What about my loved ones who have died? Where are they now? In the time between our death and Christ’s return, what happens?
Scripture is surprisingly quiet about this phase of our lives. When speaking about the period between the death of the body and the resurrection of the body, the Bible doesn’t shout; it just whispers. But at the confluence of these whispers, a firm voice is heard. This authoritative voice assures us that, at death, the Christian immediately enters into the presence of God and enjoys conscious fellowship with the Father and with those who have gone before.
Isn’t this the promise that Jesus gave the thief on the cross? Earlier the thief had rebuked Jesus. Now he repents and asks for mercy. “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Likely, the thief is praying that he be remembered in some distant time in the future when the kingdom comes. He didn’t expect an immediate answer. But he received one: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). The primary message of this passage is God’s unlimited and surprising grace. But a secondary message is the immediate translation of the saved into the presence of God. The soul of the believer journeys home, while the body of the believer awaits the resurrection.
Some don’t agree with this thought. They propose an intermediate period of purgation, a “holding tank” in which we are punished for our sins. This “purgatory” is the place where, for an undetermined length of time, we receive what our sins deserve so that we can rightly receive what God has prepared.
But two things trouble me about this teaching. For one, none of us can endure what our sins deserve. For another, Jesus already has. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, not purgatory (see Rom. 6:23). The Bible also teaches that Jesus became our purgatory and took our punishment: “When he had brought about the purgation of sins, he took his seat at the right hand of Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3 neb). There is no purgatory because purgatory occurred at Calvary.
Others feel that while the body is buried, the soul is asleep. They come by their conviction honestly enough. Seven different times in two different epistles, Paul uses the term sleep to refer to death (see 1 Cor. 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thess. 4:13-15). One could certainly deduce that the time spent between death and the return of Christ is spent sleeping. (And, if such is the case, who would complain? We could certainly use the rest!)
But there is one problem. The Bible refers to some who have already died, and they are anything but asleep. Their bodies are sleeping, but their souls are wide awake. Revelation 6:9-11 refers to the souls of martyrs who cry out for justice on the earth. Matthew 17:3 speaks of Moses and Elijah, who appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus. Even Samuel, who came back from the grave, was described wearing a robe and having the appearance of a god (1 Sam. 28:13-14). And what about the cloud of witnesses who surround us (Heb. 12:1)? Couldn’t these be the heroes of our faith and the loved ones of our lives who have gone before?
I think so. When it is cold on earth, we can take comfort in knowing that our loved ones are in the warm arms of God. We don’t like to say good-bye to those whom we love. It is right for us to weep, but there is no need for us to despair. They had pain here. They have no pain there. They struggled here. They have no struggles there. You and I might wonder why God took them home. But they don’t. They understand. They are, at this very moment, at peace in the presence of God.
From When Christ Comes