Where do people go when they die?

Answered by Alan H. Crosby

Some translations of the Bible seem to say that when Christ died He went to “hell.” Better translations use the word “hades,” which is simply the region of departed spirits. But we then ask, “What about us when we die?” 

What Happens At Death 
Death occurs when the soul-spirit leaves the body: “The body without the spirit is dead” (Jas. 2:26 NIV). The body is subject to all the physical, chemical and biological changes common to ordinary matter. We say it “decays” or “burns up.” The Bible simply says, “dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19).

For centuries humans have wondered about the soul-spirit when asking about a dead person: “Where is he?” (Job 20:7). The body goes into the grave, but where does the soul-spirit go? That of the people of faith of the Old and New Testaments goes to one place while that of unbelievers goes to another, as we will shortly see.

Everybody will be resurrected but not at the same time. There are those who “will rise to live” and there are those who will “rise to be condemned” (Jn. 5:28-29). The separation of the soul-spirit from the body is an unnatural state that came about as a result of Satan’s work. God will not allow that condition to continue indefinitely.

The Consequence Of Death For The Unbeliever 
Where do the soul-spirits of unbelievers go at death? This question is answered by our Lord’s account of what happened to the rich man and to Lazarus. The rich man, apparently an unbeliever, died and went to “hades, where he was in torment” (Lk. 16:22-23). According to Vine’s Dictionary Of Old And New Testament Words, “hades” is simply “the region of departed spirits” and “hell” is the region of torment, also called geena or gehennaGehenna was also a place outside Jerusalem where there was always a fire and hence was a picture of the eternal fire of torment. The unbelievers, those in “hell,” are spiritually dead and their names are not in the Book of Life. They will receive their sentence at the great white throne – being sentenced to an eternal existence of suffering in the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15). At the end of time, “death and hades” will be thrown into the lake of fire. There is the place in hades where the soul-spirit of the unbeliever suffers before he is resurrected “to be condemned,” followed then by the lake of fire where he will suffer after the resurrection and judgment.

The Consequence Of Death For The Believer 
The crucified thief who repented of his sins (Lk. 23:40-43) died and went to “paradise,” the same place where the Lord went when He died! Paradise is a Persian word referring to a royal park, and then it was taken into the Greek to express the sum total of blessedness. In Revelation 2:7 it refers to heaven. Apparently paradise is the Bible word for the same place that the Jews called “Abraham’s side” (bosom, KJV) and which Paul speaks of as the place that believers go to when they are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8)

Believers, both living and dead, will be raptured and given new bodies to live with the Lord forever (1 Th. 4:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:52-54). The believer in the Lord Jesus Christ will never face judgment for any sin because all our sin and sins were paid for by Christ on the cross. Therefore the believer need not fear “God’s judgment seat” (Rom. 14:10) or the “judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). What will be judged then is the “quality” of our works of service to determine our “reward” (1 Cor. 3:13-14).

Practical Application 
In preaching the gospel one should emphasize that between hell and paradise “a great chasm has been fixed that cannot be crossed” (Lk. 16:26). It should also be emphasized that there will be no “second chance” – that our decision in this present life determines where we will spend eternity and what we do will determine what we will have there.

The truth is that the unbeliever will be in an eternal existence, first in a place of torment and then in the lake of fire. The believer on the other hand will go on to his or her reward. That no believer goes to eternal punishment is due to the grace of God and the redemptive work of our Lord Jesus Christ. All people should therefore start believing now!