Last edited on 13/Jan/2021
The Bible’s Answer
Before Jesus’ Second Coming
The Bible teaches that when a person dies, their soul (or spirit, which is the same thing) immediately leaves their body and goes to one of two places. When a Christian dies, their soul immediately departs to be with the Lord in Heaven—God’s eternal abode of perfection:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. (Philippians 1:21–24)
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. … 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:1, 6–8) ¹
This is further emphasised through Stephen’s heartfelt prayer to Jesus before his death, that his spirit (soul) would go to him:
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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 7:59–60)
Because Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in Heaven (Mark 16:19; Hebrews 8:1) and all Christians depart from the body to be with him straight after death, this means that all Christians will go to Heaven. However, when a non-Christian dies, their soul immediately departs to a place called Hades or Sheol, which means “the place of the dead”,² an abode of punishment for the wicked.³ Jesus taught this in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not do so, and none may cross from there to us.’ (Luke 16:19–26)
This passage confirms that our souls will be conscious immediately after death, either experiencing joy in Heaven or torment in Hades. However, Hades is only a temporary place; the dead will not stay there forever. After the final judgement, Death and Hades will be thrown into the Lake of Fire and get destroyed (Revelation 20:14). Jesus also said that Heaven and Earth will pass away (Matthew 24:35), and Peter said that we are awaiting New Heavens and a New Earth (2 Peter 3:13).
When Jesus Returns
The Bible teaches that Jesus will come again visibly on an unknown date and everyone will see him. The dead who are both in Hades and Heaven will be resurrected to be judged along with everyone else on the earth who hasn’t yet died:
For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to execute judgement, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement. (John 5:26–29)
After this, Jesus will send out his angels to gather his elect, that is, his Christians, those who are still alive and those who have been resurrected:
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30–31)
He will also send out his angels to gather the non-Christians who are still alive and who have been resurrected:
He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, (Matthew 13:37–41)
Then Jesus will sit on his glorious throne and judge the whole Earth. He will separate the Christians (sheep) from the non-Christians (goats):
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. (Matthew 25:31–33)
After the Christians and non-Christians have been separated from each other, the non-Christians will stand before the great white throne and be judged according to their works. Because no one can be saved through good works (Galatians 2:16), they will be thrown into the Lake of Fire, also known as Hell or Gehenna (Mark 9:42-48; Matthew 18:8-9), the final and eternal abode of all who do not believe in Christ till death:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11–15)
The Christians, on the other hand, will appear before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account of their lives, but they have already been declared righteous because they have been cleansed by the blood of Christ (Revelation 1:4–6), and will instead be rewarded in the life of the world to come, according to their works done in faith:
For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
The Christians will be judged as righteous, because they have been clothed with Christ’s righteousness through faith, while the non-Christians will be judged as unrighteous, because they rejected the Son of God and broke his commandments. Therefore, the Christians will receive eternal life and be with the Lord forever in Heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17), while the non-Christians will receive eternal punishment in Hell (Matthew 25:46), where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13:40–42).
The New Heaven and New Earth
Eternal life will be in the heavenly New Jerusalem, when God will make the New Heaven and New Earth, and Heaven will be on earth:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:1–4)
Christians will enjoy Heaven in a new spiritual body that God will give them (1 Corinthians 15:35, 38–39, 44; 1 Corinthians 15:49–53). Thus when Christians die before the day of judgement, our souls immediately depart from our bodies to be with the Lord in Heaven, but on the day of judgement our souls will be united with our spiritual bodies, and we will have eternal fellowship with the Lord in the heavenly New Jerusalem in our new perfect bodies. Eternal punishment will be in the eternal Lake of Fire:
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (Mark 9:43–48).
And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.” (Revelation 14:11)
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14–15)
Non-believers will not have new spiritual bodies in Hell. There is nothing to enjoy in Hell; the only fate of non-believers who are judged in their sins is eternal, conscious suffering and condemnation.
If you are a non-Christian, there is still hope at the moment. God loves you, and has provided a way to make atonement for all of your sins through his Son, Jesus Christ (John 3:16–18). You can be saved from God’s righteous judgement right now if you believe that Jesus is your Lord and Saviour, who died for your sins on the cross and rose again, and if you ask him for forgiveness (Romans 10:9–13; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4; 1 John 1:7–9). The Holy Spirit will then dwell within you and guarantee a place for you in Heaven (Ephesians 1:13–14). (See What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?, Did Jesus Die for Some or All of Our Sins?, and Why Do We Need Jesus? for more information on how you can be made right with God and enjoy a relationship with him.)
1. 2009, What Happens When We Die?, The Lutheran Study Bible, Concordia Publishing House, p. 1750
2. What is the difference between Sheol, Hades, Hell, the lake of fire, Paradise, and Abraham’s bosom?, GotQuestions?.org, accessed on 15 August 2017, <https://www.gotquestions.org/sheol-hades-hell.html>
3. Stewart, D, What Is Hades?, Blue Letter Bible, accessed on 16 January 2020, <https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/don_stewart/don_stewart_114.cfm>
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.