QUESTION: Do people go to heaven when they die?
ANSWER: Thanks for the question. It's quite a broad subject, so I'll try to look at it from several different angles.
About Human Spirituality
Your question implies at least the possibility of something beyond what we see and know in this mortal life, a spiritual and eternal world beyond our own material and temporal one. That thought, that there must be more beyond this life, is common to man. The Bible tells us God "has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end?" (Ecc. 3:11).
The Bible Knowledge Commentary says of that text: "People have a longing or desire to know the extra-temporal [beyond the present world] significance of themselves and their deeds or activities" (p. 984).
It seems there's a kind of inborn sense of...something...but a definite knowledge of it remains out of reach It's a world that seems misty and mysterious, and it's often the realm of wild imaginings, fearful superstitions, and even the deceptions of demonic spirits (I Tim. 4:1).
"The natural man [a human being born physically into this world, but not born again by the Spirit of God] does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (I Cor. 2:14). "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him. But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit [in the Scriptures]" (I Cor. 2:9-10).
The unsaved person does not have the ability to grasp spiritual things, or the spiritual power to live a life pleasing to God. But sinners can be saved by God's grace, through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8-10; cf. Jn. 3:16). When we are, we're also born again by a work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:12-13), and indwelt by the Spirit (II Cor. 1:21-22), who becomes our Teacher, illuminating the Scriptures so we can understand them (Jn. 16:13-14).
Thus the boundaries of our understanding depends somewhat on our spiritual condition. Not that I'm saying we as Christians fully understand our infinite God and His ways. But we are equipped to grow in our understanding and application of the Bible, over time, and are encouraged to do so (I Pet. 2:2; II Pet. 3:18).
False and True Choices
But what of those who do not have God's life within them, and His provision to grasp spiritual matters? How do they describe life after death? There are many answers to that. Here are several.
1) The atheist says, there is no God, and no eternity up ahead. Dead is dead–it's the end of existence. But God says the one who clings to that notion is a fool (Ps. 14:1). All of the Bible proclaims a life beyond the grave.
Job, in his time of terrible suffering asks, "If a man dies, shall he live again?" (Job 14:14). And he answers with a strong belief in the resurrection and an afterlife: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God" (Job 19:25-26).
Jesus also taught the truth of a future resurrection: "Concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:31-32). And Christ declared that He was going to heaven to prepare a place for us to live there with him (Jn. 14:3-4; cf. Jn. 17:24).
2) The religions of the world offer no such hope. Buddhism speaks of a future Nirvana. The word literally means a blowing out, as one would extinguish a candle. After death, they say, we enter some kind of permanent state, but there is no personal God. In contrast, God's Word says His plan is: "That in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:7).
3) And what of Hinduism? Hindus believe human beings are reincarnated, over and over–either as animals, or different human beings–trying to solve the issues of this life. Some of them believe in a kind of god to go to; others think that in the end each human personality will be dissolved in the abyss of Brahman.
4) Primitive Spiritism speaks of joining our ancestors, but they claim to know little about the future world, other than seeing it as just as full of trouble and pain as this one. (How sad!)
And let's include here a couple of erroneous beliefs held by some professing Christians, relating to the afterlife.
5) Some believe in what is called "soul sleep," teaching that the dead lie in grave awaiting resurrection, and that they are totally insensible (unconscious), aware of nothing. Among those who believe this, much is made of the fact that in a few places death seems to be described as a sleep (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 11:11-13; I Thess. 4:13-14). But I believe that is picture language, intended to convey a couple of things.
First, it is simply describing the appearance of things–much as we describe sunrise, though we know the sun does not rise. In reality, the earth revolves, and it appears to us that the sun rises. In a similar way, a dead person often looks much like a sleeping person. Second, the power of God is such that He can raise the dead even more easily than we would arouse someone from sleep, so it's a way of emphasizing the power of God.
The dead are not unconscious in the grave. Moses and Elijah met with the Lord Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and talked with Him, and Peter certainly saw all three (Matt. 17:2-4). To the dying thief who believed on Him Jesus said, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise [heaven]" (Lk. 23:43).
Our own experience in death, as believers, will be to be "absent from the [mortal] body and to be present with the Lord [in heaven]" (II Cor. 5:8), instantly going from one world to the next. Paul described death as "to depart and be with Christ" (Phil. 1:23).
6) Some teach that the unsaved will simply be annihilated after death, and cease to exist, that only the saved are immortal. But that too is wrong.
Not only the saved, but also the unsaved will be raised bodily from the dead in the day of resurrection (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 5:25-29). At that time, the unsaved will be judged before God's Great White Throne (Rev. 20:11-12), and condemned to eternal punishment in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:15).
Jesus describes this as a place of "everlasting fire" originally prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41), and a place "where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched" (Mk. 9:48). Both the punishment of sinners and the blessing of the saints are "forever and ever" (Rev. 20:10; 22:5).
7) The Christian gospel contrasts with all of the theories of man. The Word of God is plain. For us, as Bible-believing Christians, the future is described in First Thessalonians 4:14-17. If we die before Christ returns, we'll come back with Him (which obviously implies we will have been with Him in heaven before that). If we are alive when He comes, we'll instantly receive our glorified resurrection bodies and join the other saints (I Cor. 15:51-53). Our future with the Lord is assured. Through Christ, we have the gift of "eternal" life (I Jn. 5:11), a life of blessing in His presence. It would not be truly eternal if it ended at the grave.