Please Explain 2 Corinthians 5:8
Here is the verse: “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”
This misunderstood verse has been repeatedly quoted to prove that people “go to heaven” when they die. But is that really what happens? Does the Bible state anywhere that heaven is the reward of the saved? Is anyone—especially the righteous who have died—in heaven with God and Jesus Christ right now?
Let’s consider some facts—unmistakable statements from the Word of God which prove that no person has ascended to heaven except Jesus Christ. That includes the apostle Paul, who died almost two millennia ago!
Following His resurrection (which was to spirit life), it is recorded that Jesus was taken to heaven—to be with God:
“Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:9-11; also: verse 22).
(Note that Jesus will RETURN to the earth—He won’t stay in heaven, and that has tremendous bearing for understanding the fate of people after death!)
Not long after the establishment of the Church on the Day of Pentecost, persecution arose, and Stephen was martyred. As his life was about to end, he saw a vision, and it is testimony to the fact that Jesus Christ was at the right hand of God:
“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56; also: 2:33).
Consider what Peter preached with God’s inspiration about King David:
“‘Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day’” (Acts 2:29).
And to make it perfectly clear, Peter continues in his preaching, saying, “‘For David did not ascend into the heavens…’” (Acts 2:34).
But David knew that he would live again, writing:
“As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness” (Psalm 17:15).
Hundreds of years after David had died, God inspired His prophets to write about that time when David would indeed awaken from death:
“‘But they shall serve the LORD their God, And David their king, Whom I will raise up for them’” (Jeremiah 30:9; also: Ezekiel 34:23-24; 37:24-25).
These references about David’s future resurrection to rule over Israel are about a time when he will have been given ETERNAL LIFE in the Kingdom of God. Other righteous individuals are also mentioned in the same future sense—as Jesus clearly revealed:
“‘And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 8:11).
To His disciples, Jesus said:
“… ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel’” (Matthew 19:28).
It is vital to understand the time frame when these and other righteous men and women (compare Hebrews 11) will be “present with the Lord.” Paul never taught that people would die and immediately “go to heaven.” In fact, he showed that not everyone would return to life at the same time:
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
Here are more details about the resurrection of the “firstfruits”:
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).
Now understand—these teachings by Paul unequivocally show that the firstfruits will only be “present with the Lord” following their resurrection or, as Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, their change to immortality.
However, this only accounts for a tiny part of humanity—there are countless billions of people who have lived and died and most of whom never even knew about God the Father or Jesus Christ. Revelation 20, verse 5, reveals that “the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished.” This explains in a little more detail about those who will be brought back from death to physical life at a time following the first resurrection (note that the first resurrection is a change to immortal life).
Do you grasp the unarguable proof contained in these Scriptures that no human being has yet “gone to be with the Lord”?
Paul clearly understood and taught that he would only be “present with the Lord” in the future Kingdom of God:
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” ( 2 Timothy 4:6-8).
The Bible reveals that God has given man a spirit component (Job 32:8). It is not self-aware and has no consciousness; it does not “live” on when a person dies, but it does retain a copy of all that constitutes each individual. Solomon wrote that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). But he adds this remarkable statement:
“Then the dust (that is, the person) will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
While a person is dead, he or she has no consciousness. Death is compared with a dreamless sleep in the Bible. When a person is brought back to life, it appears to him or her that only a split second has passed since death. That is the reason why Paul said that he wanted to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. In the resurrection to eternal life, he will be “absent” from his physical temporary body, because he will receive a spiritual immortal body. In his mind, that “transformation” will occur in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye (1 Corinthians 15:52), and then he will indeed be always present with the Lord (compare again 1 Thessalonians 4:17).
It is God’s plan to give all people a chance to be with Him and with Jesus Christ in their Kingdom for eternity—in the new heaven and the new earth (compare Revelation 21 and 22).
That opportunity begins when He opens our minds to understand!
Lead Writer: Dave Harris