13-14) which results in us being spiritually regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:5; Ephesians 1:13-14).
Fourth, this intermediate state is a place composed of hell as well as heaven. We see this in Jesus account of the rich man and Lazarus where the rich man is in a place of torment and Lazarus in a place of comforting (Luke 16:22-24). This “hell” is also temporary in that at the culmination of all things it will be thrown into the Lake of Fire, not a place of annihilation, but a place of eternal torment (Revelation 20:11-15).
Fifth, Jesus referred to the intermediate present heaven as “paradise.” Jesus told the thief on the cross who put his faith in Him, “Assuredly, I say to you, to day you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This further testifies to the fact that when we die we go instantly to be with Jesus. But it also describes this intermediate state as “paradise” (Greek paradeisos). This is the place the Apostle Paul was caught up to (2 Corinthians 12:4). Paradeisos is a Greek word that was borrowed from the Persian language. It is a word used to describe a walled garden or a king’s garden. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses paradeisos to describe: The Garden of Eden – Genesis 2:8; in Nehemiah 2:8 to describe the forests of a king; In Ecclesiastes 2:5 it is used to describe the garden of Solomon filled with orchards; in Numbers 24:6 to describe a garden by a river; in Isaiah 1:30 and Jeremiah 29:5 as a garden; and in Ezekiel 31:8 and 9 it is used to describe “the garden of God.” The idea is a place of fruitfulness, beauty, peace and solitude. Paradise is a place where we can rest and heal from the trials of this life. Paradise is a good place. It is the place that Paul was taken to and that made him yearn to return to (compare 2 Corinthians 12:4 and Philippians 1:23).
Paul said “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). That should be out attitude. While we are living our earthly existence, we should live it all out for Jesus. This life is hard work and trials at times, but what gets us through is the hope we have to “gain” paradise when we die. Live for Christ now. Die for Christ eventually. Spend eternity with Jesus later. That is a good way to live.
Sixth, life after death is a conscious state. When Jesus described the existence of the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife, He described them as being in a conscious state (Luke 16:19-31). The teaching of “soul sleep” is not supported by scripture. The Bible only speaks of the death of people in terms of “sleep” as a euphemism to describe the state of their dead body which will be resurrected later. When we die, whether we go to heaven or hell, we will be conscious. In support of this is the fact that every reference in Revelation to people who have died and are in heaven is one of their being conscious. In Revelation it describes people in the following way:
- Revelation 6:9–11 (NKJV) – 9 When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 10 And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.
From this description we learn the following: “Who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” – Those in heaven are associated with their lives on earth. “And they cried with a loud voice” – They are able to express themselves audibly. They can communicate. They have emotions as indicated by their raising their voices loudly.
How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on thos who dwell on the earth?” – From these words we can deduce the following: They are rational in that they ask God a question. They remember and are aware of what went on during their time on earth. Just as the rich man is expected to remember how he lived on earth (Luke 16:25), so are these martyrs. They are aware of what is happening on earth. They know God has yet to avenge them. Later the heavenly inhabitants shout praises to God for His judgment on earth Revelation 18:20; 19:1-2). There is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents which indicates they know something about people getting saved (Luke 15:10). They have an audience with God where they can ask Him questions. That they ask a question indicates they need to learn. This shouted question seems to indicate that those in heaven are interceding or even praying on behalf of those who remain on the earth. Prayer doesn’t stop in heaven! In fact, prayer is enhanced and more vital than ever in the presence of the Lord.
Randy Alcon in his book Everything you always wanted to know about heaven” states, “In heaven, people desire understanding and pursue it. There is also time in the present heaven. People are aware of time’s passing and are eager for the coming day of the Lord’s judgment. God answers that they must ‘rest a little longer.’ Waiting requires the passing of time. I see no reason to believe that the realities of this passage apply only to one group of martyrs and to no one else in Heaven. We should assume that what is true of them is also true of our loves ones already there and it will be true of us when we die.” 
Then a white robe was given to each of them” – Those martyred for their faith are given white robes. This indicates a special status for those who were martyred for their faith. It implies they are in a tangible state with tangible clothing. Jesus is aware of what we do on earth, especially the ministry we are involved in (Revelation 3:15). There is evidence that God keeps an account of what people do on earth, even their words! (cf. Matthew 6:19-21; 12:36; Revelation 14:13).
The words “until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” – Indicate that God has a specific number and limit to how many will be martyred for their faith. God always acts in an orderly way.
Seventh, will our knowledge of what is happening on earth diminish heaven in some way? In our intermediate state we will be aware of the truth and fulfillment of God’s word which reveals the final outcome and victory of God. There will be concern in heaven for those who remain on the earth. But there will be rejoicing as we see God’s plans come to be (i.e. Revelation 12:10-12). There will be tremendous regret for those in hell who remember the many gracious opportunities to repent and turn to Jesus that they ignored (e.g. Luke 16:24-25). Jesus identified with His persecuted Church (Acts 9:4-5). He likely felt sorrow for those being persecuted for His name. Therefore, in this intermediate state of heaven, we too may feel a degree of sorrow. There will be happiness and joy in the intermediate present heaven, but it won’t be based on ignorance, it will be based on perspective.
But in the New Heaven and New Earth there will be no more reason for sadness. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Eighth, life after death appears to be a physical or tangible place. When Jesus was resurrected He had a tangible resurrection body as opposed to being in a ghostly state (John 20:19-31). Jesus did not appear as a ghost as some cults teach (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses) and those who hold to a dualistic world view. In the Book of Revelation those depicted in heaven are seen by John (e.g. Revelation 7:9). Angels are seen by John in heaven (e.g. Revelation 8:6). John even sees animals in heaven such as an eagle flying (e.g. Revelation 8:13). In Hebrews it states that the Old Testament system of worship with its Tabernacle/Temple was a model of the real heavenly objects (e.g. Hebrews 8:3-6). God’s inspired word speaks of a literal Mount Zion and “city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (e.g. Hebrews 12:22). Jesus promised to give “fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God” to those who victorious in this life (Revelation 2:7).
Ninth, there is evidence that we will have physical-types of bodies in heaven. God and angels are spirits (John 4:23-24; Hebrews 1:14). However, human beings were created by God as a physical body that God breathed into (Genesis 2:7). Our created physical body is part of what distinguishes us from angelic beings. Therefore, it isn’t farfetched to think that in some way our heavenly bodies will include a physical aspect in some way. Lazarus had a finger that the rich man asked to dip in water (Luke 16:24). John was instructed to eat a scroll that would taste like honey in his stomach (Revelation 10:9-10). If John had a physical body when he visited heaven, it just might mean that those in heaven have tangible bodies of some kind. If Jesus resurrection body appeared to be physical, might not ours also be physical in some way? Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11-12) were physically taken up to heaven. It’s true that we will receive our heavenly bodies at the return of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:52-53). However, even if the bodies we receive upon death are temporary transitional bodies, there is evidence they will in some way be physical or tangible.
Tenth, there is an initial judgment at death. In Hebrews it states, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). At death there is an initial judgement as to whether one goes to heaven or hell (intermediate). This will be a judgment as to whether we have been saved from our sins by God’s grace through faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). If we have received Jesus by faith as our Savior (been born again spiritually – John 3) then God will see the righteousness of Jesus put to our account when He looks on us at this initial judgment (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:21). Those who are “in Christ” will go to heaven. If we have not been born again through faith in Jesus we will be put in hell. Both heaven and hell are “everlasting.” Jesus said, “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46). The same word (Greek aionios) is used to translate “everlasting” and “eternal” in this verse.
Born again Christians need not fear this initial judgment. They are righteous by virtue of their security found in Jesus (1 John 5:13). God’s perfect love in us casts out any fear of this judgment (1 John 4:17-18). The unrighteous have no such confidence. They will tremble at this initial judgment when it is determined they did not trust Christ as Savior. But there is a judgment that Christians will experience. It is “the Judgment Seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10-12; 1 Corinthians 3:13-14; 2 Corinthians 5:10). This is a judgment where Jesus will judge our works. We will be given rewards based on the way we lived our lives in Christ.
When we die we will be present with the Lord and we will be with the Lord forever. The intermediate state of paradise is not forever. It will be renewed or regenerated by the Lord and replaced by a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is in this New place that we will be forever with the Lord. In this New place God comes down to live with us! John is inspired to reveal later in the Revelation of Jesus Christ, “And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). It will be the most glorious of all glories for us when we see this come to pass. To that we can only say, Maranatha! “Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b).
Do you see heaven a bit clearer now? Do you have a sense of what happens at the point of death? I hope God’s word has cleared up a few things in this regard for you. Mark Twain’s well-known quote regarding people who are “So heavenly minded they are no earthly good” may cross your mind. But Mark Twain was not a bulwark of Christian character if he was a Christian at all. Dwelling on heaven is never a bad thing. In fact, the Bible instructs us to keep our focus on heaven. A picture of heaven should be a great incentive for us to press on. Heaven is our final destination. Heaven is a great blessing for us to focus on with great expectations. Paul instructed the Colossians to do just that, focus on heaven:
- Colossians 3:1-3 – “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.2 Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Heaven is a place you should want to know about. Unfortunately, much of the Church has ignored heaven and what it’s like portraying it as a vast enigmatic mystery. But the Bible tells us a great deal about heaven. When you know what heaven is like it will become a place you can’t wait to get to. Heaven is where we will spend eternity. Christians aren’t so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Christians are usually so earthly minded they have become useless for earth and heaven. But it doesn’t have to be that we. I hope and pray understanding a bit more of heaven will whet your appetite so much that you re-set your life priorities in a way that makes you so heavenly minded you’ll be earthly good, and most importantly you’ll share the hope of heaven with those around you and be used by God to glorify His name by leading others to experience the hope of His glory. Can’t wait to get the heaven. How about you?
 Randy Alcorn, Everything you always wanted to know about HEAVEN, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008) p. 23.