Monday, September 3, 2012

Where Do People Go After They Die?

My ten year old nephew, Skyler, asked one day, “where do people go after they die?” The Bible answers this question, and because the Bible has proven itself reliable under the toughest of attacks and scrutiny for thousands of years, we can trust what it has to say about salvation and life after death, too. Jesus confirms the biblical teaching on this subject and expands on it, speaking of it more than any other individual in the Bible! Do people who have rejected the True and Living God and His Son Jesus Christ really go to hell after dying? If so, do they go there immediately? Are Christians “asleep” in the grave after they die, until the coming of Christ, or do they go right to Heaven to be with the Lord after they die? These are excellent questions that he has asked, and the way to answer them is to pray for help from the Lord to find the answers, and to turn to God’s Word to find them.

There are many passages in the Bible that speak authoritatively about the afterlife. There will be a judgment day for all people, a time when we will stand before God to give account for our lives. Every deed done and every word spoken will be measured against the standard of perfection. For Christians, this will happen at the Bema seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10) when we will be rewarded for what we did in and through Christ. Every other work done outside of Christ will be burned away and is useless, but we will be saved and glorified with the Lord forever. For unbelievers final judgment will be at God’s Great White Throne, described in Revelation 20. At the end of time, there will be a resurrection for the wicked. The righteous are made so by faith in Christ alone, not by deeds done in the flesh, and will shine like the stars in the heavens forever (Daniel 12:3). The wicked are judged because of their rejection of Christ Jesus, their refusal to accept God’s gracious redemption.

To put it simply, those who choose to obey and follow the Lord are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone (who He is and what He did for us on the cross). Those who choose to rebel from God and reject His offer of salvation will be judged according to their own works. The Bible tells us that no one is righteous, that everyone falls short of the glory of God (Romans 3). So, without Christ’s righteousness to cover us and remove our sins, we will die in our sins. We need God to impute Christ’s righteousness to our account so that we can be acquited and saved. And that’s just what He does when we give our life to and put our faith in Jesus! (see Romans chapters 3-5)

If a person does not receive forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ, God will not force them to join Him. Jesus has many things to say about hell and who will be going there. Here are just a few verses for reference:

“Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins (John 8:24).”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6).”

“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out (Luke 13:28).”

“But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12).”

“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him (Luke 12:5)!”

Clearly the Bible teaches there is a Heaven for those who put their trust in Christ and there is a hell for those who reject God and fight against Him. To be with Jesus in His Kingdom is Heaven, where there is great joy and glory forever. And to be thrust out from His presence is hell, where there is great pain, weeping and darkness forever. In Matthew 12:30, Jesus said,

“He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.”

According to the Bible, when people die they go to one of two places depending on whether or not they have put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ or they have rejected Him. Sheol (a Hebrew word from the OT, called Hades in the Greek NT) is where all people who die without Christ immediately go after they die. On the other hand, people that have received God’s gracious gift of salvation, through faith in Jesus’ work on the cross, go immediately into the presence of the Lord. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul said that he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. In other words, for Christians, to die is to go to be with the Lord in Heaven.

Non-Christians go to Sheol/Hades and Christians go to be with the Lord. Hell is technically a different place than Sheol/Hades and is called Gehenna, and also the Lake of Fire. It was prepared for the devil and the fallen angels (Matthew 25:41). The first ones to go there will be the anti-Christ and his false prophet. Then Satan is cast into the Lake of Fire (hell) forever at the end of the 1,000 year reign of Christ “and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever (Revelation 20:10).” At that time, all of the “unrighteous dead” that ever lived, those that died rejecting God and who are eternally without Christ, will be resurrected for the final judgment. They are currently being kept in Sheol/Hades, the place of the dead, until the end of time comes. Sheol/Hades is essentially a holding place for those bound for hell/Gehenna at the final judgment. It is very much like the final, eternal hell.

“Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15).”

Jesus described Sheol/Hades in a true story in Luke 16:19-31. Initially, Sheol housed the righteous dead also, separated in “Paradise” from the wicked by a wide, impassable chasm until Jesus paid the price for our sin at the cross. That is when Christ led the captivity in Paradise to freedom in Heaven (Ephesians 4:8). He descended into this place before He rose again and brought Abraham and all of the Old Testament saints to Heaven. Now that Christ has died for us and risen from the dead, all Christians go right to Heaven when they die and non-Christians go to Sheol until the final “White Throne Judgment” spoken of in Revelation 20.

Other questions have arisen because some Christians in the past believed in something called “soul sleep.” But, that was an erroneous teaching based on a misunderstanding of Scripture. Sometimes in the Bible, “asleep” is used as another way of saying a person is dead. Those who have “fallen asleep” in Christ are just Christians who have died and gone to be with the Lord. So, it has nothing to do with a sleeping soul in the grave because all Christians go to be with the Lord immediately when they die.

Paul used these words in 1 Thessalonians when he wanted to clear up some confusion and misunderstanding about the rapture and how living and dead Christians alike are effected by this event. There were some believers that thought that their friends who were Christians and had died were going to miss out because they had died and the rapture hadn't taken place yet. To them, Paul said,

“But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep (your Christian brothers and sisters who have died), lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep (who have died) in Jesus (with faith in Jesus) (1 Thess 4:13-14).”

Paul continues in verses 15 through 18, “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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

He's telling them that those Christians that had died are with Jesus and He will bring them back with Him when He returns at the rapture.

A few months later these same Thessalonian believers needed some clarification on a related subject. They were confused about when the rapture takes place in relation to the seven year Tribulation period. They were rightly expecting Jesus’ imminent return for the Church at the rapture before the Tribulation, like we are today, but thought they had been mistaken and missed it somehow. We know this because in 2 Thessalonians it says that some people wrongly told them that the Day of the Lord had already begun. They had forgotten that Paul had taught them that the rapture takes place before the Day of the Lord, the final seven year Tribulation on the earth (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7). The folks that had taught them that the Tribulation had already begun were incorrect. Unfortunately, some Christians still erroneously teach that the rapture happens sometime after the Day of the Lord begins.

In teaching about the rapture, Paul is explaining that before the second coming of Christ to establish His Kingdom after the Tribulation period, He first returns for His Church to rescue her from this great time of judgment on the earth. This catching away of the Church is called the rapture. The church on earth at that time will be “caught up” (harpazo in Greek, rapturos in Latin) in the air with the Lord to meet those Christians who have already died and who are already with Jesus. Paul speaks of the rapture of the church again in 1 Cor. 15:51-53:

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep (die), but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.”

At the time of the rapture, those Christians that are alive will go to meet all of the believers that have ever lived, and will be with Jesus in Heaven. At some point soon after the departure of the church from the planet, the earth is going to go through it's last seven year period before Jesus’ second coming. This period is called the Great Tribulation (aka, the Day of the Lord or the Day of Jacob's Trouble in the OT). Revelation 4 and 5 give us a picture of what the Church is doing in Heaven at that time! Then the entire Church returns with Christ at His second coming, which is immediately after the end of the Tribulation period. Christ's eternal kingdom will be established, first with the Millennial reign of Christ (the thousand year reign), and then with the New Heaven and New Earth at the end of the thousand years. All of this is described in the last three chapters of Revelation.

“Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints (Jude 14).” This statement by Jude is describing the second coming of Christ with His church. The rapture happens first, but no one knows the day or the hour of this event, so we are to be ready at any time (Luke 12:35-46). Are you ready? Have you asked Jesus to be your Savior and your Lord? If you have, you are filled with the joy of the Lord, and the hope of His coming and His glory. If you have not, just turn from your sin now and place your faith in Christ, receiving the free gift of eternal life that is only given through Him. Not just an everlasting life, but a life of true satisfaction and joy as we learn to walk in step with our loving and faithful Creator.

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