Where do we go when we die?
Two things spurred me to write this blog today.
First was the passing of three American Icons, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson.
When legends die most people begin to wonder about their own mortality as well.
Secondly an acerbic comment left by ‘John’, an obviously confused person who by the prejudgment of his Fundamentalist ideology accused me of twisting Scripture to my own ends and urged me in no certain terms to ‘repent’. The topic in question for which ‘John’ had issues with was that of the Scriptural view of ‘Ghosts’ I examined in my article The Bible and the Paranormal Part 1:Ghosts.
When people of deep faith or conviction are presented with the idea that the ideology that they hold so dear might not be based on fact but conjecture, they either get go into a classic stress reaction which leads to fight or flight.
Judging by the comments of some, ‘John’ notwithstanding, that has been the overall reaction by Christians of a particular mindset to this topic.
Beware Christian Dogma Ahead!
While many of you might not hold to Christian belief, the Christian traditions have merged with Western Culture to such an extent that common beliefs in Christian circles are those in common culture as well.
The dominant Christian/Western view is that as Christians when we die, we go to heaven or hell depending upon what you either a) did with your life, and/or b)your relationship with Jesus Christ.
But does the Bible really say that?
Again as in my previous articles I must say we must look at the Bible as a whole and in context.
Most Christians get the belief that they are going straight off to heaven when they die because of some key passages from Paul the Apostle:
2 Corinthians 5:1-8 (NKJV)
1 For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, 3 if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. 4 For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
6 So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. 7 For we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
Philippians 1:21-23 (NKJV)
21 For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
So it would seem from a quick glance at these Scriptures that the Apostle Paul in these two letters is telling us that when you die you go right to Jesus in heaven. Many Christians comfort themselves with this thought, and to challenge it is considered heresy.
But when looking at Scripture as a whole it is not so clear cut.
Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians tells us something a little different about those who are dead:
13 But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. 14 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 NKJV)
So here Paul says those who die are asleep. They are not alive and consciously living with Jesus in heaven. He also uses this terminology in the first letter to the
17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.
There is a belief among some Christian traditions of ‘Soul Sleep’. Once the body is dead, the soul is not conscious. The soul and spirit sleep until they can be united with a new body.
So are we ‘asleep’ in souls sleep, or are we in heaven, or something else?
To define this let’s look at the verses that follow 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, Vv.9-10
9 Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
Paul is talking about being with Christ in the context of the judgement of believers. If you also follow the context of the other Scriptures here as well, you will see that Paul is putting all this terminology and referencing into the context of the resurrection.
The Judeo-Christian tradition holds that there will be a bodily resurrection of the just at the end days. That is the great hope. We will not dwell in heaven for eternity, though by the language the scripture uses we could, but our bodies will be transformed and be like Christ at His resurrection. It will be a supernatural and multidimensional body that can traverse heaven and Earth. Not only that, but the whole cosmos shall be re-made so there is no more sin, war or death. That is the great hope.
What Paul references here then is what Christian Theologians call ‘The Intermediate State’ or ‘Disembodied Existence’. While the body dies, the soul lives on. It is the state of the body between death and resurrection.
Dr. D.E. Nilsson in his Biblical Doctrine Study concerning the
Early church fathers believed that all who die, righteous and unrighteous alike descend into Sheol or Hades, a gloomy dream state where they await the second coming of Christ.
Sheol and Hades are terminology associated with the grave, but in early apostolic thought it was almost a purgatory like waiting place where the souls of the dead waited until their final judgment. The just had joy and the unjust experienced torture. So the righteous in Christ experienced bliss, and although they were not in heaven itself (they had to be in the resurrected form to be granted that privilege after the judgment) they did experience comfort.
Many ancient writers who’s belief system that were akin to the ancient church fathers believed there was fellowship between souls in Sheol/Hades and the individual still laid claim to their identity. The supernatural phenomenon of a haunting, if it was not classified as demonic, was often thought of as a soul escaping Sheol/Hades up until the late 19th century. (Burmester, William.
So where do we go when we die?
Traditionally we await the judgment of God and Christ in a disembodied existence. In that existence to have a taste of what that judgment will be. For the good, Christ comforts them and according to apostolic thought, there is a fellowship with family and friends. It is much like the phenomena related by those who have a near death experience. For the bad, it is not pleasant.
Significant in the early church thought is the concept of a souls escaping or somehow not being in Sheol/Hades.
While many will try to refute that the Bible talks about ghosts as disembodied spirits of the dead in Scripture, you cannot escape the evidence that the Scripture does reference ghost/spirits many times in a manner that does not associate them with demonic forces that need to be exorcized (1 Samuel 28:7-25; Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52; Luke 24:33-43; John 6:14-21). Scripture tells us there was a belief in ghosts in the believing community of the Old and New Testament. Early church belief and writings demonstrate that believers untainted by millennia of political manipulation of theology believed that some spirits were indeed the disembodied dead who somehow escaped the confines of Sheol/Hades.
So we have Scripture and ancient church tradition to lean on. After we die we are in a place awaiting our final destination.
A place of peace for some, a place of torment for others.
A place that for some reason or another a spirit can escape or in some way avoid.
We do not know.
But the spirit will not be able to avoid judgment for good or ill by its Creator and Sustainer of life, even though it might traverse the land of the living for a time.
Until Next Time,