After a discussion with a friend of mine concerning where people go when they die, I realized there is some confusion among believers about what the Bible teaches in this regard. What I hope to do here is provide a simple explanation for my friend and others who aren’t quite sure about this important topic.
The Old Testament and the New Testament show striking contrasts that all hinge around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The fact of the matter is that the coming of Jesus changed everything.
Before exploring the truth, let me expose several falsehoods.
First is that the Catholic Church believes in a concept called purgatory. This is supposed to be an intermediate state where people are required to exist after death in order to get them ready for heaven. In purgatory, they are purified or temporarily punished, i.e., they are purged of any remaining sins not accounted for in life. Catholicism makes a way through indulgences to shorten the time necessary for a person to spend in purgatory. These are paid to the church before death by the person or after he’s deceased by someone living. The paying of indulgences was one of the 95 Theses that Martin Luther noted as non-Biblical and an injustice to the poor. This practice and many others became the basis for the Protestant Reformation. The idea of purgatory is found nowhere in Scripture. It is a completely man-made concept ultimately used to enrich the Vatican.
The second falsehood I want to mention is nothingness after death. This is the nihilistic belief that this life is all there is, and once someone dies, that’s it. There is a complete blackout, as the person ceases in any way to have an afterlife. If you think about it, this is an extremely depressing point of view. It is one that provides no hope and no way out. Yet, it appears useful for many people in a dark frame of mind to believe that by ending their life, all their troubles simply disappear. Sadly, for those not in Christ, such a desired end is a false hope, as their troubles will actually just begin in an eternity without God.
The final untruth is that of soul sleep. With this concept, a person thinks that when he dies, his soul simply exists in a state of “sleep” until the final resurrection and judgment. The Bible does speak of someone being asleep and meaning that he has died, but that’s all it means. Soul sleep appears to imply that after death, one resides in an unconscious condition. Like the prior two falsehoods, this is not a Biblical truth.
Now let’s consider what occurred in death throughout the period of the Old Testament, i.e., in the time of the Old Covenant. During these several thousand years, the destination of all who died was Sheol. We note that the direction of Sheol was always down.
“All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, ‘No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.’ Thus his father wept for him.”
“But if the Lord creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised the Lord.”
“And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they and all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol, and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.”
“Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.”
In the Genesis quote above, the patriarch Jacob (Isaac) is the one speaking. Surely, the Lord considered him righteous and ultimately worthy of heaven, yet Jacob declares that he will go down to Sheol when he dies.
In the other two passages, wicked men are in view, and they certainly aren’t headed toward a heavenly reunion. They likewise go down to Sheol.
How is it that both the good and the evil among men in the Old Testament descended to Sheol upon death?
It is actually in the New Testament where we gain a better understanding of this seeming conundrum.
In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the true story of the beggar Lazarus and the unnamed rich man. Why do I say it’s a true account? Because Jesus actually used the name of a person – Lazarus – which he never did in any of His parables. In this account, we see that when Lazarus died, he went to the side of Abraham, called Abraham’s bosom in some translations. In contrast, the rich man went to a place of torment. In Luke 16:26, Abraham makes an interesting statement:
“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.”
They’re all down in Sheol – or Hades in the Greek – and the locale with Abraham is apparently one of rest and peace. Where the rich man resides is a place of anguish and fire with perpetual unease and pain.
No one in either place can cross the great divide between them, and the difference between the two settings is stark.
When Christ was crucified and the robber-murderer beside Him confessed Jesus as Lord, their destination (both Jesus and the man beside Him) was still Sheol. We see in Luke 23:43:
“And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.'”
Paradise was the exact same location as where Abraham dwelt after death. But this is where everything changed. Paul in Ephesians 4:9-10 says:
“Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.'” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Jesus (and the robber-murder) descended to Sheol where the Old Testament saints lived in death. But Jesus had a way out. Revelation 1:18 tells us in Jesus’ Words:
“I am He that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen, and have the keys of hell and of death.”
Having these keys, Jesus unlocked the gates confining those in paradise (they may have had peace and rest, but they couldn’t leave) and led them from that place of captivity in a triumphal procession into heaven. It is this – the resurrection of Jesus Christ – which makes all things new – even where we go when we die.
Note the description in Job 17:16:
“They shall go down to the bars of the pit, when our rest together is in the dust.”
Bars? It makes sense, doesn’t it, if Jesus needed keys to free the prisoners?
With Christ now in heaven, when a believer dies, Paul states his destination in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8:
“So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
He reiterates this in Philippians 1:23:
“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
At this current time prior to the Rapture, when we’re in the presence of the Lord in death, we are only in a spiritual state. We’re fully aware and among those who went before us, but we have no body of any sort that we would currently recognize. Some who have had near-death experiences report meeting up with joyful loved ones on the edge of eternity, but the bodies they’re in are spiritual ones only.
This is in contrast to what happens at the Rapture. Paul expressly states in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54:
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.'”
This is where things become marvelous for us. Paul also tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 how this works:
“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.”
The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who remain, who are true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, will rise immediately following – all of us to meet Christ in the clouds. Note that this is not the 2nd Coming at which Jesus comes down to the earth and stands on the Mount of Olives, as noted in Zechariah 14:4:
“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.”
As you can see, the Rapture and the 2nd Coming are described very differently because they are indeed two completely separate events.
Upon our being Raptured, we are transformed. The souls of the dead in Christ who have been in the presence of Jesus are reunited with their earthly bodies but instantly changed. Living believers in their living bodies are metamorphosed as well. Both sets of Christ-followers are given glorified bodies. What does this mean? The apostle tells us in 1 John 3:2:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Now what that will actually be like is another matter, but if we’re going to be like Jesus, I’m all for it! How could anyone not want to enjoy the immediate aftereffects of the Rapture/resurrection of our bodies? Why would anyone prefer to stay on this earth and cling to it? Sadly, far too many in the church would rather stay here in this alien place that is not our home, even when we have such a glorious future.
In our glorified state, we will rule and reign with Jesus in the Millennium as He sits on His throne in Jerusalem. The earth will repopulate following the Tribulation with believers initially who made it all the way through that horrible seven years. However, just like the generation that began inhabiting Israel after the Exodus and didn’t teach their children about God, leading to the time of Judges, so it will be in the 1,000-year reign of Christ. Despite His physical presence on the earth, generations will grow up needing to choose to follow Him, and they will not. It’s probably a good bet that our task as glorified saints and as judges, or whatever we do during that time, will become increasingly problematic since so many people will have rejected and turned from the Lord.
Returning to all unbelievers now and during the Tribulation, I presume that they continue going to what we call hell, yet is effectively still Sheol, or Hades, that is reserved for the wicked. Continuing into the Millennium, even though life spans will be lengthened, those who die apart from Christ will likely go there as well.
During that period, we know that Antichrist and the False Prophet are cast into the Lake of Fire without any further ado, i.e., they don’t even face the Judgment Seat of Christ. We also know that Satan is cast in chains into the bottomless pit of Tartarus, more than likely with all his demonic followers. There is no satanic influence during the Millennium, although sin continues to be mankind’s major problem.
After the release of Satan at the end of the Millennium and his concluding failed rebellion with humanity’s final reprobates, all are judged in the 2nd Resurrection at the White Throne Judgment. The books are opened, and all not in Christ are cast once and for all into the Lake of Fire.
God then creates the New Heaven and New Earth, thus purifying them completely of all the taint of sin and blood. Every one of us alive at that time will be in our glorified bodies, and our eternity joyfully serving God will begin. What that looks like is anyone’s guess, but there will be no more sin, no more death, and no more sorrow.
What an amazing future we who love the Lord have in store for us! Who wouldn’t want to be part of this glorious vision? I’m ready for it to begin.
If you would like to listen to the audio version of this article, please click here: https://rumble.com/v1m4rim-biblical-audio-commentary-afterlife-destinations.html
Gary Ritter website: books & blog
Kindle Vella story: Tribulation Rising