What Happens To A Person At Death?
When the human body dies, it goes back to the dust of corruption (Gen. 3:19; Eccl. 12:7; 2 Cor. 5:1) where it remains until the “last day” of earth’s history (Jn. 6:44, 54). At that point it will be raised in a new form, an immortal body (Dan. 12:2; Mt. 10:28; 1 Cor. 15:54). The human body is not “recycled” successively into a series of fleshly bodies, as advocated in those religions that subscribe to the “reincarnation” dogma.
But what about the person inside? What happens to his or her soul? Where does it go?
What About the Spirits of the Dead?
The body has been endowed by the Creator with a “soul” or “spirit” — the terms being used interchangeably at times (cf. Jn. 12:27; 13:21). The soul leaves the body at death (Gen. 35:18; cf. Jas. 2:26) and remains in a separate state until the general resurrection.
This spirit-state is called Hades ten times in the New Testament. Hades comes directly from Greek into English, letter-for-letter. Some derive the term from the negative prefix
a (“not”) and
eido (“seen”), hence “the unseen,” (i.e., from the earthly vantage point). Others suggest the word is from
hado signifying “all receiving.”
In the King James Version, the Greek term
hades is rendered as “hell,” but this is incorrect. Hades is the generic name for the state of all spirits of the dead, whether righteous or wicked.
Jesus’ spirit was in Hades, elsewhere designated as “Abraham’s bosom” (Lk. 16:22) or “Paradise” (Lk. 23:43), while his body lay in the tomb (Acts 2:27). In the latter text the soul’s abode is distinguished from the grave (where flesh normally corrupts) by the term “neither.”
Likewise, the selfish rich man (mentioned by Christ) was tormented in Hades (Lk. 16:23). Most likely, this is the same state as that called “hell,”
tartarus, a condition of rebellious angels who are “chained by darkness” (2 Pet. 2:4), and reserved until their ultimate deposition in “hell,”
gehenna. This state is the final receptacle of all the wicked—both rebel angels (including Satan) and evil humans (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10).
Spirits To Be Reunited With Bodies
At the time of Christ’s return, all bodies will be raised from the dead (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). When the Lord descends from heaven he will bring with him the righteous spirits of those whose bodies “fell asleep” as they died (1 Thes. 4:14, 16). Hiebert observed:
“Those now in heaven in a disembodied state, will Christ bring with him” (1971, 200-201).
Elsewhere in this letter the apostle speaks of “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thes. 3:13). Most scholars appear to believe that “saints” embraces angels as well as the redeemed, though the latter is the common meaning in the New Testament. Lenski argues there is “no support” for a reference to angels in this passage (1961, 301; cf. Vincent, 1972, 939). The two texts (1 Thes. 3:13; 4:14) certainly complement one another.
The term “sleep” is never used of the soul—only of the body (Dan. 12:2; Jn. 11:11ff).) “Hades” then will surrender its meaning (Rev. 1:18; 20:13-14), since both the righteous and the wicked will be assigned their final destinies with their incorruptible bodies (1 Cor. 15:53-54) and immortal souls, reunited (Dan. 12:2; Mt. 10:28; 2 Cor. 5:1ff).
Will the Saved Be With Christ Immediately After Death?
One must remember, however, that no single text contains the full picture of the disembodied state of human spirits. The complete collection of information must be assembled from various passages, each of which contributes its own deposit of data.
One of these is in Second Corinthians, where Paul affirmed that fourteen years earlier he had been “caught up even to the third heaven” and “into Paradise,” not knowing whether such was “in the body” or “apart from the body” (2 Cor. 12:2ff). There is an obvious proximity, or relationship, between the “third heaven” and “Paradise” (cf. Rev. 2:7; 22:2). A number of scholars see the two expressions as synonymous (Hodge, 1860, 282; Barnett, 1997, 562).
One should not argue, therefore, that the Christian who dies will not see Christ until after the resurrection. Such denies the testimony of the New Testament, both explicitly and implicitly (Acts 7:59; Phil. 1:23; 2 Cor. 5:8; 1 Thes. 4:14b, 16a; 5:10; Rev. 6:9). Let us consider these passages for a moment.
Stephen’s Prayer — Acts 7:59
As Stephen was being stoned, he looked “into heaven” and saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Calling on Christ, he petitioned: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). Surely he anticipated that his prayer would be answered, just as Jesus did on the brink of his death (Lk. 23:46) and that his soul would be with the Lord.
Very Far Better — Philippians 1:23
During his two-year Roman imprisonment (Acts 28), Paul wondered how his appeal to Caesar might go (cf. Acts 25:11). He wasn’t sure (cf. Phil. 2:19-24). Yet of one thing he was certain.
If he were executed, his non-earthly state would be “very far better” for he would “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23). The preposition “with” [
syn ] “is not simply spatial proximity to Christ but active communion with Christ” (Harris, 1971, III.1207). Gordon Fee argues that the language “implies a period in which one is with the Lord in ‘body-less’ existence” (1995, 148).
At Home With the Lord — 2 Corinthians 5:8
Similarly, Paul says that when the Christian is “absent from the body,” i.e., his spirit has left his body (and he is dead), he nonetheless is “at home with [ pros ] the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The preposition pros in this context, as in the case of John 1:1b of the pre-incarnate communion between the Word [Christ] and God, implies a “dynamic interpersonal communion, a settled mutual fellowship” (Harris, op. cit., 1205).
A. T. Robertson depicted it as a “face-to-face converse with the Lord ... a living relationship, intimate converse” (1919, 625). As another scholar, commenting on Second Corinthians 5:6-8, suggests: “bodily existence is absence from the Lord ... full fellowship is possible only” without “this bodily existence” (Grundmann, 1964. II.63-64; emphasis added). The apostle longed for an “intimate, open, and total relationship with Christ himself” (Melick, 1991, 85).
Noted scholar Charles Hodge, of Princeton Seminary, commented:
“The Christian’s heaven is to be with Christ, for we shall be like him when we see him as he is. Into his presence the believer passes as soon as he is absent from the body, and into his likeness the soul is at death immediately transformed; and when at the resurrection, the body is made like unto his glorious body, the work of redemption is consummated” (1860, 123).
Brought With Him — 1 Thessalonians 4:14
In his first letter to the Thessalonian saints, Paul stresses that Christians who have died still enjoy their “in Christ” relationship (1 Thes. 4:16b), and that at the time of the Lord’s return, those whose bodies that have “fallen asleep” would be brought “with him” (1 Thes. 4:14b) “from heaven” (1 Thes. 4:16a).
While there is some controversy over the construction of the text (some contending that “with him” refers to an entrance into heaven after the time of the Second Coming), after discussing the options carefully, Hendriksen declares that God “will bring their souls [the righteous] along from heaven [‘with Jesus, from heaven’], so that these may be reunited quickly (in a flash)” with their bodies (1979, 113-114; cf. Morris, 1991, 140).
All faithful saints—the living and the dead—maintain their “with the Lord” experience. Again, as Harris, notes:
“The difference between ‘the dead in Christ’ and living Christians is not in their status (‘in Christ’ in both cases), but in the quality of their fellowship with Christ and the degree of their proximity to Christ” (1971, III.1207; emphasis added).
Saved Unto His Heavenly Kingdom — 2 Timothy 4:18
In his final written words Paul expresses confidence that the Lord “will deliver me from every evil work, and will save me unto his heavenly kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:18). The term “heavenly” is a compound term, literally meaning “in heaven.” George W. Knight says:
“it appears that Paul is speaking of Christ’s kingdom ‘in heaven’ and saying that when he dies he will be brought safely into that kingdom and remain in it from then on (cf. 1 Thes. 4:13-18)” (1992, 472; cf. Lenski, 1961, 880-881).
Under the Altar — Revelation 6:9
In Revelation 6:9ff John sees a group of souls “underneath the altar.” They had been murdered for the word of God and their testimony. They are distinguished from those on “earth” (Rev. 6:10), and the “altar” motif identifies the locale as heaven (Rev. 8:3, 5; 11:1, 19; 14:15, 18).
If there are no souls in heaven, the imagery is baffling. See also the “great multitude” that is “standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9ff; 14:1-4). And, as noted earlier, elsewhere in the book of Revelation the “tree of life,” identified as being in “Paradise” (Rev. 2:7) is located in heaven (Rev. 22:2).
As one scholar has observed, with reference to Paul’s discussion of his heavenly journey fourteen years earlier (2 Cor. 12:1ff):
“Paul’s reference to the vision given him early in his ministry, in which in one instance he says that he was ‘caught up even to the third heaven,’ and in another that he was ‘caught up into Paradise,’ II Cor. 12:2-4, shows that Paradise is to be identified with heaven” (Boettner, 1956, 92).
Would it not be best, therefore, to speak of Hades as a state of disembodied souls (whether righteous or unrighteous) prior to the resurrection — “Paradise” depicting the state of the righteous in the heavenly realm, though as yet without their new bodies?
This view is consistent with the ample evidence of a celestial reward at the point of death. As Prof. Erickson has expressed it:
“On the basis of these biblical considerations, we conclude that upon death believers go immediately to a place and condition of blessedness, and unbelievers to an experience of misery, torment, and punishment. Although the evidence is not clear, it is likely that these are the very places to which believers and unbelievers will go after the great judgment, since the presence of the Lord (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil 1:23) would seem to be nothing more than heaven. Yet while the place of the intermediate and final states may be the same, the experiences of paradise and Hades are doubtless not as intense as what will ultimately be, since the person is in a somewhat incomplete condition” (Erickson, 1998, 1189).
A number of respected Christian men have argued that the righteous dead will not be in heaven until after the general resurrection and several passages are produced as proof-texts for that viewpoint. Consider the following.
No One Has Ascended — John 3:13
“And no one has ascended into heaven, but he that descended out of heaven, even the Son of man, who is in heaven” (Jn. 3:13).
Does this passage state that no one has yet entered heaven? The statement, admittedly, is difficult — if isolated from the immediate context. One fundamental principle of Bible interpretation, however, is that an obscure text must harmonize with clearer passages on the same theme.
“No single statement or obscure passage of one book can be allowed to set aside a doctrine which is clearly established by many passages” (Terry, 1890, 449).
If, therefore, there is solid evidence that there are souls in heaven, this passage must not be forced into conflict with that reality. In this text Christ is speaking of his unique and innate ability to teach regarding “heavenly things.” He is not discussing the general theme of who may or may not be in heaven.
The ancient world abounded with myths of those who supposedly had ascended into heaven and returned to share their information with the inhabitants of earth. In asserting his uniqueness, the Lord is declaring that no one has gone up into heaven to access knowledge with which he returned to share on earth.
Robert Stein describes it as an idiomatic device describing a human effort to acquire divine knowledge (1990, 103). Only a truly divine being intrinsically possesses such a wealth of information (Dods, 1956, I.715). Christ, an eternal resident of heaven (Jn. 1:1), was qualified for such a role. Others were not.
Godet paraphrased the matter:
“No one has entered into communion with God and possesses thereby an intuitive knowledge of divine things, in order to reveal them to others, except He to whom heaven was opened and who dwells there at this very moment” (cited by Morris, 1995, 197).
The last phrase, “who is in heaven,” likely was added by John when he penned the book years after Christ’s ascension (Woods, 1981, 65-66). Properly understood, therefore, this text does not negate the arguments sketched above.
Not Ascended Unto the Father — John 20:17
When Mary Magdalene took hold of Jesus on the morning of the resurrection, the Lord, with a kindly admonition, said:
“Stop clinging to me; for I am not yet ascended unto the Father...” (Jn. 20:17).
Some reason in this fashion: Jesus had not been to the Father, who is in heaven; he had been to Hades (Acts 2:27), thus the two states are entirely separate.
The logic is faulty. It does not take into consideration other passages. And it fails to consider the immediate context of the Savior’s declaration.
First, at the point of his death Christ cried with a loud voice: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit...” (Lk. 23:46). Did he? At this time? Or was that association only realized forty days later?
That certainly is not the most natural interpretation. The present tense, middle voice form of the verb suggests he was “handing over,” “giving,” or “entrusting” his spirit to the Father for his care at this time (Spicq, 1994, 3.13; Danker, 2000, 772).
“At the moment when He is about to lose self-consciousness, and when the possession of His spirit escapes from Him, He confides it as a deposit to his Father” (Godet, 1879, II.338). “The Father received the Spirit of Jesus” (Bengal, 1877, II.216).
Second, when Jesus said, “I have not yet ascended [perfect tense] unto the Father,” the tense suggests a permanent state, not a mere act (Tenney, 1981, 192). Further, Mary was holding on to his body. He referenced his “body” when he affirmed that he had not yet ascended. He was not denying having been with the Father during the previous three days. He was cautioning Mary that his stay on earth was temporary. Permanent association with him would be in the future—in heaven.
David Not In Heaven — Acts 2:34
Another argument proffered to support the idea that no one but the Godhead and the angels currently inhabit heaven is Peter’s statement on the day of Pentecost regarding David. Hundreds of years after the great king’s death, Peter declared: “For David ascended not into the heavens...” (Acts 2:34).
To employ this text as proof that David’s spirit was not in heaven is entirely inappropriate. The apostle’s argument was that the prophetic psalm foretells the Messiah’s resurrection and enthronement and that Israel’s great king could not have spoken concerning himself, for David’s body was still in his undisturbed tomb, as they conceded (Acts 2:29). Thus, verse 34 has to do with David’s body, not his soul.
It is entirely appropriate to state that upon his death, the spirit of God’s child is in Hades or Paradise. This does not necessitate a denial that the same soul is likewise in heaven if Paradise (the receptacle of the soul) is simply the state of the soul apart from the body in heaven. Thus, at the time of the Lord’s return, when body and soul are reunited, the term Hades becomes obsolete (Rev. 1:18; 20:13), because there will be henceforth no “soul-only” state.
I would offer this respectful word of caution. Those who are quick to rebuke their brethren who speak of faithful loved ones “in heaven” should act with more reserve. When there are but a few texts which speak of the dead saints in Hades/Paradise (with no elaboration), and others (more profuse and explicit) that suggest the abode of the righteous dead is heaven, the devout student will not dismiss the many in favor of the few. As one scholar observes:
“[T]he New Testament has very few verses speaking of the intermediate state, but the teaching is definite that, for the child of God, absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8)” (Harris, R.L., 1971, 175; cf. Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Instead, recognizing that the whole body of scripture is inspired of God, and thus is not conflicted, a solution will be sought that brings the two states into harmony. Ultimately, however, disagreements in this area of study should not be a point of contention. Things are what they are regardless of our disputes.
- Barnett, Paul. Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1997.
- Bengal, John A. Gnomon of the New Testament. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark. 3 Vols. 1877.
- Boettner, Loraine. Immortality. Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian & Reformed. 1956.
- Danker, F.W. et al. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago. 2000.
- Dods, Marcus. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1956.
- Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology – Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 1998.
- Fee, Gordon. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1995.
- Godet, F. The Gospel of St. Luke. Edinburgh, Scotland: T. & T. Clark. 2 Vols. 1879.
- Grundmann, Walter. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. G. Kittel, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 10 Vols. 1964.
- Harris, M.J. “Prepositions.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. C. Brown, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1971.
- Harris, R. Laird. Man — God’s Eternal Creation. Chicago, IL: Moody. 1971.
- Hendriksen, William. Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 1979.
- Hiebert, D. Edmond. The Thessalonian Epistles. Chicago, IL. Moody. 1971.
- Hodge, Charles. An Exposition of Second Corinthians. New York, NY: Robert Carter & Brothers. 1860.
- Knight, George W. The Pastoral Epistles. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1992.
- Lenski. R.C.H. Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, Philemon. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg. 1961.
- Melick, Jr., Richard R. Philippians – The New American Commentary. Nashville, TN. 1991.
- Morris, Leon. First & Second Thessalonians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1991.
- Morris, Leon. The Gospel of John – Revised. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 1995.
- Robertson, A.T. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. London, England: Hodder & Stoughton. 1919.
- Spicq, Ceslas. Theological Lexicon of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson. 3 Vols. 1994.
- Stein, Robert. Difficult Passages in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker. 1990.
- Tenney, Merrill. John – The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 1981.
- Terry, Milton S. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York, NY: Eaton & Mains. 1890.
- Vincent, Marvin. Word Studies in the New Testament. Wilmington, DL: Associated Publishers. 1972.
- Woods, Guy N. The Gospel According to John. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate. 1981.