I received a touching e-mail from a father who lost his daughter, when she was only six years old. This father had several wonderful questions; questions about which we have all probably wondered at some point. It is with his e-mail in mind that I want to explore the question of, where do we go when we die?
Most people reading this blog, like most people in the world, believe in heaven. And most would probably also agree about the existence of hell. However, the question I want to discuss today is, do people go straight to heaven or hell when they die or do they go somewhere else first? Based on my understanding of God’s word, it seems pretty conclusive that departed souls go to a “realm of the dead” to await the Judgement Day.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for the realm of the dead was, “Sheol.” In the New Testament, the Greek word was, “Hades.” Unfortunately, “Hades” is often translated “hell,” which has led to a huge misunderstanding about where a person goes when he dies. Consider the following points regarding the place of Sheol/Hades:
The Rich Man and Lazarus
According to Luke 16, Jesus gives us a picture of this realm; saying that it is divided into two parts – paradise and torment. Many argue that this is only a parable and cannot be taken literally. To me, it doesn’t matter if it is a parable or not. Even in His parables, Jesus never described a place or situation in an unrealistic way. For instance, in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, he talked about a man on the road “from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This was a real road; a road with which His audience was very familiar.
So, whether “The Rich Man and Lazarus” is a parable or not, I believe this passage teaches there is a realm, divided between paradise and torment, in which the souls of the dead reside.
Jesus in Hades
When Jesus died on the cross, His soul (like the souls of all those who die) went to Hades. About Jesus it is written, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption” (Acts 2:27, quoted from Psalm 16:10). Obviously, Jesus did not remain in Hades, because He rose from the dead.
And just so you don’t make the assumption that Jesus was in “hell,” remember He said to one of the criminals with whom He was crucified, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Acts 23:43). So, when Jesus died, His soul left His body and went to the part of Hades known as “Paradise.”
The Bible, especially the New Testament, promises a Resurrection of the dead. Even the Jews of Jesus’ day heavily debated whether or not there would be a Resurrection; this was one of the major contentions between Pharisees and Sadducees (Acts 23:6-8). Paul explains everything we need to know about the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
Paul says there will be a time when the dead will be resurrected with a new body. The body that dies is physical; the body which will be raised is a spiritual body. I won’t go into detail about what Paul says here, so go and read 1 Corinthians 15 for yourself.
Jesus said this concerning the Resurrection, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28). So, both the children of God and those in the world will be resurrected on that Day.
The Judgement Day
Jesus said that the day of resurrection will also be a day of judgement. The Bible only speaks of one Judgement Day. Many teach that we are each judged the moment we die and are immediately ushered into heaven or hell. With all do respect to those who hold this view, I am not sure how they arrived at this conclusion.
It seems pretty clear that there will be a “Day” on which the dead will be raised, everyone will be judged, and the physical world will be destroyed. Consider these passages:
2 Peter 3:10-12
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
It seems strange that a person would die, go to heaven/hell, be resurrected, stand in judgement, and then go back to heaven/hell. It seems more in keeping with the totality of Scripture that man dies, goes to Hades, is resurrected with a spiritual body, stands in judgement, and then proceeds to his eternal reward or punishment.
There is much more that could be said concerning this issue, but we will save that for a later post. I do not think this is an issue over which anyone should be contentious. But, it is comforting to know that our Christian loved ones (and those who died in childhood) are safe in Paradise, in “the bosom of Abraham.” And it is exciting to know that all of God’s children will enter into heaven together on that glorious Day!
I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
I love you and God loves you,