One of life’s greatest mysteries is the question of what happens to a person after death. Does a dead person’s soul go to Heaven or Hell immediately upon dying? What does the Bible say about life after death?
Facing the death of a loved one, particularly if the loss is sudden and unexpected, is one of life’s greatest trials. We sorrow and mourn over such a tragedy. Our family and friends are very precious to us. Whether death strikes at a young age, or at the end of a long life, we experience the pain of loss. And we wonder, "Will we ever see them again?" When we consider the end of life, we ask, "Is there any hope for the future?"
Yes, there is hope for the future! There is hope for your deceased son, daughter, husband, wife, relative or friend. How do we know that there is hope? Because God Almighty, the very Creator of life, reveals in your Bible the answers to the mysteries of life.
As physical human beings with a physiochemical existence, we will all die. But after we die, will we live again? The Bible tells us plainly that: "…it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment" (Hebrews 9:27).
Regular readers of Tomorrow’s World magazine know that there is an awesome purpose for each individual’s life, and an awesome future ahead. But what exactly does the Bible say about Christians who die? Do they go to Heaven immediately when they die?
Heaven or Sleep?
The Apostle Paul wanted his readers to know the truth about the resurrection. "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep" (1 Thessalonians 4:13–15).
The Apostle Paul refers to death as a sleep. He does not describe the dead as being active or alive in Heaven. They are asleep or dead until the coming of Christ—His Second Coming. We read: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:16–18).
Notice that this resurrection takes place at Christ’s Second Coming "with the trumpet of God." That is the last trumpet, the seventh trumpet described in the book of Revelation. Scripture reveals that the dead in Christ will then rise. True Christians who have died are not resurrected until Christ returns! Those of us who are alive when Christ returns will join those who have long been dead, all resurrected to receive the promised gift of eternal life! That resurrection is the hope that all genuine Christians look forward to.
On one occasion when the Apostle Paul was being examined by the Jewish Sanhedrin, he talked of the resurrection. He spoke to the assembly of both Pharisees and Sadducees: "But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, ‘Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!’" (Acts 23:6).
Was Paul saying that he would go to Heaven when he died? Absolutely not! Paul was looking forward to the resurrection from the dead at the return of Christ! In the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul spoke of his faith in Christ and his future goal of the resurrection. "…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10–11).
As shocking as this may seem, the Bible teaches that when we die, we remain dead until the resurrection. The Apostle Paul never speaks of the dead as being alive in Heaven or Hell! He refers to deceased Christians as those who sleep in Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Sleep is used here as a metaphor for death.
The Example of Lazarus
Jesus Himself also used the metaphor of sleep. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of the town of Bethany, was ill, and died before Jesus arrived. Jesus told His disciples: "‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’" (John 11:11–14).
Lazarus had died from a sickness. Did he go to Heaven at the moment of death? If he did, Jesus would have had to command Lazarus to give up his new spiritual glory and come back to a mundane physical life. That makes no sense! Lazarus did not go to Heaven. Neither did he go to the mythical ever-burning Hell! Lazarus was dead. Jesus said so.
Lazarus had been in the grave four days, placed in a tomb with a large stone covering the entrance. We read: "Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’" (John 11:39–40).
Jesus, the Son of God, was about to demonstrate the power of the resurrection. In this case, it was a resurrection to physical life, not the resurrection to glory and immortality. Jesus told Martha, "‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’" (John 11:23–24).
Martha knew about the resurrection—the same resurrection the Apostle Paul later wrote about. "Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die’" (John 11:25–26). Notice that Jesus said, "Though he may die, he shall live." Once the great resurrection takes place, the glorified, resurrected saints will never die! That is the promise of eternal life! But it requires faith in the Savior of the world—the One who is the "resurrection and the life."
After the stone was removed from the entrance to the tomb, Jesus called out to the dead Lazarus. "He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with graveclothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’ Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him" (John 11:43–45).
Lazarus was resurrected to live out the remainder of his natural life. This awesome miracle testified that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. But the chief priests and Pharisees were upset at the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection—and from then on, they plotted to put Jesus to death. You can read about this in the remainder of John 11.
Dead Until The Resurrection
We have seen that the Bible teaches that a dead person remains dead until the resurrection. Both the Apostle Paul and Jesus referred to death as a sleep, and one who is dead has no consciousness—remaining in the grave until the resurrection. Note what Jesus said in John 5:28, "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth; those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation" (John 5:28–29). Other translations use the word "judgment" instead of "condemnation." Yes, the hope for all of us is the resurrection. Faithful Christians are resurrected to immortality at the Second Coming of Christ!
Scripture shows that immortality is a gift from God! "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23, KJV). Notice that the scripture does not state "the wages of sin is immortal life in Hell-fire." The wages of sin is death, the absence of life. If you already had an immortal soul—if you already had eternal life—then you would not need it as a gift from God. Eternal life is a wonderful gift through our living Savior, Jesus Christ!
The Apostle Paul describes this dramatic transformation that takes place at the time of the last trumpet announcing Christ’s return. "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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’" (1 Corinthians 15:51–54).
Yes, there will be victory over death at the last trumpet. And in the same verse, we see that "this mortal must put on immortality." But why should there be a need for immortality if we humans already have an immortal soul? The Bible reveals that souls are not immortal. A soul can die! For instance, the prophet Ezekiel tells us, "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4). The Hebrew word for "soul" is nephesh, which means physical or natural life. The same word nephesh also refers to animal life in Genesis 1:21.
These Old Testament verses are clear. But what does the New Testament tell us about souls? In Christ’s own words: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna fire]" (Matthew 10:28). Yes, God is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna fire. Many other scriptures also demonstrate that human beings do not have an immortal soul. As God inspired the prophet Ezekiel to state, "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:20).
The good news is that we will be resurrected. Take a look at the example of King David, a man after God’s own heart. Has he gone to Heaven, as many believe? Or is he still in the grave? In the Kingdom of God, King David will be the ruler over all the tribes and nations of Israel and Judah (see Ezekiel 37:24; Jeremiah 30:9). Certainly, David should be in Heaven, if the righteous go there the moment they die. But the Bible clearly shows that David is not there! On the day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter gave the very first inspired sermon of the New Testament Church, during which he said, "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (Acts 2:29). After the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, David was still dead and buried! Peter went on to state plainly: "For David did not ascend into the heavens" (Acts 2:34). David is awaiting the resurrection, as are all the other faithful saints!
We have learned that faithful Christians will be resurrected at the return of Jesus Christ to this earth, at the last trumpet. They will be transformed from mortal to immortal, from a natural body to a spiritual body. It will be a glorious time!
But what about those who have never been converted to true Christianity? What happens to them when they die? Dr. Roderick C. Meredith has recently written a booklet on this topic; if you have not already requested his booklet Is This The Only Day of Salvation?, we encourage you to write for it.
How Many Resurrections?
In the book of Revelation, we find that when Christ returns, Satan will be incarcerated and bound in the abyss for 1,000 years. When Christ returns, the faithful saints will be immortalized. "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:4–6).
The first resurrection, as it is called, is for the saints—faithful Christians. But if there is a "first" resurrection, there is also a "second" resurrection. The Apostle Paul spoke about the order of resurrections, explaining that Jesus Christ is the "firstfruits"—the first to be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:20)—followed by those who are Christ’s (v. 23). After these come the "rest of the dead" mentioned in Revelation 20:5.
The "rest of the dead" are those who will come under judgment. They will be resurrected to physical life. But notice the good news concerning this judgment. After the Kingdom of God rules on this earth for a thousand years, there will be a great resurrection of billions of people to judgment. It is referred to as the White Throne Judgment. "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God [this is the second resurrection], and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:11–12).
The Greek word for "books" is biblion. The books, or the Bible, are opened to the understanding of the masses of people for the first time. The resurrection to physical life from the valley of dry bones, described by the prophet Ezekiel, also takes place at this time. The Book of Life is finally opened to all of them. This will be their first opportunity to really learn the truth. This is not a second chance as some would like to call it. All human beings will be held accountable for their actions and thoughts. But this will be their first time for many to see their sins, to have the opportunity to repent of their sins, and to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Yes, there is hope for non-Christians. Most of them will wait in the grave until the White Throne Judgment and then have their first opportunity to learn the truth and God’s way of life.
Then, ultimately, will come the final punishment for those who have sealed their conscience and their character to reject the love of God and the sacrifice of Christ. These incorrigibly wicked will be burned in the lake of fire and totally destroyed. Their souls and bodies will be destroyed in Gehenna fire, as Jesus said.
The comforting news is that no human being who has ever lived and died is now suffering. Death is the absence of life. "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing…" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The dead experience no conscious passing of time, they know nothing. So, in the next split-second of their consciousness, they will awaken in the resurrection.
Jesus Christ said: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live" (John 11:25). Yes, there is life after death—our hope is the resurrection! To those who really respond to His calling, who really repent and are baptized and who are faithful to their Savior, Jesus Christ, God promises a glorious future in Tomorrow’s World!