In a recent post, I mentioned how everyone seemed to be asking me questions about death and dying lately. I don't know if it's a function of fear -- we're afraid the world will blow up before Christ returns -- or if it's a natural curiosity, but the trend has continued. Several of you over the last couple of weeks have asked what happens to us when we die. Today I'm going to take a crack at answering this. Let me begin with one caveat, however: no one really knows. All of our best answers are really our best guesses based on our interpretations of the Bible. I certainly won't hold it against anyone who disagrees with me.
We think of the afterlife in terms of three parts: a present state, an intermediate state, and a final/eternal state. Presently, we're all alive, so that's one third down. The eternal state is our eternal life in the new heaven and new earth (or in the lake of fire) that we see in Revelation 20-22 following final Judgment. For the most part, we're all OK with these two states; the question arises about the middle bit, the intermediate state. That's the state of our souls immediately after our death but before Christ returns as Righteous Judge. There are two main schools of thought. The first is what we call particular judgment: our individual soul is judged upon our death and enters either hell or paradise immediately. We see this in such passages as Ecclesiastes 12:7; Luke 16:23-25, 23:43; Acts 7:56-59; and others. The immediacy of this is based primarily on 2 Corinthians 5:8, the famous "be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" verse.
Over against a particular judgment is what's known as soul sleep. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and Daniel 12:2 speak of the dead as those who have fallen asleep, and so it's believed that at the moment of death, our souls simply sleep until Christ returns and we face final Judgment. Here the soul is in an unconscious state, experiencing nothing, as opposed to being aware in the presence of God (or in hell). The English word "cemetery" is from the Greek for "sleeping place," speaking to how prevalent this view is.
In my opinion, the idea of the particular judgment is more biblical. Scripture speaks time and time again of paradise yielding to a new creation and of hell being cast into a lake of fire; it speaks of the souls that are in both places being brought forth for final judgment; and it tells us we will be awake and aware of what we experience before that happens. Yes, the Bible speaks of the dead as falling asleep -- but it usually does so in a symbolic way, referring to literal death and not some sort of intermediate state awaiting resurrection.
Again, I could be wrong -- no one knows for sure (or at least no one who came back is telling). This is my best interpretation of God's word, and I hope I've interpreted it faithfully. You're welcome to disagree with me, as always. What matters more than what happens immediately is what happens eternally -- and that our souls are prepared to face the judgment throne of God.