A funny story is told about an old tombstone in an Indiana cemetery that bears the following epitaph:
Pause Stranger, when you pass me by.
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be.
So prepare for death and follow me.
A passerby read the words on the tombstone and scratched below them this reply:
To follow you I’m not content,
Until I know which way you went.
Most people have the same sentiments as this passerby. The common belief is that when bad people die, they go down below the ground to be endlessly tortured in a fiery, burning hell. But good people are believed to go up to heaven at death to live in blissful splendor where God and his angels dwell.
Naturally, most would prefer the latter place. For they’ve probably been told all their lives: You be good and you’ll have wonderful happiness in heaven when you die; be bad and you ‘ll go to hell and suffer forever. Some add another place: Purgatory—sort of a stopping off place for punishing sinners who need their sins purged so they’ll be qualified to enter heaven.
DO THE DEAD GO TO HEAVEN?
What a lot of people, however, might be shocked to learn is that the Bible has something much different to say about where you go when you die. For example, Ecclesiastes 3:19-22 says,
(19) For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (20) All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. (21) Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth? (22) I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him? (New American Standard Bible, NASB).
Note that it says, “All [both humans and animals] go to the same place” when they die. We’re all made of the dust (Genesis 2:7) so, when we take our final breath, we “all” will turn back into the dust. When Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, Gen. 3:19, says, “By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (See also, Gen. 18:27; Psalm 103).
For humans, the only thing that goes back to God is our breath (Hebrew, ruach and neshamah; Greek, pneuma) but that’s only the air that is expelled from our lungs once we die. The breath of life is associated with the oxygen that humans inhale. Without it, we cease to live. Our brain and nervous system cease to function when we no longer have breath.
When we permanently stop breathing at death, we can no longer experience consciousness. We cannot think, feel, or choose. Like it says in Psalm 146:4, when a person dies, “He breathes his last breath, he returns to the dust; and that same hour all his thinking ends,” (The New English Bible, NEB).
WHAT IS DEATH?
Likewise, the Bible describes the nature of death as…
- Having no remembrance (Psalm 6:5);
- No ability to praise the Lord; total silence; no hope (Psalm 115:17; Isaiah 38:18);
- Unconscious sleep (Job 14:12; Psalm 13:3; Jeremiah 51:39, 57; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15);
- No activity, planning, knowledge, wisdom for the dead (Ecclesiastes 9:10);
- The dead know nothing (Ecclesiastes 9:5);
- No love, hatred, zeal, nor any reward for the dead (Eccl. 9:6).
So much for feeling any kind of torment in a burning hell or eternal bliss in heaven.
So, where do the dead go? Well, for one thing, it’s not heaven, or else the Bible would say so. In John 3:13 Jesus says, “And no one has ascended into heaven, but he who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man,” (NASB). You would think that if all good people go to heaven, the Bible would say so. After all, aren’t all the righteous supposed to be rewarded with eternal life?
And yet, all the faithful including those listed in chapter 11 of Hebrews, never have experienced that promise yet. Rather than being in heaven, they are still waiting in their graves for the fulfillment of God’s promise to receive eternal life. Hebrews 11:39-40 says, “And all these, having gained approval [lit., “obtained a testimony”] through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God has provided something better for us [the living] so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
One of the faithful, listed in Hebrews 11, is King David (vs. 32). Just like we all do, David fell asleep in death. The Apostle Paul said this patriarch of the faith was laid to rest like all those before him (Acts 13:36). In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter mentioned David, too: “Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day,” (Acts 2:29). He went on the say, “David has not ascended into the heavens,” (Acts 2:34).
WHAT ABOUT HELL? WHO GOES THERE?
As we’ve noted, everyone—whether good or bad—goes to one place at death. In the Bible, that place is called the grave. It’s also called “hell,” derived from the Anglo-Saxon word, helan, which literally means “to cover” or “hide out of sight,” as cited by the late Dr. Alva G. Huffer in his book, Systematic Theology, (published by Atlanta Bible College, McDonough, GA, 1960, 7th printing, 2010, p. 160).
Dr. Huffer went on to explain that when Bible scholars translated the Hebrew language in the Old Testament and the Greek language in the New Testament into English, they used the word hell that originally referred to the grave. He said,
The men who originally wrote the Bible, of course, never heard of the word hell, since this is an English word and the English language was not spoken in Bible times. In order to understand the nature of the Bible hell, we must determine the meaning of the words used by Bible writers. ( (Ibid., pp. 160-161)
So, when the Bible refers to hell, one must go to the Hebrew and Greek words from which the word was translated. So, the Hebrew word for hell in the Old Testament is sheol. And the Greek word for hell in the New Testament is hades. Both sheol and hades mean the same—namely, “the grave.” Some modern translations use the original Hebrew and Greek words instead of translating them into hell.
In essence, it can be said that all—both the righteous and unrighteous; good and bad—go to the Bible hell since all those who die are in their graves. The Bible says that men like Jacob (Gen. 37:35); Job (Job 14:13; 17:13); Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:10) all went to the Bible hell when they died. Even Jesus, himself, was in hell (Acts 2:27, 31) temporarily when he was buried in the tomb for three days and three nights. Dr. Huffer says, “Jacob, Job, Hezekiah, and Jesus did not go to a burning hell. They died and were buried. They were in the grave, the Bible hell,” (Ibid., p. 162).
THEN, THERE’S HELL FIRE…
Someone might wonder, What about the Bible passages where hell is associated with fire? Actually, there are 12 verses in the New Testament where the Greek word Gehenna was also translated hell. Gehenna was literally a place outside of Jerusalem where rubbish was burned. Also known as “the valley of Hinnom,” it was sort of like the city garbage incinerator where refuse, rubbish, and animal carcasses were consumed. Criminals who were crucified were also known to be cast into Gehenna. (Ibid., pp. 163-4).
When the Bible speaks of Gehenna fire, it’s referring to a future judgment of all the wicked, not something that happens at death. Gehenna hell is analogous to the “lake of fire,” for example, in Revelation 20:11-15, when the wicked dead are resurrected at the end of Jesus’ thousand year-reign, judged, and cast into, which is the second death. There will not be eternal torment but total destruction of the wicked (Malachi 4:1, 3; Psalm 92:7; 145:20; Obadiah 16; Matthew 7:13; Philippians 3:19; 2 Peter 2:12).
THE ‘FIRST DEATH’ NOT THE FINAL END
We can be most thankful that there is hope beyond the grave. Although all die the first death (Hebrews 9:27), we can escape the second death if we’ve accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior (Rev. 20:6, 15; 21:7-8). For He is the One we eagerly look forward to, who will come in power and glory to raise all those who are asleep in death.
When Jesus comes at the first resurrection, all the righteous who’ve died will be raised back to life to receive everlasting life (1 Corinthians 15:50-58; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18; Revelation 21:4). And they will be co-rulers with Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, over all the earth for a thousand years (Rev. 1:6-7; 20:6). This is the Good News for all believers to proclaim.
Although we know that all go to their graves at death, and all turn to dust, we also know that Jesus will come to raise the dead when he establishes God’s Kingdom on the earth. He is our example since God resurrected his Son from death to immortality after he died (Acts 2:31-32). As it says in Hebrews 9:28, “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await him,” (NASB).
And so, if I were to respond to the passerby, I would add this little ditty:
When Jesus comes in glory bright,
It will be a glorious sight;
Up from their graves the dead shall rise,
The living, also, to the skies;
The just shall live eternally,
The rest are doomed, no more they’ll be;
So be ready, watch and pray
For that Resurrection Day!
Good News to YOU!
P.S. Speaking of our hope, here’s a new arrangement to an old song, “Jesus Shall Reign,” http://youtu.be/Of61LP4L34M