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These questions are related, yet cover quite a bit of biblical territory. Let me state at the beginning of this response that the Bible does not answer all of our questions or concerns. The Bible gives us what God wants us to know, presents to us the plan of salvation and the reasons man needs to be saved, and gives us great lessons on living a life that is pleasing to God, both by example and instruction. In other words, the Bible is a book of Faith.
In the case of these questions, there are some principles regarding these issues that are directly taught in the Bible, but for the most part we are left to draw conclusions from what is revealed by the insights that the Word gives.
Events That Result From The Rapture
First, what do we mean by “The Rapture”?
The word rapture refers to an event which will mark the end of the Church Age and which will be an occasion of great joy to Christian believers. All believers, both those who have died and those who are alive at the time, will be taken up to meet Jesus Christ, who will have returned to "the air," earth's atmosphere. Then, the Christians and the Lord Jesus will return to heaven together. At the time of the Rapture, Christ will not set foot on earth; and He will be visible only to believers. (See 1Thessalonians 4:17; Acts 1:11)
The Rapture is to be distinguished from the Second Advent of Christ. While the Rapture sets the stage for the Second Coming, these are two separate events. Although the word “rapture” is not found in the King James Version, it is an acceptable translation for the phrase “caught up” in 1Thessalonians 4:17. The Greek word means “to be taken suddenly, snatched away, or seized.” This word was translated into Latin by the word “rapturo” from “rapere” from which we get the words, rapture, raptor, and even rape.
As to the events on the earth which follow this blessed event, the Bible only makes reference to things regarding the signs by which Israel will recognize the beginning of the “Tribulation.” And, yes, the Tribulation is filled with chaos. If you have studied any end time books or tapes, they make great light of these biblical events: wars, pestilence, famine, darkness, signs in the sky, and of course the arrival on the scene of the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and the Beast. The seven years following the rapture will be a continual unfolding of numerous Bible prophecies, signs, and wonders.
However, as to the everyday events and things that affect the lives of people, there is no direct mention. The events that are “pre-told” are not themselves the results of the Rapture; they are the result of God’s final dealings with the nation of Israel, and the nations of the world. What will happen in hospitals, banks, businesses, planes, factories? We really are not told. We do not find information on how the average person will survive the calamity of those days. But, we do know it will be a time of great trouble—that is what “tribulation” means. But, there are some hints: 1Thessalonians 5:1–11; 2Thessalonians 2:6–12; Revelation 6–11; 13–19. It is really impossible to imagine how life will be upon the earth at that time.
Our Resurrection Bodies
As for the believers, that’s another story. While the above passages describe the horror that will occur upon the earth, we who are in heaven will have an entirely new existence. The Rapture completes the “redemption of the body” because the believer receives a resurrection body at that time, Philippians 3:20, 21; 1John 3:1, 2.
Consider the description of the Rapture and the change that will take place in the believer in 1Corinthians 15:51–53 (with my comments concerning the terminology used).
Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52) in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will all be changed. 53) Because this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality.
A doctrine "hidden" from the Old Testament believers. The Rapture is pertinent only to the Church Age and was never revealed to believers living before the beginning of the Church Age (which also, was a “mystery” to the OT believers).
we will not all sleep:
i.e., There will be some believers alive at the time of the Rapture. ( I will address the subject of “soul-sleep” later)
we shall all be changed:
Refers to the resurrection body.
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye:
A reference to the time element—the word “moment” is from the word “atomo” which means something that cannot be further divided, and the phrase “twinkling…” refers to something moving so fast that is imperceptible. The Rapture is not a long, drawn out process of evacuation. We will be with Christ instantaneously!
the dead will be raised incorruptible:
The resurrection body does not include the decay and corruption of sin and death.
we will all be changed:
Another reference to the new physical body and new personal at-tributes associated with the resurrection body. Here, also consider the words used in Phil 3:21 – “…who will change our vile body…” where Paul makes reference to the transition which we will receive at the Lord’s “appearing”. The word for “will change” indicates an outward change only because our “inner man” is already recreated in his image (Ephesians 4:24).
this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility:
The most important feature of the resurrection body is that there will be no Sin Nature.
this mortal must be clothed with immortality:
The believer will not die but will receive an immortal body.
This “resurrection body” is not like our present body—subject to the curse of the fall—but is like Jesus’ glorious body. It will be as unlike our present form as the heavenly bodies are unlike the terrestrial bodies (1Corinthians 15:40–41), and as the plant is unlike the seed (1Corinthians 15:37–38). Yes, in an outward manner, “glorified mankind” will still resemble “fallen mankind,” but that is merely superficial. I guess the best way to say it is we will be like Adam would have been had he eaten of the tree of life—only better! As to all the particulars of the form of our future existence, one can only speculate—so I won’t.
What is the “Form” of Believers Who are in Heaven, Now?
Here is a subject on which speculation has had no boundaries. In reality, the Scriptures tell us very little on this. Yet, that has not hindered numerous authors from expounding on their personal visions, revelations, dreams, and opinions. When I consider these various “insights”, I keep several passages in mind:
- 2 Peter 1:20–21:
First of all, you should know this: no prophecy of Scripture comes from one's own interpretation, 21) because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, moved by the Holy Spirit, men spoke from God.
This tells us that no person has a “special” insight in the truth. The Scriptures are the result of the anointing of God upon chosen men who wrote ONLY what God gave them to write—nothing added of their own ideas, thoughts, or imaginations. There are no mistakes in the Word of God.
- 1 Thessalonians 5:19–22:
Don't stifle the Spirit. 20) Don't despise prophecies, 21) but test all things. Hold on to what is good. 22) Stay away from every form of evil.
These verses go together, and the reveal an important truth to the Church. We need the manifestation of “spontaneous” prophecy in our churches. But, these “words” are not authoritative in themselves. The “words” which come must be held to the “judgment/proving/testing” of the written Word—which was delivered as infallible. (see also: 1Corinthians 14:29–30; 36–40)
- 2Corinthians 12:2–4:
I know a man in Christ [this is the Apostle Paul, himself] who was caught up into the third heaven 14 years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don't know; God knows. 3) I know that this man--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows-- 4) [this one] was caught up into paradise where he heard inexpressible words, which a man is not allowed to speak.
There are a couple of things of related importance here:
a) “Paul” was taken into the heavenly realm now called “Paradise”—the third Heaven—the abode of God. Yet, he was unable to tell whether he was in “spirit form” or in “physical form”. This tells us that whatever “form” the believers n Paradise are in presently, it is so much similar to the earthly form, and yet so different that Paul was aware of the difference, but not able to define what the difference was. That’s even hard to write. Paul knew where he was taken, knew he was different, knew what he heard, but could not in any logical manner describe the condition, nor the revelation.
b) And that is the second part. He could not describe / was not allowed / was forbidden to reveal what he heard / saw. These are amazing words for the man who wrote the greater part of the doctrine of the New Testament. The idea of “unlawful” may mean he was forbidden, or it may mean there are no proper words to convey it. Whichever it was—he could not do it! This does not mean that anyone who has told of what they have “seen” in Paradise is in violation of the Scriptures. But, it does mean that whatever they saw/heard is not authoritative—the Word of God / the Scriptures are the only true authority. And, the ones who wrote the Word tell us very little about the present condition of believers in Paradise.
Do Those Who Are In Heaven Remember Us?
As to the awareness of those in Paradise, there is really no scripture that clearly gives us an answer. There may be a hint or two from the book of Hebrews, but that is a matter of interpretation. Look first at Hebrews 12:1.
Therefore since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us, and run with endurance the race that lies before us…
This “cloud of witnesses” is a reference to all the “heroes of the faith” listed in Chapter 11. Many commentators believe Paul (the accepted author) is making more than an illusion to the testimony of their faith, but that he is actually saying they stand as “spectators” in OUR present life of faith. Just as we can see the evidence of their faith in the testimony of what they left behind, they can see the testimony of our faith in the manner in which we stand against the forces of the world, the flesh, and the devil. It doesn’t say they see everything we do any more than everything they have done is shown to us. But, they do “see” how we respond when we are tested: in faith—in endurance—in bold witness, or in doubt—in fear—in cowardliness.
This has been Paul’s message since Hebrews 10:19, “how will we live since we have been redeemed?” Adding to this imagery of witnesses beholding our “faith” is Hebrews 10:32–33.
But be ever mindful of the days gone by in which, after you were first spiritually enlightened, you endured a great and painful struggle, 33) Sometimes being yourselves a gazingstock, publicly exposed to insults and abuse and distress, and sometimes claiming fellowship and making common cause with others who were so treated. (Amplified Trans.)
The word translated “gazingstock” in verse 33 comes from the same root as our word “theater.” It can be used in the sense of someone who has been made a public spectacle, or the object of public contempt. However, Paul uses this same word in 1Corinthians 4:9 “For we have become a spectacle to the world [a show in the world's amphitheater] with both men and angels [as spectators]. Therefore, the implication is that our “activity” in the arena / theater is not only viewed by the inhabitants of this world, but also by those of the heavenly realm.
So, do they see us and remember us? I believe, Yes! They see our battles of faith—both our triumphs and our defeats. They see the endurance we express as we stand against the pressures of life. And, they see the effects which our faith has upon the world in which we live.
The other side of the question is, “What about those who have died but are not in Paradise?” There is only one passage that gives us a glimpse of the fate of those in Hades (Hades is the “temporary abode” of the dead who have died without belief in the Messiah / Redeemer. Just as Abraham’s Bosom /Paradise is the temporary abode of those who died believing in / waiting for the Messiah / Redeemer. Hell / Gehenna / The Lake of Fire is the eternal place of the “damned,” just as the New Heaven is the eternal abode of the “saved”). Luke 16: 19–31 tells the account of 2 men and the “afterworld” in which each one abides. Although there are many significant points to this story, I will only comment on the things that directly pertain to your question.
- Notice the difference in the state of their abode. Lazarus is in a place of comfort, peace, tranquility, affectionate care. The rich man is in a place of great torment, suffering, fear, lack, and longing—with no escape or relief.
- Lazarus seems totally “unconcerned / unaffected” by the issues of the rich man. It isn’t even clear that Lazarus has any knowledge of the issues that are taking place, across the “gulf that is fixed between” them. There is mention that those in the place of comfort may not pass from there to Hades, but we are not given any sense that Lazarus was at all concerned for the rich man.
- For the rich man, however, the knowledge of the comfort and attention that Lazarus is receiving only adds to the suffering he is encountering. He longs for something from there—even just a drop of water—anything to ease his misery.
- The rich man sees Lazarus and Abraham. He is able to converse with Abraham, but to no avail—he will receive nothing from him—not even pity.
For more on this subject see the Real Questions Answered archives, and the Question: Will people who go to hell remember their loved ones and long for them?
The end point here is that we have “this life” in which to prepare for our eternal status. In the words of Paul, “…behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”(2Corinthians 6:2) We know the glory which God has prepared for us—and, we long to be released from this life. So, let us live in such a manner as to honor the one who saved us, and to witness to the world around of the hope that can be theirs through believing in Jesus Christ as Savior.
What Do People Mean by, “Soul Sleep?”
This term is a reference to a state in which the dead are held in a type of suspended animation. They are not conscious of any of their surroundings, of their status, of their past. This is the belief of a large number of Biblical interpreters—especially of those who do not believe in the “literal” interpretation of the Scriptures, nor in the inerrancy / infallibility of the Word of God. They take many passages we accept as truth to be suggestive, symbolic, mystical, or simply the view of the writer or some legend he has heard. That is why they can look at the same verses we teach and arrive at different conclusions—even to the dismissing of portions of the Bible. They of course believe they are very careful scholars of the Word and don’t see that they have elevated their own reasoning / intellect as to be superior to the revelation of the Word.
The New Testament usage of the term “sleep” in reference to the dead is a metaphor for the condition because it is temporary. “Death” in the Bible does not signal cessation/termination. Instead, it speaks of “separation”—from God; this world order; even physical life. But it is not terminal. All the “dead” continue to exist beyond the grave. As I enlarged upon above, they will continue in either a place of unbelievable bliss and peace (Paradise), or in a place of unimaginable torment and sorrow (Hades). These places are themselves only temporary, for the ultimate destination of the soul/spirit is eternal Heaven, or eternal Hell. There are those who do not believe that the unrighteous dead will suffer for eternity, but the problem with their view is that the same phrasing of “eternal” is used when referring to our eternal life, or the eternal heaven. Either both heaven and hell are “eternal” or neither one is—you can’t interpret it both ways.
As mentioned above, the only complete passage that gives us a “view” beyond the grave is Luke 16:19–31. It is clear that both were presented as being conscious of their surroundings. Even if this is not a “literal” account (which most evangelical commentators believe it is), it presents a teaching that is to be accepted. Jesus taught with many parables, but the spiritual lesson that was in them was always true. If there is no “consciousness” beyond the grave, what could possibly be the point of this story? This also is in agreement with other “prophetic” passages which make reference to the condition of the dead.
Psalm 88 is a reference the Messiah in His death and suffering for the sins of mankind. He is fully conscious of the torment He is experiencing as he has taken the place of the “wicked” in His death. He knows sorrow, torment, loss, and seeming abandonment. This is of course the assigned place of the unrighteous (“…he who knew no sin was made to be sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” -2Corinthians 5:21). For the Messiah, it was temporary—His Father would raise Him from the dead. But, that did not lighten the burden He experienced.
Jonah 2 also makes reference to this subject. From the belly of the “great fish”, he spoke of descending to Sheol—the grave. He felt the horror, the loss, the torment. He remembered the purpose of God for his life, the temple where he was to worship, and the Lord he worshipped there. Jesus made reference to this very experience in likening it to his descent into death.
Both of these passages reveal one key element—consciousness beyond the grave. So when Paul speaks of the condition of the believers who “died in faith / died in the Lord” he uses the term “sleep” to emphasize the temporality of their condition.
“We shall not all sleep…” (1Corinthians 15:51)
“But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are fallen asleep…” and “…even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him.” (1Thessalonians 4:13,14)
Likewise, Scripture also affirms the immediate entrance of the believing dead into the presence of the Lord: 2Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; Luke 23:43; and Hebrews 12:22–24. Also, Revelation 6:6–9 and 7:9–10 clearly show the souls/spirits of believers who have died praying and worshiping, for they cry out with a loud voice, “O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” This is certainly occurring before the final Judgment, while others remain alive upon the earth.
These passages definitely make it clear that believers experience conscious awareness and fellowship with God and the Lord Jesus in Heaven immediately after death.
Geof W. Jackson, read bio
Director of the Grace School of Ministry/Director of Pastoral Care