One of the most shocking moments I ever had from a theological point of view happened in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Chapel on top of Golgotha no less, where traditionally Jesus was crucified. I heard a Catholic priest say these words to his tour group: “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I like to think it has something to do with this world. I like to think we live on in the memories of those who love us.”
My jaw must have hit the floor. Did Jesus need to die to help people remember them? Nooo! This priest was confused to the extreme, but confusion is not limited to him. What happens after we die confuses many people for some reason. The result is disagreement.
There are basically four ideas of what comes next. One is caught up in Paul’s use of the word “sleep” (see 1 Cor. 15:51 or 1 Thess. 4:13 for example). In this model we are unconscious at our death until aroused at Judgment Day. This model is quickly contradicted by 1 Thessalonians 4:14 which has the righteous dead returning with Jesus as he comes on Judgment Day.
For since we believe that Jesus rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.1 Thessalonians 4:14
It also is in tension with Revelation 6:9-10 where martyrs are conscious, in Heaven, and asking God how long they have to wait for Judgment Day. For that matter, also Revelation 7:9-17 which shows people in Heaven in a pre-Judgment Day setting.
Another is a time-warp model that doesn’t have you sleeping but going direct to the Judgment Day. The idea is that because God must be transcendent (above the Laws of Nature), that we are also transcendent after our death. While I do believe God can do whatever He wants with us. Assuming transcendence is a jump. This theory also contradicts the same passages as soul sleep mentioned above.
Yet another is a super vague explanation that equates “heaven” with being a part of the body of Jesus. That doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first, but it is essentially making “heaven” (not capitalized) be a state of mind or being. Essentially, I am in heaven now because I am part of the body of Christ. It is not Heaven a place where Jesus is. Again, Revelation 6 and 7 speak against this. 2 Corinthians 5 also speaks of our having an independent body in which we are “clothed”. We do not exist as a being assimilated into Jesus until the Resurrection.
Here is what the Scripture tells us. When we die (like the thief on the cross), immediately we will be with Jesus in paradise (Heaven – capital H), fully awake, fully aware and loving it. I would argue that this experience comes with a heavenly body (1 Cor. 15:40, 2 Cor. 5:1), you are not formless or ghostly. Then, when the time arrives, we will return with Jesus from Heaven to Earth. We will receive a resurrected body, appropriate for Earth, and go through a Judgment Day experience (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Judgment Day for the Redeemed is not a determination of salvation, but rather an accounting of our works and an appropriate reward. (1 Cor. 3:10-15, et al.). Where then? Wherever you want. God dwells with us on Earth, but I wouldn’t guess that Heaven is off limits either.