Death comes to everyone. What happens to us after we die is a question that has been pondered for thousands of years. Many Christians just assume that people go to heaven or hell after they die. Do our views on heaven and hell come from pagan religions, or from the Bible? How much of what we know about heaven comes from our culturally influenced presuppositions? What does Scripture actually say about heaven and who is there?
The Afterlife of Old-Time Religions
The majority of the Bible doesn’t address afterlife affairs. Scripture doesn’t say very much about heaven at all; in fact, most of the verses that are attributed to be describing heaven are actually describing God renewing the Earth. The Old Testament has virtually no interest at all in the afterlife, which made the religion of the Hebrews very unique in the ancient near east. Almost all other religions were obsessed and centered around the afterlife.
C.S. Lewis remarks, “It seems quite clear that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life; certainly no belief that is of any religious importance.” The beliefs of the Old Testament were not really concerned with the afterlife at all.
The only word used in the Old Testament to describe the destination of the dead is the word “sheol.” Sheol is a Hebrew word meaning “the grave,” a place where everyone goes when they die, not a place of suffering. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word “Hades” (the Greek underworld) was substituted for Sheol.1 The ancient Hebrews didn’t believe that people went anywhere after death except into the graves they were buried in. So, where did the belief in going to heaven when you die come from?
The Pagan Belief in an Immortal Soul
Most religions teach a form of a philosophy called dualism. Dualism is the belief that there are two distinct elements of human existence: the body and the soul. Though the details vary, the common belief is that at death, a person’s soul disconnects from their body and remains conscious. Many assume that this belief in an immortal soul is taught in the Bible, and yet the roots of this doctrine are not in the Bible, but in ancient pagan beliefs and philosophy.
Ancient pagan religions of Egypt, Babylon, and many others had elaborate rituals related to death. Though nearly all ancient pagan religions had some form of belief in an immortal soul, it wasn’t until the advent of Greek philosophy that the idea coalesced into a thoroughly developed teaching. Historians credit the Greek philosopher Plato (who lived during the fifth century B.C.) with the full-fledged philosophy of the immortal soul.2
Plato taught that humans possessed a soul that could never be destroyed. This is an idea that the Bible repeatedly refutes.
Plato taught that humans possessed a soul that could never be destroyed. This is an idea that the Bible repeatedly refutes.
The doctrine of the immortal soul is a major example of an unbiblical teaching being syncretized from paganism into Christianity after the Roman empire co-oped the religion. Even after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, these beliefs about the immortality of the soul continued in the Protestant denominations that sprang from the Roman Catholic Church. Nearly all branches of mainstream Christianity today get their beliefs about the afterlife from these scholars and historians (who got their beliefs from ancient paganism and philosophy)— not from the Bible.
The Biblical View of the Soul
The basis of our belief must be centered on Jesus and influenced by God’s inspired words of Scripture (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16)— not pagan doctrines and ideas adopted hundreds of years after the completion of the Bible. How does Scripture describe the “soul”? The English word “soul” appears in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible translated from the words nephesh (Hebrew) and psychē (Greek). Neither of these words actually mean “soul” the way our modern cultures understand the concept.
Psychē means “breath of life.” Nephesh very merely means “a living, breathing creature.” The word nephesh can describe any kind of living creature. The word translated “creatures” in Genesis 1:21 describing animals is the plural form of nephesh. On a physical level, human beings are composed of the same substance (matter) and are kept alive by the same physical processes as land mammals.
Contrary to the dualist theory that man is composed of two distinct elements (body and soul), Genesis 2:7 (KJV) declares that man is a soul. Human beings do not exist in two separate parts, our physicality and our spirituality are fused. From Genesis, we see that a soul is simply what a human being is— a physical, living, breathing creature.
If people can go to heaven when they die, that means they either come back to life or never really die in the first place. In order to go to heaven, you would have to be immortal. The problem is that mankind is not immortal. There also isn’t a part of mankind that is immortal. Scripture says that God alone is immortal (1 Timothy 6:15-16). God says that “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
It is interesting to note that the only individual in the Bible who made the claim that human beings inherently possess immortality was Satan. When Satan (disguised as a serpent) was working to convince Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit, he made this statement, “You will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). By openly contradicting God’s pronouncement that eating from the forbidden tree would result in death (Genesis 2:17), Satan laid the groundwork for one of many false doctrines he has foisted on humanity— the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
Having said all that, we are told at least 40 times in the New Testament that “eternal life” is the reward for the righteous.3 When do those in Christ receive eternal life? Do people receive eternal life right after they die so they can go to heaven?
What About Heaven?
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
Scripture says that no one has gone to heaven except Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples before he ascended to heaven that “where I am going, you cannot come” (John 13:33). Few grasp the significance of what Christ said. Only he was ascending into heaven— no one else. He clearly said that we cannot come to where he was going, and the Bible is clear that heaven is where he went.
He later explained this further: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself” (John 14:2-3). This scripture gives us a clue that the answer to life after death involves the return of Jesus and is in the future.
The apostles taught that not even king David is in heaven, saying, “I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day.” “For David did not ascend to heaven…” (Acts 2:29, 34). Also, note that nowhere in the apostle Paul’s writings does he teach that human beings ascend to heaven after death. In fact, Paul’s two major writings that deal directly with death (1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) say nothing about our going to heaven after we die. Both of these sections teach about the bodily resurrection of the dead.
Even when Paul expressed his “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23), he was not necessarily saying it would happen at the time he died.4 He speaks on how he would be raised or changed at the “coming of the Lord,” who “will descend from heaven with a shout” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16). So then what happens when we die?
What Happens When We Die?
It would seem that the Bible in many places teaches that death actually means death. Death seems to be described in many verses as the total cessation of life and consciousness. Ecclesiastes 9:5 is one of the clearest scriptures that define what death is like: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.” A few verses later, we read: “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).
Put not your trust in princes,
in human beings, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth;
on that very day his plans perish.
Some scriptures describe death as a complete end to all consciousness, thought, knowledge or action. The comparison of death to sleep occurs over 50 times throughout the Bible. David writes in Psalm 13:3: “Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” When David died, Scripture says that “David rested with his ancestors and was buried in the City of David.” (1 Kings 2:10). Jesus also referred to death as sleep (John 11:11, 13).
We also find this metaphor in the account of some who were resurrected to physical life after Jesus Christ died at Golgotha. We read that “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matthew 27:52). Both of these accounts of physical resurrections during the time of Christ liken death to sleep. These individuals were dead and without consciousness until they were raised from the dead and awoke to renewed physical life.
Sleep is used as a euphemism for death because of the belief that the dead would rise again.
The Bible reveals that there is coming a time when those who sleep in death will be awakened to life: “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). Knowing that some Christians would still be alive when Jesus Christ returns, the apostle Paul wrote, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed… And the dead will be raised” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). So when people are raised from the dead, do they go to heaven?
It is fairly well known that one day God will judge the living and the dead. In Christ’s parable about the sheep and the goats, he talks about how when he returns the righteous will be separated from the wicked (Matthew 25:31-46). This sorting is done after Jesus returns, not before.
…a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out— those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.
Since our judgment won’t be rendered until after Christ returns and raises the dead, how can anyone be in heaven or hell yet? No one has been judged yet, so no one can be sent to either place. This sorting is yet to happen.
What is more, this verse also explains exactly where people who have died are. When Jesus Christ returns, the dead will “rise” from their graves. They are in their graves. 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 Scripture teaches.
Though this article argues that humans don’t go to heaven when they die, some scripture may seem to indicate there are exceptions or that human spirits go somewhere. Below are four responses that argue from the view of Christian mortalism. However, it should be noted that such a position does not need to be held in order to accept that heaven is reserved until after judgment day.
What about “it is better to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8)?
What about Enoch and Elijah, aren’t they in heaven? (Hebrews 11:5, 2 Kings 2:11)?
What about the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43)?
What about the Rapture?
It is better to be away from the body
Paul seems to claim that being away from the body is being at home with the Lord. But we must be critical about the text and examine it to see what it truly says. We see that the text in 2 Corinthians 5:8 does not say that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. One does not equal the other. Reading the whole passage in context explains what Paul actually means (2 Corinthians 5:1-8).
Paul likens our existing mortal bodies with an “earthly tent” and says we should not worry if it is destroyed because we have a “building from God” that awaits us. The context does not support the claim that we will be in God’s presence without a body, instead, Paul simply says we will not have our current body in its current form. He likens our bodies to clothing that we must wear. In verse 4, Paul specifically says he does not want to be unclothed (without a body), but rather further clothed (perfected body). That’s quite a different picture than a disembodied spirit that lives on after death!
When we compare this language to 1 Corinthians 15:51–54, also written by Paul, it becomes even clearer. Here, as in his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses clothing imagery to describe our bodies. We currently wear a mortal body, but in God’s presence at the resurrection, we “must put on” an immortal one.
So Paul makes a true statement when he says he prefers to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. When we stand in God’s presence, we will not be in the same type of body we have now. We will have an immortal body like the one Jesus had after his resurrection. What is more, the Bible tells us that this transformation will happen in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. Although we all die, we will sleep in death, and the next conscious thought we will have after death is when Jesus sounds the trumpet of God, when we are raised from the dead, when we put on immortality forever.
When we consider all of Paul’s writings as a whole representation of his theological position, we see that his position on life after death supports the notion that deceased people actually die at death and await their bodily resurrection at the return of Jesus Christ.
Enoch and Elijah
What happened to Elijah? In 2 Kings 2:11, we are told plainly that a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and that Elijah “went up to heaven in a whirlwind.”
So, did Elijah actually go to the heaven of God’s throne? We have to realize that the Scriptures speak of three heavens:
The first, is the atmosphere of the Earth where the clouds are (Genesis 1:8, 7:11-12; Job 35:11; Jeremiah 16:4).
The second, is what we call “space”, where the planets and stars are found (Genesis 15:5, Psalm 8:3, Deuteronomy 1:10, Isaiah 13:10).
And the third, is the location of God’s throne (2 Corinthians 12:2, Deuteronomy 26:15, Hebrews 8:1).
The prophet Elijah did not die at that time, nor did he go to God’s throne. Since Scripture says that no one has been to heaven except Jesus, the chariot must have entered the first heaven or the atmosphere and transferred him to another place. Elijah, it seems, had a knack for disappearing (1 Kings 18:10-12).
Later in the story, this becomes more clear as the sons of the prophets knew otherwise as well. They knew the whirlwind had simply removed Elijah to another location on earth. They exclaimed to Elisha: “Look, we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.” (2 Kings 2:16). The disciples were concerned for Elijah’s safety, so they sent out a party of 50 men to search for him. The 50 searched for three days but did not find him (2 Kings 2:17).
As for Enoch, based on Hebrews 11:5, which says, “By faith Enoch was taken away, so that he did not experience death,” some believe that Enoch never died and was taken to heaven. The phrase “taken away” comes from the Greek word metatithemi, which means “to transfer to another place” 5
The verse continues by stating that Enoch “was not found.” This is a reference to Genesis 5:24: “He [Enoch] was not, for God took him.” So, it seems that God took Enoch from where he was and from a situation in which he likely would have seen death. But, after he was transferred to another place, Enoch died and ceased to be. Genesis 5:23 says that “Enoch lived a total of 365 years.”
Like Enoch and Elijah, the prophet Ezekiel experienced the same phenomenon in his day (Ezekiel 3:12-15) and even, the man of God, Philip was identically transported bodily through the air, from a spot between Jerusalem and Gaza, unto the city of Azotus a few miles away (Acts 8:26-28, 39-40).
Again, a careful reading of the Scriptures shows that Elijah’s miraculous removal by a fiery chariot involved transporting him to another location on earth, not to eternal life in heaven. Elijah eventually died, just like the other prophets and righteous men of the Old Testament, who all died in faith, not yet receiving the eternal life God had promised (Hebrews 11:39). Therefore, Enoch and Elijah are buried somewhere on the Earth awaiting the resurrection at Jesus Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
The Thief on the Cross
Many people mistakenly assume that the thief who was crucified next to Jesus Christ was “saved” and went immediately to heaven when he died, since Christ had told him in Luke 23:43: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
We need to answer this question. Did Jesus himself enter “paradise” that day? By his own mouth, he was in the grave for the next three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). His soul remained in Sheol, or the grave, for that short time period, and then was resurrected. “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.” (Psalm 16:10 ESV).
This, in itself, tells us that the thief on the cross did not join Christ anywhere that day. After being resurrected, Christ told Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’” (John 20:17).
The Greek word here translated “paradise,” paradeisos, means an enclosed garden or park. In the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament in common use at the time of Christ, this same word was used in references to the Garden of Eden. Besides its occurrence in Luke 23:43, the word is used only two other times in the New Testament. In both cases it refers to the place of God’s presence.
Revelation 2:7 states, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.” Revelation later goes on to describe that the tree of life will be in the holy city of New Jerusalem that God will be bringing to Earth at the end of this age (Revelation 21:2; 22:2, 14, 19). It is after the resurrection that the righteous will be able to experience the New Jerusalem.
Some try to redefine Christ’s use of paradise to say that this referred to where the righteous dead went before Jesus came—a sort of temporary “holding place” next to hell because heaven wasn’t available to them until Christ ascended to heaven after His death and opened the way for them to follow.
This concept, however, is straight out of pagan Greek mythology about life after death (the Elysian Fields as the section of the Greek underworld for good people) and not something taught in the Bible. The idea that the righteous dead of Old Testament times went to a place called “paradise” and later ascended to heaven after Jesus was resurrected is disproved by the apostle Peter’s plain statements in Acts 2:29 and 34—almost two months after Christ’s death and resurrection —that King David “is both dead and buried” and “David did not ascend into the heavens.”
What, then, is the accurate way to understand Christ’s statement to the thief on the cross? Well we know that Jesus wasn’t in paradise that day, so he must have been speaking in a type of hyperbole. Jesus likely wasn’t concerned with scientific accuracy when he was speaking to the thief. Jesus was more likely concerned with relational accuracy instead. In this way Jesus was correct: the first thing that the thief would see after death would be Christ on the restored Earth at the resurrection. To the thief it would seem as only a second had passed. Christ gave the thief the absolute promise that he would (from the thief’s perspective, the same day) be with Christ in his Father’s Kingdom.
The Rapture is a myth that was invented less than 200 years ago. You can read more about it here.
Heaven Come Down
Looking forward to the time of His return and God’s Kingdom on Earth, Jesus left us with an example prayer. Part of that prayer was, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Right now, God’s will saturates where God is— in heaven. Jesus instructed Christians to pray for his Kingdom to come to Earth so that this world would also be immersed in his will. Why should Christians pray for God’s Kingdom to come to Earth if our destiny is heaven?
We aren’t going to heaven; heaven is coming to us.
Heaven is not our destination; instead, heaven comes down to Earth (John 17:15, Romans 8:20-25, Matthew 13:31-32, Revelation 21:2-4). The idea that heaven is coming down to Earth and that God will one day fully dwell with us is the hope of the entire Bible (Matthew 6:10). Read more about how God will bring heaven to Earth here. Despite the trappings of pagan influence, Scripture is abundantly clear that the hope of Christianity is the bodily resurrection, not heaven. It is after the resurrection that God will judge and some will receive eternal life (read more about the resurrection here).
The Kingdom of Heaven
Mankind was made for this planet, we cannot exist the way God intended outside of the good physicality that God designed us for. This world is currently plagued by evil, but evil has been disarmed and will one day be fully defeated (Colossians 2:14-15, Romans 16:20). This defeat started when Jesus came and inaugurated his Kingdom, his own nation to rival the nations of the world. When we become “born again” we are given citizenship in this eternal nation that will outlast all others.
Salvation is not heaven, it is the Kingdom of God, Christ’s eternal nation here on Earth.
Humans aren’t immortal and aren’t made out of two different parts that can naturally be separated. Therefore there doesn’t seem to be an immaterial part of us that can go somewhere else when we die. No one has been to heaven except God. Even if this wasn’t true, God hasn’t judged the righteous and the wicked yet so how could anyone be rewarded or punished already? We should read Scripture with Hebraic rather than Greek presuppositions.
We all die. And when we die, we are literally dead. But that is not the end. God will resurrect all the dead to life again. In what to us will seem like an instant, we will be in the presence of God. Heaven is not the hope of those who belong to Jesus— resurrection is!
You’re not going to heaven — heaven is coming to you.
- This is reflected in the New Testament where Hades replaces Sheol.
- Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 1908, Vol. 11, p. 752
- see Matt. 19:16, 29, 25:46; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25, 18:18, 20; John 3:15, 16, 36, 4:14; 5:24, 39, 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68, 12:50, 17:2; Acts 13:46, 48; Rom. 2:7, 5:21, 6:22; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 1:16, 6:12; Tit. 1:2, 3:7; 1 John 1:2, 25, 3:15, 5:11, 13, 20; Jude 21
- Regardless, Paul does not claim that he would go to ‘heaven’.
- Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 1997, “Translate, Translation”