We’ve covered in some depth what happens when the Eschaton arrives, but we already know that some have been awaiting that event for nearly 2,000 years — and no one knows when it will happen. What happens in the meantime?
Several verses speak of the dead as asleep awaiting the Second Coming–
(Eph. 5:13-14) But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, 14 for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
This passage is a reference back to Isaiah 26:19, which refers to the End when the dead are raised. (I like this especially because I love Bach’s “Sleeper’s Awake.”)
Jesus referred to Jairus daughter and Lazarus as “not dead but asleep,” although he raised them both from the dead.
In Acts, Luke routinely refers to the dead as asleep.
In several verses in 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians, Paul refers to the dead as asleep. In 1 Corinthians, he uses this language in the context of those arising in response to the Second Coming.
The Poor Man and Lazarus
One passage that seems to be inconsistent with the foregoing is the familiar story told by Jesus about the poor man and Lazarus.
(Luke 16:22-31) “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’”
Although many would argue that the story should not be read too literally, the image Jesus gives us is of Lazarus at rest with Abraham.
Nothing indicates that Lazarus was aware of the rich man’s plight, only that the rich man was aware of Lazarus’s blessed existence. Lazarus does nothing in the story after he arrives at Abraham’s side. All we are told is that he was “comforted.”
The rich man later asks that Lazarus be sent to his friends still alive to warn them of his horrible fate, strongly indicating that this takes place before the End. Hence, the passage argues for an existence, with Abraham, where we are comforted and at rest up until the End.
Now, the story is plainly fictionalized, in that it’s hard to imagine people agonizing in hell actually being able to chat with Abraham in heaven. And it’s at least arguable that Lazarus was actually asleep – which is not inconsistent with being at rest or comforted.
The Thief on the Cross
Jesus promised the thief on the cross Paradise “today” — not a long period of sleep followed by the descent of the new Jerusalem. How can that be?
Paradise is mentioned but three times in the New Testament: in this account, in Paul’s recounting of his Damascus Road experience in 2 Cor 12:4, where he was called up into Paradise to be with Jesus, and Rev 2:7, which is where the Tree of Life is until the Eschaton. Paradise is pretty clearly in heaven right now.
However, we later see the Tree of Life in the new Earth after heaven descends to earth in Rev 21, suggesting that, after the End, Paradise will be on earth.
Wright argues that we’ll live in Paradise pending the Eschaton. He argues primarily from the thief on the cross, which he thinks is more precise that the more metaphorical statements about sleeping. But there are lots of statements about sleep and few about Paradise.
(Acts 13:36) “For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed.
(1 Cor 11:30) That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.
(1 Cor 15:51-52) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
(1 Th 5:10) He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.
Now, “sleep” could be nothing but a euphemism for “dead,” but the scriptures aren’t very squeamish about death.
And it bothers to imagine a holding tank where we await judgment, although we’ve already been judged (or else we wouldn’t be in Paradise, right?) It just seems so inefficient. Moreover, Wright has persuaded me that the Bible never promises us heaven (other than the new heaven) after we die.
Perhaps there’s another answer?