This week’s question comes from Ron Clouse: Where are the dead right now?
That’s a good question. Many Christians assume that each person’s spirit goes directly to heaven or hell when that person dies, but that simply isn’t what the Bible says. According to the New Testament, those who have died are “asleep” while awaiting the resurrection of the dead at the end of time. Only then will each soul go to its eternal home.
In 2 Thessalonians 4:13-17, for example, the Apostle Paul describes the resurrection in some detail:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (ESV)
Notice that the Apostle makes clear that everyone bound for heaven will get there together when Jesus returns. Until then, the dead are simply described as “asleep.”
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains that in the resurrection we will not be disembodied souls, but rather will be given new bodies of some kind. Here’s 1 Cor. 15:50-53:
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (ESV)
Again, death is described as sleep. Few if any explainations of that sleep, however, are given in the Bible. Exactly what that sleep entails, where it is done, what form if any the dead take between human incarnation and end-times resurrection, and even how metaphorical the term may be intended, however, are not explicitly explained in Scripture.
We do have clues. In 1 Samuel 18:15, when King Saul uses witchcraft to bring the prophet Samuel back from the dead, Samuel asks the king, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” That’s not much to go on, but it’s something, and it’s in keeping with the idea of death as sleep.
Depending on whether or not you take Jesus’ teaching on Lazarus and the rich man as a parable or a factual description of the afterlife, Luke 16:19-31 may offer some insights, too. Those who see the story as a factual description tend to believe that God has established intermediate, partial domains of reward and punishment for those between life on earth and the final resurrection. Those who consider the story to be a parable are more likely to believe simply that the dead exist in some form in Sheol, Hades, or simply “the grave.”
That distinction is not entirely clear. What is very clear from the Bible, however, is that the dead in Christ are now awaiting the resurrection and have not yet reached eternal glory with God in the heavens.
I serve as sports writer for the Manchester Times and preacher and elder for the Church of Christ at Fredonia. The ideas expressed here, however, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of either the Times or the church. I welcome your questions or comments. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading.