You asked, "Does a person automatically go to Heaven when they die, or do they "sleep" until the rapture?"
There are many scriptures which tell us about what happens when we close our eyes in death, and they sometimes seem to take us in different directions. The thoughts I now share with you are my own, and each of us must search the scriptures, and our hearts, to gain our own personal understanding. However, without a firm grip on what awaits us after death, I believe we will always be filled with doubts.
In order to fully answer your question, we must first have a common understanding of exactly what the soul is in relationship to the human shell that we now wear. I believe your question goes to the very heart of our faith, and requires a true understanding of the soul which will live forever, verses our temporary human shell which will soon be cast aside, as though it had never existed. The human shell is but a temporary mirror that reflexes the character of our everlasting soul, it is a record, or a statement of facts about what and who we really are. But it is not the real thing; it is the eternal soul that is there at the beginning, and at the end of our physical being. When we stand before the judgment of the Father, it is our human lives that will tell the truth about our souls, and it is what we did with our human lives that will justify, or condemn us before the Father. The questions we think will be asked on the judgment day are actually being asked of us now in our daily lives. It is our answer to these everyday questions which will rule in the final hour of our judgment. I believe the only purpose for our human lives is to tell the true story about our individual soul when we stand before the Father on judgment day. We won't need words in that hour, everything will have already been said, and it will be our time to listen.
As to the specifics of your question, in order to explain what happens beyond our human death, we need to understand that we are trying to use inadequate human words to describe a life source that we cannot fully comprehend. It is like a fish living in water trying to describe fire, we may get the general idea, but we can never truly understand it, until we have experienced it ourselves. To help us better understand we need to look closely at the meaning of the words "sleep" and "death". Sleep, in its simplest terms means to be absence from what we call reality, but it is not the absences of life or thought, as we might associate with the word death. When sleeping we seem to be suspended in a world we cannot control, while human death on the other hand means to stop, or to come to a complete end to which there is no return. Death is the final separation from our human life form, but it is not the end of life itself. In the spirit world the word death has a completely different meaning. In the spirit world of the soul the word death is used to describe the complete separation of the soul from the presents of the Father, but it is not the end of our being. However it does describe a final event, from which there will be no return, as we will no longer be allowed to remain in the presents of our Father ever again. It is a privilege we have today that we take for granite, but it will not always be so.
Let me try to explain myself a little better. To be out of the presents of the Father forever, is the worse hell a soul will ever endure. The pain of the first death is to be separated from the human body, and all that we have learned to love in our human existence. The second death is to be separated from the loving light of the Father, and to be cast away into the darkness of the bottomless pit forever, never again to experience the loving light of our Lord. It is only the second death which is to be feared, and yet in all of the Father's great wisdom, He lets us choose for ourselves where we shall spend eternity, in His loving presents, or in the darkness of the second death. We make our own final choice by the actions we take in our daily human lives. Our daily choices tell us whom we love in the depth of our hearts, and where our hearts are found, our souls will be there also. The Father will let us remain where our hearts are. Neither the human shell, nor our soul, has yet experienced the terrors of being in the darkness without the loving light of the Father surrounding us, but that is what awaits those who choose their own selfish desires over loving others as the Father has loved us.
Now having said all of that, does it help us to understand where we go when we die? Each of us must still come to our own conclusion, but I personally believe the answer is simply that we sleep, in that we are no longer in control, or a part of this earthly existence. However, our soul will continue to exist, and we will be aware of the others there with us. In the book of Luke, Jesus tells us about Lazarus and the rich man;
(25) But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. (26) And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
Now is Lazarus in heaven and the rich man in hell? We don't know for certain, but we do know that they continue to exist, they continue to experience life. We also know that it is happening now, because in verses 27-28, the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers who are headed to the same place.
(27) Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: (28) For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
Note that the rich man's family is still among the living, wearing the human shell, while the rich man suffers unbearable pain. We also need to remember that during this same time, Lazarus is in the arms of Abraham, wanting for nothing, Lazarus is in paradise. They both sleep in the sense that they cannot control their present circumstances; they must stay where they have been placed until they are called forth. But after the final judgment, the rich man and Lazarus will no longer be able to see each other, for the rich man will be cast out from the presents of the Father with all of those who love themselves more than others. A selfish person should not be surprised to inherit only themselves when they come before the Father, after all it is their greatest desire.
Jesus also told the thief on the cross with Him, "today you will be with me in paradise". He didn't say later you will be with me, He didn't say after the judgment you will be with me, He said "today" you will be with me in paradise; Just as Lazarus is also in the arms of Abraham "today". I don't believe life is something that can simply be put on a shelf, in some kind of temporary holding tank of nothingness called sleep, otherwise, why come back to life at all. Why not just stay in our nothingness, after all what would be gained in coming back to life just to be punished, and then returned back into our nothingness? It would be far better to stay in our nothingness, than to be cast into hell. This is way we need to understand that once life is created, it can never end, which is almost beyond our present human understanding. The Father gets no great joy in tormenting evil souls, He just refuses to have them contaminate those who have shown themselves to have His same pure and loving heart, and He refuses to have such prideful souls in His presents
When we do understand that once the spirit is created it cannot end, then we also understand the importance of where we will spend eternity. It is difficult for us to comprehend an unending life source, just as it would be difficult for a fish to comprehend fire, but is doesn't mean that there isn't something called fire. The hell of the spirit is a torture we humans cannot even begin to comprehend. It is not our human well being that is at stake, it is our soul's future which is in danger. If you think your life is unbearable today, think what it will be like in an unbearable hell which you cannot control or change, and it will never end. For some reason unknown to me, I believe this is our last chance to remain forever in the loving light of our heavenly Father, yet there are those who have no fear of such an all-powerful being. God help us all to see ourselves as the Father sees us, God help us all to love others as Christ has loved us, God help us all to forgive others as Christ forgives us. We also need to remember that we are not being formed to be everlasting humans; we are being formed to be everlasting souls, ones worthy to remain in the presents of the almighty Father.
So I believe that we will simply sleep just as the scriptures tell us when we close our eyes in death, and I believe that we will be instantly in the arms of Abraham, until we are called forth by our heavenly Father. I'm sorry I had to go so far around to get to such a simple conclusion, but sometimes it is the only road we can follow. I hope my words have helped, and are not a greater stumbling block. At any rate, seek the Father with a pure and loving heart, and ask Him to shine His loving light upon your soul, and he will show you all things as you have asked.
Lord, I now send You to my friend Terry; forgive my inadequate words.
Your brother in Christ,
March 8, 2000