Heaven & Sheol

Q – I am a Christian from an evangelical church in Indonesia. I am blessed in reading your QA (Question – Answer) which I got from your website.

Here are my questions to you:

Where does a believer go after he/she dies? To be honest I was confused when somebody told me with so various answers. Somebody explained that believers must go directly to Heaven. However someone else said in a temporary place called Hadesh (Sheol) or even the other one told me in a same place with a criminal who hung, repented and died together with Christ’s crucifixion. So which one of them is right as our scripture teaching? And how about believer who died in Old Testament era? Are they in the same place with us who dies in this New Testament era?

Jim – What a pleasure to hear from you, my distant brother. I have been blessed over the last couple of years to hear from people around the globe. It is fascinating to me how the Internet has allowed us to reach other Christians whom we would otherwise never know. What an amazing time we live in.

I’m grateful for your kind and gracious comments concerning our website. We’ve worked hard on making sure that it is content-rich. Consequently, people return to the site often, looking for the latest writings and MP3 messages. It’s been a very gratifying venture, made all the more gratifying when we hear from people like you.

You’ve asked a very good question. And, there is a fair amount of confusion in this area. So, let’s look at the details and hopefully that will clear things up.

When a believer dies their spirit does go directly to Heaven. The apostle Paul stated that clearly –

“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:(For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” (2 Cor. 5:6-8)

Paul formed a precise contrast here. He said that while we are living in these earthly bodies we are physically absent from the Lord, despite our spiritual connection. Consequently, our Christian walk is one built on faith, not on our ability to physically see every aspect of our eternal inheritance. However, Paul said with confidence that he was willing, and even preferred, to be absent from his body – a clear reference to his own death – and be “present with the Lord.” Obviously, if absence from the body results in presence with Christ, then when believers die they are taken to Heaven.

This idea was fundamental to Paul’s thinking. When writing to the Church at Philippi from his jail cell, awaiting the possibility of execution, he wrote –

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” (Phil 1:21-24)

Paul knew that death was a distinct possibility, given his incarceration. And, that caused him to ponder the benefits of life versus death. On the one hand, he knew it was beneficial for the church if he remained “in the flesh.” But, he seemed to prefer the opposite result. To die and depart this life was what he desired. But, notice why he desired the departure – “and to be with Christ.”

So, it is clear that Paul believed that when he died he would both “be present with the Lord” and “be with Christ.” I find this language to be conclusive. When believers die they go directly to Heaven.

Now, I must point out that this was not always the case. Believers who died during Old Testament times were not taken to Heaven directly. And, that’s where the concept of “sheol” comes in. The Hebrew word “sheol” corresponds with the Greek word “Hades.” The King James Version often renders both of those words “hell,” which is unfortunate because of the imagery, connotations and emotions connected with that word. Among the historic Hebrew writers, prior to the birth of Christ, sheol was seen as a place where all the dead would go. However, they typically envisioned sheol as divided into two territories separated by a great gulf. On one side of the gulf was an area often called “Abraham’s bosom” among the Jews, or Paradise among the Greeks. On the other side was Gehenna, or what we would classically think of as hell. And, Jesus gave credibility to that notion when He spoke of Lazarus and the rich man –

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19-31) NIV

So, the idea here is that, prior to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, all people were gathered into sheol and assigned to either Paradise or Hades. However, when Jesus died, we read that He descended into the lower parts of the earth. King David wrote in the Psalms, predicting the passion of Christ –

“For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol], neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (Ps.16:10)

The apostle Peter picked up that same theme when explaining the resurrection of Christ in Acts 2:24-27. During the three days that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, His soul went to sheol. Then, we read that when Jesus’ resurrected there was an instantaneous resurrection of dead saints –

“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” (Matt 27:50-53)

Now, given the context and the geographic location of this resurrection, I can only conclude that these were Israelite saints who arose. These were likely the righteous men and women of Israel who had died prior to the redemptive work of Christ at Calvary. They went to “Abraham’s Bosom” and were there until the work of salvation was finished. Then Jesus went into the heart of the earth and reclaimed them. I believe that’s what Paul was driving at when he wrote (quoting from Psalm 68) –

“Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.” (Eph. 4:8-10)

Jesus went to sheol to take captive to Himself those people who had been captive in the lower parts of the Earth. That is why He describes Himself in Revelation 1:18 as having “the keys of hell (Hades) and of death.”

So this is also the reason that Jesus was able to say to the thief on the cross next to Him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” Both Christ and the thief descended into sheol. But, the thief would enter paradise, where Jesus would gather His people.

So, that’s a long answer to your question, but in essence I would say that every believer who dies today, now that Christ has fully paid our redemption price and secured our eternal destiny, goes immediately to Heaven to be with the Lord. However, prior to Calvary, all people went to sheol, awaiting their final destination. Some were taken to Heaven by Christ, while the others remain in Hell awaiting the final judgment at the end of this world –

“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. (Rev. 20:12-14)

I hope that is a comfort to you, knowing that believers leave this life and are immediately ushered into the presence of God and our Savior. If I can be of any help, or have not clearly explained this, please let me know.

Again, it was a pleasure to hear from you.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.