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Where Do We Go When We Die?

Where Do We Go When We Die?

Death and taxes are the two realities we all face. I have nothing to offer in the way of taxes except to say that the Scriptures command us to pay them! But today we will talk about the more cheery topic: death. I am writing this to correct and clarify a position I have taken in the past regarding the state of our soul after we die, but before the resurrection. If previous statements about the mechanics after our death contradict this statement, than this position statement will be my current understanding.

Old Position Explained

The old position of the state of our soul was thus:

When a person dies, we are essentially at rest, waiting for the time of the resurrection, at which time we would be awoken to meet Christ in the air.

This is very close to the old doctrine of ‘soul sleep’, though I have never subscribed to that particular doctrine which used texts in Ecclesiastes for their primary justification:

 Ecclesiastes 9:5 – For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 – then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.

This doctrine is held by the Seventh Day Adventists, but an annihilation version is held by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I have never taken either of those specific positions, which used as their core an unfounded principle belief that the body and soul cannot exist without one another, which is a stance on the Soul Sleep doctrine I have never taken.

Rather, the position I have taken was based mostly out of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.

In this text, as in other places (2 Corinthians 5:6-8, Psalm 17:15), death is often referred to as sleep, and this scripture shows us an awakening at the final hour that was also consistent with Revelation 20:13:

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.

With these scriptures it seemed obvious to me that when the Scriptures say that each of us is appointed at once to die and then to judgment (Hebrews 9:27), the specific timing of that judgment would allow a resting place for the final judgments, one for the righteous in Christ, and another for the unrighteous. This is also supported by apparent references to a holding place before the final judgment, called Hades (which we have seen give up their dead at the final judgment). Some New Testament references include Matthew 11:23, Matthew 16:18, Luke 10:15, Acts 2:27, 31, and Revelation 1:18. Of note here, I was never hung up by the English word for ‘sleep’ in this doctrine.

But What About

Some obvious scripture that would need to be explained included the following:

Luke 23:42-43: And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!” And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

This scripture could easily mean that today he will be in paradise as the text says, or it could also mean that salvation has come to him today, as was the case with Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). This verse had reasonable explanations.

Similar ideas could be made for the verses including 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23, which all have an idea that once we leave our earthly dwellings, we will be immediately with Christ in Heaven. The reason I would not hold that interpretation specifically is our final accent into heaven is not until after the final resurrection, so being taken immediately to heaven at that point is not specifically reasonable in that the final new Jerusalem is the new heaven created for the righteous ones found in the Lambs Book of Life (Revelation 21-22).

What Changed My Mind

The one section of scripture that was not able to be given a sound explanation within this doctrine was Revelation 6:9-11:

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.

This section of Scripture completely confirmed part of my doctrine: that there IS a holding place prior to the resurrection, but what disagreed with my doctrine is that these people in the presence of the Lord were indeed awake. They were resting, but still awake!

So looking at the Scriptures already examined in the prior section, taking the interpretation of literal apart from the body is to be with Christ is correct, this aligns with the section from Revelation, but I will make this notice:

Once we die, we are brought into Christ’s presence, but not yet with a resurrection body as he had in the end of the Gospels and the beginning of Acts, for he was the first fruit of the resurrection. So our time at death is not yet heaven as described by John in Revelation, for that is yet a future creation, but we are in rest with Him in the interim.

The story for the dead without Christ, however, is also one of consciousness. While I looked at this doctrine and was about to declare those dead without Christ could be either conscious or unconscious, the final reasoning I found for a conscious waiting period is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20:

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.

It is clear that Jesus made a proclamation of victory to those awaiting final judgment, thus they were conscious (Note: There is some rejection of Jesus descending to Hades on the basis that souls there are not able to receive the Gospel. It is true they will not receive the Gospel, but the text does not indicate he preached the Gospel, but most likely just proclaimed His victory over death.)

Clarified Position

My clarified final position based on the above texts is thus:

When we die in Christ, we are taken to a holding place of conscious rest in the presence of God that is not yet the full glory of heaven, which will be created after the final judgment of earth. Those who die without Christ are likewise conscious, but separate from God waiting for the final judgment of those who have rejected Christ.

Lazarus and the Rich Man

I have kept this verse reserved for special discussion because there is a lot of conflict among theologians about what is really going on here. Often this verse is used to justify any position, which is why I have chosen not to use it to clarify my positions. Let us discuss in more detail this passage in Luke 16:19-31:

Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’

This parable from Jesus has been controversial among theologians. First, many will even believe it is not a parable at all. The most notable example being John Calvin. The case for this view is that this is the only ‘parable’ that actually gives us a name. The historian, Josephus, speculated on the identity of the rich man as Caiaphas, the high priest who wore purple robes and had five brothers.

Many will say it is a parable, but miss the point it makes and use it as instructive for teaching about heaven and hell. Others say it is not illustrative of heaven or hell, but it is instructive for faith. So which is the correct view? To answer that question we need to go back to some basics of Bible study. What was said, who said it, to whom was being addressed, and what was the initial purpose. While we need to use a similar approach with all the scripture we analyzed in this position statement, this parable itself is problematic because of the emotional charge it has. Let’s look at these questions.

What was said. It is clear from the text what is said, two people, they die, there is discussion between them and an angel.

Who said it. This was spoken by Jesus to teach us the importance of learning about God’s commands through the Scriptures.

To whom was being addressed. This was one of several parables that was addressed to the crowds, but talking about the Pharisees within their earshot. This is important because the symbolism he used with this gulf was the view they held, so Christ was speaking to them by using the way they viewed the afterlife.

The purpose. The purpose of this parable was to challenge the Pharisees that they already had the law and the prophets, and they refused to listen to those.

Wrapping it up. The reason this parable is controversial is that it is not at all teaching us about heaven or hell, or even Hades and the waiting ground for our final judgments. The purpose Jesus had in including the part about the great gulf was to borrow from the Pharisees view of the afterlife. We know it is not instructive about heaven or hell because the aspects herein disagree with the rest of the view of Scripture. First, there is no joint place where the dead are together listed in the rest of the scriptures. Secondly, Abraham is never given a place to ferry messages between the dead, finally, it is yet another parable in a sequence of messages about coming back to faith and warnings about wealth. Ultimately, the best understanding of this section of scripture is that Jesus was using imagery familiar to the Pharisees to illustrate that they needed to follow the signs in the law and the prophets, not look for external signs. Notice the similarities between this parable and the request for a sign in Matthew 12:38-42:

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.

Thus, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not illustrative of the afterlife in any way.

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