Today, someone asked me, "What happens to a person when they die?"
First, note that every world view has an answer to this question. Atheism says, when you die, that's the end of you. Hinduism says when you die, you will be reincarnated into another form of life. This form of life will either be lower than you now are, or higher than you now are. This depends on your karma; i.e., on whether your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, or vice versa. Buddhism says there is not really a substantial "you." What you call "I" is but the coming together of five "skandhas" (matter, feelings, perceptions, mental constructs, and consciousness). When you die, these five things scatter.
What I believe, as a follower of Jesus, is this. When I die, I will go to heaven. Temporarily.
Biblically, “heaven” is a temporary holding place. That is "life after death." The Bible gives us few clues about this. Paul says, in Philippians 1:21-23,
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.
So, immediately after death, I shall be with Christ, in heaven. And that, of course, is good.
While that is important and interesting, what the New Testament is more concerned with is what N. T. Wright calls “life after life after death.” Or, the "after-afterlife." Here we have far more about our ultimate destination upon being physically resurrected.
Our final destination, entered into upon the final resurrection, will be in the new heaven and new earth. We will be part of the restoration of all things, which God saw as good.
For Wright our final destination should affect our lives in the here and now. He says because he believes in God’s kingdom of justice and peace, it gives him focus to work on God’s kingdom coming in the present. In this regard remember that The Lord’s Prayer was never understood to be a purely future hope. Unlike the total-paradisiac-future of Islam, the Christian hope includes redemption now.
This is the “age to come” invading “this present age.” (See Ladd's eschatology here.) And, while the age to come will come in its fullness at the final resurrection of the dead, the in-breaking of the kingdom (heaven coming to earth) has been happening since the earthly life of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus.
So, to sum up:
- When a Jesus-follower dies they go to heaven, to be with the Lord.
- Heaven is not our ultimate destination. It is a holding-place, until the final resurrection.
- At the final resurrection God will re-make our physical bodies.
- We will live, in a state of everlasting time, in God's newly restored creation. This will be the unifying of heaven and earth. When "the times reach their fulfillment" God will "bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ." (Ephesians 1:10)