Who is in heaven today? Does the soul sleep in the grave? What does it mean to be absent from the body?
When a person stops living in this world, he or she goes either to heaven or to hell and then waits for judgment before God. The soul does not sleep until some time in the future.
There are some passages in the Bible which seem at first glance to teach that the soul sleeps.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. (NASB) 1 Thess 4:13-14
This passage says that believers in Jesus Christ go to sleep and are raised to life again at the end of the world. But we must be careful, because Jesus used the same expression about Lazarus. But he did not mean that Lazarus was just sleeping.
This He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.” The disciples therefore said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (NASB) John 11:11-14
Jesus meant that Lazarus was physically dead. He used both sleep and death for the same situation. It is important to know that both Jesus and the apostle Matthew sometimes used “sleep” to mean “dead” (Matt. 9:24; 27:52; Acts 13:36). Even the apostle Paul used the expression of sleep to mean dead.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. (NASB) 1 Cor. 15:20
Here the apostle says that Jesus was dead or asleep.
Absent From the Body
Today there are many souls in heaven and they are not asleep in the ground waiting for the end of the world. Enoch is a great example of one that God took to heaven and who did not die.
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP . . . (NASB) Heb. 11:5
That means that he did not sleep, either, but that he went to heaven alive. God also took the prophet Elijah to heaven alive (2 Kings 2:11). When we come to Matt. 17:1-4, we find that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. This means they were spiritually alive. It is wonderful to know that when we die we go to be with God.
Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight – we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (NASB) 2 Cor. 5:6-8
To be absent from the body means that our soul leaves our physical body and either departs to hell or to heaven. Men die once, and then we are judged by God.
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment . . . (NASB) Heb. 9:27
Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell. The verdict for each human has already been decided. Those who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell and those who do believe will go to heaven. Those who do not believe will some day discover that all of their good deeds are not good enough. Only those who depend on Jesus and not on their own good works will go to heaven. Those who have believed in Jesus and died are in are heaven today. Do you believe in Jesus?
The apostle Paul had a great passion in his heart to be with Jesus. He was not looking for sleep, but to be with Jesus.
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. (NASB) Philippians 1:23-24
He wanted to be with Jesus. It will be wonderful to be with Jesus some day – to be with our God and Savior.