What happens when people die? Are they just lying in the ground unaware of anything until Jesus returns and judgment takes place or do we immediately go to heaven or hell?
Some people (even Christians) hold to the belief that when people die—even believers—they enter in a state referred to as “soul sleep.” This is a state of unconsciousness awaiting the time of resurrection of all people.
However, any reference to “sleeping” in the Bible as a description of death is either figurative or referring to the condition of the physical body. There are no biblical references to the soul entering into a time of slumber or unconscious existence after death. Quite the opposite.
First of all, Jesus told a parable about the death of a rich man and a poor man. The poor man would sit near the rich man’s dwelling begging for food. Eventually each man died and in the story Jesus clearly portrayed both men as very much aware of their current circumstances and condition. (This can be checked out in Luke 16.)
Secondly, when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain as witnessed by Peter, James and John, we’re told that Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Him there and spoke to Him of current events (specifically His upcoming appearance in Jerusalem at which time He would be arrested and ultimately crucified.) It could be argued that Elijah never suffered physical death, but that is certainly not the case for Moses. He clearly died as recorded in Deuteronomy 34 and Joshua 1. And yet, here he was talking to Jesus on the mountain and conscious of current events.
Then there’s the promise Jesus made to the penitent thief who was crucified alongside our Lord that day. Remember the man was told, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
In Revelation 6 the martyred Tribulation Saints are heard speaking to the Lord, asking when their deaths will be avenged. They are not asleep and are conscious that the Lord’s judgment is near.
Finally in 2 Corinthians 5:8 Paul speaks of being “away from the body” (referring to death) and “at home with the Lord” which he said was “better by far.” (Philippians 1:23) Paul believed that the moment he became absent from his physical body he would be instantly catapulted into the never-removed presence of God.
God created us to be immortal beings, which means after these physical bodies expire our souls live on. The one who is trusting Christ for the forgiveness of sins will be instantly and eternally together with the Lord upon the death of the body. The unbeliever who spent his or her entire life running from God and rejecting His ovations of love will also live on after death—albeit in a place awaiting final judgment.