The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

What Happens After Death


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The moment you die, you will immediately find yourself in either Heaven or Hell, depending on how you responded to God on earth. Let’s remember that death is the moment when God decides to separate your soul from your physical body. This separation is something that only God can do, and He doesn’t separate your soul just so He can store it underground for a while (or, in the case of cremation, store it…well, who knows where). This tradition we have of deciding that souls take a long snooze after death and remain in some strange limbo until some future resurrection is total hooey. When you die, you need to be ready to meet your Maker. And when you go to the cemetery and talk to a gravestone, no one is listening. The dead do not hang about this earth or under the earth or anywhere else in our physical realm. The dead have been moved on.

But of course Satan doesn’t want us to be so clear about what death is. He’d rather we blur the lines and come up with a picture that is less threatening than an immediate confrontation with God. So for thousands of years, he has been inventing many alternative death theories. One of the most popular is the peaceful snooze: death doesn’t lead to accountability, it just leads to some peaceful nothingness. This is what many people cling to today, and this is why we carve RIP (rest in peace) on our grave markers. Satan has us so deluded about death that we’ve decided it’s rude to tell the truth about it. Imagine if you piped up at a funeral and said: “You know that she’s probably in Hell, right? So instead of talking about how wonderful she was, let’s talk about how we can avoid ending up there ourselves.” Can you imagine the furious reaction you’d receive from the family? Do you see how effectively Satan has got us all stifling the truth?  Talking about the truth is considered rude, inappropriate, and obnoxious. But treating death like a choose-your-own-ending situation? That’s considered polite and right. And while we sit around avoiding the H-word, more and more souls are refusing to see death as the terrifying thing that it is if you haven’t gotten right with your Creator.

Today the world is full of delusions about death. Open up your Bible and you’ll discover that the world has been delusional about death for thousands of years. Every culture has come up with lies about death which its people readily believed. The ancient Jews were no exception. With Satan’s help, they invented a place called Sheol or Hades. This was a netherworld located in the bowels of the planet in which the dead lingered in various states of awareness. Some were considered to be in a peaceful sleep. Others were considered to be miserable—but only mildly so. Naturally the Jews rejected the notion of a place of eternal torment. It was Yahweh and Jesus who reshaped the traditional views of the afterlife to something much more extreme. Yahweh painted pictures of an earthlike Paradise for those who were faithful to Him. He then painted a picture of endless torment for those who rebelled against Him. When Jesus came along later, He got more graphic. He started talking about Hell, and He really underscored the intensity of the torment that souls would experience there. Both Jesus and Yahweh used familiar earthly images to set expectations about eternity. Much of the imagery Jesus used for Hell turned Jewish minds to a real life place in Israel where the Israelites endlessly sacrificed their live children to the god Molek. The place was originally called “the valley of the son of Hinnom” or “the valley of Ben-Hinnom”. Later it picked up the name Gehenna, which became an alternate term for Hell. Jesus’ Hell was quite a departure from the traditional Hades/Sheol. There isn’t any snoozing in Hell.

All throughout the Bible, you’ll find death being referred to as a form of sleep. In the Old Testament, when a man died, he was described as “resting with his fathers.” Realize that this is nothing more than a reflection of the culture’s superstitions about death. We chisel RIP on our tombstones, the ancient Israelites talked about resting with their ancestors. Notice that common theme: Satan really wants us to view death as a passive, peaceful event. Now God knows all about our delusions and He isn’t in a hurry to correct them all. Be careful not to fall into the common trap of thinking that just because a man is serious about God—as King David was—his theology must be perfect in every area. David believed in Sheol. Why not? That’s what his culture believed and Yahweh wasn’t doing anything to correct him. So when David complains to Yahweh that the dead cannot praise him, he’s just showing how ignorant he is on the topic of death. When David finally did die, he went straight to Heaven and discovered that the dead can praise the Lord in far better ways than they could on earth.

Now and then God likes to express His pleasure with someone by skipping the usual process of physical death on earth. We find two of these cases in the Bible. Enoch was a reverential man who lived in alignment with God. One day, Enoch just vanished because God whisked him home (Gen. 5:24). The prophet Elijah was so pleasing to God, that He swept him up to Heaven in a dramatic tornado. His successor Elisha witnessed the whole thing (2 Ki. 2:11). Now if we’re going to buy into this “death is a form of sleep” theory, then we have to conclude that God knocked Elijah out when he reached a certain altitude inside the tornado and threw him back down into…where? Hades and Sheol do not exist. It isn’t Heaven, Hell, or Limbo Land. It’s Heaven or Hell, and neither of them exist in this dimension.

God doesn’t store eternal souls in the bowels of a physical planet. One day this planet will be destroyed. Heaven and Hell are not in this dimension, and we need to get this clear in our minds. You’ll find a whole crop of false prophets running around in the Church today telling us all about their dramatic visits to Hell. Many of these people swear that they have actually been to Hell, not just seen some metaphorical vision of it. And of course we know they are lying their faces off because they always bring their earth body with them and discover that Hell is 1) filled with the same physical properties as earth is and 2) controlled by demons. Any time someone tells you that demons are the ones torturing souls in Hell, you can stop listening. Demons don’t run Hell, God does. Hell is not somewhere creatures can traipse in and out of. It’s an inescapable prison, and once God throws you into it, you’re stuck for eternity. So all this baloney about demons flitting in and out of Hell is yet another delusion trumped up by the very egotistical Satan who would love to believe that he could be in charge of Hell. Let’s remember that demons always reverse truth. In real life, Satan knows he will be a helpless victim in Hell who is endlessly tortured by God. So what does he tell us? That he’s the king of the place, and that he only hands out the tortures, he doesn’t receive them. Satan’s version of Hell (which is enormously popular in the Church today) is a complete reversal of truth.

Now the long snooze isn’t the only delusion the Jews had about death. They also came up with this ridiculous theory that body and soul took three days to separate from each other. They recognized that body and soul were separate things, but they figured the two became intimately bound after spending so much time on earth together. So then, when the body died, the soul went into intense mourning. And like a devastated wife who sleeps in the same room as her husband’s coffin, the soul hangs around the body for three days, unable to bear the thought of it being truly lost. Why just three days? Because after that time, some serious stench starts happening. Projecting their own human perspective onto the soul, the Israelites decided that when the soul saw evidence of irreversible decay, it would finally give up and drift on to the next world. But this mourning process was not to be rushed. After all, the soul was in traumatic grief. If the body was callously tossed into a field with nothing done to try and preserve it, the decay process would be much more rapid, and the soul would not have time to process its grief. Such trauma could result in all sorts of distress in the afterlife. This is what the Israelites believed, which is why we find them taking the time to dress and anoint dead corpses. Do you tie pretty ribbons around your garbage? Of course not, what would be the point? Well, it ought to stand out as pretty strange to you that women are going to Jesus’ tomb to anoint His dead corpse. What is the point? Dead bodies are like garbage: they rot. Nothing is going to change this, so what’s the point of getting all hands on with some nasty corpse? These women believed in the three day separation theory, and they were trying to help Jesus’ soul gain a clean separation from His body. Silly? Yes, but they were showing sincere concern for Him.

Now after three days, the Jews are over it. The body reeks, and there is no perfume that can cover that stench. So forget it. After three days, they stop fussing with the corpse and they just let the natural processes take over. This is why when Jesus wants to open up Lazarus’ tomb after four days, Lazarus’ sister Martha is totally against the idea.

“Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” (Jn. 11:39)

Once again, notice how our human realities control our fantasies about the dead. We don’t mind making up stories about the soul mourning the loss of its body, but after three days, the fun is over because our noses say “get me out of here.” This is all pretty ridiculous, isn’t it? And yet whether a belief is wrong or right, it massively affects how you perceive reality. Jesus wanted people to understand that He was raising people back to life—people who were absolutely, undeniably dead. Because He was working with Jews, and He knew about their three day superstition, He made sure to wait three days before raising Lazarus and Himself. If He didn’t wait three days, He knew that the Jews might say the soul somehow slipped back inside the body on its own—after all, it was still flitting around in the local airspace and hadn’t yet moved on to the world of the dead. To prevent the miracle from being minimized in people’s minds, Jesus had two options: reeducate everyone on what really happens at death, or let enough time go by that everyone would believe the soul was no longer nearby, thus they would grasp that God was involved, for only God could haul a soul back from the next world. Rather than reeducate everyone, God chose to let them keep their wrong beliefs and adjusted His method so that His point would still be made. Everyone got the message with both Lazarus and Jesus: God had raised the totally dead back to life.

Jesus wasn’t the only one to capitalize on the three day superstition.  Yahweh knew how paranoid the Israelites were about their corpses being manhandled after death, and this is why we find Him constantly threatening to inflict violent deaths on them which would result in their bodies never receiving a proper burial.  The Israelites were already using their afterlife beliefs to stick it to each other–you’ll find many times in the Old Testament where society’s rejects were carelessly thrown into some mass grave or given some half-hearted burial.  You don’t find anyone rushing around trying to anoint and wrap the corpses of the unpopular people.  This was a way of trying to intentionally mess someone up in the next life.  Very shady behavior.  But Yahweh topped them all by causing wild animals to come and devour corpses before they could even be buried.  He also used very derogatory metaphors–likening bodies to animal droppings and painting shocking pictures of corpses treated with disdain by their Creator.

On this account the anger of Yahweh has burned against His people, and He has stretched out His hand against them and struck them down. And the mountains quaked, and their corpses lay like refuse in the middle of the streets. For all this His anger is not spent, but His hand is still stretched out. (Isa. 5:25)

In the mind of superstitious Jews, a bad burial was a symbol of eternal distress.  This is why Yahweh spends so much time describing how He will make sure people are degraded in the death process–He wants them to fear eternal distress because that’s what they are headed for in their current rebellious states.  God will gladly use our superstitious beliefs to try and drive us back towards repentance.  If the image of a dishonorable death will help scare us into getting serious about Him, then bring on the mass slaughter and the scenes of mangled corpses rotting in the sun.

Now the New Testament was written by Jews who grew up believing in this idea of death being some kind of sleep, and we find that they haven’t totally shaken off this theory. But let’s be realistic: they’ve barely had any time to digest the New Covenant at the time they were dashing off instructions and theology to the fledgling Church. All this means that if you want to get a more accurate view of what happens after death, you need to pay more attention to the things Yahweh and Jesus say than the things which superstitious Jews say.

Now as you look through the Gospels, you’ll find many times when Jesus describes activities in the eternal realm. What’s fascinating about these stories is that the people He is talking about aren’t dead asleep in some netherworld waiting to be resurrected when they hear that trumpet call. Today you can find Christians who teach that no one under the Old Covenant could have possibly gone to Heaven because Jesus hadn’t died yet. So they were stuck in some lesser situation, or perhaps they were asleep. Then you’ll find others who say that when Christians die, they are going to sleep in some netherworld until we’re all raised up for that final resurrection and the great Judgment Day. Well, no, all of this is wrong. To die is to be immediately transferred to Heaven or Hell, and we find many instances of Jesus confirming this with His depictions of the afterlife. For example, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a story of a man named Lazarus (this is a fictitious Lazarus, not the real life Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead). He describes this Lazarus as being a poor, miserable fellow. When Lazarus dies, what happens? Does he go into some eternal sleep? Does he drift about in Hades or Sheol? No, he goes immediately to Heaven. Later on, a rich man who treated Lazarus badly on earth dies. What happens to him? He goes immediately to Hell. Jesus calls it Hades, once again accommodating the superstitions of His Jewish audience, but He describes it as being a place of fiery torment. Well, what is this? The rich man is now suffering miserably while Lazarus is having a glorious time in Heaven. The rich man can see Lazarus in Heaven (throughout the Bible, God teaches that Heaven and Hell intersect with each other in some way). The rich man also sees Abraham in Heaven (the same Abraham who is supposed to be resting with his fathers in the underworld). Abraham and the rich man have a conversation in which Abraham essentially says, “Too bad for you, but you had your chance to repent.” The rich man wants Lazarus to return to earth as a ghost to convince the rich man’s family of how real this eternal torment business is. But Abraham shoots down his request, telling him that his relatives need to respond to the revelation that Yahweh has already given them. Now then, does this story support the theory that we rest in peace? Not hardly. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is speaking under the Old Covenant when He tells this story. He hasn’t died yet. The Old Covenant is still in effect. So much for souls who died before the cross not being able to go to Heaven. Since the very beginning, when humans die, they are immediately in Heaven or Hell.

There are other stories Jesus tells in which we see the same thing happening: souls find themselves immediately in eternity, either on the good side or the bad side. Both Heaven and Hell have plenty of occupants. The people who end up in Hell are extremely distressed. Speaking to a repentant thief that is dying on a cross that is next to His, Jesus says “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).  He doesn’t say, “Good attitude, pal. We’ll meet up again in a few millennia when I’m wrapping up this earth project.”

Now after the Gospels, we wade through the New Testament epistles, in which the apostles talk to us about death being sleep and how we’ll all be raised to glory on some distant day. Well, no, this is wrong. When we get to Revelation, Jesus is talking, and once again we find the teaching that souls who die immediately end up in either Heaven or Hell. Showing John a picture of God’s throne room in Heaven, Jesus has it packed with human beings who lived on earth. Christian martyrs are there—souls who got chopped down by the Roman Empire. Christian persecution is the main focus of Revelation, and Jesus describes the dead as being immediately with Him in Heaven. In Revelation, we know how souls died because they are complaining about the fact that God is taking so long to avenge their blood. Revelation is speaking to New Covenant Christians, and it is Christians who we see in Heaven. Back in Acts, which is also written during the New Covenant, we find Christian Stephen getting stoned to death.  It is extremely painful to be stoned, yet in the middle of the onslaught of rocks, Stephen’s face lights up and he tells everyone that he sees Heaven opening up before him.  He also sees Jesus standing beside Yahweh, waiting to receive him.  How thrilling is this?  We all know where Stephen ended up, yet the Book of Acts was written by superstitious Jewish Luke who is still confused about the death process, so what does he write?  “Having said this, Stephen fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).  Luke isn’t quite grasping the import of Stephen’s words, is he?  Cultural traditions run deep.  Stephen didn’t fall asleep.  He went straight into the arms of His Lord.

There won’t be any lying in the dirt until the second coming.  There won’t be any waiting for that trumpet to sound. There won’t be any biting your nails in distress as you wait in some long line at the Great White Throne of Judgment. To die is to immediately be with the Lord. To die is to immediately receive your due punishment or reward based on how you responded to God on earth. Any theory that encourages you to view death as some kind of passive thing, or teaches you that souls still linger in the earthly realms after death is a lie. When you die, you are going to deal with God—or rather, He’s going to deal with you. So be ready.

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