We go to heaven. Well, some of us.
That’s the short answer. And a rather flippant one. But there’s more to it than that. God doesn’t say much about the details of our eternal existence after our temporal demise. He does, however, make it abundantly clear that each one of us will spend forever in one of two existences, with no end in sight for either.
Let’s start with where heaven is. After the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961, Khrushchev asserted, “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any god there.” (Gagarin never said those words; he was baptized in the Eastern Orthodox Church). He was reflecting the misconception that “the heavens” – the created world of sky and stars – and “Heaven” are the same thing. God never says, “Hop on a space shuttle, turn left at Cloud 9, and my house is the third star down on the right.” God refers to heaven as “up” and hell as “down,” but He’s not programing our GPS. He’s using a figure of speech to help us comprehend the spiritual truth of a life after this one, and it’s a life that is completely other than the one we’re used to.
Heaven is where Jesus is. It’s His Father’s House, and He will take us there, to be where He is (John 14:1-6). And save the cab fare – or shuttle fare: Jesus is the only Way to get there. Whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.
So when do we go there? God talks about death as being “asleep,” but when we take in the whole of Scripture’s teaching on the subject, we find out that “falling asleep” was just a gentle euphemism for death itself.
“When” is a question of timing, of sequence. The traditional Lutheran understanding is that the body goes into the ground, but the soul goes directly to Jesus. He tells the repentant thief on the cross next to His, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The body and soul – that which constitutes YOU – are reunited in the Resurrection of all flesh, on Judgment Day. Many Lutheran pastors hold that “paradise” is different than heaven, so we’ve got a layover in pre-heaven until Jesus comes and takes us all the way home.
But I’m not comfortable with the traditional teaching, even though the Biblical texts seem to suggest that sequence. I believe that the Holy Spirit expressed the afterlife in those descriptions of timing because that’s how life works here in the created world. That’s how it will appear to those of us who are still here.
Time itself, though, is a creation of God. He is not bound by time nor space. The word eternal itself means timeless, with no beginning and no end. We can’t fathom that in our earthly existence. When we cross over from the Kingdom of Power, through the Kingdom of Grace, and into the Kingdom of Glory, we have transcended space and time.
That’s why Jesus says, “Today,” even though His own resurrection was still a couple days off. That’s also why we pray to our Father who is in heaven, where His house is, which is also where His Son is.
With God a day is like a thousand years and vice versa. That’s because He doesn’t wear a watch, doesn’t have a calendar. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Right there in the first verse is the creation of time and space, but God precedes and supersedes both. Time measurements and sequences are for us, not for God.
Taking Jesus at His Word, I believe that the moment we die, He takes us straight Home with Him, directly to the Judgment and Resurrection. If I die 20 years before my wife, she will wait that time on earth. For me, though, I believe I’ll be in line at the Throne, turn around, and there she is!
And let’s address who gets to go.
Everyone whom God has called and chosen. Everyone who believes in Jesus as their Savior from their sins.
Everyone who acknowledges that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, God in the flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
Everyone who has been baptized into His death and resurrection. Everyone who faithfully celebrates His Supper as a foretaste of the feast to come.
Everyone who has been crucified with Christ, so that they no longer live, but Christ lives within them.
Everyone whose name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, because they believed in the Son God sent, and by believing they have life – eternal life – in His name.
So like David, we will go to our fathers, and our sons. Like Job, we will see Jesus – in person this time. Like the saints who have gone before us and the angels who have watched over us, we will join in the everlasting celebration of Him who was, and is, and is to come. The One who was slain, but has risen from the dead and now lives and reigns in His heavenly Kingdom to all eternity.
That’s what happens when we die.