A question on lots of people’s mind, where do dead people go? The Bible offers an answer to this question. It answers where the dead are right now, and where they will be in the future. In this article I’m going to be focusing upon where dead people go “currently” as opposed to the future.
Many Christians believe that the Bible teaches people go straight to Heaven or Gehenna (“hell”) when they die, whilst others believe they go to a place called “Limbo”, where they are still alive but are in neither Heaven or Gehenna, but are waiting to be either sent to Gehenna or brought up to Heaven on judgement day, and others in a similar manner believe we become ghosts, left wondering about to haunt the Earth.
But you might be surprised to know that the Bible teaches none of those things, with exception of course to the fact there there is a judgement day, but I’m not going to get into that topic here, we shall stay on the subject of the dead as they are in this moment of time.
The first thing we should do is go right to the Bible and bring out all the scriptures which comment on the current state of the dead.
- Genesis 3:19: “To dust you will return…”
- Psalms 146:4: “His spirit goes out, he returns to the ground; On that very day his thoughts perish“.
- Ecclesiastes 9:5: “…the dead know of nothing”
- Job 14:12: “…so a man lies down and does not rise. Until the heavens are no more, he will not be awakened or roused from sleep“.
- John 11:11-14: “This He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, so that I may awaken him out of sleep.” The disciples then said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. So Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead“”.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope”.
- John 3:13: “Moreover, no man has ascended into heaven but the one who descended from heaven, the Son of man”
As we can see, the dead are said to be in a state of “sleep” where they “know nothing”. The body becomes dust, their thoughts cease. Furthermore, it is said that no man has ever gone into Heaven besides Jesus.
Of course, another thing to note here is the mention of “a man’s spirit going out”. Many may be surprised to learn that this “spirit” does not refer to a concious soul as is commonly taught in many churches, as clearly the scriptures plainly state that the dead “don’t know anything”. However, I won’t be getting into just what the spirit is here, as I have already wrote a topic on the soul and spirit, and so if you wish for more infomation on that, I encourage you to read that article:
The definition of “dead” or “death” from the Bible in original Hebrew is “muth” or “yamut”, which simply means “to die” or “expire” as we know it in an every day meaning. This word is applied to not only humans, but to the death of plants and animals (https://biblehub.com/interlinear/leviticus/11-39.htm).
But why is the definition of death in Hebrew important? Well, many churches would claim to be “dead” doesn’t actually mean “dead”, but only refers to “not going to Heaven” or “being in Hell”, in order to defend the idea of an immortal soul or spirit after we die. But the scriptures do not ever make this statement, and secondly, if that ‘was’ the meaning of “death”, then the Bible would obviously have to describe all plants and animals as “dead” (seeing that it is not said they go to Heaven or recieve resurrections) even though they are alive and breathing, but this is not the case.
So where does the idea of immediately going to Heaven, Hell or Limbo when we die come from? Well, this idea cannot be said to be without Greek religious influence upon the early post-apostlistic church, of whom believe in places such as “Hades” and taught that there was an immortal soul which was concious after death.
It was these teachers who influenced the Christians after the time of Apostle John’s death to interpret certain Bible terms with the Greek religious mindset, and these influences remain today, even within modern day Bible translations. For example, “Sheol” the original Hebrew word in the Bible for the state of the dead, has become “Hades” (also known as “Limbo”) in most Bibles today, and Hades in Greek religious thought is the “underworld”, a place where immortal souls go after people die. “Hades” has been written into the later Greek manuscripts as a word to parallel the original Hebrew word “Sheol”.
- Genesis 37:35 (Hebrew manuscripts): “All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning. Thus his father wept for him“.
- Genesis 37:35 (Greek Septuagint manuscripts): “All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Hades to my son, mourning. Thus his father wept for him.”
Shockingly, this meaning of “underworld” to translate the Biblical hades and even Sheol has even been inserted into some translation lexicons, such as the usually very reliable Strong’s Concordance, and in various Bible translations the term has been rendered with great inconsistancy, ranging from not just Hades but “Hellfire”, “the pit”, and “the grave”. However this is not the original meaning in Hebrew of the word “Sheol”. It has been said by some that there isn’t exactly a “precise word” in our modern languages to explain just was Sheol is.
According to historians, as well as ancient and traditional Judaic sources, Sheol is merely “a place” where the dead are, but is not described to be a place of reward, torment or even conciousness.
“Sheol was located somewhere ‘under’ the earth. . . . The state of the dead was one of neither pain nor pleasure. Neither reward for the righteous nor punishment for the wicked was associated with Sheol. The good and the bad alike, tyrants and saints, kings and orphans, Israelites and gentiles—all slept together without awareness of one another.” – Encyclopedia Britannica (1971, Vol. 11)
“Sheol is practically a family grave on a large scale. Graves were protected by gates and bolts; therefore Sheol was likewise similarly guarded. The separate compartments are devised for the separate clans, septs, and families, national and blood distinctions continuing in effect after death. That Sheol is described as subterranean is but an application of the custom of hewing out of the rocks passages, leading downward, for burial purposes”. – Jewish Encyclopedia (V. 11)
This understanding makes far more sense and is consistant with the scriptures in regards to the non-concious state of the dead, as opposed to the Greek religious beliefs about the dead. This could lead us to conclude that, by means of reverse engineering the Hebrew to Greek word transliterations, that “Hades” in later Greek translations of the New Testament (seeing that the originals would have most likely been wrote in either Hebrew or Aramaic by Jesus’ disciples) is an inappropriate replacement word, and was most likely inserted by writers past the 3rd century who came to believe in the Greek religions and philosophies about the immortal soul.
Though we still do not have an exact word to describe Sheol in our language, many translations that put the word “grave” or “graveyard” I feel is most likely the most appropriate word we can muster, and is what the ancient Greek writers of the 3rd century ‘should have’ inserted. Why? Because we know the dead do not know anything, and that secondly the “body” becomes “dust”, whilst the “spirit” returns to God (more on that in my other article I linked earlier). Thus, if people are unconciously waiting in Sheol to be resurrected, whilst their “spirit” returns to God, then how can it be said that the concious immortal soul of a person is in living some sort of “underworld”? The Bible does not harmonise such an idea, it is a completely illogical inconsistancy.
There are of course some scriptures in the Bible some would cite to try and prove that the dead are concious after death and go somewhere, and some based on these scriptures even believe certain holy men from the Bible are either in Heaven or “Hades” right now.
- Hebrews 11:5: “By faith Eʹnoch was transferred so as not to see death, and he was nowhere to be found because God had transferred him; for before he was transferred he received the witness that he had pleased God well.”
- Genesis 5:24: “Enoch walked with God, and then he was no more, because God had taken him away”.
- 2 Kings 2:11: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven/the sky(?) in a whirlwind“.
These scriptures are often used to prove that people have gone to Heaven and that Enoch and Elijah are in Heaven. However, this would contradict John 3:13, in that no man has ever entered Heaven before Christ. So how are we to understand these scriptures?
In the case of Enoch, at first glance, it looks as if Enoch is the first person to have ever gone to heaven in a way akin to the elect of Jesus, who are to be gathered from the Earth during the “last trumpet” to be taken to Heaven. However, we know that this is not so thanks to the words in John. Thus, the meaning of this scripture may be be somewhat ambiguous. But it has been suggested by some that it may mean Enoch “never felt” or saw his death coming, and that his body was removed from existence entirely, it’s uncertain but that guess is as good as any. But what we can be certain of, is that Enoch did not literally become transferred to Heaven, but rather was transferred from life in a manner that he did not consciously experience the coming of his death, as Genesis puts it “he was no more”.
As for Elijah, it would appear to me that he was taken up by some sort of “divine tornado”, not to Heaven, but in a similar manner to Enoch, to have his life taken away and put to sleep, with his body being nowhere to be found, a “transference to death”. The word in this verse often translated “up to Heaven” comes from the Hebrew word “shamayim”, which can mean “sky”, or the “heavens” in terms of outerspace. Thus, knowing that Jesus told us no man has gone to Heaven before him, it can only follow logically that the translation here is that Elijah was taken up literally into the sky to a peaceful death.
But what about the verses at Luke? Some may wonder, where Jesus describes a begger being carried off by angels to Abraham’s and Lazarus’ side whilst a rich man is suffering in Sheol?
- Luke 16:22-31: “Now in the course of time, the beggar died and was carried off by the angels to Abraham’s side. Also, the rich man died and was buried. And in Sheol he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and he saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus by his side. So he called and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this blazing fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you had your fill of good things in your lifetime, but Lazarus for his part received bad things. Now, however, he is being comforted here, but you are in anguish. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to go over from here to you cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.’ Then he said, ‘That being so, I ask you, father, to send him to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, in order that he may give them a thorough witness so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to these.’ Then he said, ‘No, indeed, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
In this passage, some get the idea that this is teaching a form of Hades or Limbo, where people go to suffer but are not condemned, whilst others for based on this passage have translated Sheol to mean “Hellfire”.
Of course we begin to see the issues here in both doctrinal and translation inconsistancy. Hellfire in modern Bibles comes from the word Gehenna, and is not the same as Hades, that is, Sheol. Thus this is where the idea of “temporary torment in limbo” comes from. However, it’s important to remember the aformentioned scriptures that the dead are not aware of anything and are sleeping. Both the inspired passages of the Old Testament and Jesus himself said this, so what is this passage all about?
What is happening here is Jesus is telling a ‘moral story’ to serve as an example and warn us about judgement, as he often did when he made many parables. The Bible says that the dead of whom are destined for Heaven are first resurrected on “the last day” when Jesus returns to Earth, and not to believe anyone who says otherwise:
- 2 Timothy 2:17-18: “Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some”.
- Mark 13:26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens”.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “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”.
- Revelation 20:12: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books”.
As we can see, nobody has entered Heaven before Christ, and has yet to enter Heaven before his return. Where the dead are now is in the state of Sheol, that is, sleeping, aware of nothing, awaiting for the return of Christ. Those who are elect await to be awoken to be taken by his side to become judges, whilst the rest will be awoken to judgement during his 1000 year reign. (For a more indepth look at the resurrections, see my article):
Thus when we die, we do not have to fear entering some form of punishment, or other realm, we merely sleep as we await Christ’s return.
We in turn also do not have to fear ghosts or ghouls, nor will we fall for the deceptions of demonic spirits who pretend to be the spirits of the long dead to strike fear into people, or to lie to them by pretending to be “Saints”, or old dead family members and friends (such as when they pretended to be Samuel for the witch of Endor to trick King Saul at 1 Samuel 28:7-20, clearly demons nor witches have the power to revive the dead, only our God Yehovah and his Anointed Son Jesus can do such things and is why God commanded his people to keep away from such things at Leviticus 20:6).
We all of course look forward to the future where we will be reunited with our lost loved ones again and share the joy of eternal life with them if we all do our best to strive to follow Jesus and obey the commands of God.
I pray for peace of mind upon anyone who reads this article who may be in grief over the loss of a loved one, please have faith that there is hope to be reunited with them again in the future. This is the promise of our Father in Heaven by means of his Son, Jesus.