Problem: When a Christian dies, will he/she go immediately to judgment, then to heaven, or is there a waiting period? (2 Cor. 5:8; 1 Thes. 4:16-17). It seems that the question here is whether there is a contradiction between the two passages. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” This implies that those whom God has justified will be taken into God’s presence immediately upon death.
On the other hand, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 says, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
Solution: How can it be, then, that we immediately enter God’s presence, yet at Jesus‘ return, we rise from the grave to meet Him? The answer is that when a man dies, his body clearly remains on earth. It is his immaterial existence, his spirit, which enters God’s presence. But the spirit will rejoin the body in its final, glorified form at the resurrection. “For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality,” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
This glorified body is made for the new heavens and new earth, the eternal state, in which the unified body and spirit of humans will exist fully in the presence of God as we were made to exist, fully enjoying the presence of God in the context of our body-spirit unity (Revelation 21:1-4). As for the timing of the judgment, within orthodox Christian teaching, there is disagreement about how many judgments are to occur and what the timing of them will be. This point is peripheral to the central doctrines of the faith and has no bearing on the harmony of these passages. The main point to consider here is that there is no contradiction between the cited passages, but that those who are saved can expect to be united with God in death but to be reunited with the body in our final form in the eternal state.
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)”