What actually happens when we die? Do Christians go to heaven after death? Or maybe—the other place? What the Bible says happens after death may surprise you.
This article will discuss the following topics:
- What does the Bible say about death?
- Bible verses that describe death as sleep.
- How is death like sleep?
- Will I go to heaven when I die?
- Where do we go when we die?
- Bible verses on the future resurrection of the dead.
- Hope and comfort from the truth about life after death.
What happens when we die? Nearly all Christian denominations teach a “heaven or hell” afterlife. Essentially, they believe that every human being has an immortal soul that will go straight to heaven or hell after the physical body dies.
There are many ideas about what heaven and hell are like, and about who will go to heaven and who will go to hell. But do the popular ideas about heaven and hell come from the Bible?
The Bible teaches very clearly that all human beings die: “And as it is appointed for men to die once …” (Hebrews 9:27). Since death awaits us all, what happens after death is one of the most important questions we can ask—and answer!
What does the Bible say about death?
The short answer to this question is that the Bible says we literally die after death. We don’t go to heaven or hell, or maintain any conscious state. Dead people “sleep” in unconsciousness—they don’t think or feel anything.
But the good news is that the sleep of death is not permanent. The Bible teaches there will be a resurrection—a restoration of life at a future time.
Bible verses that describe death as sleep
When the Bible describes death, it often likens it to sleep.
- “Why did I not die at birth? Why did I not perish when I came from the womb? … For now I would have lain still and been quiet, I would have been asleep; then I would have been at rest” (Job 3:11, 13, emphasis added throughout).
- “So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep” (Job 14:12).
- “For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).
- “Consider and hear me, O LORD my God; enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3).
- “His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:4).
- “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).
- “These things He said, and after that He said to them, ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.’ … However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep” (John 11:11, 13).
- “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36).
- “For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (1 Corinthians 11:30).
- “Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. … But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:18, 20).
- “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51).
- “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [those who had died], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
- “[Jesus Christ] died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).
The above scriptures are very clear that the Bible likens death to sleep. To learn more about the state of the dead, read our article “4 Keys to Understanding the Afterlife.”
How is death like sleep?
Death is like sleep in that no conscious thought occurs when one has died. People who are dead are completely unconscious—unaware of the passage of time and without any feelings or awareness of themselves or their surroundings.
These Bible verses elaborate on how death is a state of unconsciousness:
- “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, King James Version).
- “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
- “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (verse 10).
But another reason death is analogous to sleep is because, as is stated by some of the above scriptures, death is temporary. When someone falls asleep, they will eventually wake up. When someone dies, they experience “the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3) for a period of time, but will awaken in the future. The Bible calls this the resurrection of the dead.
“Will I go to heaven?”
The Bible verses we have quoted in this article make it clear that when a person dies, he or she is unconscious. Death is like sleep. But many people believe that good people go to heaven when they die. In fact, every year thousands of people ask search engines: “Will I go to heaven?”
The above scriptures answer that question indirectly. They collectively tell us about the mental state of the dead and use an analogy (sleep) that doesn’t match the common idea about heaven. Most churches don’t teach that people go to heaven to sleep for eternity.
There is no scripture that says we will go heaven when we die.
In fact, Jesus Christ—the highest authority we could consult on the topic—said in John 3:13: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.”
The apostle Peter reinforced Jesus Christ’s teaching in his famous Pentecost sermon, which he delivered seven weeks after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. … For David did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:29, 34).
To learn more about the Bible’s teaching about heaven, read our article “Is Heaven Real? What Is Heaven?”
Where do we go when we die?
The apostle Paul makes this clear in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16: “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep [are dead]. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”
When Jesus Christ returns, as the apostle Paul stated it, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (verse 16). For one to “rise,” one would have to come up from somewhere. If one had died and gone to heaven already, then the individual wouldn’t be rising from the grave when Christ returns. He or she would be descending from heaven. Paul is clear that the dead wake up from their sleep and rise.
The Bible actually describes more than one resurrection of the dead. To learn when these resurrections will occur and who will be in them, read “What Are the Resurrections?”
Bible verses on the future resurrection of the dead
Here are other Bible verses that reiterate the truth that the dead will be resurrected at a future time. These can provide comfort when we are dealing with the death of a loved one.
- Jesus Christ speaking: “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:39-40). (In the Bible, the “last day” usually refers to the time Jesus Christ returns to earth.)
- Jesus Christ speaking: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).
- The apostle Paul writing: “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
- Samuel’s mother, Hannah, in one of her prayers: “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
- Isaiah prophesying: “Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (Isaiah 26:19).
It is appointed for all of us to die, but when Jesus Christ returns to the earth at the last day, the followers of Jesus Christ who have died will be raised from their graves and given eternal life.
In the end, everyone will have had a full opportunity for salvation.
The truth about life after death provides hope and comfort
While it may be comforting to those coping with the death of loved ones to think of them as looking down from heaven, this belief is not supported by the Bible. Instead, God’s Word comforts us with the fact that God will raise them to life again, and all will have a chance to become children of God, who will live happy, productive and abundant lives forever!
In the meantime, there is no suffering in the grave. The dead have no thoughts or consciousness and are unaware of the passage of time. They are sleeping in their graves.
But God promises they will live again! When the dead are resurrected, it will be as though they have awakened from a deep sleep.
Paul likened the perception of the dead from the time they die to the time they are resurrected as like “a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). That means that the time between death and resurrection is like a split second to the person—the blink of an eye.
When the dead are resurrected, it will feel like their death occurred a moment ago—even though their death could have occurred hundreds (or even thousands) of years before!
We can take great comfort in knowing that when they awaken, they will rise in a much different world, a world that Jesus Christ and the resurrected saints will have been ruling. (For more on this future time, see “1,000 Years—the Millennium.”)
So, to summarize, do we go to heaven when we die?
The Bible answers this question very clearly: No. Only Jesus Christ has gone to heaven. Human beings don’t go to heaven or hell at death.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost when someone dies. The Bible reveals the encouraging hope that the dead will be resurrected at a future time—after Jesus Christ returns.
This article just skimmed the surface of a big topic. To learn more about what the Bible says happens when we die, we invite you to study the related articles in this section about life after death.