After Death, What Then?
Many speculate concerning what happens after physical death, but all such speculations are without evidence. There have been testimonials of “after-death” experiences; however, aside from their testimonials. Even then, those testimonials vary as to what was experienced. Those in the medical profession can offer no information other than pronouncing someone as clinically dead, then alive at a later time. In spite of the variations of what was claimed to be seen or heard, there are repeated references to things mentioned in the Bible. That being so, let us consider the case of Jesus’ death. What does the Bible record of the “after-death” events of Jesus? This will prove most helpful in understanding what happens at physical death. Let us trace the inspired record about Jesus following his death.
The Bible declares that for three days, his body lay in a tomb, then was resurrected (1 Corinthians 15.3-4,20). He then appeared upon the earth for some 40 days (Acts 1.3). During one of these appearances, Jesus stated to Mary, “I have not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20.17). After this, Jesus did ascend to heaven (Acts 1.9).
During these three days while his body lay in a tomb, where was Jesus’ spirit? What of others at physical death? Are they where Jesus now is, following his ascension (with the Father), or do their spirits go where Jesus’ spirit went prior to his resurrection? Jesus, in discussing the resurrection with the Sadducees, indicated that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, although physically dead, were alive (Mark 12.26-27). Where are they? What of the many that Jesus raised during his earthy ministry (Matthew 11.5)? What of those giants who were resurrected at the time Jesus was? “…And coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many” (Matthew 27.53). Were they descended from heaven or raised from the realm of the dead?
What about the term “hell?” David stated in Psalm 16.10: “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” The word translated “hell” here in the Hebrew is “sheol.” This is referring to the abode of the dead. It is elsewhere translated as “the grave” (31 times) and “the pit” (three times). When Jacob thought his son Joseph was dead, he stated in Genesis 37.25, “I will go down into the grave unto my son.” Jacob was referring to the abode of the dead. The death of Korah and his company was described as going down “alive into the pit” (Numbers 16.33). The terms “pit,” “grave,” and “hell” (“sheol”) all refer to the abode of the dead.
1 Samuel 28 also refers to the abode of the dead. King Saul had a medium bring up Samuel (who had earlier died (v. 1)) “from the earth” (vv. 13,15). In v.19, Samuel told Saul that his death was to occur the following day, stating, “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” Samuel had come from the dead. This passage in Psalm 16.10 is quoted in the New Testament by the apostle Peter. He said that Jesus’s soul was not left in hell (Acts 2.27,31). But following physical death, Jesus’ soul went there for three days. So also did the souls of Samuel, King Saul and his sons, the rich man, Lazarus, Abraham, one of the thieves, and many saints. This word “hades” in Acts 2.31 is the equivalent of the Old Testament Hebrew word “sheol.”
In Luke 16.23, we again find this word “hades.” After the rich man died, it says: “And in hell (hades) he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” Bot the rich man and Lazrus were in this abode of the dead. However, it is clear that they were separated in this realm by a “great gulf.” Lazarus was in “Abraham’s bosom” and the rich man was in “torments.” Remember the Lord stated to one thief, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Were Jesus and this thief with the rich man (in “torments”) or with Lazarus, Abraham, and many saints? The term “paradise” corresponds to Abraham’s bosom where Lazarus was said to be comforted. All were in “hades” (i.e., the abode of the dead). Only Jesus did not remain there, for he was resurrected on the third day.
Jesus has since ascended to heaven where he is reigning (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.20-25). Has anyone else ascended to this realm? All will undergo a resurrection at Judgment (John 5.28-29), but that day has not yet come, for Jesus has not yet returned. In his resurrection, he became the firstborn of many brethren (Romans 8.29). This is the hope for all who will conform their lives to Jesus’ teachings. They will be with him forever after the Judgment, but not prior. Currently their spirits are where Jesus’ spirt went at death.
Why does this matter? Because to teach that one goes directly to heaven at physical death distorts the Bible teaching about the Day of Judgment. Consider…would it not stand to reason that if a saved person goes immediately to heaven at physical death, then a lost person would go immediately to hell at physical death? If that is the case, what need is there for Judgment? Let us place our faith and hope upon the word of God concerning what happens between physical death and the resurrection.