Please refer to A Dictionary of Death, Resurrection, and Judgment for terms that might not be clear, and to A Timeline of Resurrection and Judgment for an overall perspective of related events since Yeshua’s crucifixion.
Faces blur, lights fade, and darkness closes in.
But there’s another light. Just a pinpoint at first, but it grows brighter and brighter, larger and larger, until it rushes in like an oncoming train, and suddenly you find yourself… someplace else, but where?
Whether we admit it openly or spend much time thinking about it, everyone wants to know what happens when you die.
We’ve all heard stories about it: a bright light, a tunnel, meeting God, etc., or else somewhere dark and hot, where you meet someone else entirely. We’ve also heard sermons and Sunday School lessons–not to mention Internet memes and Hollywood productions–about going to Heaven or Hell. And who hasn’t heard someone say, “I just know my [insert loved one here] is looking down from Heaven.”
Recently, someone in our local community expressed her frustration to me over the conflicting messages from church, friends, and Scripture. Some talk about soul-sleep, others about Purgatory, and still others say we go to be with Jesus in Heaven immediately upon death. They all claim Scriptural support for their beliefs, but all three are mutually exclusive, so only one of them can be right. Or none of them.
I had a pretty good idea of what the Bible said about life after death, but I didn’t want to give her a hasty answer. I needed to check a few things and get back to her. Those few things turned into a few more things, and then there was COVID…but that’s another story, at least for me. It didn’t take me long to realize that the topic was more complicated than I thought. In order to really understand what happens immediately after death, I needed a better picture of the entirety of the afterlife. Not just now, but the resurrections of Revelation, the final judgment, and beyond.
After a couple of months of searching the Scriptures and consulting the apocrypha, Early Church Fathers, and modern Bible commentaries, here’s what I can say for certain: not a whole lot. Much of the popular imagery of Heaven and Hell comes from European mythology, fiction, and conjecture, not from the Bible or even Jewish tradition. Some of what I was taught in church when I was young–or at least what I think I remember being taught in church–was wrong or at least unfounded. The Bible just doesn’t give a lot of specific details.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let me tell you about my current beliefs…
Sheol, Hades, and the Grave
Sheol is the Hebrew word for Hades, also often referred to euphemistically as “the grave”. Ancient Jewish beliefs on the afterlife were about as divided as modern Christian beliefs are. According to the Book of Enoch1 (Michael A. Knibb translation, chapter 22), Sheol is divided into four areas, great “hollow places” in the earth, two for the righteous and two for the wicked. This is similar to the picture given by Yeshua in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, in which the spirits of the righteous went to Abraham’s side (aka Abraham’s Bosom), while the spirits of the wicked went to another place of extreme thirst, but close enough to be able to see and interact with the righteous dead.
I don’t believe these depictions were meant to be literally true. However, they might still describe something about an incomprehensible reality in terms that we can understand. Sheol is a spiritual place, not a physical one, so descriptions such as found in Luke 16 and Enoch are necessarily allegorical. The righteous and the wicked are separated by the spiritual equivalent of a chasm, rather than an actual crack in the ground (Luke) or walls carved out of a mountainside (Enoch). The dead have no bodies, and so they don’t see, hear, or experience physical sensations in the same way that the living do, let alone thirst for water. The side of the chasm reserved for the wicked isn’t actually uncomfortably dry, but the dead who are there experience some sensation analogous to extreme thirst.
Don’t dismiss the “parable” of Lazarus and the rich man as a mere parable. Yeshua might (or might not!) have chosen specific terms and imagery in order to align with the cultural beliefs of the day, but this is the only parable in which he gave one of the characters a name. I believe this unusual bit indicates that the essence of the story is true, even if Yeshua changed some details to make the setting more comprehensible to a flesh and blood audience.
What Is Sheol Really Like?
The Bible doesn’t give a lot of specific information about life…or, um, death…in Sheol, but it does give us some glimpses into how the ancient Hebrews, including the Patriarchs and Prophets thought of it. I have listed below some points that can be gleaned from Scripture, but keep in mind that some of the source texts are poetry, and therefore laden with hyperbole and allegory. The Scriptural references aren’t exhaustive, but should be sufficiently representative.
- Everyone goes to Sheol. Genesis 37:35, 42:38, etc; Numbers 16:30,33; 2 Samuel 22:6; Job 21:13; Psalm 18:5, 89:48; Isaiah 5:14; Luke 16:19-31
- The righteous go to a pleasant side of Sheol, a paradise. Luke 16:19-31; Luke 23:43
- The wicked go to an unpleasant side of Sheol. Job 26:6, Luke 16:19-31
- Some fallen angels or antediluvian villains have been imprisoned in Sheol. 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:7
- The physical body decomposes and returns to the earth, while the spirit lives on. Psalm 141:7, 146:4; Ecclesiastes 3:20, 12:7; 1 Corinthians 15:35-57; James 2:26
- The dead still exist in some way in the present and do not skip across time to the final judgment. Genesis 37:9-10 (his mother died years earlier); Matthew 22:32; Mark 12:27; Luke 20:37-38
- The dead can’t return from Sheol of their own volition, but can be called up against God’s Law. 1 Samuel 28:11-12; Job 7:9; Isaiah 38:10-11
- The dead are in a sleep-like state or at least have limited awareness. Psalm 6:5, 49:19, & 115:17; Ecclesiastes 9:5,10; Daniel 12:1-3; Matthew 27:52; 1 Corinthians 15:20,35-37
Everyone’s spirit goes to Sheol after death, while their body stays behind and decays into nothing. Once there, they don’t come back unless resurrected or temporarily brought back by a necromancer. (I wouldn’t count on any spirits called up by a necromancer to be who they claim to be, though. Satan is the master of every necromancer and spiritist, and he is a consummate liar!) The minds of the dead are dulled nearly to the extent of sleep, but the dead do experience some kinds of sensations analogous to physical pleasure and pain. Existence there is more pleasant for the righteous than for the wicked, although we don’t know exactly what that means.
Do the Dead Still Go to Sheol?
It is commonly taught in Christian churches that Yeshua went to Sheol (aka Hades) during the three days he was dead and preached the Gospel to the spirits imprisoned there. Those who believed him and repented (What does it mean for the dead to repent?), he released and took up to Heaven with him. I have seen three verses from Ephesians and 1 Peter used to support this idea:
A Host of Captives
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.
In this passage, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18, which is about God liberating Israel from oppression and sin and elevating them through worship and obedience. In Ephesians 4, Paul is using it in a very similar manner. When he says Yeshua descended to the “lower regions”, he means the earth, not the grave. We, not the dead in Hades, are the captives that have been set free and elevated by repentance from sin and adoption into the House of God. The gifts he gave to men are “the apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”
The Spirits in Prison
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
1 Peter 3:18-20
Peter and Jude both wrote about some of the events described in the Book of Enoch. They don’t appear to have quoted it directly, but they and their intended audiences were clearly very familiar with its contents. In this passage, “the spirits in prison” does not refer to all men who died before Yeshua’s crucifixion. Rather, it refers to the extraordinarily wicked people who were destroyed in Noah’s Flood, or else the “hosts of Azazel” which led men into their wickedness.
In either case, he surely did not go there in order to preach the Gospel one more time to those who heard and rejected it from Noah for one hundred years! Should he give the worst of the worst a second chance after death while abandoning the vast multitudes who lived and died in lesser sins after the Flood? Peter also wrote nothing about releasing these prisoners or taking anyone to Heaven.
Yeshua did not go to Sheol to convert those already condemned. He went there to show them the glory predicted by Enoch and Noah and which they forfeited by their hard-headed rebellion. Those prisoners who heard Yeshua’s proclamations over those three days are still there today and will only be released in order to be judged and transferred to the Lake of Fire at the End.
The Gospel Was Preached to the Dead
For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:6
I believe that “those who are dead” in this verse refers to living people who are spiritually dead, as described in v3, “living in sensuality, passions,” etc.. Peter’s hope was that, in preaching the truth of God’s judgment and forgiveness to the wicked, he might rescue some of them from their sins, converting those who are dead in the flesh into spiritually living sons of God.
It’s possible that he really did mean that Yeshua (or someone) preached to the dead in Sheol in order to convert them, but he still gives no hint that anyone who is there might be released prior to the Final Judgment. The only way to get that out of the text is to insert it first. Nobody could read 1 Peter and get the idea that any of the dead had been released from Sheol unless they already believed that before reading it.
Do We Go Straight to Heaven or Hell When We Die?
Most Christians seem to believe that, after Yeshua’s resurrection, Sheol (if they are aware of it at all) has been closed and locked, so that the righteous dead now go immediately to Heaven while the wicked go immediately to Hell. Certainly before the crucifixion, nobody went directly to Heaven when they died. In John 3:13, Yeshua told Nicodemus that no man other than Yeshua himself had ascended to Heaven. As I’ve shown above, I don’t believe there is any reason in Scripture to believe that the dead who were in Sheol at that time aren’t still there now, but what about people who died after that?
There is only one passage in all of Scripture (that I know of!) that can be reasonably interpreted to mean that the dead go straight to Heaven:
And [Yeshua] said to [the thief on the cross], “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Ancient Greek, like ancient Hebrew, had no real punctuation, so translators need to exercise some license and discretion in deciding how to punctuate the English. Some believe that the comma should be moved from after “you” to after “today”, changing the meaning to something like “I say to you right now, that you will be with me in paradise someday.” I’m not an expert in Biblical Greek, but I have heard from those who are that this would have been a very unusual way to speak, so this theory probably is not correct.
I think the word “paradise” is much more open to interpretation. Literally, it refers to a manicured garden or a park. The word was often used to refer to any pleasant, peaceful place, even to the righteous side of Sheol.
We know that Yeshua did not go to Heaven immediately after he died, so how could the thief be with him in Heaven? If “today you will be with me in paradise” was literally true, then “paradise” can only refer to the pleasant place in Sheol that King James Version readers have come to know as “Abraham’s Bosom”. In other words, Yeshua was telling the humble thief that his faith would be rewarded by allowing him to wait out the final resurrection and judgment with Abraham and Lazarus rather than in torment with the rich man and the prideful thief who mocked Yeshua.
The short answer is, no, we do not go straight to Heaven or Hell when we die. Rather we go to Sheol, just as did wicked Korah and righteous Moses.
How Long Will We Remain in the Grave?
It is impossible to say how time passes for the dead. Since their conscious processes are severely limited, I suspect that their perception of time is probably very different from ours. None-the-less, they do have a long wait in store before they will be resurrected for the White Throne Judgment at the end. How long is known only to God, but it will be at least another thousand years for most (or all) of us alive today.
Why a thousand years? And what happens then? You will have to wait for a later article in this series to learn why that is so.
The question of “What happens when you die?” in the immediate sense is never addressed directly in Scripture. We can only work with hints and their implications, but those hints aren’t insignificant either. The Prophets and Apostles pointed us in the right general direction, but gave very little detail. That very lack of detail also tells us something: What happens to our spirits between death and resurrection isn’t nearly as important as what happens before and after.
1 The Book of Enoch might contain some remnants of prophetic writings of Enoch, the great grandfather of Noah, but any intact copies of his own work (if they ever existed) are long lost. The bulk of the book was probably written only a few hundred years Before Christ at the earliest. While it contains a lot of truth and much of it aligns with the words of Yeshua and the Apostles, some of it does not. The Book of Enoch is much more likely to have taken ideas–possibly even direct quotes of other works–that would have been familiar to many Jews of the time, and incorporated them into a work that is entirely allegorical. According to Ryan White, Enoch was probably intended to be a veiled commentary on current events, not to be taken as the actual writings of the antediluvian prophet. Whether or not that is correct, it is full of allegory, and the nature of the text itself indicates that almost nothing in it should be taken strictly literally.