Summary: A lesson that answers a question many Christians ponder - 'Where will they go when the physically die?'
Where Do Christians Go When They Die?
Job asks, in Job 14:14, “If a man die, shall he live again?” Job's rhetorical question reflects a question that has been pondered by the vast majority of human beings throughout history. It seems to me that Man, being created in the image of God, has sensed the reality of immortality...feeling that there must be something more after this brief time on this world.
The Old Testament does not provide clear teaching concerning the destination of the dead – whether they be saints or sinners. The term Sheol is sometimes used to express death in general, the earthly grave where the body decays and an abode for the souls of the dead. Old Testament writers such as Job, David and Solomon give hints that there is a division within Sheol that separates the righteous and the unrighteous (Proverbs 15:11, 24; 27:20). The righteous dead have a pleasant abode (Numbers 23:10; Psalm 73:24-25; Proverbs 14:32) while the unrighteous have an abode of gloom and suffering (Psalm 49:15, 19; Proverbs 5:4-5). Not until Jesus' account of Lazarus and the Rich Man, in Luke 16:19-31, is there a clear picture of the destinies of the righteous and unrighteous dead prior to the New Covenant.
The account of Lazarus and the Rich Man reveals that the souls of the physically dead remain alive and are completely conscious of their abodes and their conditions. The account clearly indicates that Sheol or Hades is divided into two 'chambers', one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous. Furthermore, the conditions of the two abodes are very different from each other as the righteous dwell in comfort and peace while the unrighteous dwell in pain and torment. The account indicates that there is a judgment that takes place immediately at the time of physical death which determines who is worthy of a blessed existence for the soul and who is worthy of a destructive punishing existence for the soul. Hebrews 9:27 certainly testifies of this in saying “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”
It is clear that the abode of the righteous dead, 'Abraham's Bosom”, is not Heaven; that is, the eternal abode of God. This we know based upon two threads of evidence revealed in the New Testament.
First, Jesus stated, in John 3:13, that during the period leading-up to His incarnation, no person had ascended to Heaven.
Secondly, Paul states, in Hebrews 11:10, 13, 16, 39, that the 'heroes of faith' who had lived and died during the Patriarchal and Mosaic Ages had not taken possession of their promised Heavenly inheritance. They had not ascended to Heaven, wherein is the City of God.
It is critical to note Paul's statement in verse 40. He states that the abode where Christians go to, at physical death, is much “better” than the place where Old Testament saints went. He says that God did not allow those Old saints to take possession of their Heavenly inheritance before the New Testament saints. The souls or spirits of the Old Testament saints had not achieved the state of 'perfection'; that is, they had not completed their reaching their final destination. However, according to Hebrews 12:23, under the New Covenant, we have come “to the spirits of just men made perfect (or complete in Heaven).”
The Scriptures clearly teach that the destination of the souls of the righteous dead in the Old Testament was very different than the destination of the souls of the righteous dead under the New Covenant.
Paul expresses that Christ's Gospel provides greater knowledge on this subject than had been previously revealed – 2 Timothy 1:10, “Our Savior Jesus Christ, Who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
Christ, in Luke 23:43, promised that the repentant thief would be in Paradise with Christ that very day when they physically died. The repentant thief died under the New Covenant, as we know that the Old Covenant was nailed to the cross. The Old Covenant died when Christ died. Christ's shed blood ratified the New Covenant.
That Paradise is not the same as “Abraham's Bosom” is abundantly clear. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 12:2-3, equated Paradise with the “third heaven”, which has historically been identified as God's eternal abode. According to Revelation 2:7, the Tree of Life is located in Paradise. We know from Revelation 22:2, 14, that the Tree of Life grows in the eternal City of God, New Jerusalem.
Just as Christ promised the repentant thief of his entry into Paradise directly after he physically died, so also does Christ promise, in Revelation 2:7, that those Christians who remain faithful till their physical deaths would enter Paradise and have access to the Tree of Life. No wonder that Revelation 14:13 declares, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.”