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In Acts 9:36-41 is the story of Tabitha (a.k.a. Dorcas) who died and was raised to life through the prayer of Peter.

That would seem to conflict with a commonly held view among theologically conservative Protestants that once a believer dies, that person is in heaven and never returns to this life.

My question asks how that theological view is harmonized with the Tabitha story. (Is Tabitha the exception that proves the rule? Is heaven as a one-way ticket only true after the period of the apostolic age, with its miracles? And wouldn't she have been mighty upset to be called back to earth?)

Please note: I am aware of (and not seeking) alternative explanations as to what really happened when Tabitha died; only want to know know how "immediately-in-heaven" partisans square that view with her experience.

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    Welcome to the site and great question. There's also Lazarus and a few other miraculous resurrections that seem applicable here. – fredsbend Mar 5 '15 at 20:44
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    Paramount to this question (or any answer given) will be defining what immediately-in-heaven means. Without a clear definition, an answer won't be worth much. @RedRover do you know of groups who claim to believe what you're describing? – mojo Mar 5 '15 at 21:31
  • @mojo I have heard this belief expressed for example in some fundamentalist (or fundamentalist leaning) churches. For emphasis they sometimes may add a phrase like "the instant you are dead, you come face to face with Jesus" as clarifying what they mean by "immediately" in heaven – RedRover Mar 6 '15 at 4:38
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    I think it is good that this lacks a denomination tag, as there are probably non-Protestant denominations that also believe this. I think some of the non-chalcedonian Orthodox churches have a similar teaching about the process of Purgatory (that it takes no 'time' persay) and some modern Catholic theologians seem to support the view as well. – the dark wanderer Mar 6 '15 at 6:11
  • Very intriguing idea, that a "purgatory" type process may not take time - as we perceive it in this world - especially in view what is now known about the physical universe (e.g. in Relativity theory) – RedRover Mar 6 '15 at 14:57
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Conservative Protestants typically use the phrase "intermediate state" when talking theologically about the "immediately-in-heaven" view. Wayne Grudem is a conservative Protestant representative of this view. In his book, Bible Doctrine, on page 352, Grudem writes,

"The souls of believers go immediately into God's presence. Death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a separation of the soul from the body. Once a believer has died, though his physical body remains on earth and is buried, at the moment of death his soul (or spirit) goes immediately into the presence of God with rejoicing."

Grudem mentions 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23, and Luke 23:43 in support of this view. However, he offers no suggestion of exactly what is happening in the case of a miracle when a person is raised from the dead.

From the theologically conservative Protestant position, Tabitha and others like her pose no problem, because the view does not necessarily state that once a believer dies, that person... never returns to life again. Rather, that is the normal occurrence for both believers and non-believers. But, God may choose according to His pleasure and mercy, to allow the miraculous to intrude into the ordinary and raise/resuscitate a dead person, again whether believer or non-believer. That's what makes it a miracle, whether the human agent is Peter praying or a doctor reviving the one who is clinically dead. Note that this is not merely relying on a miracle to get out of a theological issue. Rather, the question assumes that miracles do occur.

For the person so raised, what has been his or her experience? Alas, the Bible is silent on that question. We do know that the unmerciful rich man suffered apparently as soon as he died (Luke 16:19-31) and returning was denied him. The Apostle Paul may have actually died in Acts 14:19 and some have speculated that may have been the experience he refers to in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4. Admittedly, that connection is speculative, but if so then Paul experienced the intermediate state and returned.

When reading of an after-death-return-to-life experience, it's best not to put too much stock in it, but whether believer or unbeliever, there is nothing about the intermediate state that prevents a miraculous return to life after dying.

  • Emphasis: It is a fundamental assumption of adherents that this belief doesn't preclude the possibility of resurrection. – mojo Mar 6 '15 at 16:29
  • For the record, while Grudem may claim the term "intermediate state" for his position, it is, historically and by definition, actually just the general term for "whatever happens between death and resurrection." It does not necessarily refer to "immediately-to-heaven" no matter what Grudem says (and I'm very familiar with what he says). It does injustice to the other historical intermediate state models to co-opt it in this way. The problem is "when does Glorification happen?" Grudem says it happens in heaven in intermediate state. That's a problem if Tabitha is coming back to sinful body. – Joshua May 6 '16 at 1:38
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The same question arises when you consider those who become medically/clinically dead before being revived, especially when some of them claim to have had visions of God or heaven.

The key verse to resolve this issue is I think Hebrews 9:27:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, (NIV)

In his sovereignty God has predestined our lives including our deaths. But God has predestined every event before that too. If someone comes back to life either through a miracle or a defibrillator then that's all part of God's plan too.

Those who think that dead believers will be instantly in the presence of God would say that that is only the case for the final death, the one which is followed by judgement. There's no suggestion in the Bible that Tabitha or Lazarus faced judgement or were purified from sin, so their deaths were just some kind of preview of their real deaths that would come later.

I don't know what they would say these people experienced between their preview death and their revival, but I would guess that they would have had some kind of soul sleep, which is ironically the opposite of their main immediately-in-heaven belief!

A final note: many Christians unhelpfully use the word 'heaven' to mean many different things. It's often used to refer to the entirety of the afterlife. But remember that the ultimate experience of the afterlife for Christians will be a resurrected bodily life on the new earth in a new universe. If we do have some kind of spiritual experience with God before the resurrection it will only be temporary, before we do return to life on the renewed earth.

  • I think it's helpful to note, as you do, that there is no suggestion people like Tabitha and Lazarus faced judgement, so their deaths were not yet "final." But in Tabitha's case, Luke states clearly she was dead - there's no qualification (as in the case of Paul assuring people the young man who fell off a window ledge still had life in him). I want to see if anyone has any further insight into the views of the nature of death for believers. – RedRover Mar 6 '15 at 4:51
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Should have also asked this sort of question too. Looking into these verses ;

Genesis 35:29 And Isaac gave up the ghost, and died, and was gathered unto his people, being old and full of days: and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him.

Genesis 49:33 And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.

They say that Isaac and Israel were "gathered to his people" .

Jesus also talked about Abraham in heaven.

I think there still suggests that there is for sure a place where one is gathered to after death...

But God knowing that a Miracle is awaiting one in his infinite power and mercies could allow a suspension of that gathering. As atimes, one could sleep and Dream and not at other times. So after death(in this case, a diagnosed death) there may still be a chance that one's soul has not completely left the body to where is meant for one' this, Let's also remember that death was a times reffered to as "asleep" in the Bible

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