In view of the never ending jokes about St. Peter meeting people at heaven's Pearly Gates, I have to wonder how many actually believe that when they die they, in a vague state of disembodied blessedness, will be met by him in his role as heaven's gatekeeper. It is apparently Peter’s job to either ask the person seeking admittance why they should be let in or ensure that their names are registered in the Lord's Book of Life.
Although the seed for these ideas originated in the Scriptures, they were put together with a generous dose of imagination and little regard for accuracy or context.
For example, Jesus did tell Peter that He would give him "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 16:19). However, this did not mean Peter is perpetually standing at heaven's door, but that he would be the first one to preach the gospel to both Jew (Acts 2 - Pentecost) and Gentile (Acts 10 - Cornelius) thus unlocking the door to both groups. The idea for the pearly gates probably comes from Revelation 21:21 that describes the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem as being twelve pearls - a description that is certainly not to be understood literally.
I have absolutely no idea where the oft portrayed clouds and harps came from.
In any case, the Kingdom of God - the message that Jesus was sent to proclaim will not be an ethereal place that side of Pluto, but very much here on earth. See The Message of The Bible and What and Where is Heaven?
Body and Spirit
Both the Old and New Testaments clearly show that man is made up of both spirit and body...
The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. Thus declares the Lord who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him, (Zechariah 12:1)
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)
And that the spirit departs the body at death. The Genesis 35:18 account of Rachel's death says,
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died), that she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. (Genesis 35:18)
After Jairus' daughter died, Jesus commanded her to "arise," upon which "her spirit returned, and she got up immediately". Something cannot return, unless it had previously left.
He, however, took her by the hand and called, saying, "Child, arise!" And her spirit returned, and she got up immediately; and He gave orders for something to be given her to eat. (Luke 8:54-55)
The Intermediate State
We are all painfully aware of what happens to a person's body when they die. What we are not so clear about is where the spirit goes or what happens to it.
The time period between one's death and one's final destination is called The Intermediate State, a phrase not found in the Scriptures, but aptly coined.
Although the Bible does not make any clear cut pronouncements regarding this Intermediate State, it is not that difficult to formulate a doctrine based on various verses in both the Old Testament and the New. Note: While this is a peripheral issue not essential to the gospel, it is entirely natural to be intensely interested in something which concerns every last one of us.
In any case, the subject goes well beyond mere curiosity to a matter of faith and hope for the Christian and, hopefully, a wake-up call to the unsaved because the two groups do not wind up in the same place.
A Word Of Warning: Something that we should never do, be it about this topic or any other, is cite a passage that seems to substantiate one position or the other. Sound doctrine cannot be based on isolated proof texts. The Word of God is a unified whole that does not contradict itself thus the ONLY way to arrive at a Biblically reliable position is to carefully compare everything the Bible says that is connected with the subject.
The Two Points of View
One school of thought holds that during this time we are unconscious, or perhaps do not even 'exist'. Others opine that our spirits continue living and are very much alive and conscious, while awaiting the return to a resurrected body and an eternity in the new earth.
The Seventh-day Adventists teach that until the body is resurrected, the soul is unconscious - a state they call "soul-sleep." The Jehovah's Witnesses, on the other hand, believe that when someone dies (believers and non-believers alike), they cease to exist. Thus God will have to remake everyone from memory. It seems not to have occurred to them that this is not a resurrection of the body, but the creation of a clone.
The idea of unconsciousness is largely based on several verses in the Old Testament, some of which are in the Psalms. For example,
Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah. Will Your loving kindness be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness in Abaddon? Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness? And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? (Psalms 88:10-12)
The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence; (Psalms 115:17)
His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish. (Psalms 146:4)
However, one has to remember that the Psalms are Hebrew poetry, and virtually all poetry indulges in metaphorical language - dramatic or extravagant language used to paint a colorful image of the thought the author was trying to get across. For example, 'her cheeks were burnished apples' conjures up a far more vivid mental image than does 'she had very pink cheeks'
And the psalms are full of these metaphorical images. When David wrote in Psalms 27:2 that evildoers came upon him to “devour” his flesh , he made sure we understood how rapacious, predatory, and ruthless his enemies were. Also, when he wrote "Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also. (Psalms 31:9) we well understand that he did not mean that his eyes and body literally shrank away.
So how in the world can we be foolish enough to build doctrine based on these highly imaginative and figurative texts. To further illustrate this compare these two verses from the Psalms
I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a man without strength, forsaken among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom You remember (Heb. zâker) no more, and they are cut off from Your hand. (Psalms 88:4-5)
For there is no mention (Heb. zêker) of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks? (Psalms 6:5)
Note: The word zêker in the second quote occurs 22 other times in the NT. In all instances the NASB renders it as remembrance or memory. Yet, for whatever unknown reason, they render it as mention in Psalm 6:5 which makes absolutely no sense. The KJV rendering ("there is no remembrance of thee") is far more sensible.
Anyway, just as Psalms 88:4-5 does not literally mean that God has forgotten the dead, Psalm 6:5 does not literally mean that people in Sheol do not remember God.
Also note that in Psalm 115:17-18 the Psalmist first tells us that the dead "do not praise the Lord". He immediately goes on to say "we will bless the Lord From this time forth and forever." Unless the author was anticipating never dying, both are impossible.
The dead do not praise the Lord, Nor do any who go down into silence; But as for us, we will bless the Lord From this time forth and forever... (Psalms 115:17-18)
Also see Bible texts, including passages from Psalms 51 and 58, that are misused in the attempt to prove "Original Sin". HERE
Other passages used to support the belief that Christians are unconscious between the time they die and the resurrection of their physical bodies, are ...
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6)
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10)
Again there is a lot in Ecclesiastes that is not meant to be taken literally. For if you do you will have a hard time with Ecclesiastes 3:19 that says
"... the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.
While Isaiah seems to categorically state that the dead in Sheol are mute, the same verse also says they cannot hope for God's faithfulness. If the last part is to be understood literally, we are all up a creek without the proverbial paddle.
For Sheol cannot thank You, death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness. (Isaiah 38:18)
On the other hand, Isaiah 14:9 makes it sound like the people in Sheol can be both awakened and stirred up.
Sheol from beneath is excited over you to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. (Isaiah 14:9)
All of which should make it obvious that Isaiah was speaking metaphorically, not literally.
Possibly the most common argument in favour of unconsciousness comes from two verses in the book of Daniel. 1) The first one reads...
1) Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)
However, "sleep' was used as a euphemism for death in both the Old and the New Testaments.
Otherwise it will come about, as soon as my Lord the king sleeps (Heb. shâkab) with his fathers, that I and my son Solomon will be considered offenders." (1 Kings 1:21)
Then David slept (Heb. shâkab) with his fathers and was buried in the city of David. (1 Kings 2:10)
Similarly, in the New Testament, our Lord spoke of Lazarus as being "asleep" which even confused His disciples.
This He said, and after that He *said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (Gk. koimao); but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep." The disciples then said to Him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover." Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, "Lazarus is dead, (John 11:11-14)
The second verse often used as a 'proof text' is
2) But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest (Heb. nûach) and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age." (Daniel 12:13)
It is assumed that God was telling Daniel that he would "sleep" until the end of the age when he would be resurrected and given his just rewards. However, the Hebrew word nûach is never used for a state of unconsciousness, but means to put somewhere, to settle...
Then the Lord God took the man and put (Heb. nûach) him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. (Genesis 2:15)
The locusts came up over all the land of Egypt and settled (Heb. nûach) in all the territory of Egypt; they were very numerous. There had never been so many locusts, nor would there be so many again. (Exodus 10:14)
The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay (Heb. nûach) them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And he did so. (Judges 6:20)
... And even to literally rest.
"For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested (Heb. nûach) on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:11)
Then He cried out to me and spoke to me saying, "See, those who are going to the land of the north have appeased (put to rest my wrath) My wrath in the land of the north." (Zechariah 6:8)
"The whole earth is at rest (Heb. nûach) and is quiet; They break forth into shouts of joy. (Isaiah 14:7)
Daniel was simply being told that his work was now over, and he himself could 'rest' until it all came to pass.
While the New Testament makes no direct and unambiguous statements regarding the state of believers after they die, there are verses in both the Gospels and Paul's writings that lean towards their spirits being with Christ while they await the resurrection of their bodies. Note however that the parable of Lazarus is not one of them.
(See Difficulties with the Traditional Interpretation of The Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus HERE)
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
The second part of I Thessalonians 4 was written to comfort the Thessalonians who may have been bereaved. Paul told them that they should not grieve like the rest of humanity that had no hope because, when He returned to earth, God would bring with Him those who had fallen asleep in Christ
(14) For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (15) For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. (16) For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (17) Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17)
Pay attention to verse 14 which says "God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus", then read verse 16, which says "the dead in Christ will rise first" (All emphasis added).
Now either this is a huge contradiction since the dead cannot return with God and rise from the earth, or the verse means that the spirits which have departed the body when a person dies will return with the Lord, to be reunited with the resurrected body.
And when do the "dead in Christ" rise? Remember the very last thing Daniel was told?
But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age." (Daniel 12:13 NASB)
See Summary of Events At The Seventh Trumpet And
Why the Pre-Tribulation Rapture is a figment of the imagination or wishful thinking
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, (Philippians 1:21-25)
The most important point in the above statement, is that Paul said he wanted to depart "and be with Christ", not depart and lapse into sleep, unconsciousness, or non existence. Additionally, when he said "to live is Christ" it did not mean that he thought that life was wonderful but as the following verses make clear, his sole aim in living was to preach Christ. He was torn between what was best for him and what was best - even necessary - for the Philippians and other congregations.
There is no question that Paul fully realized the importance of the work he was doing... establishing strong churches shepherded by mature local leaders (Acts 14:23), that would, after he had moved on, not only be able to govern themselves but spread the Gospel to others (1 Thessalonians 1:7-8). This makes it very hard to believe that Paul would consider unconsciousness (however temporary) as "far better" than living and continuing to further God's kingdom. However, seeing Christ face to face would certainly be "far better" than any other option.
2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Once again, Paul states that he would prefer to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight-- we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:6-8)
The statement decidedly refutes the concept of us being unconscious after we die, since we cannot "be with the Lord" and insensible at the same time.
Jesus' words to the thief on the cross "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" have long been the subject of some controversy.
In the effort to prove their point of view, the Jehovah's Witness's New World Translation punctuates His words very differently from any standard Bible that I know of. In their version, the comma is placed after the word today - "Truly I say to you today, you shall be with Me in Paradise") which gives one the impression that "today" refers to the day Jesus was speaking.
Note that Jesus' expressions Truly I say to you, behold I say to you, or simply I say to you occur over 120 times in the New Testament. In every case, the word you is immediately followed by that or a comma.
Jesus said to him, "Truly I say to you that this very night, before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times." (Matthew 26:34)
"Truly I say to you, < you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent. (Matthew 5:26)
"... Behold, I say to you, < lift up your eyes and look on the fields, that they are white for harvest. (John 4:35)
There is no conceivable reason that Luke 23:43 should be any different.
The argument is also made that since Jesus only ascended to the Father forty days after His resurrection, He could not have told the thief that he would be with Jesus in Paradise that very day.
I do not know. However, I have to wonder why the Messiah did not use the word heaven as He did dozens of other times in the Gospels. Why did He use the word Paradise that is only used twice more in the New Testament - both occurrences in not so easy to understand passages.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago-- whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows--such a man was caught up to the third heaven. And I know how such a man-- whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, God knows-- was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which a man is not permitted to speak. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
'He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.' (Revelation 2:7)
On the other hand, 2 Corinthians does seem to identify paradise with the "third heaven" - God's own abode.
In other words, while we can be sure that Jesus promised the thief that something good would come about that very day, we cannot be completely sure of what exactly the Savior meant.
See "The Word Heaven in The Bible" on THIS Page. Scroll about half way down the page
Revelation is a highly symbolic book which means that the martyred individuals spoken about in the following verse were probably not sitting under a very large altar. However, it is clear that they are conscious of time, remember what had happened to them on earth, are able to ask God a question, and hear His answer.
When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also. (Revelation 6:9-11)
AND, as pointed out earlier, they will return to earth with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
The arguments lean very heavily in favor of our spirits departing our bodies at the point of death and going to be with Christ where they await the resurrection of their bodies.
Certainly the Bible does not give us any detail regarding the Intermediate State which we will spend with Christ probably in the Third Heaven, or Heaven of Heavens, which is presently God's throne room. (In the Old Testament, the word "heaven" referred to either the sky, outer space, or the very dwelling place of God.
All that eventually matters is that the Intermediate State is a very temporary one. When the the Seventh Trumpet sounds the bodies of dead believers will rise to be reunited with their spirits somewhere in the earth's atmosphere. Next those believers who are still alive on earth will be join the first group.
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:17) See Summary of Events At The Seventh Trumpet
Finally, after the Seven Bowls (the culmination of God's wrath) we will descend with Christ to live for a thousand years.
Note that the Third Heaven is currently separated from the earth and the other two heavens (outer space and our atmosphere) by a sea of crystal. After the millennium, the judgment of non-believers and the complete removable of death and Hades, this "sea" will no longer exist. This means that the barrier between heaven and earth will be removed. God, bringing the New Jerusalem with Him, will come to live among His people, and this will be the new earth.
Many people understand John's words "there is no longer any sea", in Revelation 21:1, to mean that there will no longer be any oceans in the new earth. But is this true? See No Longer Any Sea?
All of which leaves us with one final question. What will be
The State of Unbelievers After Death
This, I am sorry to say, is a far simpler issue.
As previously mentioned, the spirits of all people leave their bodies when they die. However, the spirits of those who have refused or ignored the Gospel message - God's offer of life eternal in His kingdom - will, at the moment of their death find themselves in Sheol (called Hades in the New Testament).
It is during this period that continues until the end of the millennium that the weeping and gnashing of teeth that Jesus spoke (Matthew 8:12) of will take place.
After the thousand year rule of Christ, they will also be resurrected... not to enter into God's kingdom, but to face the White Throne Judgment and consigned to hell, which is not a place of eternal torment as traditional Christianity has so long taught, but simply death. Revelation calls it the "second death" because that is exactly what it is. The people concerned have died once, spent a century plus in Hades, then will die again. This time for good.
[See What and Where is Hell?]
Unlike much of the book of Revelation, chapter 20 through (at least) 21:5 is in chronological order, indicated by the frequent use of the word "then". What follows is an outline of the events that transpire after just before and after the millennium.
Revelation 20 tells us that an angel lays hold of Satan (the serpent of old), throws him into the abyss, which the angel shuts and seals for a thousand years (20:1-3).
John then saw those who had not worshiped the beast, but were beheaded for the gospel, come to life and reign with Christ for the thousand years (20:4-6).
The millennium rule of Christ is followed by Satan being released from prison. Once freed, he will go out to deceive the nations, gathering Gog and Magog from the four corners of the earth and gather them together for war (20:7-8).. They will surround the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but will be devoured by fire that comes down from Heaven. (Vs. 9).
John then outlines the fate of the devil, the beast, and the false prophet who will be "thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone" (20:10),
This is followed by the second resurrection, which is when the sea and Hades will give up their dead who small and great, will stand before God, and be judged according to their work (20:11-13) at the White Throne.
Finally, in the last verse of chapter 20, we are told that death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire (Vs. 14-15).
It is only after the events described above, that the new heaven and the new earth come into being... God's kingdom that will endure forever.