All Christians agree that people who die in the Lord will live eternally in his presence. But do true disciples go immediately into heaven when they die, or do they enter Hades, the world of the dead, and there wait for the Day of Judgment? I believe that the Bible supports the latter view, but the scriptures briefly discussed below seem to suggest the former position.
What Stephen is stoned to death, he cries, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). If this means for certain that Stephen goes straight into heaven after dying, then Jesus does the same. His final word on the cross is, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). But Jesus doesn’t immediately go into heaven. He tells the penitent robber that they will be together in “Paradise” (v. 43). Speaking of the same event, Peter says that Jesus rose from the dead, that “he was not abandoned to Hades” (Acts 2:31). In other words, Jesus goes to Hades, but he doesn’t stay there.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul expresses his willingness to embrace death if it comes: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:21). His “desire is to depart and be with Christ” (v. 23). This could mean that Paul expects to enter God’s presence in heaven at the moment of death. But there’s a more plausible explanation. In a sense Christ is with us even now (Matt. 28:20). In Paradise we can surely expect to know Jesus far more personally. In the first Paradise described in the Bible, Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8). Our first parents aren’t in heaven, but they are with God in a very real sense. It’s easy to imagine Jesus visiting the spirits of his departed disciples in Hades in the cool of every day.
In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul says that when Christ comes again, “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (4:14). But will Christ bring the departed spirits with him from heaven or from Hades? Paul doesn’t say.
But here are some things we know for sure: (1) When Christ comes in judgment, Hades will give up its wicked dead and they will be consigned to eternal punishment (Rev. 20:13-14). (2) The righteous raised for eternal life on the last day will receive their resurrection bodies at that time (1 Cor. 15:50-52). The already-in-heaven theory must explain why Jesus would welcome bodiless spirits into heaven and then clothe them with the imperishable and glorious resurrection bodies later. (3) All the dead will rise at the same hour and appear before the judgment seat of Christ (John 5:28-29; 2 Cor. 5:10). Again, the already-in-heaven theory must explain why God would welcome departed saints into their eternal home of tearless, painless joy – only to lead them out of their eternal home, let them witness the damnation of the wicked, pronounce them justified, and then lead them back to their interrupted peace and happiness.