What Are My Loved Ones Experiencing in the Present Heaven?
A reader wrote, “I just finished the book Heaven. Knowing Jesus, I found it inspiring and well documented. I was disappointed there wasn’t more mentioned about the immediate Heaven, the one right after we leave this earth. I just lost a loved one and would like more information and clarity about what she is experiencing. I have read three books on Heaven, read a lot about the New Earth, but little about what happens when I die.”
While my book Heaven centers on the New Earth, the eternal Heaven, a few chapters deal with the present Heaven. When a Christian dies he enters what theologians call the “intermediate state,” a transitional period between life on Earth and the future resurrection to life on the New Earth. Usually when we talk about “Heaven,” we mean the place that Christians go when they die. When we tell our children “Grandma’s now in Heaven,” we’re referring to what I prefer to call the present Heaven (the word intermediate sometimes confuses people).
Books on Heaven often fail to distinguish between the intermediate and eternal states, using the one word—Heaven—as all-inclusive. But this is an important distinction. The present Heaven is a temporary lodging, a waiting place (a delightful one!) until the return of Christ and our bodily resurrection. The eternal Heaven, the New Earth, is our true home, the place where we will live forever with our Lord and each other. The great redemptive promises of God will find their ultimate fulfillment on the New Earth, not in the present Heaven. God’s children are destined for life as resurrected beings on a resurrected Earth.
Though the present Heaven is not our final destination, it’s a wonderful place, and it’s understandable that those who have had loved ones die in Christ wonder what life is like for them there. Based on the Bible’s teaching, we know several things: the present Heaven is a real (and possibly physical) place. Those who love Jesus and trust Him for their salvation will be with Him there, together with all who have died in Christ. We will be awake and cognizant. And because we will be with Jesus, it is “better by far” than our present existence.
The Present Heaven Is a Real Place
Heaven is normally invisible to those living on Earth. For those who have trouble accepting the reality of an unseen realm, consider the perspective of researchers who embrace string theory. Scientists at Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, among others, have postulated that there are ten unobservable dimensions and likely an infinite number of imperceptible universes. If this is what some scientists believe, why should anyone feel self-conscious about believing in one unobservable dimension, a realm containing angels and Heaven and Hell?
The Bible teaches that sometimes humans are allowed to see into Heaven. When Stephen was being stoned because of his faith in Christ, he gazed into Heaven: “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56). Scripture tells us not that Stephen dreamed this, but that he actually saw it.
Wayne Grudem points out that Stephen “did not see mere symbols of a state of existence. It was rather that his eyes were opened to see a spiritual dimension of reality which God has hidden from us in this present age, a dimension which none the less really does exist in our space/time universe, and within which Jesus now lives in his physical resurrected body, waiting even now for a time when he will return to earth.”
I agree with Grudem that the present Heaven is a space/time universe. He may be right that it’s part of our own universe, or it may be in a different universe. It could be a universe next door that’s normally hidden but sometimes opened. In any case, I don’t think God gave Stephen a vision in order to make Heaven appear physical. Rather, He allowed Stephen to see a present Heaven that was (and is) physical.
The prophet Elisha asked God to give his servant, Gehazi, a glimpse of the invisible realm. He prayed, “‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17). Acts 7 and 2 Kings 6 are narrative accounts, historical in nature, not apocalyptic or parabolic literature. The text is clear that Stephen and Gehazi saw real things.
The Present Heaven May Be a Physical Place
If we look at Scripture, we’ll see considerable evidence that the present Heaven has physical properties. We’re told there are scrolls in Heaven, elders who have faces, martyrs who wear clothes, and even people with palm branches in their hands. There are musical instruments in the present Heaven, horses coming into and out of Heaven, and an eagle flying overhead in Heaven.
Many commentators dismiss the possibility that any of these passages in Revelation should be taken literally, on the grounds that the book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature, which is known for its figures of speech. But the book of Hebrews isn’t apocalyptic, it’s epistolary. Moses was told, in building the earthly Tabernacle, “Be sure that you make everything according to the pattern I have shown you here on the mountain.” If that which was built after the pattern was physical, might it suggest the original was also physical? The book of Hebrews seems to say that we should see Earth as a derivative realm and Heaven as the source realm.
Unlike God and the angels, who are in essence spirits (John 4:24; Hebrews 1:14), human beings are by nature both spiritual and physical. God did not create Adam as a spirit and place it inside a body. Rather, He first created a body, then breathed into it a spirit. There was never a moment when a human being existed without a body. We are not essentially spirits who inhabit bodies; we are essentially as much physical as we are spiritual. We cannot be fully human without both a spirit and a body.
Given the consistent physical descriptions of the intermediate Heaven and those who dwell there, it seems possible—though this is certainly debatable—that between our earthly lives and our bodily resurrection God may grant us some temporary physical form that will allow us to function as human beings while in that unnatural state “between bodies” awaiting our bodily resurrection. If so, that would account for the repeated depictions of people now in Heaven occupying physical space, wearing clothes and crowns, carrying branches, and having body parts (for example, Lazarus’s finger in Luke 16:24).
A fundamental article of the Christian faith is that the resurrected Christ now dwells in Heaven. We are told that His resurrected body on Earth was physical and that this same, physical Jesus ascended to Heaven, from where He will one day return to Earth. It seems indisputable, then, to say that there is at least one physical body in the present Heaven. If Christ’s body in the intermediate Heaven has physical properties, it stands to reason that others in Heaven could have physical forms as well, even if only temporary ones.
To avoid misunderstanding, I need to emphasize a critical doctrinal point. According to Scripture, we do not receive resurrection bodies immediately after death. Resurrection does not happen one at a time. If we have intermediate forms in the intermediate Heaven, they will not be our true bodies, which we leave behind at death.
So if we are given material forms when we die (and I’m suggesting this possibility only because of the many Scriptures depicting physical forms in the present Heaven), they would be temporary vessels. Any understanding of people having physical forms immediately after death that would lead us to conclude that the future resurrection has already happened or is unnecessary is emphatically wrong!
We’ll Be Together with Christ and Those Who Love Him
As painful as death is, and as right as it is to grieve it (Jesus did), we on this dying Earth can also rejoice for our loved ones who are in the presence of Christ. When they die, those covered by Christ’s blood are experiencing the joy of Christ’s presence in a place so wonderful that Christ called it Paradise.
As the apostle Paul tells us, though we naturally grieve at losing loved ones, we are not “to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Our parting is not the end of our relationship, only an interruption. We have not “lost” them, because we know where they are. And one day, we’re told, in a magnificent reunion, they and we “will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:17-18).
Peter tells us, “You will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). God is the main welcomer, no doubt. All eyes are on Jesus, the Cosmic Center, the Source of all Happiness. But wouldn’t it make sense for the secondary welcomers to be God’s people, those who touched our lives, and whose lives we touched? Wouldn’t that be a great greeting party?
Jesus said, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). Angels probably rejoice too, but the ones living in the presence of angels Jesus refers to are likely God’s people, redeemed human beings, some of who knew and loved and prayed for the conversion of these sinners, and now are beholding the answers to their prayers. Wouldn’t such people be a natural part of the welcome committee when we enter Heaven?
I envision glorious reunions and amazing introductions, conversations and storytelling at banquets and on walks, jaws dropping and laughter long and hard, the laughter of Jesus being the most contagious.
When I enter Heaven, I look forward to being hugged by my dear mother, who I led to Christ when I was a new believer in high school. Then I picture Mom, that broad smile on her face, presenting me with my sixth grandchild. In 2013 my daughter Angie had a miscarriage. This was a very painful time for our family, but one more reason I am looking forward to Heaven. When this happens, I will look at Jesus, nodding my thanks to the One with the nail-scarred hands, and I will not let my grandchild or my mother go.
Those in the Present Heaven Are Awake and Alive
That we’ll receive “a rich welcome” necessitates that at death, we will be awake and conscious. Christ depicted Lazarus and the rich man as conscious in Heaven and Hell immediately after they died (Luke 16:22-31). Jesus told the dying thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). The apostle Paul said that to die was to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), and to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). After their deaths, martyrs are pictured in Heaven, crying out to God to bring justice on Earth (Revelation 6:9-11).
These passages clearly teach that there is no such thing as “soul sleep,” or a long period of unconsciousness between life on Earth and life in Heaven. The phrase “fallen asleep” (in 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and similar passages) is a euphemism for death, describing the body’s outward appearance. The spirit’s departure from the body ends our existence on Earth. The physical part of us “sleeps” until the resurrection, while the spiritual part of us relocates to a conscious existence in Heaven (Daniel 12:2-3; 2 Corinthians 5:8).
Every reference in Revelation to human beings talking and worshiping in Heaven prior to the resurrection of the dead demonstrates that our spiritual beings are conscious, not sleeping, after death. (Nearly everyone who believes in soul sleep believes that souls are disembodied at death; it’s not clear how disembodied beings could sleep, because sleeping involves a physical body.)
As awake and conscious beings, those in Heaven are free to ask God questions (Revelation 6:9-11), which means they have an audience with God. It also means they can and do learn. They wouldn’t be asking questions if they already knew the answers. In Heaven, people desire understanding and pursue it. There is also time in the present Heaven. People are aware of time’s passing and are eager for the coming day of the Lord’s judgment. God answers that the martyrs must “rest a little longer.” Waiting requires the passing of time. I see no reason to believe that the realities of this passage apply only to one group of martyrs and to no one else in Heaven. We should assume that what is true of them is also true of our loved ones already there, and it will be true of us when we die.
Life in Christ’s Presence Is Better by Far
Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.… I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:21, 23). Life in the Heaven we go to when we die, where we’ll dwell prior to our bodily resurrection, is “better by far” than living here on Earth under the Curse, away from the direct presence of God.
Paul spoke from experience. He had actually been taken into Heaven years before writing those words (2 Corinthians 12:1–6). He knew firsthand what awaited him in Paradise. He wasn’t speculating when he called it gain. To be in the very presence of Jesus, enjoying the wonders of His being, and to be with God’s people and no longer subject to sin and suffering? “Better by far” is an understatement!
King David wrote, “In Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11, NKJV). In the presence of God, there’s nothing but joy. Those who live in the presence of Christ find great happiness in worshiping God and living as righteous beings in rich fellowship in a sinless environment. And because God is continuously at work on Earth, the saints watching from Heaven have a great deal to praise Him for, including God’s drawing people on Earth to Himself (Luke 15:7, 10).
Our loved ones now in Heaven live in a place where joy is the air they breathe, and nothing they see on earth can diminish their joy. Their joy doesn’t depend on ignorance, but perspective, drawn from the Christ in whose presence they live. If you’re following Jesus, no doubt your loved ones there are rejoicing over you. The great cloud of witnesses of Hebrews 12 is now up in the stands of Heaven and watching you on the same playing field they once ran on. They’re looking forward to hearing Jesus say “Well done” to you, and they may also commend you for your service of Jesus!
But those in the present Heaven are also looking forward to Christ’s return, their bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the fashioning of the New Earth from the ruins of the old. Only then and there, in the eternal Heaven, the home Jesus is preparing for us, will all evil and suffering and sorrow be washed away by the hand of God. Only then and there will we experience the fullness of joy intended by God and purchased for us by Christ, who we will forever praise!