My grandmother Lockhart died decades ago a lover of Jesus. One morning her close friend, Ms. Velma, called my mom to tell her of a dream.
She dreamed my grandmother walked out of her house onto a huge stage at a Christian concert. She was as beautiful as an angel, the star performer, and sang the most beautiful words she had ever heard. When she finished singing, my grandma said, “I love all of you but I can’t stay there with you. I want all of you to come where I am! It is the most beautiful, glorious place! I want all of you to live here with me!”
Could it be?
This week, I was asked the question: “What happens when you die?” Oddly, it’s something I’ve thought about posting for a few weeks.
I’m a pastor. I have to think often and deeply about death and the beyond. Funerals are part of the deal. I’ve done many. I’ve done children’s funerals (brutal) to funerals of the elderly. I’ve done funerals for believers and unbelievers. Within the loss and tears, the question hangs, “Where are they now? What are they doing?” Sometimes I’m forthright with the answer, other times the funeral is no place to answer it.
Either way, I’ll take a shot at this. It won’t be exhaustive. What I share will bring great comfort and joy to some. For others, it will be offensive, painful I’m sure, and controversial. But my goal is to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.
Here we go…
The apostle Paul uses the inspiring imagery of our bodies being tents (2 Cor. 5:1ff). This is a nod to the Old Testament book of Exodus. Escaping Pharoah’s oppression via Moses, the people of God folded up their tents on the beach of the Red Sea and traveled on dry-ground between the parted waters to the far shore.
Death is the ultimate Exodus. It’s the moment our tents are folded up and our souls cross over to the shores of eternity. Sort of like Moses, it seems God’s angels will personally accompany the born-again believer to paradise (Luke 16:22).
Just before my grandfather Jones died (also a lover of Jesus), my uncle Bobby shared that my grandfather sat up in his bed and looked through the windows peering into the back yard where he played as a young boy. Sitting up in his bed was near impossible because both his legs were amputated and he was extremely weak. But something gripped him. He seemed to be following someone or something outside the window and stared a long time. Then he laid back on his bed with a look of amazement, joy, and peace.
Could it have been his escorting angels?
Dust to Dust.
Upon death, the earthly body begins its decay and return to the elements (Genesis 3:19). On the last day of world history, the body will be resurrected immortal and reunited with the soul (Daniel 12:2; John 6:40; 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
The term “sleep” is used in Scripture for those who have died. But it only refers to the body, and never the soul (John 11:11; 1 Cor. 15:18ff; 1 Thess. 4:13ff). In addition, the Apostle Paul declares that for the believer to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, and when we depart from this life we are in the presence of Christ (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21-23). Sadly, the unbeliever has a different destination.
Paradise and Hades.
As the body (not the soul) “sleeps” until its resurrection, “Paradise” (Luke 23:43) or “Hades” (Luke 16:23) are where souls reside. Those who are born-again in Christ, paradise. Those who are not, hades.
Paradise and heaven seem to be used interchangeably (Acts 1:9-10; Luke 23:43), as is hades and hell (Luke 16:23; Matt. 25:41,46; 2 Peter 2:4). So there’s a tension and mystery.
At the end of the day, it seems paradise and hades are the abode of born-again and unbelieving souls which precedes the soul and body reunion. This is the pre-cursor to the final destinations of the new heaven and earth for the righteous, and the lake of fire for the unrighteous (Rev. 21:1-8).
Put another way…
Paradise is not the final heaven (Rev. 21:1-4), but still heavenly—a place of glory and joy, without sin and sorrow, in the very presence of God and experiencing personal communion with Jesus (Luke 23:43).
Hades is not the final hell, but still hellish—a place of separation from God with torment and agony (Luke 16:22-24).
This is not a “purgatory.” Nor is there a third destination called purgatory—where people suffer long enough to be purified from sin while depending on the prayers of people to help them so that they can go to heaven. If this is true, Jesus’ sacrifice was for naught and the grace of God insufficient.
On a similar note, annihilationism is not taught by Scripture either—the belief that hell will extinguish (annihilate) the souls of the unrighteous, not cause torment. Scholars point to the terms “perish” and “destruction” in Scripture to make the case. However, every context regarding the terms has to do with an “everlastingness” or “endlessness” of conscious experience (Matt. 13:42, 50; Matt. 25:46; Rev. 14:10).
Heaven and Hell.
Upon death, believers “go” to paradise. But the day is coming when heaven will “come” to earth. On the second return of Jesus, the souls of departed believers will reunite with their glorified immortal bodies with Christ in the clouds to live in the presence, light, and glory of God forever (1 Thess 4:13-18). They ultimately will dwell in the new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21:1-4). This is the return to Eden where resides “the tree of life” (Rev. 22:1-2). Earth and its geography will remain recognizable yet without corruption and God will be its light forever (Rev. 22:4-5). Believers will recognize and reunite with their believing loved ones and be with them for all eternity (Gen. 25:8; 2 Sam. 12:23; 1 Thess. 4:17-18).
Upon death, unbelievers reside in hades. Their souls too will rejoin their bodies (Matthew 10:28; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). They will ultimately face the final hell—“Gehenna” hell. Jesus used this word in reference to the Valley of Hinnom where garbage, animal carcasses, and the like were burned within a fire that was never put out. This hell is where “death and hades, the devil, and anyone whose name was not found in the book of life” will be thrown into the lake (“never put out”) of fire. Hell will be the place of pure darkness, loneliness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, and where the unbeliever/unrighteous are tormented day and night forever (Matt. 8:12; Mark 9:48; Matt 25:41; Luke 19:38; Rev. 20:10, 14-15; John 3:16).
It’s terrifying and painful to write those words.
There’s a Scripture in Revelation that stopped me cold years ago. Revelation 14:10: “…he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.”
The Lamb is Jesus. His presence is felt in hell. What could this mean? Hell is God minus mercy, minus grace, minus love. The unbeliever/unrighteous spurned His mercy, grace, and love in their lifetime. Now God gives them what they want, but with the cost of His Holy presence forever.
So, my godly grandmother. Could it be she was in paradise singing to God and speaking to Ms. Velma in her dream? Did my grandfather see angels coming to escort Him into the presence of God?
I believe so.
But there’s a more important question.
What will happen when you die?