What happens to people immediately after they die? Do they cease to exist? Do they go directly to Heaven or Hell? Is Purgatory an actual thing, or do people just sleep in the dust until Jesus returns? The article below is derived from a series at our church (Agape in Pinson) that is focused on answering life’s biggest questions. Most people have a theology – a certain way they think about God and the things of God. When it comes to answering life’s biggest questions, most people turn to their own personal theology to help them. But is that the best way? How should Christians approach the big questions of life? Maybe we’ve heard things from our parents, or other family members. Maybe we apply our own human logic to those big questions, or maybe our church or pastor has told us their take. When thinking about these great big questions, it is important to remember that God Himself does NOT think like we do, so it is unlikely that we will arrive at truthful answers to big questions on our own.
Isaiah 55: 8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts,and your ways are not My ways.”This is the Lord’s declaration.9 “For as heaven is higher than earth,so My ways are higher than your ways,and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
This means that it is unlikely that we will be able to use flawed human reasoning to answer some of life’s biggest questions. We can, however, turn to the Word of God for answers. In doing so, I propose three simple steps to guide us in answering this question:
- Rather than just focusing on one single verse, we must consider the whole counsel of God. Put another way, to answer the question of what happens when we die, we must attempt to survey all that the Bible has to say about this question, and not just one single Bible verse. The reason for this is that while every passage in the Bible is true – not every passage in the Bible is the COMPLETE truth. For instance, in 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul describes love, and we learn that it is patient, kind, and not at all jealous. All of these are true statements about love, but they aren’t the ONLY true statements about love in the Bible. In order to find out the complete teaching of the Bible about love, we have to go to other passages. In doing so, we find out in the Song of Solomon 8 that not only is love patient, kind and longsuffering…but it is also POWERFUL – as powerful as death. (Song of Solomon 8:6) Therefore, in order to have a complete understanding of love from the Bible’s perspective, we need the truths in 1 Corinthians 13 AND Song of Solomon 8, among many other passages also. Similarly, to gain a biblical understanding of death – and what happens after death – we have to survey the Word. That is the process of developing a biblical theology – it involves finding out all of what the Bible affirms about a particular topic.
- Our second step is to account for the difference between Old Covenant passages and New Covenant passages. The New Testament must take precedence over the Old Testament, and it must interpret it. More on this later, but consider Hebrews 7:18-19, and note how the New Testament/New Covenant has surpassed the Old.
Hebrews 7:18-19, “So the previous command is annulled because it was weak and unprofitable 19 (for the law perfected nothing), but a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God.”
- Our third step is ongoing and continuous. With humility, prayer, and the leadership of the Spirit, we must keep returning to the Word of God. We should hold our theology with a degree of humility and repeatedly keep returning to the Scriptures to test and confirm that we are walking in the truth. Like an unmoored ship, we humans have a tendency to drift away from truth, and we must discipline ourselves to return – over and over again – to the authority of the Word of God.
Now, with that process in mind, we can move forward. I believe the first step in determining what happens when we die is generally survey what the Bible has to say on death itself. The Bible speaks frequently on the topic of death, so a comprehensive overview would be too long for this article, but we can begin with with these three major truths about death in Scripture:
3 Biblical Truths about Death:
- Death is here because of sin. We do NOT usually take this seriously enough. Consider the well known passage Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” According to the Bible, sin brings about death, and most Christians could quote that verse. Most however, don’t take it literally, but the case of Ananias and Sapphira, the death of Uzzah, and the case of Moses, tell us that sin LITERALLY can cause death. Think about Exodus 4 – God had just called Moses to lead His rescue mission, but on the way to fulfill that mission, God met Moses and sought to put him to death. Why? Because Moses was sinning by not obeying God’s command to circumcise his son. You can read about that in Exodus 4:24-25, “On the trip, at an overnight campsite, it happened that the Lord confronted him and sought to put him to death. 25 So Zipporah took a flint, cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at Moses’ feet. Then she said, “You are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So – death is literally and spiritually the result of sin. (See the below discussion on Genesis 3 for further insight into this dynamic)
- Death is an ENEMY. 1 Corinthians 15: “Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy to be abolished is death.” This is fascinating. The Bible depicts death as an actual enemy – one that will ultimately be abolished! Further, Revelation 20:14 shows that (somehow) death and Hades (the place of the dead) will be tossed into the lake of fire at the Great White Throne Judgment. (keep reading for more on this)
- Death will END one day. I can think of very few things that are better news than what is found in Revelation 21 – one day, death will no longer be a thing – it will be abolished. Revelation 21, “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.”
Given those basic truths about death from the Bible, we can now move to some more specific verses that actually address what happens after death. I estimate that there are at least two dozen such passages in the Bible, and ten are listed below as an overview:
11 Bible Verses on What happens after Death:
- Genesis 3:19 “You will eat bread by the sweat of your brow until you return to the ground, since you were taken from it. For you are dust,
and you will return to dust.” Hebrews 9:27 “ 27 It is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment” MEANING: WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE! BUT: John 3:16 “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son,so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” Summary: According to the Bible, everybody dies (with the exception of those alive when Jesus returns…) but those who are followers of Jesus will not PERISH…or rot away to nothingness, even though they die.
- 2nd Samuel 12: 19 “When David saw that his servants were whispering to each other, he guessed that the baby was dead. So he asked his servants, “Is the baby dead?” “He is dead,” they replied. 20 Then David got up from the ground. He washed, anointed himself, changed his clothes, went to the Lord’s house, and worshiped. Then he went home and requested something to eat. So they served him food, and he ate. 21 His servants asked him, “What did you just do? While the baby was alive, you fasted and wept, but when he died, you got up and ate food.” 22 He answered, “While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let him live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me.” Summary: In the Old Testament, saints like David believed that there was a place that the dead went after they died.
- Daniel 12:1-3 and 13 “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever… “13 But as for you, go on your way to the end; you will rest, then rise to your destiny at the end of the days.” Summary: Old Testament saints like Daniel believed that, after a period of time dead/sleeping, there would be a resurrection in which the righteous would live forever, and the unrighteous would be punished. But how does the passage comport with a New Testament understanding of 2nd Corinthians 5:8, where Paul seemingly indicates that a Christian, upon death, will be in the presence of Jesus. How can this be if the Christian is sleeping in the ground? (Keep reading!)
- Luke 16:19-26 “There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. 20 But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate. 21 He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. 24 ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’ 25 “‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’” Summary: In this teaching of Jesus (note that He does not call a ‘parable’) there is a place of the dead for the good people (where they are comforted) and there is a place of the dead for the bad people (where they are in agony and in flames, but still able to see, talk and communicate.) The people in both locations can see each other, but they cannot cross over from one place to the other. This place is called “Abraham’s Chest/Side/Bosom,” and Abraham is actually there. The other place, where the rich man is suffering in agony, is called ‘Hades.’
- Luke 23:39-43 “Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!40 But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? 41 We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!” 43 And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.” Summary: When Jesus was being crucified, he was not alone – there was one actual criminal (a thief) on either side of Him. One of those criminals insulted Jesus and one defended Him, ultimately putting His faith in Jesus as a King. That second thief is very interesting, and it could be argued that he had more faith than any of Jesus’ other followers, because he KNEW that, even though Jesus was in the midst of dying an awful death, that He was nevertheless a King, and that He was heading to His Kingdom. Jesus’ response to that request was the promise that on that very day, the thief would be with Jesus in ‘Paradise.’ This is a very enlightening passage on what happens immediately after death, perhaps one of the two or three most informative Bible passages that we have. Unfortunately, it is also quite difficult to fully grasp, because we have such little information about the ‘Paradise’ that Jesus is speaking of. The word itself is used two other times in Scripture. Once, in Revelation, it is noted that the ‘Tree of Life’ (cf Genesis 3-4) is now found in the ‘Paradise of God.’ (Revelation 21:7) That doesn’t help us much, but the only other reference in the Bible to ‘Paradise’ is actually very helpful:
“I know a man in Christ who was caught up into the third heaven 14 years ago. Whether he was in the body or out of the body, I don’t know, God knows. I know that this man—whether in the body or out of the body I don’t know, God knows— was caught up into paradise. He heard inexpressible words, which a man is not allowed to speak” (2nd Corinthians 12:2-4)
Taking that passage at face value, we learn that ‘Paradise’ is also called the third heaven, and it is a place that Paul was apparently ‘caught up’ to (either physically or spiritually), and it was a place that words fail to describe. I believe that this means that ‘Paradise’ is the current Heaven (there will be a NEW Heaven – see below) and it is the place where the souls/spirits of those who die in Christ go. In that way, it is analogous to Abraham’s side, mentioned in Luke 16. While I realize that there are some leaps in logic in this paragraph, I don’t think they are unfounded leaps across a bridge too far, this speculation makes the best use of the information given.
- 2 Corinthians 5, “For we know that if our temporary, earthly dwelling is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal dwelling in the heavens, not made with hands. 2 Indeed, we groan in this body, desiring to put on our dwelling from heaven, 3 since, when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 Indeed, we groan while we are in this tent, burdened as we are, because we do not want to be unclothed but clothed, so that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 And the One who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave us the Spirit as a down payment. 6 So, we are always confident and know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight, 8 and we are confident and satisfied to be out of the body and at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the tribunal of Christ, so that each may be repaid for what he has done in the body, whether good or worthless.” Similar: Philippians 1 21 For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 Now if I live on in the flesh, this means fruitful work for me; and I don’t know which one I should choose. 23 I am pressured by both. I have the desire to depart and be with Christ—which is far better— 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Summary: 2nd Corinthians 5:8 is one of the most oft quoted passages by Christians to describe what happens when they die. I believe that here Paul offers a great clue as to what happens directly after death. How can one be absent from their body, and yet present with the Lord? The answer appears to be that our bodies are temporary (Paul euphemistically refers to human bodies as tents or earthly dwellings.) Death involves the (temporary) destruction of our earthly dwellings/bodies and the separation of body and spirit/soul. That humans are composed of a physical and temporal body of flesh AND a soul/spirit is made clear by passages such as Matthew 10:28, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 2nd Corinthians 4:16, James 2:26 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Whether humans are tripartite (spirit, soul and body) or bipartite is a question beyond the scope of this article, but the important thing is that the body is designed to be temporary, and death in the Bible is the separation of the body, which dies, from the soul/spirit which lives forever. This is how Paul can say that being absent from his body means that he will be in the presence of the Lord…even though his physical body will actually be dead and buried in the ground. (See Acts 2:29.) Also note Paul’s description of being alive in Philippians 1:24 – being alive is “remaining in the flesh.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:35 35 “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? What kind of body will they have when they come?” 36 Foolish one! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And as for what you sow—you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. 38 But God gives it a body as He wants, and to each of the seeds its own body. … 42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43 sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44 sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body.” Summary: Paul uses very vivid imagery here – A dead body is planted in the ground like a seed. And like a seed, it blooms into something completely vibrant and different when Jesus returns. Our current body is corruptible – it will rot, it is prone to injury, it can get fat, or feeble. The Bible teaches that, upon the return of Jesus, Christians will be reunited with a NEW body. Not weak and decaying like the old body, but incorruptible and powerful and immortal.
- 1 Corinthians 15:50 “Brothers, I tell you this: Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and corruption cannot inherit incorruption. 51 Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet.For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed.53 For this corruptible must be clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal must be clothed with immortality.54 When this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility, and this mortal is clothed with immortality,then the saying that is written will take place: Death has been swallowed up in victory.55 Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? 56 Now the sting of death is sin,and the power of sin is the law.57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” Summary: As noted above – not all people will die, but all will have transformed bodies upon the return of Jesus. The corruptible/death-prone body will be covered with incorruptability/immorality. This will represent the ultimate defeat of death itself.
- 1st Thessalonians 4:13-18 “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. 14 Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, in the same way God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus. 15 For we say this to you by a revelation from the Lord: We who are still alive at the Lord’s coming will certainly have no advantage over those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.” Summary: The blessed hope is the return of Jesus, whereby all Christians (those who have died, and those alive at His return) will be with the Lord forever – in body and soul. One clue about the state and place of souls/spirits of those who have died is found in vs. 14 “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” This appears to mean that Jesus will return with the souls/spirits of the deceased, and when the last trumpet blows, those souls/spirits will be reunited with their bodies.
- Revelation 20:20 “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for 1,000 years. 3 He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed. After that, he must be released for a short time…..11 Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. 12 I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.13 Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14 Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.15 And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Summary: Immediately after the resurrection of the body, and its reuniting with the soul/spirit, there is a judgment – many Christians call it the ‘Great White Throne’ judgment, based on vs. 11. All are judged according to their works while on earth. Those not in Christ experience what the Bible calls a ‘second death,’ in which they are thrown into the lake of fire. They do not die in the lake of fire (as a normal body would…) because they now have immortal bodies.
- Revelation 21:20-21 “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed.2 I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. 3 Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” Summary: Where then do Christians spend eternity in Heaven? According to the plainest sense reading of Revelation 21, NO! They spend eternity in the NEW HEAVEN/NEW EARTH fusion. The first heaven and the first earth will pass away after the Great White Throne judgment, and Christians will live forever in a NEW Heaven/Earth place. Unlike our current state, God will be with us tangibly in every way, and He will end death, suffering, crying, grief and pain! What a thrilling conclusion!! So, if your belief is that Christians spend eternity in heaven…you are only half right! Christians will spend eternity in a completely NEW Heaven/Earth place.
Now we take all of the above Scriptures and boil it down: What do we learn about death and the intermediate state according to the Bible? In the Old Testament and New Testament, when people died, some Bible passages indicate that they went somewhere – the place of the dead…Sheol/Hades/Paradise. Other Bible passages (like Daniel 12, Acts 2:29) describe death as sleeping (in the dust) in both the Old Testament and New Testament. How could death be like sleeping in the ground AND consciously going somewhere? Is this a paradox or an oxymoron? Paul’s answer indicates that there will be a separation of body and soul/spirit. The body will go in the ground like a seed and die (being transformed and resurrected later), but the essence of who we are (our soul/spirit) will live on. That is why, in 2nd Corinthians 5, Paul describes the human body as a tent (“For we know that if our temporary, earthly dwelling is destroyed, we have a building from God“) The death and destruction of the body is not the end for US. It is also not the end for our bodies. Our bodies will indeed lie in the ground, and decay, but upon the return of Jesus, they will be transformed in an instant and reunited with our spirit/soul. (See: 1 Corinthians 15:52-53) So, as Luke 16, and many of the above passages demonstrate, those who die as believers in Jesus will, like Lazarus and the faithful thief on the cross, go to Paradise or the side of Abraham, which is a temporary Heavenly place that is good. Those who die apart from Jesus, like the rich man in Luke 16 and the unrepentant thief on the cross, will go to Hades and suffer in agony until Jesus returns. After the return of Jesus, those who are in Christ will live eternally with God in the New Heavens/Earth and those apart from Christ will be thrown, along with death and Satan, into the Lake of Fire/Hell. (See Revelation 19-20, specifically 20:15)
Thus, the Bible busts some of our myths and misconceptions about what happens after death:
- Christians do not die and go to an eternal Heaven. They die and their bodies go into the ground to await the return of Jesus and a change into immortal bodies; their spirit/souls go to Paradise/Abraham’s side/Third Heaven – a good place, but one that is going to be replaced by a new Heaven according to Revelation 21:1. (2nd Peter 3:13, “But based on His promise, we wait for the new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness will dwell” Also: Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22)
- Those who are not in Christ do not die and go to Hell. According to Revelation 19-20, the dead are not thrown into Hell/the Lake of Fire, until AFTER the return of Jesus and the Great White Throne judgment. Prior to this, they go to Hades/The place of the dead, which (according to Luke 16) is a place of agony and flames…but is not the Lake of Fire/Hell. Further confirmation for this is found in Revelation 20:13, which notes that Hades will give up its dead, who will then stand before the throne of God for judgment. (“Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works.“
- The Devil does not live in Hell now. He is, according to Paul, the “ruler of the power of the air.” He lives on earth at the moment. (See Ephesians 2:1-2, “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient“)
- The Devil will NEVER rule over Hell. Instead, he will be tied up and thrown into hell to suffer alongside all of the others who have rejected Christ. (Revelation 20:10 , “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”)
- There is no indication in Scripture that there is a place like ‘Purgatory’ where some people stay for a little while (according to their sins) and some people stay for a long time. It appears that all who die stay in Paradise/Third Heaven/Abraham’s Side or Hades for the same amount of time, and get out at the same time – right before the Great White Throne judgment. There is no indication in the Bible whatsoever that doing penance or paying for indulgences can decrease people’s time in either of those places.
Now – it is time for some GREAT NEWS: According to the Word of God, we are coming to an age, in Christ, where THERE WILL BE NO MORE DEATH. DEATH WILL BE ENDED. In Christ, believers will be welcomed into the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1). Unbelievers will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:11-15). All people will go to one of those two places, based on whether or not they were in Christ. (John 3:36). As a close to this article, here are two great passages to meditate on:
ROMANS 8:10 Now if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, then He who raised Christ from the dead will also bring your mortal bodies to life through[j] His Spirit who lives in you.
Revelation 21:3-5 “Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.5 Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”