What Happens to the Soul before Judgment Day?

“I miss my uncle so much! But I just know that, somehow, he’s with me right now, watching over me.”

Some people find comfort in thoughts such as these after they’ve lost a loved one. Are such thoughts valid? Are the departed still “hovering” near us? What does the Bible say?

Death, the Bible says, is the separation of body and soul. The body returns to the ground to await the resurrection, and “the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

When Christians die, their souls are immediately with the Lord in heaven. Jesus said to the penitent thief who hung on the cross next to his, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). We can comfort a dying believer, as well as ourselves, with the same assurance.

What is life like for those souls who are with Jesus in paradise? The Scriptures say little about this, and we should be careful not to say more than is written in the Bible.

In his story about the rich man and poor Lazarus, Jesus says that Lazarus was comforted at Abraham’s side after he died (Luke 16:25). The apostle Paul stated that he desired “to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23). We can be similarly confident that those who have died trusting in Jesus “are away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).

“God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4). Are the souls in heaven aware of events on earth? Solomon wrote, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6).

The souls in heaven are aware that time is passing and that God’s plan of salvation is progressing (Revelation 6:9-11), but that is about all we can say with confidence. They no longer influence the events of earth. Rather than wonder what Christians are doing in heaven, it is more important for us to be Christians now, so we can join those who have gone before us.

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31).

When Does the Soul Go to Heaven?

It is often fear that lies behind that question.  As if death wasn’t terrifying enough without imagining some state of unrest or unconscious oblivion while we wait and wait and wait for Jesus to return to take us to heaven.  To answer quickly up front, your soul goes to heaven immediately when you die.

Jesus often talked about life going on into eternity.  He didn’t just mean that our loved ones who have died would live on in our memories.  He literally meant they would live on forever.   Look closely at this conversation between Jesus and Martha, the sister of Lazarus who had just died.  “’Your brother will rise again.’  Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die’” (John 11:23-26).  Martha believed that her brother would rise on the last day of the earth’s existence, which the Bible refers to as Judgment Day.  Jesus further comforts her by pointing out that Lazarus would not have to wait that long to experience the joys of eternal life.  “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”  Our soul goes to be with Christ immediately when we die.  In that sense, we will never die, even though our body remains here until Judgment Day.

God’s missionary Paul was in constant danger because of his bold confession about Jesus.  He spent a lot of time in court and in prison.  He found comfort in knowing that if he had to die for believing in Jesus, it would be a blessing.  “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).  To “depart” and to “be with Christ” were simultaneous events.  There is no allusion to a long period of time in between.  Ecclesiastes 12:7 speaks the same way.   “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit (or soul) returns to God who gave it.”

The clearest statement comes when Jesus is on the cross next to another dying man.  “Then he (the criminal) said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:43). Jesus puts a time stamp on the soul’s trip to heaven with the word “today.”  When Jesus gave his life on that very day, he paid for every sin and paved the path to heaven for everyone who puts their trust in Him.  When he rose from the dead three days later, he secured the promise he just made to that dying man and to all of us.  Jesus turned death from a curse into a blessing—a blessing that starts the moment we close our eyes for the last time.