Heaven: When a Christ Follower Dies

There was a influx of memorials at the church over the first quarter of the year. Between that and dealing with my own personal losses in the recent months, I was moved to explore the doctrine of Heaven by reading the book "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn. This might be one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, and I highly recommend it! As we grapple with loss as Christ-followers, it is helpful and reassuring during the grieving process to understand Heaven as much as we are able. In effort to share some of these concepts with you, I wanted do a blog series on Heaven. Pastor Phil preached a fantastic series on Heaven at Foothills Church many years ago. I've asked him for his manuscripts, so I could re-publish them here on the blog. I hope you find it as encouraging as I have. Because it is a sermon manuscript, it reads a little longer than our usual blog posts, but I promise it's worth the read! — Kaley Morgan
Written by Phil Christiansen

What comes to mind when you think about Heaven?

Do you think about harps and angels? Do you think about floating around on a cloud? Maybe you think Heaven will be weird: harping, haloed and singing all the time. Perhaps you think of being some sort of disembodied spirit, like a ghost, just kind of drifting. If you are like many, you’re afraid that Heaven will be boring because it will be a never-ending church service. Many are anxious about Heaven because they’re afraid that it won’t be any fun to be there. People worry that they won’t know or remember anyone. Other people are thinking, “If Heaven is where so-in-so is, then I don’t want to go!”

Some look forward to Heaven because they think it’s going to be an eternal vacation—forever retirement. Others look forward to being in the presence of God and to seeing Jesus face-to-face. Some think we’ll live forever as spiritual beings and others think we’ll have eternal bodies. Some think Heaven means our going up to be with God and others think Heaven means God coming down to be with us.

There’s a lot of confusion about Heaven and I’m afraid that misunderstanding and uncertainty have sucked the joy out of the heart of most of us when it comes to pondering Heaven. Most of us aren’t actively looking forward to Heaven. Truthfully, many would rather not talk about it.

When was the last time you had a lively discussion about Heaven that wasn’t instigated by the looming death, or at the memorial, of a loved one?

Why a series about Heaven?

I want my friends and family who know and follow Jesus to have real hope and to know why they are hopeful when they think about Heaven. I think about all my friends who have had loved ones die and all the memorials I have done over the years. The truth is, while many memorials have been Christian celebrations—even the Christians, when they’re honest, were fuzzy in their thinking about Heaven.

Think about the memorial or funeral services you’ve been to: We say things like, “She’s in a better place,” and “He’s with the Lord, now” but we’re not really sure what we mean by it. It doesn’t help when people say things like, “I guess the Lord needed another rose in His garden…” What? Really? You think my loved one has become a rose? Is Heaven just a giant rose garden for God? That doesn’t sound like a place I want to go!

Because we’re not comfortable in our understanding of Heaven, most of us are afraid of death. We’re uncertain of our future—even if we know where we’ll be. We aren’t sure what Heaven is like or what we’ll do or what we’ll be like or if we’ll know each other or if we’ll have a real place to live or if we’ll really eat or if we’ll have halos and wings. I want to clear up the fog that rolls in when Heaven comes to mind.

My prayer is that this series will create a hunger in us. I want you to get to the place where you’ll yearn for “home”—not so you’ll just sit and wait to die, but so you will truly live out your God-given mission while here on earth as you prepare for Heaven. I want this series to create in us a longing for home.

I’m looking forward to this journey with you. You may be surprised, like I’ve been, by some of the things we believe about Heaven that have a little or no biblical support, but have been with you since you were a child. My desire is to give you sound, biblical reasons for joy as you anticipate Heaven.

So, What is Heaven?

Heaven is the creation of and dwelling place of God (Gen 1:1; Nehemiah 9:6; Jonah 1:9; Matt. 5:16, 45; 6:1, 9). He is there but not limited to just there. It is the place from which God rules and where His throne is located (Ps. 11:4; Isa. 66:1). The Israelite tabernacle and temple are patterned after Heaven (Heb. 8:5; 9:24). And God is not there alone. We read of the Host of Heaven (Nehemiah 9:6) and the angels of Heaven (Mk. 13:32). Heaven is also the resting place of the faithful (Hebrews 4:8-11; Rev 14:13).

Where is Heaven?

We tend to think that it’s ‘up there’ somewhere because Jesus ascended to return to the Father. Is it another universe? We don’t know. Does the present Heaven exist right alongside us, but we just don’t have the eyes to see it? Maybe. God has occasionally pulled back the curtain so human eyes can see it. Like Stephen in Acts 7:55-56 and Gehazi, Elisha’s sidekick in 2 Kings 6:17, “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.” We’re not told specifically that what the servant saw was Heaven, it certainly wasn’t an earthly vision. God was allowing him to see what was going on in the unseen, spiritual realm.

What Happens When We Die?

I remember my first hospital call as a pastor. I was asked to be with a family as their mother was breathing her last breaths and was about to step out of this world. They had worship music playing and nearly all of the dozen or so of us were quietly singing. It wasn’t long until the heart monitor beeped and Mrs. Woods had died. It was a sacred moment filled with joy and sadness. That was nearly 20 years ago and it’s still fresh in my mind and heart. Many of you have been through similar things with your loved ones. The question on everyone’s mind in those situations is, “What just happened?” So let’s talk about what happens when we die.

First, when we die, our body and spirit separate—but not forever. The bible is clear that there will be a resurrection of our bodies and there will be a final judgment, which will lead either to rewards or eternal punishment (Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 20: 4-5, 14-15).

The body waits, in whatever state (buried, cremated, missing), for resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:16). There will be different final judgments for those who have or have not trusted Christ (Dan 12:2; John 5:28, 29; Rom 2:6–16; 2 Thess 1:6–10), but everyone will be resurrected one day. [For the Christ follower, it will be a Judgment of Works (Rom 14:10-12; 1 Cor 3:13-14; 2 Cor 5:10; 2 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26-28, 3:21) which will lead to rewards from the Lord. For those who have not trusted Christ, it will be the Great White Throne Judgment, which will lead to the second death (Revelation 20:12-15).]

There is an immediate judgment of faith—is your name written in Heaven (Luke 10:20)? Did you trust Jesus as Lord and Savior? That will then determine where your spirit goes. Heaven and Hell are the only destinations available after we die (Luke 16:22-23). There is no soul sleep, no suspended animation and no Purgatory. It’s Heaven or Hell.

Our spirit remains conscious. Luke 16 and “Every reference in Revelation to human beings talking and worshipping in Heaven prior to the resurrection of the dead demonstrates that our spiritual beings are conscious, not sleeping, after death” (Alcorn, Randy Heaven. Tyndale House, Illinois, 2004. p 47).

So, body & spirit separate. Body waits for resurrection. Our spirit consciously rests in the presence of God (Luke 16:22–23) or in torment (in Hell) until the body is raised (Dockery, D. S., Butler, T. C., Church, C. L., Scott, L. L., Ellis Smith, M. A., White, J. E., & Holman Bible Publishers (Nashville, T. (1992). Holman Bible Handbook (839). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.).
(Pause for the unbeliever)
Please understand, all the Heaven discussions and descriptions that are made this month apply only to those who have made a real, intentional choice to follow Jesus as their Leader and Forgiver.

God made us for Himself but our sin keeps us at a distance from Him. So God, in His kindness and mercy, made a way for us to be cleansed from our sin. Jesus, God in the flesh, came to take upon Himself the sin of everyone and to die in our place. Anyone who places their trust in Jesus and what He did on the cross is no longer separated from God and will be with Him forever (John 3:16).

BUT, each person will be held accountable for what they did with Jesus. You’ve been given an invitation to dine at the King’s table. Will you accept that invitation?

If you have not yet claimed God’s forgiveness and mercy as your own by placing your faith in Jesus and surrendering your entire life to His leadership, then you are not yet Heaven-bound. You are Hell-bound. I know that sounds harsh, friends, but you need to know that God extends His gift to you. He’s given you an invitation. If you don’t want it, He’s not going to force it upon you. But, if you want to be forgiven for your sin, if you want to know the God who made you and loves you, if you want to experience what purpose, peace, joy & real life, both now and forever are like, then you need to place your faith in Jesus while you’re on this earth. You need to RSVP right away.

If that’s what you want to do then take a moment right now, wherever you are, and tell the Lord, “I know I’m a sinner. I’ve been living my life my way and I know my sin keeps me at a distance from you. But, right now, I turn my back on my old way of living. I want You to lead my life from now on. Jesus, thank you for loving me and dying on the cross to take the punishment that I deserve for my sin. I place my trust in You and surrender every area of my life to you. I am RSVP-ing because I want to sit at Your table one day. Fill me with Your Spirit. Lead me however you like and I will serve you forever. I look forward to getting to know You better each day and to spending eternity with you in Heaven.” If that is your desire today, then everything we’ll talk about regarding Heaven applies to you and you can know for certain, because you have trusted Christ, that this will all be yours!
So, the Christian’s body dies, and his or her spirit is immediately in the presence of God in Heaven. There are a bunch of passages in scripture that underscore that the believer is in God’s presence after death (Ecc 12:7; Luke 23:43; Phil 1:23; 2 Cor 5:8; Rom 8:35, 38-39; Rev 6:9-11). Verses like 2 Cor 5:8 come to mind, “We are confident…and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Or Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross who trusted Him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). When our body dies, our spirit goes to be with God.

Present & Eternal Heaven

Now I need to draw a distinction really quick between where our faithful loved ones are presently and where they will be eternally. Check out Revelation 21:1-4:

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Your Christ-following friend or loved one is in the present Heaven, but will spend eternity in the New Heaven on the New Earth (Revelation 21:1-4; 2 Peter 3:13; Matthew 24:35). Most of you knew there would be a New Heaven, but hadn’t yet put the pieces together. We often speak of Present Heaven as the place where we’ll spend eternity, but that is not what Scripture tells us. There will be a New Heaven and New Earth and it will be stunning and amazing. It is in the New Heaven that we will live, in our resurrected bodies, with God forever. We’ll talk about that at length in two weeks. What I want for you to lock into your minds right now is there is a Present Heaven and there will be a New Heaven (Revelation 21:1-4; 2 Peter 3:13). Your faithful loved ones are in the Present Heaven.

Heavenly Confusion

If that’s confusing to you, don’t feel bad. Many writers talk about the Present Heaven and New or Eternal Heaven like they are same, but they aren’t. This is why people believe their Christian loved ones are in the Present Heaven with their perfect body—but that’s not biblical. Our bodies won’t be resurrected until the Lord Returns (John 5:28-29; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The resurrected, perfected, glorified body is coming, but not yet. When that happens we will live in the presence of God in the New Heaven.

We know that our godly friends‘ and families’ spirits are with the Lord in the Present Heaven but the thought of physical bodies in a physical Eternal Heaven makes some people uncomfortable. The thinking is: If God is spirit, and the believer’s spirit is with God, then Heaven must be purely spiritual, too. A physical Heaven, with physical bodies, seems less spiritual, less holy or something.

That line of thinking is tied to a long-standing lie, which Orthodox Christianity quickly addressed way back in the 2nd Century. The lie is called Gnosticism which suggests that spirit is better than matter. The philosophy goes something like this: My spirit, which is good, is trapped inside my body, which is bad. The best thing that can happen to me is that my spirit escapes my body and is free. (Gonzalez, Justo, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1. Harper, San Francisco, 1984. P 60).  

Platonism, which fueled much of the thought of Gnosticism, led people to believe that Heaven could not be physical and that resurrection (including Christ’s) could not be a literal, physical, resurrection (Alcorn, Randy Heaven. Tyndale House, Illinois, 2004. p 52).

The problem with these lines of thinking is that they deny a biblical understanding of who we are and where we’ll spend eternity. We were built as body and spirit. We are not just spirits longing to escape this body so we can at last be free and truly live. No. God formed Adam’s body out of the dust of the earth, breathed into that body the breath of life and that’s when the man became a living being: when both body and spirit were united (Genesis 2:7).

To be fully human means to be both body and spirit. God created us to live this way. That was God’s plan. If God had wanted His people to be spirit only, He would have made us that way. If He wanted us to be eternal spirits, then He wouldn’t have told us that our resurrected bodies would be like Jesus’—who was the first fruits of the resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23).

About Bodily Resurrection

We will talk more about our resurrected bodies in a couple weeks when we talk about the New Heaven & New Earth. But what I would like for you to hold onto today is that, while the spirit of the Christian is with God in the present Heaven, that is not his or her final state. One day, when Christ returns and all is made right, their spirits will be united with their resurrected, glorified, eternal, awesome bodies and that is how they will spend eternity: fully human—body and spirit together, in the presence of God in the New Heaven on the New Earth.

What Might the Present Heaven Be Like?

So with that in mind, what might the present Heaven be like? The bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much about the present Heaven as the New/Eternal Heaven, but it still gives us some ideas of what it’s like. We know Heaven was created by God—just like everything else (Genesis 1:1; Nehemiah 9:6). God chose to make it His dwelling place, but He’s not limited by or confined to Heaven.

I believe the Present Heaven may be a physical place. Biblical descriptions of this are plentiful. Revelation 2:7 tells us that the Tree of Life, that was in the Garden of Eden, is there. We know that Jesus is there, in the flesh. He is standing at the right hand of the Father. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3). If Jesus is there, preparing for us, what’s He preparing if it’s not physical?

Enoch and Elijah may be there in the flesh, too (Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11). We may not be able to see the Present Heaven with our eyes, but that doesn’t mean it’s not physical. Stephen saw heaven. While he was giving a verbal spanking to the religious leaders of the time, God opened Heaven to reveal it to him, “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).

Moses was instructed to build the Tabernacle and all it’s furnishings exactly like the pattern God gave him. What pattern? The Tabernacle was an earthly shadow of a Heavenly reality. The Tabernacle was patterned, somehow, in some way, after the Heavenly dwelling place of God (Exodus 25: 8-9, 40; Hebrews 8:5).

What Might It Be Like for Our Loved Ones in the Present Heaven?

First and foremost, they are in the presence of the Lord. For the first time, they have an intimacy with God that they have never known while on earth—an intimacy they’ve always longed for. We have a hard time imagining an existence without sin. Even our healthiest earthly relationships are still influenced by sin sometimes. But your loved one in the Present Heaven is no longer influenced by, tempted by, or drawn toward sin. They are with Jesus and are free from sin’s power. That’s got to be amazing!

In the current Heaven, your loved ones will understand what God is doing—in the grand scheme of redeeming humanity and the world—because your loved one isn’t hung up by imperfect thinking or understanding. The intimacy shared with God will be flawless with nothing in the way. Things will make sense that were never clearly understood before (Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12).

Luke 16 tells us that our loved ones have been comforted (Luke 16:25). This also suggests that they remember things experienced on earth (see also 2 Corinthians 5:10; Matthew 12:36).

They will likely celebrate with the angels when one person repents (Luke 15: 7, 10). Listen to Jesus’ words from Luke 15:7 & 10, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent… In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Who is doing the celebrating? Certainly God! Angels? Sure. Why not our faithful loved ones? That doesn’t seem far-reaching to me at all.

We know from Revelation 6:10 that the souls of those who had been martyred are in the presence of the Lord and “They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” That passage suggests that there is an active interest in what happens down here. I don’t know for sure, but it could be that our Christian friends are paying attention to God’s unfolding plan and that they have a real concern for what happens on earth (see also Revelation 18:20).

Finally, they are filled with joy because of Who they’re with, not because of ignorance of what’s happening on earth. They are with and worship Jesus. Nothing is in the way. No sin influence or temptation. At last they are in the full Presence of the One who loves them and made them for Himself!

This is just the tip of the iceberg, guys. The Present Heaven is amazing, wonderful, and full of God, and the New Heaven on the New Earth may be even more spectacular. God has things in store for us that will blow our minds—and I can’t wait!


Hopefully, this first blog post has encouraged those of you who have said goodbye to Christian friend or family member. My prayer is also that as you approach death, whether today or in 75 more years, that you won’t be afraid because you know where you’re going, Who you’ll be with, and what you’ll likely be doing.

There is so much more to unpack in this series, friends. The next post will talk about Misunderstandings, Myths & Lies about Heaven. These are the things that make people not want to go to Heaven at all. In the third post, we’ll talk at length about the New Heaven/New Earth and our resurrected bodies. The last post is some Q&A.
Helpful Resources about Heaven:
Heaven by Randy Alcorn
A Travel Guide to Heaven by Anthony DeStefano
Heaven: Your Real Home by Joni Eareckson Tada
The Heaven Answer Book by Billy Graham
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (The entire series is fantastic, but The Last Battle is particularly wonderful. I think Lewis does a great job painting what Heaven may be like.)
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Doug Arrington - June 4th, 2024 at 8:41pm

Wow, thanks so much for this! I’ll share it with my son if that’s okay.

- June 5th, 2024 at 1:25pm

Absolutely share it!!