Where Do We Go After We Die?

What’s in a name? When Colton Burpo had a near death experience as a small boy,[1] he encountered a sister he had never met in heaven. She said their mother had miscarried her and she didn’t have a name. When Colton told his parents, they were shocked. They had never mentioned the miscarriage to Colton and they hadn’t named their daughter. They then gave her a name.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus,[2] the rich man is never named. After living a life of luxury in the midst of a sore-covered beggar named Lazarus, who longed for his table scraps, the rich man found himself in the flames of Hades. In his agony, he spotted Abraham and Lazarus in a much better distant place across a chasm, so he called out, begging for water to relieve some of his pain. Abraham reminded him of his life of luxury and Lazarus’ life of suffering. The script had been flipped. The rich man asked Abraham to warn his five brothers about Hades, but Abraham did not.

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[3]

This parable paints a grim picture of time in Hades, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Sheol. Various translations of the Psalms equate Sheol with death.[4] Sheol is a place where the dead go, which is “below.”[5] People reside in Sheol until the day of judgment, whose date only God knows. When Jesus died, He went down to Sheol and freed the saints, bringing them to heaven. Others remained in darkness and silence to await the day of judgment.

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”[6]

In the Bible’s progressive revelation of the truth, we learn more about the spiritual world. The Gospel authors indicated some of those from the “other side” are residing in our midst, but they require hosts, whether human or animal.

“When he arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men coming from the tombs met him. They were so violent that no one could pass that way.

‘What do you want with us, Son of God?’ they shouted. ‘Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?’

Some distance from them a large herd of pigs was feeding.  The demons begged Jesus, ‘If you drive us out, send us into the herd of pigs.’

He said to them, ‘Go!’ So they came out and went into the pigs, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and died in the water. Those tending the pigs ran off, went into the town and reported all this, including what had happened to the demon-possessed men. Then the whole town went out to meet Jesus. And when they saw him, they pleaded with him to leave their region.”[7]

In modern times, people have been so conditioned against believing demons are active that the mental health of anyone who’s experienced or believed demonic activities is questioned.

“Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said. Jesus outed Satan and the demons, so why do those who believe in Jesus doubt they exist? Jesus made it clear they do.

We see the outcomes of Satan’s work today when people deny his existence and the existence of dark spirits. He’s winning in the race to dupe humanity when we deny his very existence and the existence of his minions. Let’s not forget that Paul called on us to armor up against the dark.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”[8]

The Gospel of Matthew offered several hints of what happens after our death, such as the unique details of the events that occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion.

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.  They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’”[9]

The appearance of the saints would undoubtedly have shocked bystanders, yet at first blush, the tearing of the curtain in the Temple seems more mundane. But it wasn’t. Josephus detailed the enormity in size and symbolism of the curtain of the Temple in Jewish Wars 5.5.4:[10]

“But then this house, as it was divided into two parts, the inner part was lower than the appearance of the outer, and had golden doors of fifty-five cubits altitude, and sixteen in breadth: but before these doors there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple: and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation: but was a kind of image of the universe. For by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire; by the fine flax, the earth; by the blue, the air; and by the purple, the sea. Two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance: but the fine flax, and the purple have their own origin for that foundation. The earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens; excepting that of the [twelve] signs, representing living creatures.”

The curtain was therefore of monumental significance, as was its location within the Temple as a separator of the holy place from the holiest of holies. It tore in half, marking God’s signal to humanity that He is accessible to all. No longer would the holiest of holies only be accessible to the Jewish high priests. He had opened the doors to the world.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.”[11]

The lake of fire from the Book of Revelation is the final hell of burning sulfur, which is where those who refuse to repent go. It is an eternal punishment and separation from God. People question whether those thrown into the lake of fire will be annihilated or whether they’ll be in an eternal conscious torment. If annihilated, the consequences would still be eternal, so either option is Biblically consistent.

In Old Testament times, the souls of the righteous resided in Sheol with the souls of those judged in contempt, but that changed with Jesus. Since Jesus’ resurrection, the souls of the righteous have gone to heaven (or paradise) after death, as evidenced when Jesus promised the thief on the cross that he would meet him in paradise that very day. Jesus didn’t require much of that thief – only that he showed trust.

The souls of those in contempt remain in Sheol until the day of judgment.[12] It is likely they are conscious while in Sheol, as Jesus indicated by the consciousness of the rich man in the aforementioned parable.

According to Green, McKnight, and Marshall,[13] the general belief is that once one passes through Hades’ portals, there will be no return and they are bound to silence and darkness. Some evidence of future hope for the righteous does exist, however. These views are Biblically supported.[14]

So the big question is whether those in Sheol will be given the chance to repent. Conservative Biblical scholars are of the opinion that anyone who denies Jesus Christ while on earth will end up in the lake of fire. If people are given a choice after death, the motivation to accept the grace of God during life may diminish, which may be one reason why conservatives advocate the position that the decision must be made while on the earth. This view is also supported by the rich man’s choice, which appeared to have permanent consequences as there was a chasm between him and Lazarus, which Abraham could not bridge.

C.S. Lewis, some Catholics and more liberal Christian scholars consider the temporary place (e.g., Sheol or Purgatory) to be one in which people are given the (after death) choice of accepting the Lord. In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis spelled out his version of such an existence.

Here is the big question. Why does the Bible suggest a waiting period between the time of the death of the unrepentant and the final judgment, while stating those who’ve accepted Jesus will be in paradise on the day they die? Is it possible the Lord is giving the unrepentant a chance at redemption? Is it possible the door is still open?

In the parable of the banquet, the door is closed to those who failed to accept Jesus’ invitation. “I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.”[15]

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”[16]

The best move is the rational move, which is to accept Jesus now as your Lord and Savior. Why risk your eternity? Why test God? I believe God has intentionally made the verses inconclusive for a variety of reasons, steeped in His knowledge of the way anyone who thinks he’ll get a second chance in the afterlife will wreak havoc in life. I also believe His morality is the standard against which we judge whether someone’s actions are consistent. No one will be judged inappropriately by the One who created us. God will ensure justice, mercy, and love are applied as He is the standard of all.

But to the atheist or agnostic reading this text, do not think God doesn’t consider the internal justifications you’ve posited in your quest to deny His existence against the evidence He has given you. He has given a general revelation of His existence to all, so your choice to pretend we have no Creator is on you. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of truth. Pride is the beginning of the fall.

This is a draft of a chapter from my new book, “The Power of One,” which I’ll offer in a PDF for free. Christianity is true.

[1] Colton Burpo’s story is recounted in the book, Heaven is for Real. His story is not to be confused with the little boy who recanted his near death experience, Alex Malarkey.

[2] Luke 16:19-31

[3] Luke 16:31

[4] Psalm 88:3; Psalm 88:5

[5] Deuteronomy 32:22

[6] Daniel 12:2

[7] Matthew 8:28-34

[8] Ephesians 6:10-17

[9] Matthew 27:51-54

[10] Josephus. Jewish Wars 5.5.4 https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-5.html

[11] Revelation 20:12-15

[12] Luke 23:43; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23

[13] Green, J.B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I.H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendum of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[14] After passing through Hades’ portals (Isaiah 38:10), there will be no return (e.g., Job 7:9-10; Psalm 49: 14-20; 1 Samuel 2:9; Isaiah 38:10, 18) and they are bound to silence (1 Samuel 2:9; Psalm 6:5; 31:17; Isaiah 38:18) and darkness (Job 17:13). Some evidence of future hope for the righteous does exist, however (Hosea 13:14; Psalm 16:10; 49:15; Job 14:13; 1 Samuel 2:6).

 

[15] Luke 14:24

[16] Matthew 7:13-14

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