Almost anyone, whether a believer or not, has had moments of thinking about what happens after we die. The common ideas of the afterlife are too big to just dismiss without reflection. I venture into this subject because I know many Christians and others have genuine questions about heaven and hell. I enter the subject with caution and a holy sense of awe knowing that we are seeking not just peoples’ opinions about the subject but what God makes clear to us in His word.
We cannot broach the subject of hell without settling from God’s word the nature of the soul. Is the human soul immortal or is it something that simply ceases to exist when we die? Many religious groups believe that the soul is simply our biological life and when it dies we cease to exist. The dead are buried in Hades which, to them, is simply the grave. There is no consciousness in death until the resurrection when God raises us up for judgment. Therefore, they believe, there is no such thing as a place of eternal punishment because the soul does not live forever but simply ceases to exist or enters a state of sleep.
On the other hand, if God created the human soul to live forever then the question arises as to the condition of the souls of unbelievers and believers. Is God’s judgment simply that unbelievers are annihilated while believers receive eternal life? Atheists, of course, don’t believe in eternity in the first place so conclude that when we die it is merely a biological process in which our body is separated from its life source and is therefore ceases to exist and is forever dead. This coincides with the atheist’s rejection of the Bible as the word of God and therefore a legitimate source of information on life and death.
Since we believe the Bible is the word of God we will open it to see what it says on this crucial subject. First let me admit that there are passages that seem to indicate that death is simply a state of sleep. In John 11:11 Jesus speaks of the dead Lazarus as asleep. There are other passages that use sleep as a metaphor for sleep or speak of sleep as a state of unconsciousness for the body (examples: Dan. 12:2; Ps. 146:4; 6:5; 30:9; Eccl. 9:5–6, 10). On the other hand, we will look at passages that are very conclusive concerning the eternal state of a person in death.
The Old Testament uses the word Sheol for the state souls enter after death. In the New Testament we have the words hades and Gehenna which both speak of this holding state for those who have died physically. One other word, Tartarus, refers to the prison for angels who rebelled (2 Peter 2:4). Most translations render these words with the word hell.
In the context of persecution, Jesus said to His disciples “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:5). He told them not to be afraid of those who could kill their bodies but do no more. Instead, He told them to fear the One who is able to cast them into hell. If a person has already been killed and, as some believe, is dead in the grave, then why would Jesus tell them to fear being thrown into hell. Hell, then, is obviously more than the grave.
On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared in bodily form before Christ and three disciples. We know that Elijah was translated to heaven but the word definitely tells us that Moses died in the land of Moab (Deut. 34:5). If Moses was dead and his soul was annihilated or sleeping, how could he appear here before the disciples?
This helps us to understand the statement in Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…” The “therefore” of the verse points back to the long list of Old Testament saints in chapter 11. Regardless of how we interpret the word “witnesses” here, these Old Testament saints are alive and well and witnessing the spiritual race we are running. These saints are all dead. Their souls must continue to live.
In Revelation 6:9 we are told that the souls of martyrs cried out to God. They had been martyred but their souls still lived. They are conscious and aware.
Once Jesus spoke to the religious hypocrites these ominous words: “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matt. 23:33). He spoke of hell as something to be escaped. If hell (Gehenna) is simply the grave, which all people must face, how is an escape possible? Perhaps hell is more than the grave.
When Christ died He went to Hades (Acts 2:31). We are told also that there He preached to the spirits who were there (1 Peter 3:19). When Jesus was physically dead did He cease to exist? Were there three days and nights when the Son of God was annihilated in death? Or was His soul fully alive so that He was able to preach to the inhabitants of Hades?
Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he wrote “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?” (Eph. 4:8:9). Who were these captives that Jesus led on high as spoils of war? What are these “lower regions” of earth? Is this not Hades, the abode of the dead, that Christ entered and led captive its righteous inhabitants?
The preceding verses clarify what Jesus meant when he told the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). In light of the previous passages telling us that Jesus went to Hades, the abode of the dead, and that He preached to spirits there, it seems clear that Jesus was promising the thief that they would both die today but they would be together in paradise. How could they be together if they were dead and their souls ceased to exist or were asleep?
Several times the word speaks of dying and being present with the Lord: “So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6–8). Paul is saying that to be in this earthly body is to be absent from the Lord in the sense of God’s perfect plan for us. We must walk now by faith and not sight because we don’t see clearly the status we will have when in the presence of the Lord. To be absent from our bodies, when that time comes, is to be with the Lord, not to cease to exist or continue in a state of sleeping animation. Our soul lives on and cannot be annihilated.
Lastly, there is the story Jesus tells of Lazarus and a rich man (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man lived a selfish life of luxury and excess while Lazarus, a beggar, was brought to the rich man’s gate each day hoping for some crumbs from the rich man’s table. The rich man dies and goes to hades where he is in spiritual torment. Amazingly he could see Lazarus at peace and comfort in Abraham’s bosom, a symbol of the other compartment of Hades where the righteous go. The rich man realizes his great mistake in living selfishly and rejecting God and people and asks that someone be sent to his brothers to warn them of what death is really like. The answer for him was that if they reject Moses and the word of God they will not be convinced of death’s reality by a messenger. One finds God by following the pull of eternity in his heart to search for Him and find the One who offers Himself freely and openly (Matt. 7:7–11; Eccl. 3:11; Rom. 3:24).
Some see this story as a parable but if it is a parable what message is Jesus trying to communicate? Each of His parables has a message that comes across in the symbolism of the story. Jesus is not using symbols here but speaks of a real person whose name He gives and tells the story as if it was an actual experience. The theme of this story is that our souls do not cease to exist at death but continue on and we should live our lives with that in mind. Even if it is merely a parable, that is the message that comes across in the telling. We would do well to pay attention to what Jesus said.
Humans were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). God formed a body out of earth’s soil and then breathed into it His breath and he became a living soul. The soul expresses the identity of a human being. It is our mind, emotions, will and our personality — what makes us unique as a creation of God. So it could be said that the first human became a living soul. On the other hand, after the fall of man our spirit, soul and body are seen as distinct parts of our being since sin caused a separation between soul and spirit. Thus we see the three parts of man considered separately (1 Thess. 5:23; Heb. 4:12). The reunion of soul and spirit comes through the transforming work of the Holy Spirit whereby our soul is gradually changed into the likeness of Christ (Rom. 12:2; 2 Cor. 3:18).
Much more could be said on this crucial subject but it is clear from these passages that our soul is more than merely our biological life. It certainly is our human life that can be transformed by the Lord dwelling in our spirit. In a following message we will take the next step. If our soul was created to be alive forever, how does this affect our understanding of heaven and hell. Stay tuned.