Any venture into or examination of the unknown generates a great deal of interest.
During my fifteen years as Respondent for the Question and Answers page for House to House Heart to Heart and seven as host of a live Bible Questions and Answers television show, no subject has incited greater interest and response than our title question.
While it is nigh unto impossible to address every single issue or passage, I think there is a clear case to be made from the Scriptures as to what happens when we die. Our examination will be divided under a number of afterlife studies as we seek to make our case.
Paradise and Hades
The Bible affirms that the souls of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous, go to Hades to await the return of Christ, the resurrection of the body, and the final Judgment.
Contrary to popular belief and usage, Hades is not a euphemism for Hell. It is also unfortunate that many have been confused by the King James Version’s rendering of hades as “hell” in 10 of its 11 New Testament appearances. The only exception is the appearance of “grave” in 1 Corinthians 15:55.
Literally, Hades means “unseen.” Its usage in the New Testament speaks to the repository of the souls of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous. Though “Hades” is not found in the text, this is what Jesus taught in Luke 16:19-31 in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. According to this text, Hades is divided into two dwelling places, one for the righteous, the other for the unrighteous. The place of the righteous is a place of comfort (v 25) described as Abraham’s bosom (v 22).
Of the temporary abode of the righteous, from the cross Jesus referred to this place as “Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The waiting place of the unrighteous is a place of fire and torment (Luke 16:23-25, 28). Peter calls this place Tartarus in 2 Peter 2:4 (cf Jude 6). Most scholars agree that torment and Tartarus are the same place. Paradise and Torment are separated by a great impassible gulf (Luke 16:26).
Concerning Paradise, let us look more closely at Jesus’ specific statement to the penitent thief in Luke 23:43, “today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
In Acts 2:25-27, we find Peter quoting Psalms 16:8-11. Speaking of Christ specifically in Acts
2:27, Peter says, “For you will not leave My soul in Hades, nor will you allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (NKJV). Note how the text says that Jesus was in Hades immediately following His death, not heaven. The Paradise of which Jesus spoke in Luke 23:43 must correspond with that place of rest and peace in Luke 16:19-31.
Additionally, consider the statement made by Jesus to Mary following His resurrection in John 20:17, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” This statement would also necessarily imply that Jesus was somewhere other than Heaven in the time between His death and resurrection. That place was Paradise within the Hadean realm.
Speaking of David in Acts 2, Peter said that David “is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (v 29). He followed with this statement of the great king, “David did not ascend into the heavens.” Surely David shall be numbered among the redeemed at the Judgment, so why then is he said not to have ascended into the heavens? There is obviously more at play here than simply David’s physical body as is evidenced in verse 27.
Though admittedly in apocalyptic literature, one must ask, “Where were the souls of those in Revelation 6:9 who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held?” These were told to wait and “rest a little while longer” until the rest of the martyrs would killed as they were (Rev 6:10-11). Surely those in heaven and in the very presence of God would not be concerned with the vengeance of their adversaries.
The Resurrection and the Judgment
Jesus said in John 5:28-29 that when He returns, “all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, they that have done good to the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil to the resurrection of damnation.” 2 Corinthians 5:10 says that all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive the things done in our own bodies, according to that which we have done, whether it be good or bad.” And Revelation 20:12 teaches a single day of judgment for all men, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God… and the dead were judged according to their works.”
If, as some claim, there is no Hades or waiting place for the Christian, then how does one properly understand these passages? If the Christian goes directly to heaven when he dies, does he not receive the things done in his body before the Judgment (2 Cor 5:10)? If not, why not? It seems to me that these statements shows that the righteous and the unrighteous do not receive their full recompense of reward until after Judgment.
The Resurrection Body
A final consideration in this regard is the body the righteous are to receive at the Judgment prior to entering heaven. Philippians 3:20-21 speak of the Christian waiting for the revelation of Jesus from heaven that our lowly bodies might be transformed and conformed to Jesus’ glorious body.
In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, we note that the change of our bodies, both of the living and dead, will not come until Jesus returns at the last trumpet (v 52). This is the trumpet that announces to the world, both living and dead, that Jesus is coming to judge the world (cf 1 Thes 4:16). It is not until this time that the dead will rise to receive their eternal bodies, for of this event Paul said, “then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, `Death is swallowed up in victory'” (v 54).
There are some statements of Scripture that appear to teach the “direct to heaven at death” doctrine. For example, Paul’s statement in Philippians 1:23 is often used in defense of this doctrine. It reads, “For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
Let me suggest that the passage is not to be taken in its most literal sense. First, in so doing one denies the force of numerous other texts, many of which are noted above. So the question comes, “How can this seemingly clear and incontrovertible statement be understood in an accommodative sense?”
The answer lies in Ecclesiastes 12, where the wise man speaks of obeying the Lord before the latter years of human life and the associated troubles of old age (vv 1-6). In verse 7, speaking of death, the writer says, “Then the dust (the body – Gen 2:7) will return to the earth as it was: and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
This text affirms that the bodies of all the dead, faithful and unfaithful, return to the dust, just as God told Adam it would be (Gen 3:19). Additionally, the same must be affirmed for the souls of all the dead. But we understand that not all souls go to heaven, regardless of when one might think that transpires. Thus, the souls of the unrighteous dead are also returned to God for “safe keeping” until the Judgment. As earlier noted, this repository for the souls of the deceased is Hades, the realm of the unseen.
In Philippians 1:23, Paul speaks figuratively of the beautiful place of rest created and appointed by God as abode of all the faithful as they await the Judgment. The same should be said in connection to Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8, wherein Paul speaks of being present in the body is to be absent from the Lord.
One final verse that is sometimes cited in defense of the “direct to heaven” doctrine is 1 Thessalonians 4:14: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even will God bring with him those who sleep in Jesus .” The emphasis given here is on the word “bring.”
There are numerous problems with using this verse in defense of the doctrine under review. First: In the context, the Thessalonian church is obviously disturbed by the thought that those who are dead in Christ have somehow missed their opportunity to go to heaven (v 13). If the dead in Christ were already in heaven, this would’ve been the perfect time to tell them. Did he do this? No.
Second: In verse 14, Paul refers to the resurrection of Christ in defense of the future resurrection of the dead in Christ. In other words, Paul says, ‘If we believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus, why should we struggle with the death and resurrection of our brethren who have died?
Third: The primary use of the Greek word here translated “bring” is “lead” (ago, Strong’s #71). It appears in some form 71 times in the New Testament. In many cases when it is translated “brought,” the word “led” would be just as accurate a rendering. For example, in Matthew 10:18, Jesus told his apostles they would be “brought” before governors and kings. However, in the parallel account of Mark 13:11, the translators used the word “lead.” In Luke 22:54, those who arrested Jesus “led him and brought him into the high priest’s house.” The word here translated “led” is the Greek ago, and the word translated “brought” is a Greek compound containing the Greek ago (Strong’s 1521). When one examines the 14 instances where ago is translated “bring,” the word “lead” if often found to be a suitable or desirable substitute.
I do not think this matter should be of great dispute. I believe good and faithful people can disagree on this matter. When I get to heaven is inconsequential to getting there! It just seems to me that the preponderance of evidence points to an intermediate waiting place where all go to await the Judgment.