Question: I was told recently that when we die we don’t go to heaven or hell until judgement? So everyone who has died already is basically just sleeping until that day?
So this is a teaching that like many people’s understanding of truth is based somewhat in truth and somewhat not. There are also some cults that teach this. In actuality, the Bible teaches this in the Old Testament, kind of. We must remember, however, that things have changed. Just because something may have held true before Jesus, doesn’t mean it did after.
Look at what 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NASB) says. “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight— we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” Paul clearly taught that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Where is He? Jesus isn’t sleeping, He’s at the right hand of God in Heaven, wide awake, interceding on our behalf. When dealing with the one thief on the cross, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43 (NASB) He didn’t say, today you will sleep with Me!
That last scripture brings up part of where people get this idea from. The Old Testament talks of the grave like its sleep. This is where the idea of death being rest comes from. Many times it is referred to this way. In fact, that terminology is even brought up in the New Testament. 1 Thessalonians 4:13 (NASB) says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are ASLEEP, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” The word sleep is used as figurative language. Truly, people didn’t sleep in either testament.
Before Jesus, humans could not get into Heaven. The best of the best of Old Testament saints were still not good enough for that, they too needed Jesus. Referring to this Hebrews 11:13 (NASB) says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” God did not want to throw these people in hell so He made a place for them, temporarily. There were two places that humans that died before Jesus could end up. Unrighteous sinners, those that didn’t know (rejected) God went to eternal punishment (Hell) just as those today. But God had something different for the righteous by faith that died.
See God’s desire is that no man would go to hell. Yet because of sin it was impossible for them to get into Heaven. God is only good and good and sin cannot coexist. They needed a savior, One that could cleanse them from this sin. God would send this savior at a certain time, but in the meantime these “righteous” needed to go somewhere. God had created a place referred to as Abraham’s bosom talked about in Luke 16:19-31. It was a place near hell but there was not torment there, it was a place of rest. It was a holding place of sorts until the Savior would come.
In fact, this is also the place Jesus referred to as paradise when He spoke to the thief. Jesus said, “TODAY you will be with Me in paradise.” We know that when Jesus died He did not go right to Heaven but first He descended (He didn’t rise until the third day). Ephesians 4:8-10 (NASB) says, “Therefore it says, ‘WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN.’ (Now this expression, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)” Who were the captives He led? They were the ones waiting for their Messiah, the Old Testament believers who had died. He delivered to them the Truth, then led them out of their holding cell into Heaven!
The idea of rest and sleep is probably more poetic than anything, as is a lot of terminology in ancient Jewish literature, which the Old Testament certainly is. We also understand by the same story Jesus told that some (like the rich man) was already in hell while his brothers were still in the earth. The idea that no one is there awaiting judgement is also just plainly not scriptural. In fact, even hell is not the final destination. The lake of fire is as hell will be thrown in there after the final judgement. Hell too is simply a holding cell.
We should not allow our theology to be built on anything other than what the Bible says, and the idea that those who have passed are in a perpetual state of sleep simply isn’t sound theology. When we get into man’s ideas of the Truth, we will likely find error. If the Bible doesn’t say it, there’s a reason. If it says it, likewise there is a reason. This we do know, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything but what we need for here. Let’s not import what God didn’t say, He certainly had reasons.