We’ve all heard stories about those who supposedly died and then returned from the afterlife. Such stories are fascinating, which explains the existence of the cottage industry of books written about near-death experiences that spin tales of the author’s personal visit to heaven before returning to write a book about their experience.
These books usually reveal encounters with the dearly departed, they often include descriptions of heaven (usually exaggerated earthly scenes), accounts of meeting Jesus, talking with God, and descriptions of heavenly things.
But all of these likely spurious accounts conflict with what we know the Bible says about entrance into the presence of God. Isaiah 6:1–7 comes to mind. Isaiah is overcome by his unworthiness when given a vision of the Lord. The biblical accounts of encounters with God—such as Moses’ glimpse of the Lord’s glory (Ex. 33:18–23) or Jesus’ appearance to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:37)—produce fear if not terror at being in the presence of the Holy God.
The biblical accounts do not square with the casual, if not trivial nature of the “I saw heaven” or “I walked with Jesus” genre of literature. Since the Bible does not describe the process or the reflections of the dying, many have sought to fill in the gap with fabricated stories. Sadly, they’ve been very successful. Many people accept these legends as truth.
Thankfully, the Bible gives us two points of reference regarding the intermediate state that help prepare us for death. First, in several well-known passages, Paul specifically addresses the matter of what happens to believers between the time they die and when Christ returns.
According to 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul teaches that at the moment of a believer’s death, we immediately enter into the presence of the Lord. The Apostle writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Paul also spoke of how he desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). When we die, we are immediately “with Christ” and enter into the presence of God. This is usually what we mean when we speak of “heaven.”
Second, the heavenly scene described by John in Revelation 4–6 gives us a glimpse of that previously unseen reality we will experience upon dying. We who have trusted in Christ alone will join the redeemed saints before the heavenly throne in the presence of God.
We are conscious, aware of where we are, and joyfully praising God. To put it simply, this heavenly scene is the clearest image we have of what happens to our soul when we die. In these three chapters, John gives a glorious image of heaven, where God dwells among His people until the resurrection of our bodies at the end of the age.