What actually happens when we die? Do those who accept Jesus go to heaven immediately after death? The biblical truth may surprise you.
What awaits us after death? Many Christian denominations teach a “heaven or hell” afterlife. 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 all these ideas come from the Bible? What does the Bible really teach about life after death?
Nestled in a passage that discusses the role Jesus Christ played in willingly offering Himself as a sacrifice for our sins, this statement is made: “And as it is appointed for men to die once …” (Hebrews 9:27). Since death awaits us all, what happens after death is certainly worth considering!
What does the Bible say about death?
In several locations the Bible likens death to sleep. Notice the apostle Paul’s comforting instruction to the believers in Thessalonica: “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).
Before continuing with this passage, we need to address two matters: How is death similar to sleep? And second, if God is bringing these people “with Him,” from where is He bringing them?
Death is similar to sleep in that no conscious thought occurs when one has died. Two statements in the book of Ecclesiastes tell us of this reality:
- “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).
Psalm 146:4 adds: “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish” (King James Version). Once death occurs, human consciousness ends. Nothing’s going on in the mind.
After his children had died suddenly, his possessions were taken away, and he was afflicted with “painful boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 1:7), Job accurately summed up the nature of death while longing for it: “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” (Job 3:11-13).
Will we return from heaven with Jesus?
We have established that death is like a sleep in that a person is not actively engaged in any activity—no conscious thoughts, no labor, no anything. Now, let’s return to our second question regarding 1 Thessalonians 4:14: From where does God bring these people who “sleep in Jesus” (i.e., people who are dead)? Some would say He brings them from heaven. Is this what the Bible teaches?
Jesus Christ 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.” That seems clear! Why is it so hard for so many to believe?
Where do we go when we die?
People who have died are not awake in heaven! They are “sleeping” or resting in their graves. The remaining verses of 1 Thessalonians 4 confirm this. Notice:
“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” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16).
When Jesus Christ returns, the dead will “rise.” 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, yet this is not what Paul taught the Thessalonians.
This teaching of our being raised from the grave at Jesus Christ’s return is reiterated in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “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.”
Jesus Christ Himself also taught the principle of being raised up in John 6:39-40: “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.”
Jesus explained more about all, both good and bad, being resurrected from their graves in John 5:28-29: “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.”
Even King David, who is called a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), “did not ascend into the heavens” but “is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” the apostle Peter said (Acts 2:34, 29).
King David showed his understanding of where he would go after death in his prayer for deliverance from a life-threatening situation. He said, “Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake! For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:4-5).
Samuel’s mother, Hannah, also showed her understanding of God’s control of what happens after death. All people go to the grave until God resurrects them to life. She prayed, “The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up” (1 Samuel 2:6).
While it may be comforting to those struggling to cope with the death of loved ones to think of them as looking down from heaven, this belief is unbiblical and false. Instead, God’s Word comforts us with the fact that there is no suffering in the grave. And since there is no thought for those in the grave (Psalm 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10), there can be no awareness on their part of the passage of time. When they are resurrected, it will be as though they have awakened from sleep.
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 be ruling (read more about this by searching our section on the Kingdom of God).
Why isn’t the truth about heaven and the resurrection taught?
Why do many churches not understand this basic teaching about what happens when you die? In part, they try to explain away these clear verses by bringing up other passages that seem to contradict scriptural teaching on the subject.
One is the story of Lazarus and the rich man—a story often misinterpreted. To read more on this subject, see our article on “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”
Secondly, they refer to Jesus Christ’s statements to the “thief on the cross” who was crucified alongside Him: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:43). From this statement, people say, “See, Christ tells the man that he will be with Christ in Paradise that day!”
There are two reasons why we should not draw this conclusion when reading this passage:
- Jesus Christ very clearly stated He would be in the grave three days and three nights upon His death (Matthew 12:39-40). The grave is not paradise.
- In the original manuscripts of the New Testament, punctuation was not used. Punctuation has been added by translators to try to provide clarity. The passage could also be translated, “Assuredly, I say to you today [comma], you shall be with Me in Paradise.”
To put it in the vernacular, Christ could have been saying, “I’m telling you today that one day you’re going to be with Me in Paradise.” Translated this way, with the comma after the word “today” instead of before it, the passage fits with the other teachings of the resurrection found in Scripture. Read more about this in our article “Thief on the Cross: What Happened to Him?”
The Bible speaks of other resurrections that lead us to discussions surrounding the subjects of heaven, hell and the Kingdom of God, which are beyond the scope of this brief article. We invite you to learn more about these subjects in the related articles in this section about life after death.