Where do believers go when they die? If you ask any Christian this question, the response will likely be: “Why, they go to heaven of course.” But if you then ask them, “Where do believers go after they go to heaven?” there is a strong probability that your question will be answered with a quizzical expression of surprise. “What do you mean, where do believers go after they go to heaven? They just go to heaven, right?” Well, actually no, not according to Scripture.
According to Scripture, the soul of a believer does go to be present with the Lord in heaven when he or she dies. But this is only an intermediate state, and the intermediate state is just that — intermediate, or “in-between.” It is not the final state or the ultimate future of believers. The ultimate future of the believer is the resurrection of the body at the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15). On that glorious Day, the soul and the raised and transformed body of the believer will be one again as God originally created them to be. Not only will our bodies and souls be freed from the remnants of sin, the heavens and earth will be renewed and freed from the curse of sin as well (Rom. 8:18–25). This new earth, in which righteousness dwells, will be our home.
Modern Christian pop-eschatology has largely obscured this blessed hope by positing a rather Platonic view of the afterlife in which the souls of believers exist in an eternal state of disembodied bliss, floating among the clouds and playing harps. This has occurred because the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which is central to Paul’s proclamation of the Gospel, and the corresponding doctrine of the new heavens and earth have not received the same attention in our preaching as they did in the preaching of the apostles.
As Paul explains so eloquently in Romans 8, our eager desire for the redemption of our bodies is intimately connected with our hope for the redemption of the entire creation from the ravages of sin. The doctrine of the new heavens and earth, then, is not a peripheral doctrine or a side-issue. It is a key element in the redemptive work of God. It defines the eternal state in which we shall live with Christ forever.
End-times doctrines are often surrounded by controversy and confusion. This should not cause believers to throw their hands up in despair. It is the hope of the editors of Tabletalk that this issue will help to rekindle the biblical hope in the hearts and minds of God’s people who live coram Deo, before the face of God.