The phrase “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1 is a metaphor that portrays a Christian to be an athlete making preparation to run a race in an ancient stadium with spectators watching him. Here, the “cloud of witnesses” refer to the uncounted worthies of faith that are referenced in ch. 11. These in spite of the trials finished their course with joy. Their steadfast endurance brought them victories in life.
The “cloud of witnesses” are not the dead for Paul can’t be contradicting himself and speak of the “witnesses” in here as watching and in another place as sleeping as in the following verses: “The Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, … and the dead in Christ shall rise … and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). “We shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, … and the dead shall be raised incorruptible. … For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).
Jesus Himself said that eternal life or eternal death are given only at the second coming and not at death: “Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). And He added, “All that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth” (John 5:28, 29). The dead will be raised, given immortal bodies, and caught up to meet the Lord in the air. There would be no purpose in a resurrection if people were taken to heaven at death.
The Bible also tells us that the saints are not in heaven yet and gives us an example: “David … is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.” “For David is not ascended into the heavens” (Acts 2:29, 34). People do not go either to heaven or hell at death. They sleep in their graves to await the resurrection day.
After death a person: returns to dust (Psalms 104:29), knows nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5), possesses no mental powers (Psalms 146:4), has nothing to do with anything on earth (Ecclesiastes 9:6), does not live (2 Kings 20:1), waits in the grave (Job 17:13), and continues not (Job 14:1, 2) till the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17).
In His service,
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