Ask OldTimer

Where do we go when we Die?


The Question:

Where to we go when we die? Do we go straight to heaven/hell?

Last night while I was studying these things I came across a few scriptures that puzzle me. I've always believed that we either go to Heaven or hell upon death. But a few scriptures tell me that this doesn't happen until Jesus Second Coming. Let me know what you all think.

1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 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 the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, 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, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Notice that this says that the "dead in Christ will rise first". Where were these "dead in Christ" until that time? How long were they "dead in Christ"?

Also, as I'm reading, I think I'm coming to the conclusion that it's not a coincidence nor a fad of that time to say that a person was sleeping rather than dead. Many many times you'll read in the Bible about those that are sleeping or who have "fallen asleep" as it states in the verse above.

And again I don't remember where, but I think it's in Revelations that I read that satan, the false prophets and all that followed them would be cast into the lake of fire after the battle of armageddon. How can anyone be sent to "hell" with satan now if satan isn't even there yet?

Also in Revelations I believe it states that all will stand before God on judgement day and it is then they will be sentenced to their eternal resting place.

So, I guess my question is...Where do we go when we die? What happens? Does anyone know? Has anyone studied this that could help me in my studies? Will we be just sleeping until Judgement Day? Will we know? Will it seem like only seconds?


The Answer:

I believe that your confusion is coming from a failure to distinguish our body, soul and spirit and what occurs at death. Obviously our body decays and returns to the dust, but what happens to our soul (mind, will, emotions, personality, self-consciousness) and spirit?

Many times in the Bible the euphemism "fallen asleep" is used to describe death, and some teach that this means "soul sleep" – or that you fall asleep and don’t awake (or are unconscious) until the resurrection.

However, there are many passages that show that our spirit and soul goes to God after death and is very much alive, aware and awake in Him. (However when the soul and spirit leave the body at death, they do NOT hang around here on the earth to create ghosts, or earth-bound spirits as some believe. Apparitions, haunts and the like are demonic manifestations, see Revelation 18:2.)

1 Corinthians 11:30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

Paul here is referring to the desecration of the Lord’s Supper in Corinth that was affecting the bodies of the believers, causing some to be weak and sick and some to die. It was not their spirits or souls that he is referring to, but the condition of their bodies.

Therefore what does "fallen asleep" mean? I believe it simply means that our bodies sleep in death until the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, where they are raised and transformed to be like His glorious body, and our soul and spirit is popped back in it as this process occurs.

Death is like sleep in that you are not responsive to outside stimuli, but unlike sleep in that you cannot wake yourself up. It is sleep irreversible by human means. And death is also like sleep for the believer in that our body rests, and our consciousness is on another realm – our souls and spirits are with Christ.

The whole context of the I Thessalonians 4 passage (and its companion I Corinthians 15:12-28) is our bodily resurrection, and the fact that our bodies that have been sleeping, are not only raised, but changed into "spiritual bodies" like the imperishable body of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So let’s look at the relevant verses:

Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 Remember him--before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well [that is, when you die], and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

This states that our outer man (the body) returns to the dust it came from, and our inner man (spirit) returns to God.

Luke 23:46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.

When Jesus died He committed His spirit back to God. And we know His body was buried in the tomb. But you notice that neither the Preacher nor Luke mention the soul (mind, will, emotions, personality) of man. So where did the soul go? Jesus showed us what the status of the soul after death was when He talked about the rich man and Lazarus in Hades.

Luke 16:19-31 "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell [literally HADES], where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, `Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'

"But Abraham replied, `Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'

"He answered, `Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'

"Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'

"`No, father Abraham,' he said, `but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'

"He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

This isn’t a parable, but a true account of a "certain" rich man (KJV) and a beggar named Lazarus. Jesus is giving us a real glimpse into the afterworld.

You’ll notice that neither of these men are portrayed as being "asleep" – they clearly have the capacity to think, carry on a conversation, and feel. Also noticed that at this time there were two compartments in Hades – one for the damned, who were in torment awaiting the final judgement, and one for the blessed, called Abraham’s Bosom (or side in the NIV), who were being comforted until the time of their captivity was over. And between these two compartments there was a gulf or chasm fixed that neither side could cross, although apparently both were aware of the other.

Deuteronomy 32:22 For a fire has been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of death [Sheol] below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.

Now the region where the dead went in the Old Testament is often called Sheol or the grave, because people were commonly buried in the ground. The verse in Deuteronomy shows that Sheol was more than just a burial region, and that it was burning with God’s wrath.

Psalm 16:9-11 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave [Sheol], nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

This is a prophecy of Christ’s resurrection. It says that God will not abandon Him to the grave or Sheol.

Job 26:5 "The dead are in deep anguish, those beneath the waters and all that live in them. Death [Sheol] is naked before God; Destruction lies uncovered.

Psalm 18:4-5 The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave [Sheol] coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.

Psalm 86:13 For great is your love toward me; you have delivered me from the depths of the grave [Sheol].

Sheol was also considered a deep place of captivity and anguish, which the righteous needed to be delivered from.

Isaiah 5: 14 Therefore the grave [Sheol] enlarges its appetite and opens its mouth without limit; into it will descend their nobles and masses with all their brawlers and revelers.

Sheol is described as a place that enlarges itself as more and more seek to go there. There is also the imagery of Sheol having a mouth and devouring all, never being satisfied or filled, of actually feeding on the dead.

Psalm 9:17-18 The wicked return to the grave [Sheol], all the nations that forget God. But the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted ever perish.

Psalm 116:3-4 The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave [Sheol] came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Then I called on the name of the LORD: "O LORD, save me!"

Psalm 116:5-7 The LORD is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion. The LORD protects the simplehearted; when I was in great need, he saved me. Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you.

Psalm 116:8 For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living.

Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.

These two passages are very interesting because they seem to be a prophecy of what Jesus did for us as part of our salvation – rescuing the righteous souls from Sheol, bringing our souls rest, and bringing us into the land of the living – Heaven [notice, NOT the land of the "sleeping"]. Keep this in mind as we examine the New Testament passages about Sheol or Hades.

Psalm 49:13-14 This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave [Sheol], and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave [Sheol], far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life [soul] from the grave [Sheol]; he will surely take me to himself.

This passage also shows a different treatment of the wicked in Sheol [death feeds on them] and the righteous whose souls will be redeemed [bought back from captivity] in Sheol and be brought into the presence of God.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, [Sheol] where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Sheol is also an unproductive place – there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. How utterly boring it must be!

Ezekiel 32:21 From within the grave [Sheol] the mighty leaders will say of Egypt and her allies, `They have come down and they lie with the uncircumcised, with those killed by the sword.'

Is there consciousness in Sheol? Both Ezekiel and Isaiah (ch. 14: 9-10, 16ff) see the rulers of the wicked as being conscious and speaking in Sheol, and pondering the fate of the fallen angel, Lucifer, the devil, who has been cast into Hades. That certainly does not imply soul sleep.

Revelation 20:14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire [Gehenna]. The lake of fire is the second death.

In the New Testament Jesus calls Sheol, "Hades" or the "depths" and Paul calls it "the lower earthly regions". It is not the final hell – Gehenna, the lake of fire and brimstone mentioned in Revelation – but it is the hell that the unrighteous now go to when they die. Eventually Hades will be thrown into Gehenna, and they will be joined. (More references to Gehenna: Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; Ja. 3:6)

Ephesians 4:8-10 This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men." (What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

This is a part of Jesus’ salvation that many aren’t aware of. Satan literally had the blessed dead held captive in Hades until Jesus came and "led captivity captive" (KJV), and rescued the blessed souls and took them to heaven to await the resurrection of their bodies. (I wrote a poem about this called The Harrowing of Hell.)

I Peter 4:5-6 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to men in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

Revelation 1:18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

Jesus also preached the gospel while he was in Hades, and won the keys of death and Hades from the devil.

Matthew 27:50-54 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!"


Matthew tells us the results of Jesus leading the blessed souls out of Hades – their bodies were resurrected and they walked in the streets of Jerusalem. We are not told what happened to these righteous saints after this. But probably they were taken with Jesus when He ascended to heaven, because they aren’t mentioned again after this incident.

So when Jesus was raised from the dead, He plundered hell of the blessed souls of the holy dead – those who died in faith – and now that compartment of Hades is now empty.

Luke 23:42-43 Then he [thief on the cross] said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

No longer are the blessed dead captives of satan, they immediately upon death go to be with Jesus in Heaven or Paradise, as He told the thief on the cross.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third HEAVEN. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows-- was caught up to PARADISE. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

Revelation 2:7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the PARADISE of God.

Paul and John both call Heaven Paradise in the Bible. Now when a believer dies, their soul and spirit go directly to heaven to await the resurrection of their bodies when Jesus comes again.

Hebrews 12:22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in HEAVEN. You have come to God, the judge of all men, TO THE SPIRITS OF RIGHTEOUS MEN MADE PERFECT, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Heaven contains the spirits of righteous men made perfect, along with God, the angels and Jesus. He also describes these as a "cloud of witnesses" who are watching us run our race. Being a witness implies being awake and aware.

Now I don’t know to what extent those who have died in Christ are aware of the doings here on the earth … if they can only see the good, or if they see the bad as well – which I doubt because that would disturb their peace, because physical death is referred to as "rest". But at any rate, they aren’t sleeping! (Trying to communicate with the dead is forbidden in the Bible, so we'll just have to be content with the faint glimpses of glory that the Bible gives us.)

Psalms 17:14-15 O LORD, by your hand save me from such men, from men of this world whose reward is in this life. You still the hunger of those you cherish; their sons have plenty, and they store up wealth for their children. And I--in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

The psalmist contrasts the reward of wicked men in this life with the reward of seeing God’s face "when I awake". Since men in this life cannot look upon God, he must be referring to when he awakes in Heaven.

2 Corinthians 5:6-9 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.

Paul talks about being absent or away from the body and at home with the Lord. This shows that he believed when his spirit and his soul left his body he would be at home with the Lord. "At home" in the Greek implies making your dwelling with, living with – an active participation in the life of, not sleeping.

Philippians 1:21-24 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Paul also talks about departing and being with Christ vs. remaining in the body. He says to depart the body (in death) is far better. Would it be better if he was going to sleep for years and years? Or was he expecting to be alive and awake in Christ’s presence? Being alive with Christ must involve some kind of conscious presence and fellowship.

Matthew 10:28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Since the spirit of man comes from God and returns there upon physical death, and there is nothing of God in the final hell, Gehenna, or the lake of fire, I believe that the resurrection of the evil dead is with soul and body only, which will suffer eternal torment.

Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where "`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell, where "`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where "`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.']

In fact, there is some indication that you get the same body you died with. Jesus said you would enter Gehenna with two eyes, feet or hands in this case.

Galatians 6:8 (KJV) For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.

So Paul tells us that the harvest of living by the flesh is eternal corruption, just as living by the Spirit brings a harvest of life everlasting. Eternal misery in hell in the decaying body a sinner died with – not something to be desired.

John 5:28-29 Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.

Jesus said that all the dead bodies will be resurrected from death, but the evil will only rise to be condemned.

Isaiah 33:14 The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: "Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?"

Matthew 8:12 "But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Matthew 13:41-42 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Gehenna will burn forever, but it will be dark and full of wailing and gnashing of teeth – indicating not only grief but defiance and rage.

Matthew 25:41, 45-46 "Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels… "He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Gehenna was originally prepared for the devil and his fallen angels. Eden was prepared for man and his descendants. We only go to Gehenna because of our personal choice to join the rebel satan and his demons.

2 Thessalonians 1:8-10 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Revelation 14:9-11 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 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 receives the mark of his name."

Revelation 20:10-15 And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.

The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

From this passage it appears that the devil is not thrown into Gehenna until after the final judgement. Now we are told that he is the "prince of the power of the air" (Ephesians 2:2 KJV) and that he has access to heaven (see the book of Job) and is able to bring accusations against believers (Revelation 4:10), and also has access to Hades (Isaiah 14).

Revelation 21:8 But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death."

Those who refuse to follow Christ actually die twice – once the death of the body, and the second time having their resurrected bodies (and souls) thrown into the lake of fire (Gehenna).

1 Thessalonians 5:23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

"Kept" here in Greek is tereo {tay-reh'-o} from teros (a watch); in the KJV translated - keep 57, reserve 8, observe 4, watch 2, preserve 2, keeper 1, hold fast 1; meaning 1) to attend to carefully, take care of 1a) to guard 1b) metaphorically, to keep, one in the state in which he is 1c) to observe 1d) to reserve: to undergo something.

However, for those who believe in Christ, we receive eternal life, resurrected bodies complete with our souls and spirits preserved for us, to spend an eternity of blessing with the God of peace and cleansing.

So to summarize:

  1. When anyone dies, their bodies return to dust. This is often called "being gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8), "fallen asleep", and the like. (An interesting translation of bodily death in the KJV is to "give up the ghost" or spirit… showing that the spirit leaves the body at death. See Gen. 25:8; 35:29; Lam. 1:19; Acts 5:10. The NIV has the less poetic "breathed his last breath". Another word we use is "expire".)
  2. The spirit of man – which is his life from God returns to God.
  3. The soul of man – mind, will, emotions, personality, self-consciousness lives on.
    1. Before Jesus came, the souls of both the damned and the blessed went to a place called Sheol in the OT and Hades in the NT. They were in two compartments, separated by a vast gulf. Even then the damned were in agony in the flame, but the blessed were comforted in Abraham’s Bosom (KJV).
    2. After Jesus died, He descended into Hades and rescued the blessed from the devil’s captivity, and took them to Paradise or Heaven. This is where the souls of the blessed go now when they die.
  1. When Jesus returns at the Rapture, the bodies of the dead in Christ will rise first, but will be changed on the way up and reunited with their souls and spirits. And then those that are still alive in the flesh will be transformed also.
  2. After Armageddon, the Millennial reign of Christ, and the battle of Gog and Magog, the bodies of the rest of the dead will rise, but they will not be transformed. They will be judged for their sins and cast into the lake of fire (Gehenna), along with Hades itself and the devil and his angels.

For more information, see also "Why would a loving God send anyone to hell?"


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