Where Do We Go When We Die?
My friend Ann and I like to talk when we work out at the gym. Sometimes, she’ll pose a question about the Bible, which I love to talk about. Here was her most recent questions:
What happens to us when we die?
I told her that it might be better if I wrote down my answer to that instead of trying to explain it between short puffs of breath.
That was about a week ago and I’m still writing. Since I’ve spent a good bit of time on it, I thought I would just share with all of you.
Before I begin, let me say two things:
Because I love the subject of Eschatology, I’ve formulated some ideas about it based on a Judeo-Christian worldview found in the Bible. The Bible frames the way I look at everything. So, this is my understanding (at this point) of what the Bible says about the afterlife.
To begin with, I think that where we go when we die will move around a little bit based on the timeline of human history and then eternity. I will provide my scriptural basis for each phase of this progression. Generally, I believe it will go something like this FOR THE BELIEVER.
The NT/OT word, Hades or Sheol is interpreted to mean:
1. The Grave - The Place Of Bodily Decay
2. The Place Of The Punishment For The Wicked
3. Possibly As A General Term For The Unseen Realm Of The Dead
This is NOT a place of punishment. It is an intermediate state where all were sent upon death prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Remember that no judgements have been declared by the Righteous Judge of Revelation. The Bema Seat Judgement set aside for CHRISTIANS alone, will be the first of (probably) five judgements as described in the Bible. Prior to the resurrection, this intermediate holding place was best described in Luke 16: 19-31. I have included it here for reference.
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 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 set in place, 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 family, 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.’”
You can see that Hades is ‘compartmentalized’. It has a place of pleasure and a place of torment separated by a large chasm that can NOT be crossed after death. The righteous dead were in Abraham’s Bosom. The forsaken or lost are in ‘a place of torment’. I refrain from calling this place “Hell” because this place is not their final destination.
We are told in several places of scripture that Jesus descended to Hades to ‘set the captives free’. Since Jesus is the ONLY way to heaven, the righteous dead in Abraham’s Bosom, were given the chance to put their faith expressed during their lives on earth in Jesus. I do not believe that Jesus shared that message with the unrighteous because as Abraham told the rich man in the parable. If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead. I also believe that Abraham’s reference to the chasm was a separation that would never again be bridged. If this were not so, Abraham would have told the rich man otherwise.
Jesus speaks to the thief on the cross next to him at his crucifixion saying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) The Greek word is paradeisos which means “a garden or pleasure ground.” In Persian kingdoms it was a well-watered, shady park where animals were kept. In every translation, it’s considered pleasurable. The word is only used three times in the New Testament. In Luke, and then again by Paul when he was taken up to ‘paradise’ in 2 Corinthians 12:4. Perhaps the most telling verse is Revelation 2:7: Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. It’s interesting that the paradeisos sounds very familiar to the Garden of Eden. I don’t think this is a coincidence since God’s intention was to be WITH man in a paradise where man had dominion over God’s creation and regular communion with the Creator. Of course, as in Revelation 2:7, the “Tree of Life” was in the center of the Garden of Eden. This is all to say that the text says that after the repentant thief on the cross died (Jesus, when you come into your kingdom, remember me! Luke 23:42), he went to paradise to be WITH Jesus. (“Today you will be WITH ME in Paradise”.)
When Jesus died, he did not ascend directly to ‘heaven’ where God is. He told Mary as much after his resurrection. (John 20:17). But, he did tell the thief that ‘today’ you will be with me in Paradise. While I have not done an exhaustive study of any of this, I would say that means exactly what it says. In fact, the thief on the cross may have been the very first person who entered Paradise. THAT is an extraordinary thought. While we know little about this man, we know that his confession of faith alone and his contrite and repentant heart was enough to bring him salvation that very day. Perhaps Jesus took him to Paradise straight away and told him to “hold down the fort until I go get your brothers and sisters in faith.” Then Jesus descended to Abraham’s bosom, set the captives free there, and brought them all to Paradise. Moving on….
As to where “Paradise” is, we get more into speculation. To say that Paradise is heaven is hard to support. First of all, that’s not what the text says. Secondly, the Greek word for ‘heaven’ is Ouranos and has several meanings to include the air, the sky, and/or the heavenlies. When Jesus taught the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 he said, “Our Father who are in Ouranos…” Jewish belief was the heaven was the air around them. It was a dimension outside themselves. In fact, God is everywhere. Still, Paul speaks of being taken to a “third” heaven. In 2 Cor 12: 2-4. This was a real physical place that Paul must have been referring to when he said “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared in His Wonderful World for those who love him.” 1 Cor 2:9.
I do know this: Paradise is NOT eternity. Randy Alcorn, who has several books on “heaven,” says there is a “present heaven” and a “future heaven”. I like this language because the word ‘heaven’ is very nebulous in interpretation. I would agree that the ‘present heaven’ is Paradise. It is only a temporary dwelling where the saints of God go to await being joined to their resurrected bodies. This occurs at Rapture.
Think in terms of continuity. If you’re looking for a shining example of what you’re resurrected body will be like, look no further than Jesus’ as he walked the earth for 40 days after his resurrection. He had a body. It was glorified and could do a variety of things that our current bodies can’t. It is also adaptable to both the present heaven and the present earth’. Jesus was NOT translated again at his ascension or not at least that the Bible mentions. God made you perfectly. But your frame and form were sinful. So, they have to be renewed. This is exactly why you have to have a new body to get into the ‘future heaven’. But God is not starting over. He will take your old physical form and remake it in the very ‘image’ of Christ. Remember that other than Mary Magdalene and the two friends on the road to Emmaus, Jesus was recognizable to everyone. You won’t look that different in heaven. But your old body will be raised incorruptible. 1 Corinthians 15 has much to say about this subject.
At this point in the discussion, I say that all believers are in the ‘Present Heaven/Paradise” and all unbelievers are in Hades. What happens next is the Rapture of the church; the bride of Christ.
Future Heaven/Wedding Feast of the Lamb
This imagery of Jesus returning for his bride is NOT coincidental. The Jewish idioms used for the rapture of the church are generally about a wedding and wedding festivities. Jesus said in John 14: 2-4, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”
Jewish custom dictated that the FATHER of the GROOM announced when the wedding would take place once the house of the bride and groom was ready. Do you see it? When Jesus said that he didn’t know the time or date of the rapture, he was saying that only the FATHER knew because that was the understanding of the Jewish wedding customs. (Matthew 24:36) One day, the Father (God) tells his son the Groom (Jesus) to go and get his bride (The Church) because their place is prepared. The bride took the groom to the wedding chambers for seven days. That would be a parallel time to the Tribulation. So, after the Rapture, the ‘bride’ and the ‘groom’ are together in the wedding chambers and celebrating the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. One of the best parables Jesus shared on this subject is the Parable of the Talents. (Matthew 25: 14-30). I do NOT know if this Wedding Feast happens in a separate place than what I’m referring to as the ‘Future Heaven’. I would think that it is the same general ‘place’.
I believe in a Pre-Tribulation view of the Rapture, which is to say that the next prophetic event in scripture that must happen is the rapture of the church. It is also at this point that believers will be judged at the Bema Seat, which means AT THIS POINT IN TIME, they will….for the first time….have incorruptible bodies to go with their eternal spirits. WOW. So, during the Tribulation, the last seven years of prior to Christ’s return to earth, we will be at a place where Jesus promised us that he would take us as His bride. My best guess is that this is the eternal city, the New Jerusalem which is STILL in heaven.
Now, if you’ve made it this far hold on; we’re almost home.
When Jesus returns, he will reign from Jerusalem. We will reign with him in his Millennial Kingdom. (2 Timothy 2:12). Because we have resurrected bodies, we will be able to dwell both in ‘heaven’ and on ‘earth’. I assume it will be like going to work each day. And don’t be alarmed by the notion that we will work forever. Again, think of the Garden of Eden. That is the restoration of all things and THIS has always been God’s plan for us. What man did there was work, and it was part of a holy calling. WORK is good. You may have to take that out of the context of your daily grind! I assume that this ‘work’ will have something to do with the Kingdom of God on earth. So for 1,000 years, we’ll be dual citizens. I can only assume we’ll have residence in the “future heaven” and residence in the Kingdom of God with its capital in Jerusalem. But that’s still not ETERNITY.
Finally, after the judgement of all peoples at the Great White Throne, (Revelation 20: 11-15) people will only be in one of two places: The New Heaven and the New Earth or The Lake of Fire. Those who denied God’s plan and purpose for their life and rejected His plan for their salvation will spend eternity in The Lake of Fire. The horrors of this place can not be overstated. More than anything else, it will be eternal separation from the Creator God.
On the other hand, the New Jerusalem is described in Revelation 21. It is a glorious site where the presence of God will dwell forever with those who love Him. In his book, “The Book of Signs”, David Jeremiah has this to say about the city:
“Revelation 21:15, 16 says, “He who talked with me had a gold reed to measure the city, it’s gates and it’s wall. The city is laid out as a square; its length is as great as its breadth. And he measured the city with the reed: twelve thousand furlongs. It’s length breadth and height are equal.” I today’s terms that means New Jerusalem will be about 1500 miles wide, 1500 miles long, AND 1500 miles high.”
There are 2 million square miles on the first floor ALONE. Even if each floor was a mile high that’s still 1500 floors and each floor the size of a continent. Assuming that the entirety of the new heaven and the new earth is inhabitable by our new bodies, there will be PLENTY of room in eternity.
In his seminal work, “The Divine Conspiracy”, Dallas Willard says:
“The intention of God is that we should each become the kind of person whom he can set free in his universe, empowered to do what we want to do. Just as we direct and intend this for our children and others we love, so God desires and intends it for his children. But, character, the inner directedness of the self, must develop to the point where that is possible.”
As I close, I return to what I said at the beginning.
In closing, I would add the plan of salvation so you can START your journey towards an eternity with God.
 David Jeremiah, “The Book of Signs”. (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publsihing, 2019), p.407
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy. (San Francisco, Harper San Francisco, 1997), p. 379
 Jeff Smith, The Funnel. (Chesterfield, VA, 2021).