In this blog post, we explore what happens when we die.
The following is taken from chapter 14 of my book, Firm Foundations: Knowing What You Believe.
Because of sin, death is inevitable for all human beings:
Romans 6:23 (ESV)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Hebrews 9:27 (ESV)
27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,
After death, the body begins to decompose. But what happens to the immaterial part of man (the spirit and soul) when he dies?
Before Christ ascended back to heaven, all people, whether righteous or unrighteous, went to a place that is called Sheol in the original Hebrew language of the Old Testament. For example, Jacob and the psalmist anticipated going there when they died:
Genesis 42:38 (ESV)
38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Psalm 88:3 (ESV)
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
The wicked also went to Sheol:
Psalm 9:17 (ESV)
17 The wicked shall return to Sheol,
all the nations that forget God.
The equivalent word for Sheol in Greek is “Hades”. This is clear from the fact that when Psalm 16:10 is quoted in the New Testament (which was written in Greek), the word “Hades” is used in place of Sheol:
Psalm 16:10 (ESV)
10 For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
or let your holy one see corruption.
Acts 2:27 (ESV)
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
The Bible reveals that there are various compartments in Hades (more than I will mention here). At death, the righteous went to a compartment where the patriarch Abraham was, and the wicked went to a different compartment in which they were tormented.
Luke 16:19–26 (ESV)
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’
When Jesus ascended to heaven, it seems that He took with Him all the righteous who were with Abraham. That is how some interpret Ephesians 4:8:
Ephesians 4:8 (ESV)
8 Therefore it says,
“When he [Jesus] ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
Today, now that Jesus died for our sins and has gone back to heaven; when believers die, we go straight to heaven to be with Christ. We no longer go to Hades:
2 Corinthians 5:8 (ESV)
8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
However, the unrighteous, like the rich man in Luke 16:19–26, still go to Hades when they die. They are there waiting for the day of judgment. When the day of judgment comes, then the bodies of all who are in Hades will be resurrected and reunited with their soul and spirit, and then their whole being will be thrown into yet another place called “the lake of fire”. Hades and death itself will also be thrown there too (death will be destroyed forever):
Revelation 20:11–15 (ESV)
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Jesus referred to this final lake of fire as “gehenna” in the original language (often translated “hell”):
Matthew 10:28 (YLT)
28 ‘And be not afraid of those killing the body, and are not able to kill the soul, but fear rather Him who is able both soul and body to destroy in gehenna.
Mark 9:43–44 (YLT)
43‘… it is better for thee maimed to enter into the life, than having the two hands, to go away to the gehenna, to the fire—the unquenchable— 44where their worm is not dying, and the fire is not being quenched.
When we die, though our body is dead, our soul is conscious. This is evident in that both Lazarus and the rich man were very conscious of what was going on when they were dead. John also clearly saw the souls of martyrs as very much alive and conscious in his vision:
Revelation 6:9–10 (ESV)
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
There are some who wrongly teach that at death, the soul “sleeps” and is not conscious. However, when the Bible speaks of the dead sleeping, it is a reference only to the body. The body is described as sleeping because it will one day be awoken at the resurrection. That it is the body, and not the spirit / soul that sleeps at death is made evident in the following passage about the martyr Stephen:
Acts 7:59–60 (ESV)
59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Stephen asked Jesus to receive his spirit. When his spirit left his body, his body then “fell asleep”. When Jesus returns, Stephen’s body will be awakened and reunited with his spirit (which is now with Jesus):
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 (ESV)
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, 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.
Because Jesus has conquered death, when those who have believed in Him are resurrected, their bodies will be immortal, just like Jesus’ body:
1 Corinthians 15:42 (ESV)
42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.
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Delegates of the Oxford University Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge University Press 1961, 1970.