What Happens After Death?
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH?
Deuteronomy 32:22 For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below.
Job 10:21–22 I go . . . to the land of gloom and deep shadow, to the land of deepest night . . .
Isaiah 14:9 The grave (Sheol) below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you . . .
Daniel 12:2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
Matthew 25:41 Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Mark 9:43 It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell (Gehenna), where the fire never goes out.
Luke 16:22–26 The rich man also died and was buried. In hell (Hades) he was in torment . . . Abraham replied, “. . . between us and you a great chasm has been fixed . . .”
Luke 23:43 Jesus answered him (the thief on the cross), “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Acts 2:31 Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave (Hades), nor did his body see decay.
2 Corinthians 5:1–9 . . . when we are clothed, we will not be found naked . . . We . . . would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
1 Peter 3:19–20 . . . he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago . . .
Revelation 14:11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who received the mark of his name.
Revelation 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.
The Resurrection of the Body
The Christian faith is a physical faith. The New Testament clearly teaches that those who believe in Jesus will receive ETERNAL LIFE, not only in a spiritual way (John 3:15–16), but also in a physical way through the resurrection of their body. When Jesus rose from the dead, He received a new body of flesh and bones that could be touched and could even eat fish (Luke 24:38–43). At the resurrection, believers will receive a glorious body like Jesus, one that will be physical but immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53–54; Philippians 3:20–21). This redemption of our bodies is central to our Christian hope (Romans 8:23–24). The resurrection of the dead is one of the elementary teachings listed in Hebrews 6:1–2, and “the resurrection of the body” is one of the beliefs listed in the early Apostles Creed. When Jesus returns, the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). Those of us who have not died will receive new resurrection bodies at that time. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed . . . For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51–53). After all, we will need new bodies to enjoy the new earth that is promised to us (2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
But what happens in between death and the resurrection? For thousands of years God’s people have been dying. What happened to Old Testament believers when they died? And what happens to New Testament believers today? Similarly, what happens after death to those who do not believe in Jesus Christ?
Sheol in the Old Testament
Some scholars suggest that the early HEBREWS believed death to be the final end for both SOUL and body.1 Indeed, a few suggest that the early Hebrews believed that the soul cannot exist apart from the body. It is true that the meanings of the Old Testament Hebrew words for “soul” and “spirit” are not as clear as the meanings of the New Testament Greek words.2 And it is true that the resurrection of the body was not clearly taught at the beginning of the Old Testament. That teaching was slowly revealed to the ISRAELITES throughout their history. Even by Jesus’ day, the Sadducees as a group still did not believe in the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8). Jesus scolded them for their mistake, pointing to Exodus 3:6 to support the belief that those whose bodies had died continued to exist (Mark 12:24–27). But the Old Testament does contain a few passages that teach about the actual resurrection of the body. One of the earliest may be in Job, although the Hebrew words are difficult to translate: after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes (Job 19:26–27). Much later, Isaiah prophesied for the Israelites a time when their dead will live; their bodies will rise (Isaiah 26:19). And toward the end of the Old Testament period, Daniel prophesied a resurrection for both believers and unbelievers, and a final JUNGMENT (Daniel 12:2).
The Old Testament concept of “Sheol” gives us more information. In modern versions of the Bible, the Hebrew word “Sheol” is often translated as GRAVE, but this word is not just another word for a burial site. Sheol refers to the realm of death below, the land of the dead (Deuteronomy 32:22; Job 10:21–22). Sheol is described as a dusty, shadowy, dark underworld (Job 10:21–22; 17:13–16), filled with silence and forgetfulness (Psalms 88:11–12; 94:17; Isaiah 47:5). Some verses speak of the continued existence of individuals in Sheol. The death of the king of Babylon rouses the spirits of the departed to greet him (Isaiah 14:9; compare Ezekiel 32:21). JACOB expected to be reunited with his son in Sheol (Genesis 37:35). Both good and wicked persons will end up there (Psalm 89:48), although some Old Testament believers hoped to be delivered from Sheol (Psalm 16:10).
Christian scholars have debated the meaning of these Old Testament verses. Some suggest that the word “Sheol” did not refer to an actual land of the dead. They teach that the word “Sheol” was only a figure of speech which referred to dying and being in the grave, although the Old Testament added poetic details. A poetic meaning for grave may be correct at times, especially in poetic books. However, many scholars believe that the word “Sheol” often meant something else-an actual place where the spirits or souls of the dead were sent. But the exact meaning of Sheol and how it fits with later Christian theology is not completely clear.
During the time between the last book of the Old Testament and the first writings of the New Testament, the JEWS wrote many other religious books. Although these are not accepted as part of the inspired Bible, many of them help us to understand Jewish beliefs at the time of Jesus ministry. While these writings agree that Sheol was the land of all the dead, some of them divide the land of the dead into two parts. The blessed part, Paradise, was described as a “garden of God” prepared for the dead who had trusted in God while still alive. The garden described in Isaiah 51:3 and Ezekiel 31:8–9 could be referring to this Paradise part of Sheol.
Hades in the New Testament
The Old Testament was translated into the Greek language long before the time of Jesus. Because the Greek word “Hades” meant almost the same as the Hebrew word “Sheol,” the translators used Hades to translate the Hebrew word in the Old Testament. Hades is used many places in the New Testament as well. Like Sheol, Hades is described as a shadowy world down in the depths (Matthew 11:23), a temporary land of the dead (Revelation 20:13). Jesus promised that the gates of Hades would not overcome the church (Matthew 16:18). By New Testament times, many Jews used the name Hades only for the place of the wicked dead. Jesus story of the rich man and the beggar described a great chasm between the place where the beggar was being comforted at the side of ABRAHAM and a nearby place, called Hades, where the rich man suffered torment (Luke 16:19–31). Jesus’ story fits well with the Jewish belief that the land of the dead was divided into a place of punishment for the wicked and a separate Paradise for the blessed.
Jesus’ experience of death may help us understand even more. When Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “. . . today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), He may only have meant heaven and called it by a different name. However, many Christians believe that Jesus did not go to heaven immediately after He died, but descended into Hades instead. This is one of the beliefs listed in the Apostles’ Creed, where Hades is sometimes translated as hell (see panel: What does the word “hell” mean?). According to this view, the Paradise in Jesus’ promise to the thief was not heaven, but the blessed part of Sheol or Hades described in later Jewish writings. Jesus’ descent into Hades is mentioned only a few times in Scripture. Jesus said that He would be three days and nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:40). Even after His resurrection, Jesus said that He had not yet returned to the Father (John 20:17), and heaven is often described as being where the Father is (Matthew 6:9; John 3:13–17; Revelation 21:10). According to Peter, DAVID had prophesied that God would resurrect Christ from Hades (Psalm 16:10, Sheol; Acts 2:25–32, Hades). And Paul wrote that Jesus went into the deep and was brought up from the dead (Romans 10:7; compare Ephesians 4:9–10). If these were not just poetic figures of speech, between His death and His resurrection Jesus soul went to a real land of the dead.
What did Jesus do in Hades? If the idea of Paradise is correct, Old Testament believers did not go straight to heaven when they died, but went to Paradise instead. Therefore, many Christians teach that Jesus went to the Paradise part of Sheol (or Hades) to free the believers there from the power of death (John 5:25). Indeed, at His death some dead believers were actually raised to life . . . and after Jesus’ resurrection . . . appeared to many people (Matthew 27:52–53). Jesus freed mankind from slavery to death by paying a price to ransom us for God (Mark 10:45; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 5:9). These Christians teach that Jesus took humanity’s place in Hades, delivering believers from SATAN who holds the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). Since then, Jesus has held the keys of death and Hades (Revelation 1:18).
Many Christians suggest another reason Jesus descended into Hades—to preach to unbelievers there. Peter wrote that Jesus went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed in the days of Noah3 (1 Peter 3:19; 4:5–6). What did Jesus preach? At the very least, Jesus announced His victory over SIN and evil. Some believe that Jesus presented Himself as the MESSIAH to everyone in Hades, and those who had trusted the God of Israel during their lifetime recognized Jesus as their own promised Redeemer. Those who had rejected God were faced with the truth they had rejected, but could not change the decision they had made in life. A few Christians suggest that unbelievers who had never heard about the true God (had not truly rejected Him) may have been given a chance to accept Jesus at that time, but Scripture does not tell us clearly about this possibility.
What does the word “hell” mean?
Hell is usually defined as the place where unbelievers will be punished eternally, while Sheol or Hades is a place of temporary imprisonment. However, Bible translations sometimes use “hell” to translate several words, including Hades. What are some of these confusing words?
- Abaddon, the Pit—Since these names appear in poetic verses that also use the word “Sheol,” both Abaddon, translated Destruction (Psalm 88:11; Proverbs 15:11), and the Pit (Psalm 30:3) are simply poetic names for Sheol/Hades or the grave, not names for the final hell.
- Abyss—Satan is thrown into the Abyss, clearly a temporary prison for evil spirits (Revelation 9:1–11; 20:1–3,7). So it is not the final hell. Since the Hebrew name for the king of the Abyss is Abaddon (see above), Abyss may be another name for Sheol/Hades.
- Gehenna—This Hebrew word was the name of a valley near Jerusalem where children had been sacrificed by fire to idols (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). The word came to mean “a place of punishment by unquenchable fire,” and Jesus surely used the word to mean the final lake of fire (Matthew 5:22; Mark 9:43). So Gehenna is almost always translated as hell.
- Lake of fire—Revelation 20:13–14 clearly describes a place of final punishment by fire; even Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire. This fits the usual definition of hell very well. The eternal fire of Matthew 13:42 and 25:41 surely means this lake of fire.
- Sheol, Hades—These Hebrew and Greek words seem to name the same place, a place of temporary punishment. They should not be confused with the final punishment in hell.
- Tartarus—The Greeks believed the wickedest of dead spirits were imprisoned and tortured in Tartarus, which was either in Hades itself or deeper than Hades. These gloomy dungeons are described in 2 Peter 2:4 as a temporary prison for fallen angels, similar to the Abyss.
When Believers Die
Whatever we believe about Paradise or Hades, Jesus’ victory over death changed things. All Christians agree that believers do not have to go to Sheol or Hades when they die. And, as we saw at the beginning of this article, the New Testament is clear about the future resurrection of the body. But what happens to believers in between—after they die and before their bodily resurrection? In 2 Corinthians 5:1–10 we find an important passage for the believer’s state after death: . . . if the earthly tent we live in (our old mortal body) is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house (a physical, but immortal body) in heaven . . . Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling (our resurrection body), because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked (will not be a soul without a body). . . . we do not wish to be unclothed (without a body) but to be clothed (with a body). Notice that naked in these verses does not mean a body without clothes, but a spirit/soul without a body. Paul went on to write that if he stayed at home in the body, he would be away from the Lord. In Philippians 1:22–23, Paul stated that to continue living in the body meant he could not depart and be with Christ. Peter’s words are almost the same (2 Peter 1:13).
Most Christians believe that when they die, their soul without a body will wait in heaven. Their souls will be with Jesus, waiting for His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. According to this view, between death and resurrection everyone’s spirit/soul will remain alive and conscious without a physical body. The souls of believers go to heaven to be with Jesus, while the souls of unbelievers go to Hades to await the final judgment.4 Besides the passages quoted above, those who believe this view also point to Jesus’ teaching that men can kill the body but cannot kill the soul (Matthew 10:28), and to John’s vision of the souls beheaded in the seven-year tribulation who were still conscious, awaiting the future resurrection of their bodies (Revelation 6:9; 20:4). According to this first view, the spirits or souls of all believers will wait in heaven, fully conscious but incomplete without the body (see Romans 8:23).
Others believe, however, that all Christians will be immediately resurrected with a body when they die. They find a different meaning to 2 Corinthians 5:1–10. We will not have to wait naked or unclothed (that is, without a body), since we will immediately receive our eternal house in heaven (our resurrection bodies). This second view does not fit easily with teaching elsewhere in the New Testament that the resurrection will be a future event at the last day (John 6:40; Revelation 20:1–15), or with Paul’s teaching that when Jesus comes again the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). However, these Christians believe events such as the resurrection and those described in Revelation do not occur in normal human history. Such events will happen outside earthly time as we know it in our daily lives. The immediate resurrection of believers will happen in heaven and in God’s eternity.
A third group of Christians believe that everyone (including believers) will be totally destroyed when they die. God will re-create spirit, soul and a new body at the future resurrection. Both our body and our spirit/soul will be extinguished, but re-created. They point to Paul’s use of the word sleep for the death of believers (1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13) as support for their idea that we will not be conscious or even alive between death and the resurrection. These Christians accept the suggestion that the early Hebrews thought that man’s soul could not live without a body. But they do not think this belief was just early ignorance corrected by further revelation. They think this belief was the truth. So Old Testament writers who referred to spirits or souls existing in Sheol were only using a poetic figure of speech. This third view does not fit easily with Bible verses that describe continuing existence away from the body or being immediately with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). However, these Christians explain that such verses only describe the conscious experience of resurrected (“awake”) believers. The souls of dead believers are not alive and do not consciously experience the time gap between their physical death and future resurrection. So their awakening in a re-created body may seem to be immediately after death, but in fact it could be thousands of years later.
When Unbelievers Die
Some Christians hope that God has merciful plans for those who have never heard the name of Jesus (see 1 Timothy 4:10; General Article: God’s Plans for the Unreached). But many people today do hear about Jesus and knowingly refuse to follow Him. What happens to those who die rejecting Jesus? The New Testament teaches that unbelievers will be resurrected also, just before their final judgment at the great white throne (Revelation 20:11–15). The most important question about unbelievers who die is not what happens to them before their resurrection,5 but instead, “What happens to them after they are judged?”
Most Christians believe that after the final judgment the bodies and souls of unbelievers will experience conscious, eternal suffering in the lake of fire. Jesus described hell as eternal fire and eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41,46; compare Mark 9:43,48). John saw a vision of burning sulfur, from which the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever (Revelation 14:10–11; 20:10,15). Although not pleasant to imagine, these Christians believe that this was Jesus teaching (Luke 16:22–26). Some of those accepting this first view suggest that those suffering in hell will not experience time as we know it on earth—that is, they will not experience more and more suffering or new torments in endless succession, but only suffer endlessly in one eternal “now.”
Other Christians teach a second view, that the suffering of unbelievers in hell is not endless, but temporary. Eventually even their souls will be totally destroyed. Jesus taught that those who trusted in Him would not perish like unbelievers (John 3:16), and warned His hearers to beware of God who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28). Because of words like “perish” and destroy, this second group believes in the eventual, complete annihilation of the entire spirit, soul and body of those who reject Christ. Although this punishment has eternal results, the minds of unbelievers will be destroyed and all conscious suffering will end. After all, hell was not originally made for humans, but for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). Possibly Satan and his fallen ANGELS will suffer conscious torment forever (Revelation 20:10); but according to this second view, humans who reject the good news of Christ will be finally destroyed, and their suffering will end.
Still other Christians teach a third view for the unbelieving dead after final judgment. They believe that the ungodly have destroyed their own souls and will suffer the effects of their own sin and selfishness in hell forever. In a sense, they will punish themselves. God did not want to put anyone in hell. Those who are there have rejected God’s mercy and refuse to remain in God’s presence. In a sense, the gate of hell is locked from the inside. According to this third view, “fire” and “torment” are poetic ways to describe the unbeliever’s eternal separation from God (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9). Although poetic, the words describe real suffering in a real hell. Hell is not just a punishment for sin, chosen by God from several options. It is the only possible consequence of sin. If sinners reject God’s presence and GRACE, hell cannot be avoided. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light (John 3:19). In addition these Christians do not believe that God destroys unbelievers souls. Instead, the unbelievers have destroyed most of their own humanity by continual sinning. Human beings were created to be fully alive only in the presence of God. But those who have smothered their souls in sin so long that they can no longer endure God’s presence, cannot remain complete human beings. Jude described people like these as unreasoning animals . . . clouds without rain . . . twice dead . . . for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever (Jude 10–13). The tiny remnants left of their once-human souls will suffer the punishment of their own selfishness and sin forever.
What happens after death? The Old Testament is not very clear, and we must turn to the New Testament for most of our teaching. Although some Christians believe that the Hebrew word “Sheol” is only a poetic description of the grave, many believe that before the death of Christ, the spirits of all those who died went to a land of the dead, called “Sheol” in Hebrew and “Hades” in Greek. Those who believed in God went to a garden-like part of Sheol (or Hades) called Paradise. Furthermore, many Christians believe that when Jesus died, He descended into Hades to preach to the spirits there, ransom believers, and take them to heaven to be with Him until His future second coming.
Most Christians believe that our spirit and soul will wait consciously in heaven without a body until the future resurrection at Jesus’ second coming. Others believe that Christians will receive a resurrection body in heaven immediately after they die. And still others believe that our spirit, soul and body will be completely extinguished at death until all are re-created by God at the future resurrection. Unbelievers will also be resurrected, in order to face God at the final judgment. Tragically, those who reject Jesus Christ will be thrown into the lake of fire, where they will either experience conscious, endless punishment, or they will be totally destroyed and eventually cease to suffer-or, having already destroyed most of their own humanity, they will endure their own sin and selfishness, alone forever.
Whatever we think about these questions, Christians have always believed in the resurrection of the body. Our natural, mortal bodies will either die or be changed instantly at Jesus’ second coming. We will receive new physical bodies, but those bodies will be supernatural and immortal, ready to enjoy fully both the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). At that time, we will all be able to say with Paul: Death has been swallowed up in victory . . . thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).
1 Some Christians believe humans have three parts-a body, a soul and a separate spirit. Others believe in two parts, teaching that the soul and the spirit are the same thing. For further discussion, see General Article: In the Image of God.
2 The Hebrew words for “soul” and “spirit” are not used for any part of man that can survive death, but the Greek words are often used that way. The Old Testament uses a different Hebrew word for those who die and go to Sheol, more like the word “ghost.”
3 These spirits may have been the humans who disobeyed Noah’s warning, or they may have been the angels who sinned in Noah’s time (2 Peter 2:4–5; Jude 6); or they may have been all those throughout history who rejected God, like those in Noah’s time (1 Peter 4:5–6).
4 Some churches teach that at death believers need cleansing from those sins and habits over which they have not repented or are not yet victorious. Having such deep-seated sins removed may be painful or may even seem to take “time.” Many other churches teach that believers will be instantly and painlessly cleansed at death.
5 Most believe that before judgment the souls of unbelievers wait without a body in Hades. Others teach that both soul and body are extinguished, to be re-created just before the judgment. No one teaches an immediate resurrection for unbelievers.