The State of the Dead


What Happens at Death
Definition of the Soul
Origin of Disembodied Soul
Common "Proof Texts"


One of the doctrines I was taught in the ministry I was involved with was that the dead are not currently alive in another realm somewhere, but are unconscious in the grave, and will remain so until the return of Christ. This is one of the few things I was taught that actually turns out to be correct Biblically. Those who are of similar background may recognize most of the points made here, although there are a few differences. However, those from a mainstream "Christian" background may find this section quite challenging. I only ask that you consider the Scriptures carefully, and don't let preconceived notions blind you to the simple straightforward reading of the Bible.

As pointed out in the article, In the Beginning, God said that the penalty for man's sin was death, and Satan directly contradicted Him by telling Eve, "Ye shall not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). The same lie, that when you die you're not really dead, has been propounded for centuries. The majority of non-Christians believe there is some form of life after death, whether it be reincarnation, survival as a "ghost," or becoming an "angel." Our culture is full of references to these things. Even in the cartoons we watched as children, when a character died he grew wings and a halo and rose into the sky playing a harp. It is so prevalent, it's nearly impossible to escape it. But where did these images come from? Are they in the Bible, or did they come from another source?

Those ideas are common among non-Christians, but most people who call themselves Christians also believe in survival after death. They call it “going to heaven,” but is this idea in the Bible? The notion that a person goes either to heaven or hell immediately upon death is based on the idea that man has an immortal soul and will spend eternity in one place or the other. But the Bible says that only God has immortality (I Timothy 6:16) and that it will be conveyed upon believers as a gift, in the future (Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53-54; Daniel 12:1-2). The time that this will happen is called “the resurrection” in many places in the Bible.  Resurrection means a raising from the dead.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is the cornerstone of the Christian faith, was a foretaste of the resurrection to come, Jesus Christ being the first fruits from the dead (I Corinthians 15:20,23).

Most Christians agree with the idea that death came about because of man’s sin, but then they say that man has an immortal soul that survives death. When a loved one dies, they say "he's with the Lord now" or "he's gone on to a better place" or "he's in heaven." This is inconsistent with the Biblical view of death.  Paul specifically states that if it were not for resurrection, those who have died would be perished, or lost.

I Corinthians 15:

16  For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised:

17  And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.

18  Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

19  If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. [see NASB]

Notice it does not say anything about going to heaven or anything else happening in the time between one’s death and the resurrection at Christ’s return.  If there were no resurrection the dead would remain dead.  If at death a person passes into the presence of God in heaven, it would be a welcome friend. Yet death is described as an enemy in I Corinthians 15:26. Death is the end of life, and only through resurrection will life be restored in the future, when Christ returns.

This is not a common belief in most Christian circles.  Many Christians will agree with the view that Jesus is going to return to earth in the future, but they generally hold that believers who have died are conscious with him in heaven.  However the Bible describes the state of those who have died as "sleep" and says that they will remain unconscious until the resurrection in the future (Daniel 12:1-2; and see below).

There is a serious discrepancy here between traditional beliefs and what the Bible actually says. Most Christians will misquote one particular Scripture, saying that "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." But if you read that verse (II Corinthians 5:8), you'll find it does not say that (see Common Proof Texts, below). If the dead are already with Jesus in heaven, what would be the point of a resurrection in the future? And if those who died are already consigned to either heaven or hell, what is the purpose or meaning of the future resurrection to judgment?  Hebrews 9:27 tells us that " is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment."  Please note, however, that it does not say immediately after death.

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What Happens at Death?

When a person dies, the breath life (spirit, see below) is gone and the body corrupts in the grave ("Thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust." - Psalm 104:29). Nowhere does it say that they are conscious on another plane of existence. This makes sense when you consider that consciousness and thought are the product of a functioning brain, and the brain is no longer functioning after the breath of life is gone.  The Hebrew Scriptures make several clear declarations concerning the state of the dead.

Ecclesiastes 9:
3 This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
6 Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.
10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.
[see NASB]

Some have suggested that this passage is only dealing with things "under the sun" and not with spiritual realities. But the phrase "under the sun" is a common expression that refers to everything in life. For it to mean only that which happens on earth in contrast to that which happens in heaven, there would have to be references somewhere to life in heaven. But while heaven is used to describe both the physical space above the earth and the spiritual abode of God and angels, there is nothing in the Bible about the dead going there. Besides, if the dead were alive in heaven they would still have knowledge, but this passage points out that it is perished.

Others say that it is unwise to base a doctrine on something in Ecclesiastes, for they claim it represented Solomon's complaining and philosophizing, and not divinely inspired doctrine. In a similar manner, some claim that the things Job said represent the words that were spoken by a person, and not necessarily divinely inspired doctrine.

Job 14:
10 But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?
11 As the waters fail from the sea, and the flood decayeth and drieth up:
12 So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
[see NASB]

While it is true that one must be aware of who is speaking in a given passage, the determining factor for whether it is true doctrine is that it must fit with other sections of Scripture. These words in Ecclesiastes and Job may not prove anything by themselves, but they are consistent with the view that is presented in other Scriptures.

Psalm 6:
5 For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?
Psalm 115:
17 The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence.
Psalm 146:
3 Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
Isaiah 38:
18 For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth.
[see NASB]

Certainly if the dead were alive in heaven they would be praising God, but the above verses state clearly they do not. The word for "grave" is the Hebrew word sheol which refers to more than just a physical grave. It is the abode of the dead, and is described as a state of unconsciousness where there is no thought or activity. It is never a place where the dead continue to exist in a disembodied form, nor is there any hint that some other part of the person goes to heaven and is conscious with the Lord. It says that the whole person dies and at that time their thoughts perish, they do not praise the Lord or give Him thanks.

In addition, death is described as sleep many places in the Bible, such as Psalm 13:3 ("...lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death") and the many references to the Kings of Israel, about whom it says when they died that they "slept with their fathers." Jesus described Lazarus as sleeping at first, but then said plainly, "Lazarus is dead" (John 11:11-14). Combine this with the basic definition of man's soul, which is nowhere described as immortal, but something that can die, and you see a consistent testimony from the Scriptures that death is the end of life and will only be overcome by resurrection. Remember Job said that "man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake..." (Job 14:12). He also said in verse 14 of that chapter, "If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come." When will Job's change come?

Job 19:
25 For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth:
26 And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
27 Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me.
[see NASB]

Job believed that death was the end of life, and would be permanent except for a resurrection to come "at the latter day." David, Daniel, and Jesus himself, all described the same thing.

Psalm 17:
15 As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness: I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.
Daniel 12:
2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
John 5:
28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.
[see NASB]

It was resurrection in the coming Kingdom, not going to heaven, that was the hope of Israel in the Old Testament. And that same hope is spoken of and confirmed throughout the New Testament as well.

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Definition of the Soul

In discussing whether or not man has an immortal soul, we must first define what a "soul" is.  It is commonly thought that a man’s soul is his essence that lives on after he dies.  On the other hand, I was taught in the past that man's soul was his life force (that which makes him alive) and that his spirit was that part of man which was created in God's image, and which allowed him communion with God. It was this spirit, I was taught, that made man unique from the animals.

But the Scriptures teach that rather than man having a soul, man is a soul. 

Genesis 2:
7 And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [nashamah] of life [chai]; and man became a living soul [nephesh].
[see NASB]

So “soul” (nephesh) is not the "breath of life" that makes man alive. It is what man became when the “breath of life” was breathed into him.  That “breath of life” that God breathed into man is the spirit, not the soul.  (See The Three Parts of Man Fallacy)  

Animals are described as "living souls" as well. In Genesis 1:21 and 24, the phrase "living creature" (chai nephesh in Hebrew) is literally a living soul. In Genesis 1:20 the phrase "the moving creature that hath life" is translated "swarms of living creatures" in other versions.  A soul is a living creature. But a soul can die as well (Ezekiel 18: 4 and 20).  When people died, they would be called dead souls.  This is contrary to the popular concept of an “immortal soul.”  But no such phrase exists in the Bible, and the word soul is never used as an entity that is housed in a body and released to live on at death. Such an idea was not a part of Hebrew thinking in Old Testament times.

This is also true of the Greek word psuche in its Biblical usage (though not in the secular use of the word). Psuche is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word nephesh.  Nigel Turner writes the following in Christian Words (T&T Clark):

We must concede that the Biblical Greek psuche means "physical life" ... Alongside this conception...there appears in Biblical Greek the meaning "person"...the life of man, his will, emotions, and above all, his "self." If a man gained all the world only to lose his psuche (soul), it represents a loss of himself--not a part of him. When there were added to the church about 3000 psuchai (Acts 2:41), whole men were added. The fear coming upon every psuche was upon every person (Acts 2:43). Every psuche must be subject to the state (Rom. 13:1), and so throughout the New Testament (Acts 3:23; Romans 2:9; I Corinthians 15:45; I Peter 3:20; II Peter 2:14; Revelation 16:3).

Another example that can be added to that list is Revelation 20:4, which refers to "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus." This does not refer to disembodied souls, as many understand this passage. It simply refers to those persons who had been beheaded, and it is describing them being raised, to live and reign with Christ. Verse 6 refers to this as a resurrection, implying that they were dead, not previously existing in a disembodied state.

We saw from Genesis 2:7 that man became a living soul when he was infused with the breath of life. This breath, or spirit, of life is common to man and animals. (Not to be confused with the spirit of God, which is the same Hebrew word, ruach, but identified as God's spirit in the context.) Animals are identified as having the breath or spirit of life in Genesis 7:15. "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath (ruach) of life (chai)." Both man and animals have a common fate, according to Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 3:
19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath [ruach]; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
21 Who knoweth the spirit [ruach] of man that goeth upward, and the spirit [ruach] of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?
[see NASB]

Verse 21 is sometimes misread as a description of man going to heaven when he dies. Chapter 12, verse 7 is similarly misread.

Ecclesiastes 12:
7 Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [ruach] shall return unto God who gave it.
[see NASB]

These verses are frequently used to prove that we “go to heaven” when we die.  But both of these verses must not be set against the many clear verses that say otherwise.  They are not talking about a man’s consciousness, or about his soul as a separate entity.  They are talking about the spirit (ruach) which is the breath of life, or life force, that makes man alive. 


Remember that God breathed into man's nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul. That life force was added to a body and it became a living creature. Death can be seen as the reverse of this process. When a soul dies, the breath is gone ("he took his last breath"). The body returns to the earth, and the life force returns to God who gave it. But this life force is not man's consciousness. If it were, then all living creatures would be said to go to God at death, whether saved or unsaved. This would even contradict the other fundamental doctrines of those who profess to believe in conscious life for believers in heaven after death.  For further discussion of this concept, see the Closer Look article The Three Parts of Man Fallacy.

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Origin of Disembodied Soul

The overall picture of resurrection (especially as described by Paul in I Corinthians 15) is that of dead people being raised to life. The Roman Catholic creed refers to the "resurrection of the body." This implies that only the body is raised, since the soul has been living in heaven since death. In contrast, Scripture speaks of the whole person being raised. Nowhere does the Bible say anything about living consciously in a disembodied state after death. This whole concept originated from Greek philosophy and was gradually introduced, first into Jewish thinking, and later into Christian doctrine.

From the article, "Christianity" in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
As the Christian movement expanded beyond its original Jewish nucleus into the Greco-Roman world, it had to understand, explain and defend itself in terms that were intelligible in an intellectual milieu largely structured by Greek philosophical thought. By the 2nd century AD several competing streams of Greek and Roman philosophy – Middle Platonism, Neoplatonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism – had to a great extent flowed together into a common worldview that was basically Neoplatonic, though enriched by the ethical outlook of the Stoics … The early Christian Apologists were at home in this thought-world, and many of them used its ideas and assumptions both in propagating the Gospel and in defending it as a coherent and intellectually tenable system of belief. Their most common attitude was to accept the prevailing Neoplatonic worldview as basically valid and to present Christianity as its fulfillment, correcting and complementing rather than replacing it. Philosophy, they thought, was to the Greeks what the Law was to the Jews – a preparation for the Gospel; and several Apologists agreed with the Jewish writer Philo that Greek philosophy must have received much of its wisdom from Moses. Tertullian (c. 155/159-after 220) and Tatian (c. 120-173), on the other hand, rejected pagan learning and philosophy as inimical to the Gospel … Greek philosophy, then, provided the organizing principles by which the central Christian doctrines were formulated.
Also from the article, "Christianity" in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The idea of the soul as a mental entity, with intellectual and moral qualities, interacting with a physical organism but capable of continuing after its dissolution, derives in Western thought from Plato and entered into Judaism approximately the last century before the Common Era [i.e., before Christ] and thence into Christianity. In Jewish and Christian thinking it has existed in tension with the idea of resurrection of the person conceived as an indissoluble psychophysical unity. Christian thought gradually settled into a pattern that required both of these apparently divergent ideas. At death the soul is separated from the body and exists in a conscious or unconscious disembodied state. But on the future Day of Judgment souls will be re-embodied (whether in their former but now transfigured earthly bodies or in new resurrection bodies) and will live eternally in the heavenly kingdom. Within this framework philosophical discussion has centered mainly on the idea of the immaterial soul and its capacity to survive bodily death. Plato, in the Phaedo, argued that the soul is inherently indestructible.
From the article, "Plato and Platonism" in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The object of the Phaedo [written by Plato (c. 428BC - 347BC)] is to justify belief in the immortality of the soul by showing that it follows from a fundamental metaphysical doctrine (the theory of Ideas, or doctrine of Forms), which seems to afford a rational clue to the structure of the universe. [It argues that] Socrates' soul is identical with Socrates himself: the survival of his soul is the survival of Socrates – in a purified state. For his life has been spent in trying to liberate the soul from dependence on the body. In life, the body is always interfering with the soul's activity. Its appetites and passions interrupt the pursuit of wisdom and goodness.
From the article, "Soul" in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The early Hebrews apparently had a concept of the soul but did not separate it from the body, although later Jewish writers [extra-Biblical] developed the idea of the soul further. Old Testament references to the soul are related to the concept of breath and establish no distinction between the ethereal soul and the corporeal body. Christian concepts of a body-soul dichotomy originated with ancient Greeks and were introduced into Christian theology at an early date by St. Gregory of Nyssa and by St. Augustine.

So the original concept in the Hebrew Scriptures did not see the soul as immortal or living in consciousness after death. Such an idea originated in Greek philosophy and gradually entered into Judaism in the century before Christ. Some of the books of the Apocrypha, as well as such extrabiblical writings as the book of Enoch, provide a glimpse of these ideas. This is where the Pharisees and Sadducees and other Jewish sects got their ideas that were common at the time of Christ. The same Greek philosophical concepts crept into the Christian Church eventually, but not right away. The New Testament is in agreement with the Hebrew concept, and there are also early church writings, before the Apologists, which indicate an awareness of the wrong doctrine and a condemnation of it.

Justin Martyr (c. 110-165), From "Dialogues with Trypho", Anti-Nicene Fathers:
For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit this [truth], and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians … But I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead.
Irenaeus (c. 120-202), From "Against the Heresies", Anti-Nicene Fathers:
Some who are reckoned among the orthodox go beyond the pre-arranged plan for the exaltation of the just … they thus entertain heretical opinions. For the heretics … affirm that immediately upon their death they shall pass above the heavens … Those persons, therefore, who disallow a resurrection affecting the whole man and as far as in them lies remove it from the midst of the Christian scheme … know nothing as to the plan of the resurrection. For they do not choose to understand, that if these things are as they say, the Lord Himself, in whom they profess to believe, did not rise again on the third day; but immediately upon His expiring on the cross, undoubtedly departed on high, leaving His body to earth. But the case was, that for three days He dwelt in the place where the dead were … 'as Jonas remained three days and three nights in the whale's belly so shall the Son of man be in the heart of the earth.' Then also the apostle says, 'But when He ascended, what is it but that He descended into the lower parts of the earth?' This, too, David says when prophesying of Him, 'And thou hast delivered my soul from the nethermost hell;' and on His rising again the third day, He said to Mary … 'Touch me not, for I have not yet ascended to the Father' … how must these men not be put to confusion, who allege that their inner man, leaving the body here, ascends into the super-celestial place?
Inasmuch, therefore as the opinions of certain [orthodox persons] are derived from heretical discourses, they are both ignorant of God's dispensations, and of the mystery of the resurrection of the just, and of the [earthly] kingdom which is the commencement of incorruption, by means of which kingdom those who shall be worthy are accustomed gradually to partake of the divine nature.
From the article, "Death" in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
Among early Christians, delay in the promised Second Coming of Christ led to an increasing preoccupation with what happened to the dead as they awaited the resurrection and the Last Judgment. One view was that there would be an immediate individual judgment and that instant justice would follow: the deceased would be dispatched forthwith to hell or paradise. This notion demeaned the impact of the great prophecy of a collective mass resurrection.

The idea of an immortal soul is derived from Greek philosophy, and is foreign to the Bible.

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Common "Proof Texts"

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the Scriptures, there are a small handful of passages that are repeatedly cited as proof that a believer goes immediately to be with the Lord at death. One of the most common is Paul's statement in II Corinthians 5:8, "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." This verse is almost always misquoted as, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." It is generally assumed Paul meant that to be absent from the body (i.e. at death) equals being present with the Lord. Similarly, Paul wrote in Philippians 1:23, "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better." Did Paul mean that when he departed he would be immediately with Christ? Does being absent from the body mean being present with the Lord? If this was what he meant, it would contradict not only the Hebrew understanding of death which we just discussed, but even many things that Paul himself wrote elsewhere.

I Corinthians 15:
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption:
49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.
51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.
Philippians 3:
10 That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;
11 If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.
12 Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus.
13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
20 For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ:
21 Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
[see NASB]

These verses are consistent with the view of death and resurrection we have been discussing. Paul fully expected to be raised from death at the return of Christ, and not before. There is no suggestion of immediately being with the Lord, and no implication that the resurrection consists of reuniting an already conscious spirit with its body. In I Thessalonians 4, there had been a question about the state of "them which are asleep." If the departed believers were now "in a better place with the Lord," it would have been the most comforting thing that Paul could have said. But of course he said no such thing. The words with which he comforted them, and with which we are to comfort one another, concerned the coming of the Lord, and that "the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord" (verses 16-17).  If the believers who had died were already with Christ in heaven, Paul's statement that "we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep"(verse 15) would be pointless. Of course we wouldn't prevent (precede) them that sleep if they are already there! The point Paul was making was that those that were asleep would not be at a disadvantage, because they would be raised first, then we will join them.

So in conjunction with what Paul has written elsewhere, could II Corinthians 5:8 mean that one goes immediately to be with the Lord at death? It can't mean that and fit with the rest of Scripture. The context of this section of Paul's epistle is dealing with the overall theme of contrasting this life with that which is to come. "Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you" (II Corinthians 4:14). We do not faint because any temporary suffering is insignificant in comparison with the great glory that is to come. "For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (II Corinthians 5:1). Considered in conjunction with Paul's other writings, this can't be talking about a building of God that we will go to in the heavens, but one that is now prepared for us in the heavens. We long to put on that new body which will be from heaven (verse 2, "For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven.") While we are in this present body, we are absent from the Lord (verse 6). Like Paul, we have a desire to leave that home (our present body) and be with him, which will happen when he returns, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ" (verse 10). The whole point Paul was making was the contrast between our state now and our state when Christ returns. The new body is symbolized as clothing which we will put on, so that we will not be naked. To be disembodied in the interim was a condition that Paul rejected as unthinkable. "If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life" (verses 3 and 4).

Similarly, Paul was discussing the furtherance of the gospel in Philippians 1:12-30, regardless of whether he lived or died. "Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death" (Philippians 1:20). Paul did not say in verse 23 that he believed that when he departed he would be with Christ; he merely said that he had a desire to depart and be with Christ. For him, when he died, his next conscious thought would be the return of Christ, since there would be no consciousness of time passing. But he still viewed his goal as the resurrection (Philippians 3:11) which from the perspective of the living, is yet future.

Another commonly used "proof-text" is Luke 23:42-43, where Jesus spoke to the thief on the cross. One of the thieves railed on Jesus, but the other said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." How could this be possible? According to the Bible, paradise is not in "heaven" but a place on earth. It will be the location of the future Tree of Life (Revelation 2:7). Jesus made this promise in response to the request concerning his Kingdom, which is in the future. Besides, even if it meant heaven, Jesus himself wasn't going to be there that same day. He was to be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. Even the day after he was resurrected, he had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).

A simple solution to this problem is found in the punctuation. Since there was no punctuation in the original manuscripts, the placing of a comma is subject to the interpretation of the translator. The word translated "today" frequently follows the verb it modifies, and is often used to show great solemnity. Phrases such as "I say unto you today" or "I command you this day" are not uncommon. Some examples include Deuteronomy 6:6; 8:11; 10:13; 11:8,27,32; 13:18; 19:9; 27:4; 30:19. Paul uses a similar expression in Acts 20:26 ("Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men.") The verse in Luke can then be punctuated as, "Verily I say unto you today, thou shalt be with me in paradise." The passage then makes sense and does not contradict any other Scripture. The thief said, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom" (which will be in the future) and Jesus assured him that he would be in paradise in that future Kingdom.

Another occurrence of the word paradise is quite illuminating. Paul wrote in II Corinthians 12:1ff about a vision he had been given, describing "such an one caught up to the third heaven." A great many commentators interpret this as referring to a view of the heavens that was held by some Jews in that day. They believed that there were several levels to heaven, and that the highest one was the abode of God. Scriptural passages that refer to "the heaven of heavens" are usually cited as being proof of this.  There are different variations of this, with varying numbers of levels. The one most commonly referred to in this context defines three levels: The first heaven, according to this interpretation, is the visible portion, with clouds and birds, etc. The second is what we call “outer space,” the portion which contains the sun, moon, and stars. Finally the third heaven is the "heaven of heavens" beyond the stars, which is the abode of God and his angels, and of those departed saints that have gone to be with God.  However, Deuteronomy 10:14 says, "Behold, the heaven and the heaven of heavens is the LORD’S thy God, the earth also, with all that therein is." God is not limited to a supposed third level of heaven.  

The "third heaven" to which Paul refers, he also calls "paradise" in verse 4, which Jesus identified with his Kingdom in Luke 23:42-43, and which Revelation 2:7 describes as a place on earth in the future. The word for "caught up" is harpazo which is also translated "caught away" or "carried off." The meaning of the word does not automatically imply "up" although it is sometimes used that way. The paradise that Paul was caught away to is called the third heaven, because the Bible speaks of three. We saw in the article on the Gap Theory that II Peter 3 describes the heavens which were of old and the world that perished (verses 5-6), the heavens and earth which are now (verse 7), and a new heavens and new earth (verse 13), wherein dwelleth righteousness. Paul was caught away to that future heaven, and given a vision of the coming Kingdom.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is probably the primary passage that on the surface appears to support the popular notion that judgment, with resulting punishment and reward, is meted out before the resurrection. But this would contradict the rest of Scripture, which says that judgment will take place after the resurrection at the return of Christ (Daniel 12:2; John 5:28,29; Revelation 20:11-15).  

Luke 16:
19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
[see NASB]

The word ‘hell’ in verse 23 is the Greek word hades.  In Greek mythology Hades was the god of the underworld, and the name came to be applied to the abode of the dead.  Its New Testament usage, however, makes no mention of rewards, punishments, or even consciousness, with the exception of this one verse.  The word hades was used to translate the Hebrew word sheol in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), and as such its New Testament usage follows the Hebrew view of a place of unconsciousness.

It is important to recognize that this passage is a story with a moral, and not intended to be a literal discourse on the state of the dead. The whole point of the story is given in verse 31, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." Jesus was not telling the story in order to teach what happens after you die. F. W. Farrar wrote, "It is inconceivable to ground the proof of an important theological doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor" (Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 1038). G. M. Gwatkin wrote, "Let me only warn you that parable is parable and not literal fact. It is good for the lesson our Lord means to teach, but we cannot take for granted that He means to teach everything He seems to say, for example that in Paradise we shall sit in Abraham's lap" (The Eye for Spiritual Things, p. 41). And a Hebrew professor, Dr. C. H. Wright, held a similar view, "To suppose it to be our Lord's object here to give a doctrine of Intermediate State is entirely to misunderstand the parable" (The Intermediate State, p. 278).

Anthony Buzzard, in What Happens When We Die?, p. 52, makes the following observation.

The Pharisees had divided sheol/hades into two compartments to accommodate the righteous "in Abraham's bosom" and the wicked undergoing "curses, scourges, and torments" (I Enoch 22:9-13). There are clear points of contact between the language of the parable in Luke and the teaching of the Pharisees. Yet despite the borrowing of phraseology, the parable nowhere specifically states that the scenes of reward and punishment described in verses 22-26 occur before the resurrection. Though the story may be made to fit the Platonic system of immediate survival at death, it is highly significant that Lazarus and the rich man are not seen as disembodied spirits or souls; but the parable (i.e., at least verses 19 to 26) may also be read quite satisfactorily with the Biblical scheme in mind. We do not therefore need to say that Jesus "accommodated" his story to the Pharisaic doctrine of the afterlife. An exact program of events is in any case hardly to be expected in a parable. Its purpose lies elsewhere. To use this story alone as the basis of one's understanding of what happens at death, when so much clear instruction is given in Scripture, is scarcely justifiable.

He also writes that it would be "quite possible to understand the entire conversation between the dead as poetic imagery similar to the passage in Isaiah 14:9-11 where the dead are represented as speaking to each other" (What Happens When We Die?, p. 53). In any case the passage cannot be used to prove that Jesus endorsed the Platonic view of life after death as a disembodied spirit. (Listen to a detailed handling of this by Sean Finnegan on The Byte Show.)

In I Samuel 28 we read of a supposed appearance of Samuel after his death. But the woman which Saul consulted had a familiar spirit, according to verses 7 and 8, which impersonated Samuel. Having familiar spirits or consulting anyone who did was condemned in the Law of Moses. In the vision Samuel seemed to be speaking for God, even predicting Saul's defeat and death. But if God actually wanted to deliver a message to Saul, would He have used a method which He Himself had condemned? Familiar spirits are lying spirits, and continue to give the illusion of communication with the dead, which is contrary to the truth of God's Word.

Frequently the workings of the devil and of demons will appear to be on behalf of the true God. Paul says that even "Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light" (II Corinthians 11:14). There are those even today who claim to have been to heaven and seen the dead living with and worshipping God and Jesus. But if a vision is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, can it be truly of God? We are warned of false prophets and teachers, and told specifically to "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God" (I John 4:1). The devil is a master of deception, and one of his primary goals is to further his original lie, that man does not truly die.

When Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus and witnessed the transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-9, they saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus. Many people assume that this means Moses and Elijah were alive in heaven and came down at this time. However, it is described as a vision in verse 9, and so cannot be used to prove that Moses and Elijah are actually alive. Hebrews 11:13 and 39 both state that the Old Testament heroes of faith died, not having received the promises, and John 3:13 states that no one has ascended up to heaven except Jesus.

At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John saw a vision (Matthew 17:9) of Jesus in his glory, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. It was a vision of Christ's glory which will come to pass when he returns to reign in his Kingdom. We know this because Peter specifically states in II Peter 1:16-18 that they were eyewitnesses of his majesty, related to his power and coming (parousia).

Was Elijah translated into heaven without dying, as many believe? According to II Kings 2:1 and 11, he was taken up "into heaven" by a whirlwind. But in the Bible, "heaven" is used in more than one way. Sometimes it refers to the dwelling place of God as in John 3:13, but sometimes it just means the space above the earth, as in "the fowls of heaven" (Genesis 1:20, Revelation 19:17, etc.). The context must determine which meaning is meant.

II Kings 2:
15 And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
16 And they said unto him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send.
17 And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not.
[see NASB]

The sons of the prophets did not believe that Elijah was gone to a place "beyond the sky" or that he was in the presence of God. If they had believed that, they would not have been looking for him just in case the Spirit of the Lord had "taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley." King Jehoram receives a letter from him in II Chronicles 21:12. When you compare the chronology of kings outlined in II Kings 1-3 with II Chronicles 21, you see that this was after Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind. He was taken up and brought somewhere, but the Bible does not say where he was taken. The historian Josephus describes it that way as well. "Elijah disappeared from men and no one knows to this day of his end" (Antiq. ix. 2:2). Eventually he died just as everyone else does.

Another Old Testament figure who is thought to have been taken directly to heaven is Enoch. Hebrews 11:5 says that he was "translated, that he should not see death." But the writer of Psalm 89:48 asks, rhetorically, "What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death?" And Hebrews 9:27 says that " is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment." There is no exception to this; everybody dies. Genesis 5:24 tells us that Enoch "walked with God: and he was not; for God took him." The use of the phrase "was not" does not imply that he was "caught up to heaven." It is frequently used in the Old Testament as a euphemistic way of saying that someone was dead (Joseph's brothers and father both used it this way referring to the presumed death of Joseph. See Genesis 42:32,36.)

Genesis simply says that God "took" Enoch. Hebrews 11:5 tells us that God translated him. The Greek word for "translated" is metatithemi which is translated "carried over" in Acts 7:16 and "removed" in Galatians 1:6. The word simply means that, like Elijah, he was carried from one place over to another. We are told that God did this so that he would not "see" death. The word used here is eido which can mean literally "to see" with the eyes, or figuratively "to know or perceive." As is so often the case, the meaning is determined by the context, as well as other related Scriptures. Hebrews 11, after talking about Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and Sara, says in verse 13, "These all died in faith." Therefore Enoch is included in those who have died, which also fits with Hebrews 9:27, I Corinthians 15:22, and Psalm 89:48 (everybody dies) as well as John 3:13 (no one has ascended to heaven except Jesus Christ). So Enoch must have been translated so that he would not literally see death with his eyes. Both he and Elijah are dead and awaiting the resurrection.

When Jesus said that God is not the God of the dead but of the living (Mark 12:27), it was in the context of the resurrection (note especially verses 18, 23, 25, and 26). Yet many commentators still take it out of context and try to use it to prove that the dead are alive in heaven. Similarly, some take the reference to the "great cloud of witnesses" in Hebrews 12:1 to refer to the dead in heaven, looking down at us. But that would contradict all the above verses that describe the dead as having no part in what happens in this life. It is simply referring to the example of faith of those spoken of in chapter 11. The Scriptures must be considered as a whole, and allowed to speak for themselves. The Platonic concepts of an immortal soul and life after death as a disembodied spirit have no place in Christian doctrine. The promises made to Abraham will have their fulfillment when he is resurrected at the end of this age when Christ returns to set up his Kingdom. At that time the dead in Christ shall be raised, and the rest of the dead will be raised after the thousand year reign. Until then, the dead remain unconscious in a state of non-existence. This is the clear teaching of Scripture, despite Satan's continual attempts to undermine it.

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This page last updated June 17, 2019


Mark Clarke