There is a lot of confusion about what happens after death. Many Christians have an idea of life after death involving going to heaven or a heaven-like place after they die. The problem with this theory is that it contradicts what the Bible teaches about everyone being judged at the same time.
The Bible is actually fairly clear about what happens after death, but the confusion comes from taking certain verses out of context and neglecting other verses. Let's first establish some biblical facts about life after death.
"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then will he sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. " (Matthew 25:31-32 WEB)
All nations and all peoples are gathered before Jesus at the same time to be judged. The righteous will be separated as the sheep, while the unrighteous will be separated as goats.
This means that people are not individually judged, so no one is currently in heaven in the way that many people think of it. If someone was in heaven now, they would first need to be individually judged.
So then what happens to people after they die?
While we are alive, we exist within time. Time defines our existence. In fact, we were always meant to exist within time.
Consider Adam and Eve in Genesis: prior to the introduction of sin into the world in Genesis 3, God's creation was perfect. And in this perfect world, humans had bodies and they existed within time. Certainly time was never-ending, and people didn't die, but humans still were created to exist within time (all human actions require "time" to complete).
And this perfect creation at the beginning is the same perfect creation that God intends to restore, only better (Revelation 21).
When we die, by the very nature of no longer being alive, we exit time only to immediately reappear at the end time. This is how everyone is judged at the "same time." In a sense, when we exit time, we are immediately in the future when it is judgment day - it is the future in relation to those who are still alive. We are immediately placed before God and Jesus Christ to be judged with everyone else who has ever existed.
This concept is true because we are not created to exist outside of time. It is not that we cease to exist, rather it is that we reappear immediately at the end of time.
For someone like Paul who died two-thousand years ago, it will seem to him like we died at the same time as him, even though for those born later into time it has been over two-thousand years.
Another reason why this concept is true is because, like existing in time, humans were never meant to exist without a body. On the contrary, we were created to live in a body.
Returning to God's perfect creation in Genesis 1-2, this perfect creation involved humans living in bodies. We were always meant to exist in a body from the beginning. The only difference between this original perfect creation and the current imperfect creation is the existence of sin and death (Genesis 3) and it's consequences.
In Paul's letters, he speaks about the fact that those who will be resurrected will have a perfect, imperishable, and immortal body. Paul says, "It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body." (1 Corinthians 15:44 WEB) Paul also says, "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality." (1 Corinthians 15:53 WEB)
We will have bodies like Jesus Christ's resurrected body, which Thomas could touch. "Then he said to Thomas, 'Reach here your finger, and see my hands.'" (John 20:27 WEB)
Humans were designed to exist in a body. We were born with a body, and in the new creation we will have a perfect body. Like our existence within time, when we die, we leave our current body only to go immediately into a new body destined for either eternal life or eternal death.
Human "life" is defined by a physical body and time, which will both exist in the new creation.
Paul hints at this fact when he discusses being clothed with our eternal dwelling (when discussing the issue of death). Paul says, "For we know that if the earthly house of our tent is dissolved, we have a building from God...For most assuredly in this we groan, longing to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven...we will not be found naked...that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now he who made us for this very thing is God, who also gave to us the down payment of the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 5:1-5 WEB)
When God corrects the universe by returning creation to how it was prior to sin, it will be similar to how it is now, only perfect. John says, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth have passed away, and the sea is no more." (Revelation 21:1 WEB) God says, "For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind." (Isaiah 65:17 WEB)
In Revelation 21, John vividly describes a new Jerusalem and God living with us on Earth. This is how it was in the beginning, with God actually being in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). Essentially, God's goal is to return his creation back to how it was intended to be, which is a perfect version of the current creation.
The Bible is also clear on what is necessary to be apart of this new creation. In Revelation, Jesus tells believers in the church of Sardis, "Remember therefore how you have received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If therefore you won't watch, I will come as a thief, and you won't know what hour I will come on you. Nevertheless you have a few names in Sardis that did not defile their garments. They will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who overcomes will be arrayed like this in white garments, and I will in no way blot his name out of the book of life." (Revelation 3:3-5 WEB)
It is important to realize that Jesus is warning "believers" that if they don't repent they risk having their name removed from the book of life.
For those who are unrighteous, there will be a second and eternal death. In Revelation, Jesus says, "He who overcomes won't be hurt by the second death." (Revelation 2:11 WEB) And John notes, "This is the second death, the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:14 WEB)
Those who will experience this second death are those who commit sin, whether they say they believe in Jesus or not, "But for the cowardly, unbelieving, sinners, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their part is in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death." (Revelation 21:8 WEB)
This fact is because we show what we believe by what we do. James says, "faith apart from works is dead." (James 2:26 WEB) Paul agrees when he says, "They profess that they know God, but by their works they deny him." (Titus 1:16 WEB)
Even Jesus says, "He who doesn't take his cross and follow after me, isn't worthy of me." (Matthew 10:38 WEB)
There are many verses that could be used to support the idea of existing outside of a body or outside of time, when taken out of context. It is important to keep scripture within it's context in order to understand what the author is saying.
Scripture is sometimes used to support a belief when the foundational message that the author intends to communicate has nothing to do with what it is being used to support.
For example, in Luke 16, Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which involves a poor man named Lazarus talking to a rich man in hell. Jesus intention for telling this story is to make the point to beware of greed.
Jesus is not teaching about heaven and hell. Using this scripture to teach anything about heaven and hell is taking the scripture out of context. There are plenty of other parables when Jesus does teach about life after death, such as the Parable of the Weeds and the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.
Jesus Speaks in Figures of Speech, even using exaggeration, so it is completely reasonable for him to tell a story that his audience understands even if it has elements that do not depict reality.
"He has swallowed up death forever; and the Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the reproach of his people will he take away from off all the earth: for Yahweh has spoken it." (Isaiah 25:8 WEB)
"But those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage. For neither can they die any more, for they are like the angels, and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection." (Luke 20:35-36 WEB)
"The last enemy that will be abolished is death." (1 Corinthians 15:26 WEB)
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