After death do we go to heaven, hell, or do we “sleep” until the return of
This is a very good question. To be honest with you, to do justice to this
question would require an answer of at least ten pages. Besides, I do not
feel particularly qualified to answer this question as another member of
our board at EFC.org is more qualified, which is Dr. Douglas Jacoby.
Because he is a bit too busy right now to answer the question, I will give
my best answer and refer you to a place you can find an answer from Dr.
Jacoby, which is at www.acesonline.org . You will find his answer archived
under his name at the web site.
Having said all that, here is my answer. For reasons which I cannot
explain, God does not make it absolutely clear what happens to us
immediately after dying. I believe God gives sufficient information to
make a reasonable guess at the correct answer, but not enough to allow one
to make clear-cut hard line statements about exactly what happens to us at
the moment we die. Let me describe three possible explanations of what
happens when we die.
Do we somehow “sleep,” going into some sort of (to use an awkward phrase)
suspended animation, waiting for the Day of Judgment? You can find
passages, especially in the Old Testament (Psalms 7:5, Psalms 13:3, and
perhaps most interestingly Daniel 12:2), but also in the New Testament (1
Corinthians 15:51) which seem to imply that death leads to some sort of
state which is described as sleep. Is the word sleep in these passages
metaphorical or literal? I cannot give a hard and fast answer to this
Do we go to judgment immediately, without any waiting, and therefore enter
either heaven or hell immediately? I believe it is possible to defend this
position, but believe it is incorrect based on such seemingly clear
passages as 1 Corinthians 15:51 and Revelation 20:11-15 which at the very
least seem to imply that Judgment Day is a future event for all of us.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…” (Rev 21:1) seems to imply a
future “city” in which we will dwell with God. I offer this, not as a
proof-text, but as evidence that this is not the most likely explanation.
A third possibility, which I personally believe is the correct one, is
that we go to a place, either Paradise or Hades, to wait for judgment. In
Luke 16:19-31 one finds the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. This
passage describes a bad places, called Hades, where the rich man is
waiting in some sort of torment. In this scene, Lazarus asks Abraham for
the opportunity to go and warn his family against entering Hades. In this
parable, Lazarus is described as being in a better place–a place called
Paradise by Jesus in Luke 23:43–where he is waiting as well. The parable
seems to clearly describe a place, or actually places, where people are in
a conscious state of some sort after death but before final judgment. Of
course, this is a parable, and one must be cautious about taking too much
of a doctrinal nature from a parable, but if it does not describe an
in-between place, then the parable could be accused of being confusing. In
the Luke 23:43 passage, Jesus says “today you will be with me in Paradise”
to the repentant thief. This would appear to support the thesis in mind
here. David’s use of sheol (Psalms 89:48, 86:13, 55:15, 49:14,31;17, 30:3,
18:5 and many others) and Solomon’s use of both sheol and abaddon
(Proverbs 15:11), which are translated in the NIV as “death” and
“destruction” lend support but not proof to the idea of Paradise and
Hades. I say lend support rather than provide proof because the usage of
David and Solomon is in a poetic context and in any case is not completely
clear as to what is being mentioned. Other New Testament passages seem to
strongly support this idea. These would include Revelation 20:14, “and
death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them…” This seems an
obvious parallel to the Sheol and Abaddon of Proverbs 15:11.
To summarize, there is more than one possible explanation of what happens
to us upon death but before final judgment. God leaves us with what I
believe is a most likely answer, but does not make it absolutely crystal
clear. If it was really important for us to know, God would have made it
clear. The bottom line on this is that it does not really matter for
practical purposes exactly what happens to us when we die, because one
thing is absolutely perfectly clear from the Bible. There lies for us a
day/time in the future when all of us will face judgment and enter an
eternal destiny in either heaven with God or in hell, separated from God.
Surely this is motivation enough for us to make every effort to enter
through the narrow gate into heaven with our God and to bring as many as
possible with us, off of the wide road which leads to destruction, and
onto the narrow road which leads to life (paraphrasing Matthew 7:13,14). I
hope to see you there.
John Oakes, PhD