Because he is the only one who died and came back to life on the third day, Jesus knows more about death than everyone who has speculated about what happens after we die. Even near-death experiences do not tell the whole story.
Jesus' clearest teaching on what happens to us after we die came when he himself was about to die on the cross. He told the dying thief on the cross next to him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43).1 The same Greek word for paradise is used in the Septuigint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to refer to a garden, park, or forest. It often refers to the Garden of Eden, (Genesis 2 and 3) and to the garden of God as it will be, (Ezekiel and Isaiah).2 Paul used "caught up to paradise" in parallel with "caught up to the third heaven",3 which is the place where God dwells. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). Jesus expanded his promise of paradise in his Revelation to the Apostle John, "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." (Revelation 2:7)
Jesus also promised his disciples that they would be with him after death. He said, "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2-3).
Jesus described his return in this way. “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matthew 24:30-32)
Paul included more details of Jesus’ return when he wrote, “Brothers, we do not want to you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
Some people believe that dead people are sleeping, that is, unconscious, while they wait for Jesus to return. But Peter wrote about Jesus, "He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built." (1 Peter 3:18-20) Obviously, Jesus would not bother to preach to those dead people if they were asleep.
Paul wrote, "Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:6-8) Paul recognizes only two options for believers, alive or with the Lord.
Also, Paul wrote, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body." (Philippians 1:21-24) I do not think it be hard for Paul to choose between being alive or being asleep in the grave for an unknown length of time. It is only a hard choice if Paul would immediately go to be with Jesus when he died.
These passages clearly teach that believer's souls go to be with Jesus when they die. Only their bodies sleep in the grave. When Jesus returns to the earth, he will bring their souls back with him and gather up the believers who are still alive. At that time, both the dead in Christ and the living will receive their resurrection bodies. Paul wrote, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, 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 cloth itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.” (1Corinthians 15:51-53) Then the believers will be caught up into the clouds to meet Jesus and to escort him back to the earth. This is just like the Jewish wedding custom where the guests would gather at the bride's house, go out to greet the groom and escort him back to the wedding banquet. (Matthew 25:1-13)
John adds these details about Jesus’ return. “Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:6) When Jesus returns, he will establish his kingdom on the earth for one thousand years. Believers will reign with Jesus and will serve as priests to the nonbelievers who survive the Tribulation and go into the Millennium.
Jesus clearly teaches that after believers die, they go to be with him. He also is clear on what happens to non-believers. He said, "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched'." (Mark 9:47-48). While Jesus was using hyperbole when he told people to pluck out their eyes, he made it clear that sinners end up in a horrible place, but there is more than one "hell". Hell is used to translate three different Greek words: Gehenna, Hades, and Tartaros.
Gehenna,4 the Greek work used in Mark 9, literally referred to the Valley of Hinnom on the south side of Jerusalem. This valley "served as the place where the offal of the city was burned."5 A town dump, with its continuous fire and decay, is a very gruesome picture of the place for sinners. Hades6 was well known in Greek literature as the place of the dead. Hades is also translated grave and depths. Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4) referred to the "lowest abyss of Hades."7 Angels who sinned were put in the gloomy dungeons of Tartarus to be held for judgment.
Hades is only a temporary place for the dead until they are judged in the final judgment, (Revelation 20:11-15). At that time, the sea, death, and Hades will give up the dead for judgment. "Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire." (Revelation 20:14). Therefore, when Jesus spoke of Gehenna with its continuous fire in Mark 9, he must have been referring to the lake of fire, not to Hades.
After the final judgment, there will be "a new heaven and a new earth", (Revelation 21:1). The Apostle John "saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God." (Revelation 21:2). John "heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'" (Revelation 21:3). This passage plainly teaches that God's dwelling place will change from heaven to the earth. It is further confirmed by a following passage. "The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it." (Revelation 21:23-26).
God has prepared this wonderful dwelling place for mankind. God has promised, "He who overcomes8 will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son." (Revelation 21:7) "Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city." (Revelation 22:14)
Sadly, non-believers will not inherit it. "But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death." (Revelation 21:8)
Jesus clearly taught that the bad people go to Hell, that is, Gehenna, the lake of fire. But what about the good people? The Bible contradicts the notion that people will go to heaven if their good deeds outnumber their bad deeds. Even one sin is enough to lose what God has prepared. Paul wrote, "All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'9 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because 'The righteous will live by faith.'"10 (Galatians 3:10b-11) "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Paul was a good man, "as for legalistic righteousness, faultless." (Philippians 3:4) But he wrote, "I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." (Philippians 3:8b-9)
Paul received this righteousness by faith when he was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and his unbelief was changed to belief in Jesus Christ. (Acts 9:1-20, 22:4-16) God then sent a man called Ananias to Paul to tell him, "You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." (Acts 22:15-16)
Paul, and everyone who has trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, have "washed their robes" and God has written their names in the Book of Life. They will spend eternity with God.
People who believe in God and trust in Jesus to save them go to be with Jesus in Paradise. People who do not believe in God or who trust in their own goodness to save them go to Hades. When Jesus returns to the Earth, believers who have died will come with him and reign for 1,000 years. After that, God will judge everyone for their actions at the Great White Throne Judgment. Non-believers are thrown into the Lake of Fire along with Satan and his demons. Believers will then spend eternity with God in the New Jerusalem. Where will you go when you die?
1 Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan
2 Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 3 vols. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1976) 3:761.
3 The first heaven is the atmosphere as in "clouds of heaven". Matthew 24:30 KJV. The second heaven is outer space as in "stars of heaven". Mark 13:29 KJV. The third heaven is where God dwells as in "your Father in heaven". Matthew 5:16.
4 Matthew 5:22,29, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15,33, Mark 9:43,45,47, Luke 12:5, James 3:6.
5 Charles F. Pfeiffer, Baker's Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979) 145.
6 Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 10:15, 16:23, Acts 2:27,31, Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13,14.
7 James Strong, Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible -- Greek Dictionary of the New Testament (Nashville: Royal Publishers, Inc.) 71.
8 Revelation 2:7, 2:11, 2:17, 2:26, 3:5, 3:12, 3:21.
9 Deuteronomy 27:26.
10 Habbakuk 2:4.
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The order of events at the end of this age is:
Jesus returns with the saints who had died and the living saints meet him in the air: the Rapture.
Jesus destroys Satan's army and Satan is put in prison for 1,000 years.
Jesus and the saints rule for 1,000 years on Earth along with non-believers who survived the Tribulation: the Millennium.
At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan is released from prison and gathers another army from the non-believers.
Jesus destroys Satan's army and Satan is thrown into the Lake of Fire.
At the White Throne Judgment, everyone who has ever lived is judged. Non-believers are thrown into the Lake of Fire.
The New Jerusalem comes down from Heaven to the new Earth and God dwells with Believers for eternity.
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