Question: I have always understood that when Christians die, their souls go to heaven right away to be with Jesus. How, then, should I understand scriptures like Ecclesiastes 9:5, which say, "the dead know nothing"? What happens when we die?
Answer: People often misinterpret several key scriptures when trying to understand the truth about what happens at death. Jesus told one of the criminals being crucified next to Him: "Assuredly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Does this mean Jesus and the criminal went to heaven together that day? It cannot! Christ plainly taught that He would spend three days and three nights in the grave—He called this "the sign of the prophet Jonah" (Matthew 12:39-40). If Jesus and that criminal went to heaven on the day of the crucifixion, Jesus did not fulfill the sign He had promised!
What, then, did Jesus mean? The Bible's Greek language lacks the punctuation we expect in English text. Translators have imposed their doctrinal misunderstandings on the plain Greek text. Indeed, Jesus told the criminal that he would be with Him in His realm, but the word "today" refers not to "Paradise" but rather to "I tell you." Jesus was assuring this criminal of his future hope, not denying the sign of His Messiahship.
In the New Testament, we read that God called ancient King David "a man after My own heart" (Acts 13:22). David is counted among the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11. Yet the Apostle Peter said this about David: "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (Acts 2:29). He went on to emphasize: "David did not ascend into the heavens" (v. 34).
We read: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). Does this mean that others have ascended to heaven after Him? No! The dead are now unconscious, and will remain so until God restores them to consciousness, when "those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). Only Jesus Christ has ascended to heaven.
When the Apostle Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he still expected Christ to return during his lifetime. This is why he wrote, "For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven" (2 Corinthians 5:2). Paul eagerly anticipated receiving the Spirit—composed body Christ would give him at Christ's return. It is in this context that Paul wrote of his longing. He did not write, as some mistakenly assume, that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." Rather, anticipating his change from matter to spirit, he wrote that he would be "well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" (v. 8).
Paul eventually understood that Christ's return would be later than he had at first assumed, since it had to occur only after certain prophesied events had taken place (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). But he never wavered from his understanding of what happens at death. Paul wrote: "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). This "sleep" is not some mystical kind of semi—consciousness. Jesus, who died, described His death this way: —For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:40). Is heaven the "heart of the earth"? No! When one dies, as the psalmist tells us: "His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish" (Psalm 146:4). Jesus made no plans when He was dead. Neither will we. The dead are not waiting around as disembodied consciousnesses in heaven. They are unconscious (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and will remain so until God raises them.
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