do-we-go-to-heaven-when-we-die_472_337_80In recent years a new pet peeve has arisen in some quarters of the church. I have often encountered, and not uncommonly from good evangelical brothers, an objection to casual references about “going to heaven when you die.” No doubt, much of this angst has trickled down from N.T. Wright, who expresses concern (in every book I’ve read from him) that traditional Christians have not allowed for God-rescuing-and-renewing-the-cosmos theology to really permeate their thinking. We’ve imagined an ethereal eternity of strumming harps and floating around in the great by and by. We’ve neglected the promise of resurrection. We’ve forgotten the hope of heaven come to earth.

Fair enough. I wholeheartedly agree that salvation is about more than being beamed up into the clouds. And yet, the whole heaven thing is pretty critical to folks when they come to their last breath. Dying saints may find it encouraging to know that the whole cosmos is going to be renewed at the end of the age, but they also can’t help but wonder what the next moment will be like when they reach the end of their days.

Where we go when we die is one of the most important questions a pastor has to answer. Good news about what God promises to do years or centuries from now will not suffice. It isn’t enough to tell our people that they’ll live in a new world at the renewal of all things. They want to know what tomorrow will be like. Will they be with Jesus in paradise or not? Paul talked about the heavenly dwelling waiting for him once he died (2 Cor. 5:1-10) and the joy he would have to depart and be with Christ (Phil. 1:19-26), so we ought to have no shame in glorying, as the saints for two millennia have done, that after death we live with God in heaven.

I understand that some good Christians have an underdeveloped eschatology that rarely touches on crucial New Testament themes. But many of these same Christians have a sweet and simple longing for heaven, a commendable confidence that because of Christ they will, in fact, die and go to a better place. Correcting eschatological imbalances is good, but not if it means undermining or minimizing one of the most precious promises in all the Bible; namely, that to live is Christ and to die is gain (Phil. 1:21). Even the intermediate state is indescribably good–better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord is how Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:8).

In trumpeting the good news of cosmic renewal let us not lose sight of the hope that anchors the believer in hard times and is the reality awaiting us on the other side of suffering and death: we really do go to heaven when we die.

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28 thoughts on “Away from the Body and at Home with the Lord”

  1. a. says:

    our sure and steadfast hope – where He is, there we may be also
    He has enter as a forerunner within the veil, the sanctuary and true tabernacle which the Lord pitched Heb 6:20; 8:2; John 14:3

  2. lwesterlund says:

    Thank you for this. Amen! When I read N T Wright, I miss the Biblical emphasis on being forever with the Lord I love, the One who has sweetened days of despair, and been my rock in the tumult of circumstances. Is the Christian’s hope primarily the hope of a better world where all wrongs are righted? Is this why Christ Jesus suffered and died? No, He was forsaken of the Father that we might become sons. We love Him with inexpressible joy, as Peter writes; we long to see Him face to face. We look down upon a woman who marries a man because she is enamored of the new residence He has for her, rather than for love of his person. Being with the One we love is what matters, no matter in Heaven or the new Earth. And when we see him, we will be like Him, as John writes. Gone forever is the daily battle with the never-ending assault of sin. This is the Biblical emphasis that I find absent in Wright’s theology.
    Full disclosure: I do not enjoy Wright’s writing. (Apparently I am in a minority.) He is not a second C. S. Lewis. I have read a lot of Lewis, and despite the borrowed, modified titles, N T Wright is no C. S. Lewis. If Lewis sometimes answers questions the reader hadn’t thought of asking, Wright leaves us with unanswered questions. Lewis is always clear, supplying the concrete illustration for the abstract statement. Wright leaves me in a fog of uncertainty. For example, he states that Abraham is called to “undo” Adam’s sin. How does one fallen human being undo the sin of another, if all sin is against God? Oh, maybe he means the effects of sin. But that is not clearly stated. He is to me the professor who says, “I didn’t answer the question but I dazzled them with the footwork.” Yes, he is brilliant and witty but his wit has an arch tone that suggests he looks down upon anyone who cannot see what is so plain–to N. T. Wright. All others are willfully blind.
    But this complaint is neither here nor there, compared to the theological deficiencies.

  3. Kim says:

    My son went to Heaven when he was 11 years old. Even more comforting than knowing I will be in Heaven some day is knowing that he is in Heaven now. Just as I would have never allowed him to stay in a home with which I was unfamiliar when he lived here, I could not bear for him to be living in an unfamiliar place now. I am so thankful of this sweet comfort from God’s Word. And, still more, for this: When I reach Heaven, my son will be there and my broken and hurting heart will be restored. But it will be healed and restored, not because I am reunited with my Caleb, but because I am in the presence of my Lord. I will be overcome with joy, not by the sight of my son, but by the sight of my Savior! I get the other stuff — the rescuing and renewing stuff — and it is amazing and astounding. But it is not the stuff that comforts me and encourages me during my dark moments.

  4. Andrew Hall says:

    This is good news for our Coptic brothers killed by ISIL: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:4-5).

    Has there been much in the amillenial tradition of viewing Revelation 20:4-6 as seeing the “millenium” not as the present church age, but rather as the time in heaven before Christ’s return when martyred saints are away from the body and at home with the Lord?

  5. Roddy says:

    My father passed away two weeks ago. These themes have been on my mind a lot lately. This piece spoke to me pastorally. Thank you.

  6. mike wittmer says:

    Kevin, I think you make some really good points here. I also push back on a few points. If you have the time and inclination to interact (and I understand if you don’t), you can read my post at I do thank God for you and am glad we’re on the same team in these interesting days.

  7. Kevin DeYoung, I share some of your concerns and might also push back against some of your ideas.

    One thing I would note is that Randy Alcorn’s is a more conservative voice that is advocating a perspective very similar to N.T. Wright on life after death and the eternal state. Wright is probably a more welcome “punching bag” among some conservative readers than Alcorn would be, so mention of the latter might help people to assess ideas on their own merit rather than as a reaction against a perceived liberal.

    I agree that we don’t want to underestimate the joy of being with Jesus immediately after death. But I think it’s also clear that the NT says next to nothing about this intermediate state, and that the NT repeatedly urges us to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13 ESV). When Jesus endured the cross because of the “joy set before him,” context in Hebrews and Jesus’ own predictions of his suffering in the Gospels make it abundantly clear that he was anticipating resurrection and all that flows from it, not merely his Friday evening meeting in his spirit with his Father. I think our hope should be shaped by his.

    So, yes, I don’t think we want to leave Christians feeling hopeless about what happens immediately after death. Being with Christ is “far better” than our present existence. But I don’t think we should overlook that there are “far better” than “far better” things promised at Christ’s return.

    Here are two recent blog posts I did on the same topic. The first includes a series of relevant NT verses added at the end. The second includes audio of my father-in-law’s funeral sermon I preached where I discussed the same ideas:

    Blessings to all!

  8. Emily says:

    Luke 23:39-43English Standard Version (ESV)

    39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him,[a] saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

  9. Lynn B. says:

    Wow! I do not understand this discussion. I have not read N T Wright but both the present temporary Heaven and the New Earth are biblical truth, what are we arguing?

    My husband died in prison and during the last years of his life, our pastor taught on these things and it was hope of the New Earth that brought my husband great comfort and displaced the temptation to regret what was lost in this life. I would say that hope of the New Earth allowed my husband to enjoy the anticipation of the present temporary Heaven and worshipping our Savior even more than he otherwise would have. They are twin truths, the heads-and-tails of eternity for the redeemed.

    During the past three years, we had three fairly young women widowed in our church and a very young man lost his wife. I assumed that what comforted me would comfort them and I was wrong. Each situation was different, each person was different, and each struggled with different issues and thus different scriptural truth brought comfort. One thing was consistent; God and His Word were faithful!

  10. Paul says:

    Thank you so much fior this post. N T wright is what we Australians might call a “theological smart arse”

  11. llwesterlund says:

    Thank you, Lynn B., for your post. You are absolutely right, both Heaven and the New Earth are what we are Biblically promised, as believers. And we look forward to both. The problem is when the New Earth is emphasized to the minimizing of our fulfillment in being with Christ, and loving Him with an undivided heart. And even in our thinking about the New Earth, Biblically the most glorious aspect of its reality is that “the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23.) Thank you for your last paragraph and Amen. God alone knows the Word a grieving person needs to hear Him speak.

  12. Ronnie says:

    Interestingly, in 1 Thessalonians 4, when Paul wants to comfort believers about loved ones who have died, he does not tell them “they’re in heaven!” Instead, he tells them about the resurrection.

    That modern Christians always comfort believers with the former, and never the latter, tells me that their theology differs from Paul’s on this point.

  13. llwesterlund says:

    Thank you, Ronnie, for your post. In I Thessalonans 4, Paul’s first word of comfort to sorrowing believers is, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” He says that those who have died are with Jesus and will come with Him on Resurrection Day, a point further emphasized in vs. 15. So it not apparent to me that the theology that offers the immediate comfort that the person we have lost is “absent from the body and at home with the Lord.” (II Cor. 5:8.) “differs from Paul’s at this point.” That said, I would agree that evangelicals have tended to under-emphasize the importance of the Last Resurrection. I was attempting to address the imbalance of an over-correction.

  14. Bernard says:

    It’s interesting that Kevin never once uses the Bible’s own term for what he’s talking about: sleep. Here is a two part article in the scholarly evangelical journal Churchman exploring a different way of understanding the Bible’s teaching about what happens when we die, before the New Earth. Btw the author of this article is Tony Wright, not N.T. Wright.

  15. Ronnie says:

    llwesterlund, just to clarify, my post was in response to the blog article, not your comment.

    That said, I’m a bit confused by your response. I’m not sure how anything you quoted challenges my point. Paul’s words of comfort to believers are about a future event: those who have died as Christians will be raised. *That* is our hope. Nowhere here does Paul say or imply “Don’t mourn; your loved ones are alive with Jesus in heaven right now!”

    Now, if Paul believed that Christians who had passed away were in fact alive in heaven, it’s incomprehensible to me that he would not point to *that* fact, but instead to a resurrection that would take place thousands of years in the future. Likewise, Christians who believe that our loved ones are in “heaven” are perfectly rational to under-emphasize the resurrection; if the intermediate state of believes is “indescribably good,” then the resurrection is simply some far-out future bonus; a cherry on top.

    That doesn’t appear to be Paul’s view.

  16. Neville Briggs says:

    Like Ronnie I am puzzled by what Mr de Young is trying to say.
    If we are to somehow go away after death to another place, there to there exist forever away from our body, then that is eternal death. The scripture promises eternal life. Therefore the resurrection to new life is the hope of Christians.
    I cannot see anywhere in the scripture the term ” go to Heaven ” The Apostle Paul tells the church that if there is no resurrection then our faith is in vain. If going to heaven is the deal, then why did Jesus need to rise from the dead. After his redeeming work on the cross, He could have just gone off to that place to receive the believers. But no, the scripture tells us that Jesus is the first fruits of those that sleep, the proof that God has the ability and resolve to make a new creation with real material people. That is not to say that the dead in Christ are not somehow kept in the presence of God. We don’t really know what the presence of God is in that context, and as far as I know, the scripture doesn’t explain. In the end, as has been said here, we place out trust in God, who takes care of us; like the psalmist says, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death we will fear no evil, for He is with us.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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