The question of what happens after we die has haunted humanity for centuries, and the more theories we hear, the more it seems like the answers are shrouded in mystery. Concepts like “heaven” and “the afterlife” conjure up a thousand different images—some scary, some idyllic, some just plain strange.
It can feel impossible to tell which ones are probably true.
These concepts, be they peaceful or terrifying, bleak or hopeful, are to some degree all imaginary. All we can do is speculate. None of us have actually seen any of these “places.” None of us can say for sure exactly what happens after death.
Death is humanity’s great unknown. We all know we have to face it sooner or later, but none of us know what it’s really like or what—if anything—happens afterwards.
But, if we read the Bible, some of the mystery surrounding death can be explained. Scripture gives us a straightforward insight into what death actually is and what happens afterward. It tells us:
- Is there such a thing as an “afterlife”?
- What does the Bible tell us about said afterlife?
- Is there a “hell,” and what is it like?
- How the parable of the wheat field fits in
- Is there something else other than heaven or hell, like purgatory?
- Solving death’s mystery
Is there such a thing as an “afterlife”?
The first question to answer about the afterlife is whether there is any afterlife at all. How do we know that there’s anything after death? Maybe we’re all just buried in the ground and that’s it. End of story.
It’s a common belief that the material world we see in front of us is all there is and once we lose that, there’s nothing left.
It’s also common to believe that there is something after death, but it’s on a different plane of existence. And, with the right amount of effort, we can communicate with people who’ve died, reaching out to touch our departed loved ones.
The Bible tells us about something after death, that there’s more to the story than someone dying and getting buried in the ground. There are many beautiful passages concerning Heaven, where God reigns on His throne, and we all live in peace and fellowship in an eternal paradise. It describes a gorgeous city filled with precious stones and gold pure as glass, with the Tree of Life in the center (Revelation 21, 22).
Many of us were taught that this glorious place is where people are taken right after they die. There, they’ll meet God and become one of the angels so they can watch over their loved ones. But, beautiful as this picture seems, the Bible tells us otherwise.
Take Abraham, the great patriarch, for instance. He spoke to God on multiple occasions and had a strong relationship with Him. If anyone were to be taken up right after death and be whisked away to Heaven, you’d think it’d be Abraham.
But the book of Genesis doesn’t say anything about God taking Abraham up to heaven. Rather, it says that Abraham died and was “gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8 ESV).
The same goes for King David, a man after God’s own heart. Beloved as he was, David wasn’t taken straight to Heaven, but “slept with his fathers and was buried in the City of David” (1 Kings 2:10).
Referring to death as a sleep is typical in the Bible. This metaphor is used over 50 times in the whole of scripture. Even Jesus used it when speaking of his friend Lazarus who died.
So, what does this sleep metaphor for death tell us? First of all, it tells us the dead are in a completely unconscious state without thought or feeling, just as they would be if they were asleep. As King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes:
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 ESV).
Once people die, it’s like they fall into a deep sleep. They aren’t aware of anything at all.
Taking this into account, we can assume that the dead aren’t taken straight to Heaven. If they were with God as soon as they died, no doubt He would want them to be aware of the fact so He could spend time with them.
Referring to death as a sleep also points out that there can be no communication between the living and the dead.
But there’s one more thing we can glean from the sleep metaphor for death. Ordinarily, when someone falls asleep, we assume they’ll eventually wake up again. Sleep is temporary. You lay down in your bed at night and, when you wake up, there’s daylight coming through your window. So, if the Bible describes death like a sleep, like something temporary, we can deduce that there must be some way to come back from death, to ‘“wake up,” as it were. But how does one “wake up” from death?
What is that afterlife, according to the Bible?
As far as our human experience goes, death is usually permanent. But, the Bible also shows us this won’t always be the case. There is a great hope ahead for us—one that transcends all the hardship we’ve had to slog through in this life on this earth.
The idea of resurrection, of someone “waking up” from the dead, is present all over the Bible. Prophets like Elijah and Elisha, empowered by God, raised people from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:8-37, 2 Kings 13:14-25, Isa 25:8; 26:19; Hos 13:14; Dan 12:1–4).
Jesus did the same during his time on earth, bringing back a widow’s son, a young girl, and his dear friend Lazarus, proving that God’s power is greater than death (Luke 7:11-17, Luke 8:40-58, John 11:1-44). He can reverse it! He can “wake us up!”
These miracles reached their climax with Christ’s own resurrection after the crucifixion on Calvary (Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-49, John 20:1-21:25). With so many examples of God’s power over death, we see that it is perfectly within His power to do the same for us, to bring back those who have died and restore them to a better life.
This is the hope Christ spoke of when he comforted Martha at Lazarus’ tomb, saying “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-27 ESV).
These weren’t just empty promises meant to comfort Martha in her time of grief. Jesus had made these claims before, saying that:
“If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death,” (John 8:51 ESV).
“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 ESV).
While he was on earth, Jesus proved He had power over death, that He felt the pain and grief of those who lose people they love, and He wouldn’t let death be the end forever. And, just like He restored Lazarus and brought him back to life, God has a plan to restore all who have died and believed in Him. This plan is detailed in 1 Corinthians:
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
Christ is referred to as the “firstfruits,” which means the first produce a fruit tree yields, a sample of the great harvest to come. Christ’s resurrection was a sample of what is going to happen when He comes again in triumph, conquering all evil, all wickedness, and finally death itself.
And with this final victory, those who died trusting in him will be woken up and raised again, just as Jesus himself was. Scripture continues:
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).
Christ’s plan is again spelled out simply and clearly in 1 Thessalonians:
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
This is what victory over death looks like. This is the glorious return Christ is planning for himself and all his people. Death and evil will be wiped away and the entire earth will be made new. Those who were dead will be restored, better and stronger than ever, so that they can live again. Once this is done, God’s people who still remain on earth will be changed as well, given perfect, eternal bodies and brought up to share in Heaven’s wonders.
What an incredible day that is going to be. And the best part about it is we’ll never have to leave. God’s kingdom is never going to end, with limitless opportunities to learn, grow, experience, and love. Now that is a paradise worth waiting for.
But is that the whole story? What about those who choose not to accept Jesus as their Savior. What about the devil? What about the corrupted earth?
God deals with those things in His plan, also.
Is there a hell? If so, what is it like?
Although many of us like to talk and dream about what Heaven is going to be like, who we’ll get to see there and what we’ll be able to do, there’s always that dark little question that creeps up on us once in a while.
What about the other place?
What happens to those who didn’t choose to follow God? What about… Hell?
The idea of Hell is a charged subject for most people. It’s unsettling, at the very least. It often makes us think of burning hot air with pits of fire and roiling lava. We can almost feel the heat, imagining the agony of anyone unfortunate enough to end up “down there.”
Many church traditions teach that, if someone has chosen the evil path in life, if they’ve rejected God and what He stands for, then as soon as they die, they end up in Hell and are left there to burn.
Some of us have been terrified by this image since we were young, taking it as an incentive to be as good as we could so we didn’t end up down there.
For others, this idea of the wicked being burned and tormented forever has turned them against God. They don’t see how He could call Himself loving and then toss anyone who didn’t follow Him into eternal burning torment.
And that’s a good point.
It’s hard to imagine someone as both completely loving and yet willing to leave people He created to burn for eternity. The two images just don’t mix.
So, either we’ve been wrong about God’s loving nature this whole time, or Hell isn’t exactly what we’ve always believed it to be.
So what does the Bible actually tell us about Hell? Well, it doesn’t fill passages of Scripture with gruesome imagery about eternal torment detailing how the wicked will be punished. However, it does tell us who is going to end up there.
“Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
So, the Bible confirms that those who are not faithful to God, who refuse to follow His ways will one day end up in this “lake of fire.”
But the Bible also tells us something else, something many of us may have never heard before. According to Scripture, Hell was never intended for human beings in the first place.
During one of his sermons in Matthew 25, Christ told a parable about God returning to earth surrounded by all His angels. He called forth everyone who has ever lived and started separating them the way a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
The sheep he called to His right while the goats were sent away to His left. Once everyone had been divided up, God turned to the sheep and invited them in to accept their inheritance and live with Him in Heaven. Then He turned to the goats, saying:
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41, CSB).
Did you catch that? The fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Hell wasn’t meant for people at all. The purpose of these consuming flames was to put an end to Satan and those who follow him, the corrupted angels who took his side in the war against God.
This is good news. It means we have a choice about where we end up, whether we want to follow God’s ways and spend eternity with Him, or follow Satan’s ways of selfishness and share his fate. It is ultimately up to us.
The Parable of the Wheat Field
There’s more to the question about what Hell is, however. We’ve seen how it is reserved for Satan and those who choose to follow him, and that we have a choice whether we want to end up there or not.
But do those who die in rebellion against God go to Hell immediately, or, like the resurrection of the righteous, are their fates deferred until a certain time when Jesus comes back again? And…are the wicked really going to be burning in Hell for eternity? Forced to endure constant pain with absolutely no end to their suffering?
Jesus gives us the answer to these questions in another one of his parables. This one is about a farmer.
There was a man who sowed wheat in his field, taking good care of it and looking forward to a beautiful harvest. But, one evening, an enemy who hated the man snuck into his field and sowed weeds all over before vanishing into the darkness. As the wheat flourished and grew, so did the weeds, until the field was thick with both.
“And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’
He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’
So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.
Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Matthew 13:27-30 ESV).
We can deduce from the context and from other parables Jesus told, this story was meant to grant insight into what will happen at the second coming. Up to this point, the field, or the world, has been filled with both wheat and weeds, those who follow God and those who reject Him.
But when Christ comes again, all that is going to end. By then, the wheat will have grown enough to put down its own roots.
Just like in the story of the sheep and the goats, the wheat and the weeds will be separated and set aside. The wheat, those faithful to God, will be gathered up into His house, but the weeds, those who rebelled and tried to lead others astray, will be cast into the fire.
This metaphor of weeds gives us the best perspective on what is going to happen to those who reject God’s way. Have you ever seen dry grass tossed into a bonfire? It burns up extremely quickly, curling up and withering until nothing is left.
It doesn’t go on burning forever and ever. It fades away quickly, leaving nothing but ash. The smoke from the fire may last a long time after the grass has been burned, but this isn’t punishment. This is evidence that the sentence has been carried out, the wicked are no more.
Psalm 37:20 paints us a picture of this, telling how God will remember and reward those who follow Him:
“But the wicked shall perish; and the enemies of the Lord, like the splendor of the meadows, shall vanish. Into smoke they shall vanish away” (Psalm 37:20 NKJV).
That is what Jesus was trying to convey in his parable of the wheat field.
Hell as an event, not a place
Jesus was telling us what will happen when he comes again, what Heaven and Hell will be like. In fact, the way Jesus’ parable describes it, Hell is more like an event than an actual place, the same way the weeds being thrown into the fire was an event.
When Christ comes again, it will be to set everything right on earth. Evil and everything that came of it will be destroyed permanently. There will be no more death nor pain and everything that corrupted the human race will be wiped from existence.
That includes Satan and those who follow him. They will share the fate of the weeds from the parable, burned to ash until nothing is left.
This is the only way. If even one trace of Satan’s influence were allowed to endure, it would eventually spread and the cycle of sin and evil would start again. God knows this. That’s why He made the plan to destroy evil once and for all.
This is what the Bible refers to as the “second death” (Revelation 20:6, 20:14, 21:8), the one intended for Satan and his followers, from which there will be no resurrection. Those that fall in the second death truly are gone forever.
Does this final solution to sin seem a bit extreme? After all, isn’t God a God of love and mercy? Surely He wouldn’t let people He created be utterly destroyed just because they chose the wrong side of the battle. Surely, He’ll give them one more chance.
But, here’s the thing. God has given those people second chances. He’s given them third and fifth and tenth chances all through their lives. He has never stopped trying to reach them.
If someone ends up siding with Satan and takes part in the second death, then they have truly rejected God and all He stands for. They don’t want any part of Him. They’d rather have a quick instant of pain and be gone forever than be stuck for eternity with a God they do not love in a place they cannot appreciate. Heaven wouldn’t be paradise to them.
This idea is perhaps best summed up by the Christian author C.S. Lewis. In his book The Great Divorce, he wrote that:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”
For those who constantly and consistently rebel against God, who turn away and reject His love, there is no place in Heaven. Not because God is too hateful and cruel to have them, but because they have made it clear they would not be happy there.
By taking away their lives at the end times, God is once again showing His mercy. He loves them and, although they will never be willing to accept His love, He will not leave them to suffer forever.
The end they chose will be quick, putting a stop to the pain and suffering sin has brought upon them. Satan will no longer be able to torment them and they will have rest, the only thing God can still give them. It will be similar to the unconscious state that all people go into when they die except, this time, there will be no waking up. This death will be permanent.
Is there something “in between?” What about Purgatory?
Among the many ideas we have about life after death is the idea of purgatory, the concept that there is a sort of in-between place adjacent to Hell, where people who have died can be prayed for, purified, and eventually be let into Heaven. Common as this idea is, however, there’s no mention of it in the Bible.
According to the Bible, the dead are in a completely unconscious state, unable to think or feel or act. That would not allow them to spend their time after death mulling over their decisions. When Jesus returns at the second coming, each person’s choice will have already been made. There will be no opportunity for people to reconsider their options and make the choice they did not make in life.
Purgatory is based on the idea that someone can earn their way into Heaven, but Scripture tells us time and again that only God’s grace can get us there.
When you look at it, the concept of purgatory actually contrasts what the Bible tells us about God and the plan of salvation. Purgatory means that if we think hard enough, if we pray hard enough, if others say enough prayers for us, then we can earn our way into heaven.
It’s impossible for us to try to earn a place in Heaven. God has already offered us a place there, free of charge. We need only accept His sacrifice, loving Him and living as He asked us. That really doesn’t seem too hard to do. Much easier than sitting around in Purgatory a few hundred years, somehow trying to earn our acceptance or doing our time, similar to a limited prison sentence.
Christ’s sacrifice covers the cost of Heaven better than we ever could. Our only job is to accept his gift.
Death’s Mystery Solved
Earlier we mentioned how death so often feels like a mystery, the great unknown where everyone eventually goes but none return. But the more we learn about God and His word, the more we see that death isn’t a mystery at all. God told us exactly what it’s like, what happens once we die, and how death is eventually going to end.
During his time on earth, Jesus made it clear that death wasn’t permanent, that he already had a plan to defeat it. He demonstrated God’s power over death through his own resurrection and promised that, one day, he’d come back to conquer death once and for all.
He told how things would be at the End Times, and how we’d all have to make a choice whether to follow him or go our own way, to accept eternal life with Him or lose it forever.
And finally, He told us He’ll one day make everything right again, bring back those we’ve lost to death, and take us all to heaven. As the disciple John wrote:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4 ESV).
May we all be there and see that glorious day for ourselves.