Yes, believers in Jesus Christ go immediately to heaven when they die. By “heaven,” we mean a real place of comfort and blessedness where God dwells. Of course, the bodies of believers remain on earth, awaiting the resurrection, but their souls/spirits go to be with the Lord (see 2 Corinthians 5:8).
The biblical teaching that believers immediately go to heaven when they die differs from what some groups teach. According to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses who die remain in an unconscious state of “soul sleep” until the resurrection. At the resurrection, Jehovah “remembers” them, and they are brought back to life. The doctrine of soul sleep is also taught by Seventh-day Adventists. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that all believers, Catholic and non-Catholic, who die enter a place of punishment, purgatory, to atone for the sins not covered by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. Once these sins have been sufficiently punished, the faithful, now purified, may enter paradise. Proponents of both views make seemingly good arguments in favor of their beliefs, but neither the doctrine of soul sleep nor the teaching of purgatory is biblical.
As our Lord Jesus suffered on the cross, another condemned prisoner sought forgiveness. Our Lord’s response to the repentant thief’s request refutes both the doctrine of soul sleep and the belief in purgatory:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39–43, ESV).Jesus did not say, “After a determined time of misery and suffering, you will be with me in paradise”; neither did He say, “After an extended period of unconscious stupor, you will regain sentience and be with me in paradise.” According to the promise of Jesus, the repentant thief would join his Savior in paradise that very day.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6–8, ESV).Here, the apostle Paul did not say to be away from the body is to cease consciousness until the resurrection. And he did not say to be out of the body was to be at home in purgatory.
In Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, the beggar died, and “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (Luke 16:22). This seems to have been an immediate event, with no lapse of time between Lazarus’ death and his being picked up by the angels. In John’s vision of heaven, he sees “under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained” (Revelation 6:9). As these believers in heaven await vengeance and the resurrection of their bodies, they converse with the Lord. It seems that, as soon as they were martyred, they were in heaven.
At the death of a believer, his or her disembodied spirit immediately enters the joyful presence of our Lord Jesus. At the rapture, the saint’s spirit joins his or her resurrected body—a glorified body impervious to the ravages of aging, illness, disease, suffering, and death (1 Corinthians 15:42–53). At the close of Jesus’ millennial reign, heaven as it is passes away, and God unveils the New Jerusalem, our eternal home (Revelation 21:1–4). Our present mortal bodies are not fit for eternity, but our new bodies will never become ill, grow old, or die. We shall live gloriously with Him in perfect bodies throughout the endless ages of eternity.
With this end in mind, the apostle Paul broke out in joyous apostrophe: “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55–57, ESV).