Well-meaning people often ask those they care about if they are “saved.” They want to know that if you were to die today, that you would “go to heaven.” This is a nice sentiment, but is it reality?
What Really Happens When We Die?
Popular Christian belief is that believers in Jesus go to heaven when they die and unbelievers go to hell. What do the scriptures say?
For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. — Ecclesiastes 9:5
But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. — 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. — Psalm 146:4
And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. — John 3:13
So then, what really happens when we die? We are dead (or sleeping in Christ) and we await the resurrection. None are ascended into heaven but Jesus, and the dead know not a thing. From our perspective though, it would be as if we die and then immediately the resurrection comes, even though for many there are thousands of years that pass.
There are two resurrections: the resurrection of life and the resurrection of damnation (truths often confused with the rapture). That is something we will get into another time. Some scriptures for now:
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. — 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day. — John 6:39-40
Problems With The Traditional View of Heaven
The idea that loved ones are enjoying heaven and looking down on us can be very comforting, and it’s not an issue I would push on people — especially if they are grieving. But, there are some ways in which the traditional view of heaven is damaging:
- Heaven is often described as a place of carnal enjoyment, rather than a place where we will be serving God for all eternity. This is not some fleshly utopia where you can eat all you want, play all day, and basically do anything you please (without sin, of course…or at least certain sins aside from gluttony and fulfilling selfish desires, for example).
- Jesus is not in heaven building us a mansion. Who do we think we are? This idea came from scriptures that, in reality, are about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit “making His abode — or mansion — with us.” See John 14. We will be serving Christ in heaven, not the other way around.
- The idea that we die and go to heaven does not recognize the truth of the Kingdom of God. There is the kingdom that is now through the Spirit — bringing us freedom from sin and the prince of this world. Then there is the kingdom that will be established after the return of Jesus (the time of the first resurrection and 7th trumpet also).
What about the scripture, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”?
The answer to that scripture is within another: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. — Ecclesiastes 12:7
When we die, our spirit which brings us life returns to God. The body lies in the dust, and our soul, which is our being, sleeps.
What about the scriptures about “Abraham’s Bosom” and Lazarus and the rich man?
The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16: 19-31)
Here are my thoughts. Note that this is how I deal with this in light of other scriptures that show a different picture of heaven and hell than what is commonly taught in Christian traditions, so this is not to be taken as literal truth, so you’ll have to judge for yourself.
The story of Lazarus and the rich man is not to be applied to eternal punishment or heaven necessarily, or taken in a super literal sense, but instead as a parable showing us how we are dead and apart from the true seed of Abraham (Abraham’s bosom) without Christ.
This is about our general separation from God and from His living water which is the Holy Spirit. Without Christ, there is a gulf between us and God. We cannot even taste of the living water, but instead we are in a state of torment and death. Jesus is the only way to bridge the gap for the true descendants of Abraham. The law of Abraham was not enough to bridge that gap, nor did it bring the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we go from the torment of this early flame, separation from God, and inability to drink the living waters to being able to approach God, live in communion with God, and partake of His living waters that not only quench the fires of death in this life but also eternally!
One thing I will say is true, we must die to go to heaven.
In this present world, we must die to self and rise in newness of Christ in order to participate more fully in the present kingdom of God. We will also have to die in a literal sense and then be raised from the dead at the coming of Jesus Christ in order to live with Him in the kingdom to come. As far as the problems with the traditional views of hell, we will hopefully get into that soon (study in progress).
Challenging our traditional beliefs can be difficult, but the more we see a fuller picture of the truth, especially as it pertains to the gospel of the kingdom of God and salvation through Jesus Christ, the stronger our faith becomes. As always, if these things are difficult for you, or if I did not provide a sufficient explanation, feel free to email me.
Hi again Amanda,
Hope you don’t tire of my comments, just a very interesting subject! Regarding Paul’s statement that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord: Consider Paul’s dilemma in Philippians 1:21-25. Paul is literally saying that inwardly he’d rather die than go on living in the body, because “to die is gain,” and he would much prefer “to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far!”
Better than what? Than to go on living in the body. It sure sounds like Paul is anticipating a wonderful transfer into the presence of Jesus immediately upon death.
In 2 Corinthians Paul says that while we are at home in our bodies we are absent from the Lord, but to be away from the body (to die) is to be present with the Lord. These are fairly explicit and reflect Paul’s very personal revelations on the subject. There is no hint here of sleeping or losing consciousness.
In fact, quite a few New Testament Scriptures speak of our “spirits” as being conscious – the REAL us. Our spirits can think and desire just like our minds. In Romans 7 Paul describes the struggle between what our spirits desire (godliness) and what our flesh desires (sin). So when our spirits return to Jesus at death, we are definitely consciously aware of where we are.
Regarding Hades – at one time it was the place of holding for departed spirits, both righteous and unrighteous. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man illustrates that situation pretty well. Jesus has been given the “keys of Hades” and at His ascension He took with Him all the departed righteous. When He returns He will bring the spirits of those saints with him so that they may receive their resurrected bodies (at the Last Trumpet). This is where we (believers / our conscious spirits) now go at death while our bodies rot away – directly into the presence of the Lord. At least according to Paul.
Hades currently holds only the spirits of the unrighteous, probably conscious and in discomfort as indicted by the story. To me, this is also the more likely candidate for the “outer darkness” where people will weep and gnash their teeth in regret while awaiting judgment.
Like you say, a complex subject with many Scriptures to sift through and pray over. No wonder there is so much disagreement. I’m certainly glad we don’t need an exact understanding of this to enter the kingdom of God!
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I don’t necessarily agree with my interpretation of Lazarus and the rich man in this article. I’ve changed my position somewhat since. Even so, I believe hades to mean “the grave” which Jesus did go into and has power over. I do not believe that the scriptures teach Jesus will bring the spirits of the saints. It teaches the dead will come out of their graves and meet him. Their spirits he has, but their soul, which is their actual being, is asleep. I think there is confusion over the nature of soul and spirit, as well as the nature of the dead and the first and second resurrection.
I agree that hades holds the souls of all who are dead. The spirit returns to God who gave it. Hades is the grave, and all experience the grave because of sin. We do not have to interpret this is conscious torment. I view the story of Lazarus and the rich man as a parable, so it should be weighed as such with regard to statements of doctrine which paint a different picture. My current thoughts are found in the article, The Nature of Hell (Part 4) – The Teachings of Jesus on Hell.
I view outer darkness as distinct from hades because I believe hades to be the grave, and “the dead know not a thing.” This is complex, and there is much scripture to go over. If you are subscribed, then you will get an email when future studies come out that will hopefully help all this make more sense.
In general terms, this is what I believe the scriptures teach:
All die because of sin, and when we die we go to hades (the grave). This is a state of unconscious “soul sleep.” The spirit returns to God who gave it. Outer darkness is a realm of existence for devils and a place of holding that they can be cast into by Jesus. This is also “the deep” and maybe also “the bottomless pit.” When Jesus returns to establish his 1,000-year reign, the “dead in Christ” will rise and live with him. Satan is bound during this time in “outer darkness.” The rest of the dead who were not asleep in Christ “live not again until the thousand years are finished.” They remain in hades (the grave).
After the 1,000 years are up, Satan is loosed and again deceives the nations. The rebellion is quenched, and the second resurrection takes place. This is the resurrection of judgment and all are judged according to their works. “Those not in the book of life are cast into the lake of fire, which is the second death.”
I understand these concepts are complex when viewed in light of our current traditions about heaven, hell, the rapture, and even the gospel. We should be living after the kingdom of God now. The gospel is not that those who believe in Jesus will go to heaven when they die and not hell. It is freedom from sin and forgiveness of sin past so that we do not receive the wages of sin, which is death. To walk in the Spirit presently is to walk in the kingdom of God at hand. We should not neglect that.
I know this all probably sounds wacky and brings up a lot of questions. My hope is that once the “Building Upon The Living Rock” series is complete, I can make all of this crystal clear.
Just two observatiosn: It is people who are thrown into the outer darkness and who weep and gnash their teeth (Mt. 8:10-12 and elsewhere). Also, consider again Paul’s grand expectations for the moment he dies. 🙂 I did Follow your site, so looking forward to the ongoing discussion!
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Good point. I might have to reconsider my ideas about “the pit” and the ideas I attach to it, like “outer darkness.” I too hold grand expectation of when I die, because the passage of time will not be perceived and I will be in paradise! No disagreement there.
Keep the discussion coming! Anything that helps my understanding is welcome. Thanks again for taking the time to read and chat with me. 🙂
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