It is presently impossible for us to conceive of what it is like to be a soul without a fleshly body. We think of our material body as the hard reality while our souls are wispy, ghostlike forms. (Who has ever weighed or measured or taken a “selfie” of a soul?) However, in 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul insists that our soul is “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Our souls are substantial; they are spiritual in nature, but they nevertheless enjoy a substantial existence. Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 5:7–8 that “we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” At death, we leave our physical bodies behind in the grave as our souls are received into God’s wondrous presence.
Theologians typically label this moment-of-death transition into immortal soul-life as the “intermediate state.” That term implies in-betweenness, incompleteness. It is not a wrong term, but I prefer to call our entry stage of eternity by a more positive title: “the immediate heaven.” Emphasis should be upon the “immediacy” of this initiatory experience. Jesus told the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Biblical hope supports a confident assertion that all those who are converted by grace through faith to name Jesus as Lord come alive in Him in a new dimension immediately upon their physical death. Today we are “in” Christ; at death we shall be “with” Christ.
Yet, there is a second phase to Christian hope. The stunning second coming of the Lord Jesus will be the dawn of ultimate heaven. In a rapidly unfolding sequence, Christ will visibly, gloriously appear before the whole world, bringing with Him departed souls of believers (1 Thess. 4:13–18). All believers will be invested with resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15:51–57). All who greet the King with joyous faith on that amazing day shall be under the sure protection of their Redeemer. Further cosmic events include Christ’s great judgment throne, where unbelief is condemned beyond appeal and those who never trusted in Christ alone are shut out from God’s presence forever (Matt. 25:31–46). Creation itself is renewed into a new heaven and new earth (Rom. 8:20–21; 2 Peter 3:10–13).
The pinnacle of the believer’s future experience is set forth fittingly in the Bible’s last two chapters. Revelation 21:3 prophesies that in the new heaven and re-created earth: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people.” This is the ultimate, perfected existence wherein all traces of evil, sin, death, and crying are banished. Revelation 22:4–5 states a final capstone when it says of the Lord Himself: “They will see his face. . . . They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
The sweeping panorama of all this final heaven is so breathtaking that it is no wonder millions of skeptics find the Bible’s concluding reality fantastic or mythological. In one sense, I don’t wonder why cynics call our hope “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” Yet Christians are not fools; we are not weak-minded as we assess worldly conditions today. Our observations of brutal suffering and death all around us are as objective and realistic as the next person’s. We just do not view evil and suffering as having the last word.