In discussing the meaning of the smoke of torment ascending forever, we looked at several passages that are used to support the idea of an immortal human soul. For more, see this page and the page on death.
Absent from the
One often hears at funerals that a loved one has gone to be with the Lord. The idea is based on Paul's words in a letter to the church at Corinth. He uses the phrases, "absent from the body" and "at home with the Lord." Is the picture of souls ascending to heaven at death confirmed by a close look at the actual text? We discuss this with 2 Corinthians. 2co5.
Do souls come back from heaven to join their bodies?
The idea that souls of righteous
people leave the body and go to heaven at death doesn't seem to fit with
the clear description of the resurrection at the return of Christ (or with
Jesus' promise quoted later).
"For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1 Thess. 1:16, 17).
Those who are dead come up from the grave where they have been waiting for Christ to raise them to life. The only way to harmonize the verses we just read with the popular theory is to suppose that the souls come down with Christ and connect with their bodies, then return again to heaven. Nowhere does the Bible speak of a soul living apart from its body. It is only inferred from a special reading of passages such as we have examined. One verse which might seem to say that the souls come down is just before the verses just quoted.
"But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent [precede] them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first. . . ." (1 Thess. 4:13-16).
Did you notice the statement, "them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him"? Does this show that the sleeping ones are in heaven and will come down with Christ? We first wonder why God in heaven would "bring" the sleeping ones instead of sending them. Christ is the one described as coming down. Even if the Father comes, too, others would be said to be coming with Christ rather than the Father because of the prominence of Christ in the description.
Perhaps more significant is the question, Are the sleeping ones brought down to earth or up to heaven? Paul was making a comparison with Jesus own resurrection. Because Jesus arose and ascended to heaven so God will take the risen ones to heaven with Him. Paul recognizes that the Father didn't bring resurrected ones (aside from a special case) at the time of Christ's resurrection. He uses the future tense: "them also which sleep . . . will God bring." He can be said to bring them with Christ at a later time.
Jesus was the first of the harvest. Because of Him the rest would follow. "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. . . . For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming [not individually as they die]." (1 Cor. 15:20-23).
We conclude that those God brings go up to heaven are simply the resurrected ones.
Doesn't the Bible
say Jesus will come with the saints?
Yes. "To the end he may stablish your hearts unblameable in holiness before God, even our Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints." (1 Thess. 3:13). The Greek word for "saints" is hagioi which simply means "holy ones." These could be righteous humans or angels.
Arguing for it being angels, compare: "When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory." (Matt. 25:31).
The case for the holy ones being people is not so good. First, those who believe righteous people go to heaven at death also recognize that some will be alive on earth when He comes. This means He wouldn't then be coming with all the holy ones. Jesus knew that, when He would go back to heaven, His disciples would be discouraged, so He told them about when they would be with Him again. "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." (John 14:1-3). At His coming He will receive the disciples to Himself. They won't have been in heaven in the meantime.
Let's return to the question of how sleeping ones could be in heaven.
The Bible consistently uses sleep as a metaphor for death because the resurrection is like awakening from an unconscious sleep. Let's look at the story of the resurrection of Lazarus:
". . . [Jesus] saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead."John 11:11
This means that souls are not in heaven but in the grave awaiting the resurrection. Peter described David this way. "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. . . . For David is not ascended into the heavens." (Acts 2:29, 34).
So souls who have died are sleeping and have not gone anywhere. They could not therefore come down from heaven to join their bodies. They sleep awaiting the call of Jesus to awaken at the resurrection 1th0415,16.
What a beautiful plan God has for our happiness.
Click for a page of links to other discussions of the state of the dead.