What Happens to the Soul When the Body Dies?

What have we learned so far about Heaven and Hell? There are only two possible destinations. There is the resurrection to judgment and the resurrection to life. Those who experience the resurrection to life will experience satisfaction and fulfillment as they are with the Master. Those who experience the resurrection of judgment will remain outside the Master’s house, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. They will try to get into the Master’s house, but the door will be closed. To help us track our thinking and to help visualize what Scripture is describing for our good, I have prepared a mind map that we can use through the remainder of this series.

Resurrection 1

These are the destinations in the resurrection. All of those who died in the physical body will either experience judgment or life. For those who die in their physical bodies before Christ’s return, all things have not yet been made new. I might, then, need to ask if there is a state of existence before redemptive history is completed. Is there some sort of intermediate state? Is there something like what our Catholic friends would refer to as purgatory? Is there a soul sleep, from which we will be woken when Christ returns? Am I to go straight to Heaven? Are those destined for Hell to go straight to Hell? Are there holding places until the judgment day? How might this information benefit us?

As we think together, please remember that we see only through a glass darkly.

Revelation 20:11-21:2

Then I saw a great white throne and One seated on it. Earth and heaven fled from His presence, and no place was found for them. I also saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life, and the dead were judged according to their works by what was written in the books.

Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Already, not yet

As a preliminary statement, I am operating under the presumption that John is, in this text, describing what would be future events. There is a theological camp that interprets this passage of Scripture to have been completed. That would be the position of the full-preterist. I am not of that theological camp. The best reading of this text seems to indicate a future judgment of the dead and establishment of a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Here is what we see described in the text:

      1. The Sea, Death, and Hades gave up the dead that were in them to be judged according to their works.
      2. Death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of Fire, which is the second death.
      3. There was a new Heaven and a new Earth, for the first heaven and earth had passed away.
      4. The people of God would descend to the New Earth adorned as a bride for her husband.

What we read is that only after the judgment of the dead will people arrive at their final destinations. This means that people have not gone straight to the Lake of Fire and have not yet arrived on the New Earth (for it hasn’t been recreated yet). We know that there are only two options, life and judgment. If everything has not yet been completed, where are the people who have died and are receiving judgment and where are the people who have died and will be resurrected to life?

Surprisingly, Scripture gives us more information than we would expect. Even in the text presented above, it is said that before the dead were thrown into the Lake of Fire, they were given up out of the Sea, Death, and Hades. Death and Hades were thrown into the Lake of fire with the Dead who were in them. So, we might make the claim that there is a temporary dwelling place for those who are dead in their sin. It goes by the name, Sea or Death or Hades.

The New Jerusalem, adorned as the bride of Christ was coming down out of Heaven, having been prepared for her husband. Just based on this passage, then, we see that there is a temporary dwelling place. For those receiving judgment, there is Hades. For those receiving life, there is the current Heaven. Can this be corroborated in other portions of Scripture? Let’s consider Luke 16:19-31:

“There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate. He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores. One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’

‘Son,’ Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’

‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send him to my father’s house — because I have five brothers — to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

Jesus also spoke of a place called Hades, which is also a place of judgment. Lazarus, though, wasn’t described as being in Heaven or even in the direct presence of God. In fact, God was not present in the place where Lazarus was so far as we can tell by Jesus’ story. Abraham was the one who did the talking and the teaching and the comforting. This just seems bizarre and nothing at all like the sort of description we would expect to find coming from the lips of Jesus. Now, we have several places that have been described: Hades, Hell, Abraham’s Side, the current Heaven, the future Heaven, and the New Earth. Let us consider a couple more passages of Scripture to help us make sense of this.

“Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: ‘Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!’

But the other answered, rebuking him: ‘Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!’

And He said to him, ‘I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).

“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all,

the righteous for the unrighteous,

that He might bring you to God,

after being put to death in the fleshly realm

but made alive in the spiritual realm.

In that state He also went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in the past were disobedient, when God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared. In it a few — that is, eight people — were saved through water” (1 Peter 3:18-20).

It seems as though something has happened between the time Lazarus and the rich man lived and the time of Jesus sacrifice on the cross. Perhaps it happened at the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion. There is no longer a place like what is described at Abraham’s Side. Those who are in Christ and who are being raised to life are brought to be with Christ in paradise (presumably the current Heaven) at the moment of their death.

Let’s answer some of our questions from earlier. Is there some sort of intermediate state? The Scripture seems to indicate that there is.

Is there something like what our Catholic friends would refer to as purgatory? If by purgatory, we mean a place where people finish paying for or making penance for their sin, then there is no indication in Scriptures of such a place. For, we are saved by grace through faith, not by any work of our own so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2). Furthermore, Christ atoned for our sins because we are unable to become righteous. If I am to pay for my own sins, Christ’s sacrifice is worthless.

Is there a soul sleep, from which we will be woken when Christ returns? Scripture would indicate that there is not. There is a holding place for those receiving judgment. Those receiving life will now be with Christ in the current Heaven until all things are made new.

Am I to go straight to Heaven? There is a current Heaven, where we go when we die. There will be a future existence on the New Earth for God’s people. This is quite the picture we receive from Scripture.

Resurrection 2

What we learn about God

If no one will enter into his or her final destination before anyone else; this seems to me to indicate much about God’s just nature. He created all people as equal in worth. God does not show favoritism (Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25). Favoritism, or showing partiality, is actually a sin (James 2:1, 8-9).

Those who are receiving life will receive their inheritance at the appropriate time. Those who are receiving judgment will experience the second death at the appropriate time. In this, God shows that there is no partiality and that He is just and merciful in both His giving of rewards and distribution of wrath.

The challenge we receive is the challenge to not show favoritism or partiality, but to view and treat all people as equal in worth because God has created all people.

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