The great focus of the believer’s personal eschatology is to be raised from the dead (see here & and here). But what happens in the mean time, between the point of a Christian’s death and the day of resurrection? “Going to heaven when we die” may be the focus of much popular Evangelical hope for the future. But there is surprisingly little material in the New Testament that addresses this subject directly.
Paul touches on what we might call the “intermediate state” in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8. In this passage, Paul contrasts the believer’s present “earthly house” that may be “destroyed” with “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens”. It is likely that Paul is using the metaphor of housing to denote the difference between the believer’s present bodily state and the future resurrection body. Paul’s hope was “not to be found naked” or to be divested of the body, but “further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.” In the present bodily state, believers “groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation from heaven.” Given the preference, Paul would much rather bypass death and pass immediately into the immortal, resurrected state. But what if he were to die before the day of resurrection? In that case, Paul says, “We are confident yes well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” The apostle is sure that death death will usher him into the immediate presence of Christ.
Because the New Testament often speaks of the death of believers as “sleep” (John 11:11-14, Acts 7:60, 1 Thessalonians 4:15) some have posited that the soul enters an unconscious state at death. But to enter an unconscious state would presumably mean that we would no longer be conscious of Christ. In that case, death would not be “a consummation devoutly to be wished”. For Paul to be without the conscious presence of Christ would not be “far better”, than life in this world. But to be consciously “with Christ” in heaven certainly would be,
For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain....For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ which is far better. (Philippians 1:21 & 23.)
Elsewhere in the New Testament, the dead in Christ are described as “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-24). They pray and worship God (Revelation 6:9-11 & 15:1-5). The intermediate state is characterised by active, joyful worship in the presence of Christ, as the saints await the day of resurrection glory. “Sleep” an appropriate word to describe the believer’s death, because on the day of resurrection we will awake from the grave and be glorified.
The Westminster Larger Catechism summarises the relationship between the intermediate state and the final resurrection hope in a most helpful way:
Question 86: What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death ?
Answer: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day.