Where do we go when we die? This is a question we are intrigued by. Even people who are not religious are interested in this question. In 2010 Clint Eastwood directed a movie entitled Hereafter. The film was about the afterlife but the focus was more on psychic powers rather than religion.
The question of where we go when we die draws a lot of interest, but it is not an easy question to answer. There is not a definitive passage on this one subject, but instead various passages have to be strung together in a systematic way in order to arrive at an answer. This question is not as important as resurrection (1 Cor. 15:12-34) or the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21-22). Whatever conclusion we come to, we should be careful about binding it on others. Instead, we should always keep an open mind and seek to have conversations that edify one another.
We need to keep in mind that this question addresses events prior to the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead. The return of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, and the new heavens and new earth are events that are clearly taught in Scripture. What happens when we die is not a question about where we will spend eternity. It is a question about where we will be until Jesus returns and we receive a resurrected body.
Three answers have typically been given to the question of where do we go when we die. People who hold these three different views all use Scripture to explain their position.
State of Unconsciousness/Soul Sleeping – This is the belief that when a person dies, they are dead. They go to sleep and they are unaware of anything until Jesus returns and then they are awakened from the dead. They point to the many passages in the Bible where the dead are described as being asleep. (See 1 Sam. 28 esp. vs. 15)
The problem I have with this view is that it is never fully described in Scripture, and it relies heavily on the assumption that the word “asleep” is literal and not just a figure of speech. People often say nowadays that a person has “passed away”, but no one means that they have literally “passed away.” It is a figure of speech. To fall asleep in Scripture seems to me to be a figure of speech and not a literal description of what happens to people when they die.
Hades – This is the belief that when a person dies they go to a waiting place called Hades. This word is found in the New Testament and seems to correlate to the Old Testament term Sheol. Although, the view of what happens to a person when they die in the Old Testament is very sketchy. Sheol is never described in positive terms. It is a place where people do not want to go. The most vivid description of Hades is found in Luke 16:19-31. This is the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The problem I have with this view is that an extraordinary emphasis is placed on Luke 16:19-31. It is argued that this is a true account that literally happened and that the purpose of this story is to explain the afterlife. Luke 16:19-31 reads more like a parable than a real life story. It is found among other parables (Luke 15; 16:1-13). The purpose of the story is not to explain the afterlife, but to teach about riches and how we treat others in need (Luke 16:14). This issue of wealth is a theme that repeatedly shows up in the Gospel of Luke. The question also needs to be asked, “Where did this view of Hades originate from?” It is not found anywhere else in Scripture, nor does it seem to originate with Jesus. It was a traditional view that was held prior to Jesus. None of this negates that there ever existed a place called Hades and that people went there. We know that Jesus died and went to Hades (Acts 2:27). However, I would be leery to place all my bets on one passage, when there are others that also speak of what happens to a person after they die.
Heaven – This is perhaps the most common view held by Christians (This does not prove it is right). It is the view that when people die they go to heaven to be with the Lord. This is the view I will argue for in the rest of this post.
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
The stoning of Stephen does not answer the question for us, but it does offer some helpful clues. As Stephen is about to die, he looks up and he sees Heaven. Stephen says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” As he is looking up and being stoned to death he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” I will admit that all these events are things that happen just prior to his death and as he is dying. We are never told what happens to Stephen after he is dead, but what we have leads us to believe that Stephen’s spirit went to be with the Lord in Heaven.
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. (2 Cor. 5:6-8)
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21-24)
Again, these passages do not answer the question for us, but they do give us something solid that we can put our hope in. Whatever happens to us when we die, we will be with Jesus. This is Paul’s hope! He longs to “depart and be with Christ.” He “would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Where is the Lord? He is at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.
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. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)
This is perhaps the most famous passage about what happens when we die. Paul wrote this to try and comfort the Thessalonians who were wondering about these things. It says that “God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Later Paul writes, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with THEM in the clouds to meed the Lord in the air.” Jesus is coming back and he is bringing those who are dead with him. Where are the dead? This passage never answers that, but the most likely assumption is Heaven. Jesus is in Heaven. This is where he is coming from. We are never told that he goes to Hades or some other place where the sleeping dead are waiting. The only two places we can absolutely identify in this passage are Heaven and Earth.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. (Heb. 12:1)
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb. 12:18-24)
I am indebted to John Mark Hicks for this clue and would encourage you to read what he has to say about this passage (See Witnesses in the Presence of God). Hebrews 11 is about the faithful who are now dead. How are they described in Hebrews 12:1? As a “cloud of witnesses.” This does not sound like they are unconscious. Later in the chapter we are given an even better clue. Hebrews 12:18-24 is a passage contrasting Old Testament worship with New Testament worship. The author of Hebrews is explaining why they should not go back to the way they used to worship. His main argument is that worship under the new covenant takes place in the presence of Heaven. When we worship we are in the presence of “God”, “Jesus”, “the heavenly Jerusalem”, “innumerable angels”, and to “the spirits of the righteous made perfect.” The author of Hebrews describes Heaven and in Heaven are “the spirits of the righteous made perfect”. This is the “cloud of witnesses”. This is Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, and many more.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:9-10)
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. (Rev. 7:9-15)
I saved the best clue for last. Revelation is a book written to comfort Christians who were being persecuted and who had lost loved ones. The Christians John is writing to had family members and friends who had died. This is part of the reason for writing this book. In Rev. 6:9-10 John sees a vision of martyrs who are now in Heaven crying out to the Lord. In Rev. 7:9-15 John sees Christians who have remained faithful to God throughout the tribulation and they are now “before the throne of God.” Would John present a picture of Christians who had been martyred in heaven, if this were not so? He is writing to their loved ones. He is striving to comfort grieving family members. Is John giving them false hope? I don’t believe so. I believe John is presenting an accurate picture of where the dead in Christ now are.