The Bible clearly teaches that the first death is a sleep[1] in which there is no consciousness.[2] The sleeping dead will "wake up" with the resurrection, either the “first resurrection” at the Second Coming of Christ, or the “second resurrection” which takes place 1,000 years later. At that time the dead will be judged,[3] and those who are not found written in the Book of Life will be thrown into hell (the lake of fire), which will totally annihilate them, both body and soul.

Most churches teach that the soul goes straight to heaven or hell at the time of death, but this is illogical in light of the judgment. If God gave them their reward when they died, what would be the purpose of the judgment? Would he drag people out of hell so that he could give them their sentence and then throw them back in? Would He find out in the judgment that some who had gone to heaven or hell had ended up in the wrong place? Would the resurrection and judgment be a time to give them a body so that they could feel physical as well as mental and spiritual pain?

Moreover, this theory is also unbiblical. 1Thessalonians 4:13-18 makes it clear that it is not at the time of death, but at the resurrection of the dead when “those who have fallen asleep” will rise with the righteous living and “meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.” “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). Paul, in anticipation of his execution (“the time of my departure”) said, “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7,8). Jesus Himself said, “I will come again and receive you to Myself” (John 14:3). None of these statements make any sense if the disembodied soul goes immediately to God at the time of death.

It is sometimes asserted that Jesus’ comment to the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) is proof that people go to heaven as soon as they die, but a consideration of the original language[4] shows that the thief, like everyone else, will await the resurrection. The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) has also been used to support the idea that people go to heaven or hell as soon as they die, but a careful study of what the text actually says[5] shows that this view is not consistent. The point is that neither these texts nor any others in scripture show that people go straight to heaven when they die, and there certainly are no scriptures which indicate that sinners go immediately to hell where their souls live in misery, while awaiting the resurrection and judgment that would consign them to even more torment for all eternity. See also 6:9,10 Souls Under the Altar.

Continue to next section: LOVE BASED ON FEAR?

[1] John 11:11-14, see also Luke 8:52-55, Daniel 12:2, Acts 7:59,60, IThessalonians 4:13-17, John 6:39,40,44, Job 3:11-19, Jeremiah 51:39,57.

[2] For example, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing…Their love, their hatred and their envy have now perished…There is no work, or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,10). See also Psalms 6:5, Psalms 115:17, Psalms 146:4, Job 14:12.

[3] John 12:48, Acts 17:31, Romans 2:15,16, Romans 14:10-12, 1 Corinthians 4:4,5, 1 Corinthians 6:2,3, 2 Timothy 4:1.

[4] Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) is often pointed to as proof that the dead go to paradise as soon as they die. But Jesus Himself made it clear that He did not go to paradise that day—Two days later, after His resurrection, He told Mary Magdalene “I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). Actually the confusion is a simple matter of punctuation. The original Greek, which was written without punctuation, reads Amin soi lego simeron met’emou esi en to paradeiso (truly indeed to you I say today with me you will be in the paradise). If the comma, which was added later by editors, was placed after “today” rather than before it, the statement would simply mean “today I tell you that you will be with me in paradise.” This interpretation is confirmed by a comparison with Mark 14:30 which has almost identical wording but an entirely different meaning. Amin lego soi oti simeron en ti nukti tauti prin i dis alektora fonisai tris aparnisi me (truly indeed I say to you that today in the night of it before twice the rooster cries three times you will deny me). The crucial difference is the use of the word oti (that) which is used to show that He is talking about something happening today rather than making a statement today—"I say to you today" vs. "I say to you that today...".

Some have theorized that paradise is some pleasant resting place, but not in the presence of God. However, Revelation 2:7 makes it clear that paradise is where the Tree of Life is, and Revelation 22:1-3 shows that the Tree of Life is before the throne of God.

[5] Much of the confusion concerning hell is based on a misunderstanding of Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. “There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then 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’. But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31).

The most obvious explanation of this passage is that this was a well-known story which Jesus used to make a point, but that not every detail was intended for instruction. This would be in keeping with His previous story of the unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13), which was intended to teach that “you cannot serve God and mammon” (verse 13) but was not designed to teach that we should cheat our employers in order to provide for our future (vs. 4-8). The point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus was that miracles, including the resurrection of the dead (which actually happened with Jesus’ friend Lazarus) would not be convincing to those who will not accept the testimony of the scriptures ( hence Jesus said “let them hear Moses and the prophets”).

Some readers, however, insist that the story should be taken literally. But even a literal interpretation does not support the idea that the soul goes to everlasting heaven or hell at the time of death. Assuming the story to be literal we notice that both the rich man and Lazarus had bodies—the rich man wanted water for his tongue (which would not help an immaterial “soul”) and he wanted Lazarus to bring it with his finger. Physical bodies would not be present until after the resurrection, at the coming of Christ for Lazarus and after the thousand years for the rich man.

The fact that the rich man did not seem to know that thousands of years had passed and that his brothers had long since died is consistent with the fact that the dead sleep in the grave and know nothing of the passing of time. Abraham did not bother to explain to him the irrelevant details of all that had happened while he had been asleep. He simply informed him that there was no “second chance” of salvation after death, no way to pass from hell to heaven, and no intercession, even on the part of the “saints” (such as Lazarus) which could alter their fate. Consistent with the words of Jesus, the rich man, who had not feared “Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) had been thrown “into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). The fire would do its work of destruction, leaving “neither root nor branch” (Malachi 4:1), and like the devil, the rebellious angels and the multitudes of unrepentant people who will be there with him, he “shall be no more forever” (Ezekiel 28:19).