I used to think that when a Christian died he or she was ushered straight through the pearly gates into heaven. I guess I got that from the popular cultural perception of how Christians believed. Ten years ago, the picture that I had was challenged on Scriptural grounds, and my thinking has changed.
Today I believe the answer to the question posed above is “Yes, but not right away.” Let me explain.
In Matthew 25, verses 31 to 46, Jesus explains how it will be on the great day of judgement at the end of time. All nations (people) will be gathered before Him and He will separate the sheep from the goats. Those classed as sheep will enter heaven and those classed as goats will be cast into hell. This picture makes no sense if the saved were already in heaven before this time.
The Bible is more concerned that we should have a genuine saving relationship with God in this life than in telling us exactly how things will be in heaven. But we are told that in heaven we will have resurrected bodies, much like the body of Jesus after he rose from the dead. In 2 Timothy 2:18 the apostle Paul writes a strongly worded condemnation of those who would teach that the resurrection is past already. That bodily resurrection will not occur until the return of Christ in glory for the final judgement. Revelations 6:9 speaks of souls under the altar, waiting for the resurrection day.
Two Bible passages are often misinterpreted, giving rise to the thought of an immediate entrance into heaven. One is in Luke 23:43, where Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The other is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31. Here the rich man awakes in “hell” and Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom”.
It helps to understand that “Paradise” and “Abraham’s bosom” were terms commonly used by the Jews to describe the place where the righteous would await the end of the world and the bodily resurrection. It was pictured as a beautiful and delightful garden, where nothing would disturb their peace. The “hell” mentioned in Luke 16:23 is actually Hades, the place where sinners await the final judgement. It is not the lake of fire and brimstone, yet appears to be a thoroughly unpleasant place.
Another clue that this is only a temporary arrangement is found in the possibility of communication between Hades and Abraham’s bosom, though the finality of the separation is already established. It is hard to imagine that the saints in heaven will be in such proximity to the lake of fire and brimstone.
It appears from the protestations in Matthew 7:22-23 that there will be those in Hades who are convinced that a great injustice has been done to them. They will say, “ Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” And Jesus will reply that they had not done those works at His bidding, by His Spirit or by His power, and deny ever having known them.
I now believe that this picture of a temporary wait in Paradise or Hades before the resurrection is what the Bible teaches. This in no way detracts from the promise of heaven. In fact it makes it more real.
I never did find the popular image of wraithlike saints floating on clouds and strumming harps really that attractive as a long term future. This old body and this old earth will pass away, but the Bible promises a bodily existence in a place described as a new earth. The heaven sketched in the Bible appears to have some resemblance to our present existence, with the absence of all that now causes pain and sorrow, and in the presence of our Lord and all the holy saints and angels.