In some scriptures it appears that we are judged immediately at death (Luke 16:23) while in other scriptures it appears that we are all brought together for a final judgement (Matthew 25:31,32). Which is it, or is it both? -- Skip Gross Tallahassee)

I wanted to hear your insight regarding what happens when we die. I've studied out the topic some on my own and have gathered that we enter a state of 'rest' or 'sleep' when we die and then are "awakened" on judgment day. I've often heard people say when true Christians die, they are "with God," but it would seem the answer is "not yet." What light can you shed on this topic? -- Dave Nemetz (Madison, Wisconsin)

It feels like hundreds of disciples are asking about what happens after death! I wrestled with these questions for a number of years, resisting the view to which I have now come. (All of us must do our best to interpret the scriptures in a way that makes sense to us; this may involve a prolonged period of time, during which our views may go back and forth.) I finally published my view in 1997. Let me summarize, however, how I understand the sequence of events:

Death -> Hades -> 2nd Coming -> Resurrection -> Final Judgment -> Heaven/Hell

After we live, we die. (Once -- no reincarnation -- Hebrews 9!) If we die lost, we don't need to wait until Judgment Day to find out where we stand. John 3:18 says that those who do not believe already stand condemned. 2 Peter 2 speaks of punishment before judgment day yet after death. Yet for the redeemed, there is something awesome that happens after death. Like the penitent thief, we go to paradise. Not heaven! Jesus insisted that no one had gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven. Peter said that not even David ascended to heaven. (The term paradise occasionally refers to heaven, as in Revelation 2, but I believe the picture of the next world that emerges from Old and New Testaments forces us to distinguish paradise from heaven.)

One important reason I think no one has ever gone to heaven is that Jesus taught this was dependent on his coming again (John 14). He said he was going there to prepare a place for us. One day he will return to take us there; yet this return has not taken place yet! John 5 says that when he comes back, all the dead will hear his voice and rise from the dead. So this part of the sequence is 2nd Coming - Resurrection. Yet between death and our resurrection we are conscious. Sleep is only a metaphor for death (as in 1 Corinthians 15). The doctrine of "soul sleep" is a errant one. I believe Luke 16 supports this view. Lazarus is in paradise (the metaphor here is "Abraham's bosom," a term commonly used by the early Christians to refer to the good part of Hades) while the Rich Man is in agony. They can see each other. They are both in Hades. In older English, "Hades" was rendered "hell" -- a very negative word for us, but originally neutral. It was the underworld, with a "good" compartment and a "bad" one as well.

After our resurrection, we appear before the judgment seat of Christ. This judgment is declarative, not investigative. God is not trying to figure out whether we are going to be admitted to heaven; he already knows! He is merely declaring officially what our destiny is. The righteous will then (not before) go to heaven. The lost will be cast into the lake of fire.

So where are disciples who have died? They are in paradise; they're conscious and they're happy. And yet I do not think it is correct to state that they are in heaven. Not yet! Not until the Lord returns.

For more on this, please listen to my four-part audio series, What Happens After We Die?

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