Sunday, June 3, 2012

What Happens When You Die? Part 1

What happens when we die? What do the scriptures teach about where we go?  Do we go to a heaven or hell?  When is the resurrection?  There are some popular beliefs out there that many have held onto for hundreds of years.  When Jesus appears on the scene, he comes with a "gospel" - a "good news".  What was that good news?  We are going to discuss what the scriptures teach on these subjects.

This study will be a 3-part study.  First, because the aspect of heaven vs. hell is such a commonly held view, we will discuss the Old Testament scriptures concerning the word "hell", as well as scriptures that include descriptions of death.  We are looking for evidence that gives us clues as to what happens when we die.  The second part of the study will be doing the same in the New Testament.  The third part will discuss how both the Old and New testament evidences tie together, what was the gospel of Christ, when is the resurrection, and how these topics fit into God's plan as a whole.

Whenever a study on a particular topic is begun, it is generally a "rule of thumb" to first find all of the scriptures on that topic and read them.  One's opinion must hold consistently with God's plan, as well as with all other scriptures.  When properly understood, the Word of God never contradicts itself.  Therefore, this study began by noting every use of the word hell, grave, and death.  We are going to be discussing the ones that seem to be pertinent to the study. After a careful examination of several scriptures, it will be clear that a cohesive, linear study throughout the Bible teaches that upon death, man returns to his former state of non-existence until the resurrection occurs.

Genesis 2:7 - "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."

Ecclesiastes 12:7: "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it."

Let us begin with the topic of "hell".  Let us examine the background of the Hebrew word - how many times was it used?  What does it mean? And what other scriptures can be found to help clarify the issue?  Every single us of the word "hell" in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew word "Sheol", and is used a total of 31 times.  "Sheol", however, is used to translate into two other words as well: grave, 31 times; and pit, 3 times.  Sheol is used in the Old Testament for a total of 65 times.  This is important to know, because we must understand that the words "hell" and "grave" used in the Old Testament have the same meaning.  Why is this?  The only answer is: artistic liberty.  Whoever translated the scriptures simply did their best to translate it as true as they knew how, but of course, their own personal beliefs do come into play.  This is true mainly in the King James Version.  One will find that in other translations, for example the New American Standard, they do not even try to distinguish between the two; they simply use the word "Sheol" instead of translating it into either hell, grave (or pit).  

Here are all of the uses of the word "hell" in the Old Testament in the King James Version:

Deut. 32: 22
2 Samuel 22:6
Job 11:8; 26:6
Ps. 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 55:15; 86:13; 116:3; 139:8
Prov. 5:5; 7: 27; 9:18; 15:11; 15:24; 23:14; 27:20
Is. 5:14; 14:9; 14:15; 28:15; 28:15; 57:9
Ez. 31:16-17; 32:21; 32:27
Amos 9:2
Jonah 2:2
Hab. 2:5 

Being that this post is already going to be long enough, I shall point the reader to examine each scripture on their own, and my challenge to the reader is to insert the word "grave" in every scripture, asking if it would not fit even better than the word "hell".  Regardless of the conclusion of the reader, the truth of the matter must be recognized - the words grave and hell in the Old Testament of the Bible come from the same word, and therefore in the original text have exactly the same meaning.

From here, we will discuss scriptures of the Old Testament that describe death. As we examine specific scriptures that discuss "what happens when you die", we shall find that almost every description compares death to sleep, and that this idea is consistent throughout the Old Testament.

(All scriptures are used from the New American Standard translation)

Job 3:11 - "Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? (:13) For now I would have lain down and been quiet, I would have slept then, I would have been at rest (:14) with kings and counselors of the Earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves. . . (:16) or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be, as infants that never saw light.  (:17) There the wicked cease from raging, and there the weary are at rest. (:18) The prisoners are at ease together, they do not hear the voice of the task master. (:19) The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master."

(Two things: 1. Job states that if he died, he would have "slept"; and 2. he would have been where both the wicked and the weary are.  He is basically saying that he is where everybody else is; the small and great, wicked and weary, etc.)

Job 14:10-12 - "But man dies and lies prostrate. Man expires, and where is he? (:11) As water evaporates from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dried up, (:12) so man lies down and does not rise. (:12) Until the heavens be no more, he will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep."

(Again, man does not go up or down. He ceases to exist.)

Psalms 146:4 - "His spirit departs, he returns to the Earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."

Ecc. 9:5 - "For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything..."

Ecc. 3:19-21 - "For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. (:20) All go to the same place.  All came from dust and all return to the dust. (:21) Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the Earth?"  (also read Psalms 49:12,20)

Dan 12:2 - (discussing a future time) "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground..."

Psalms 13:3 - "Consider and answer me, O Lord, my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death."

Lastly, all of the following scriptures discuss the death of kings in the Bible.  There are some that were great kings, men of God, such as David.  There are others that were notoriously wicked, such as Ahab.  But when it came to describing their fate, all scriptures read the same thing:

"He slept with his fathers."

1 Kings 2:10; 11:21; 11:43; 14:20; 14:31; 15:8; 15:24; 16:6; 16:28; 22:40; 22:50; 
2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9; 13:13; 14:16; 14:22; 14:29; 15:7; 15:22; 15:38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6
2 Chron. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2; 26:23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20

That is a total of 36 scriptures discussing the death of kings, in which all, good and evil, "slept with their fathers" upon dying.

The conclusion is that although one can say there is a "hell" technically, the bottom line is that when one dies, they just go to sleep.  The evidence seems to be overwhelmingly in the favor of death being no different than lying down and going to sleep.  Although there are scriptures that mention the word "hell", when it is brought to light that the same Hebrew word is the word used to translate also in "grave" the exact same number of times, it seems clear that the scriptures are not teaching that one lies down to face any kind of torturous fate.  Rather, the scriptures seem to teach that God gives life (Gen. 2:7), and when one dies, they are then returned to their former state of non-existence. (Ecc. 12:7)

What does this mean for mankind?  Upon part 3 of the study, much more will be discussed.  The bottom line is that God never intended or planned for any of our family or friends to be tortured in any kind of fiery pit.  What is a much more reasonable thought, which the scriptures suggest, is that God has had a plan from the beginning of time, and that plan includes a loving result from a loving God.  If the four attributes of God are power, wisdom, justice, and love, then we would be lead to believe His plan includes all of those things.

This concludes the Old Testament portion of the study.  The next portion will discuss the uses of the word hell in the New Testament to find if there are any differences; if the scriptures seem to contradict themselves, etc.


  1. Hi Matt,

    A couple things:

    You haven't explicitly stated so, but I think its implied that, when Jesus comes with a "good news" it is expected to be received as good news. If a message appears to be bad news then it is suspect. If a message appears to be good, this is a likely fit for what is the "gospel". This becomes a sort of "gut check".

    The problem is that in many places in scripture, the gospel is not received as good news, nor is it preached as good news. 1 Pet 4:6, apparently Noah preached the gospel to the people of his day. However, the context reveals that part of the reasoning pertained to them having to give an account to God for the way that they lived. In what way was it good news, when Noah announced that the world would be flooded and everyone killed for their sins? Only to those people being saved out of it.

    3 For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. 4 They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. 5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.

    Both John and Jesus preached incessantly "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand". In fact, this is essentially the model Gospel presentation from prophets to Jesus to apostles. When Paul went before Felix, his gospel was "righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come" which unnerved Felix. There is more expression of judgment for sins in scripture, especially by Jesus lips, then promises of rest and reward.

    In 2 Cor 3:9 we understand that there is a ministry of condemnation, how the law demonstrated and convicted everyone that they were sinners deserving punishment, and that it was a glorious thing, how much more glorious is the ministry of righteousness (that is Christ making us righteousness by his sacrifice).

    This is not yet a hard and fast proof that the Gospel includes things that people will absolutely say is NOT good news, but should at least open the mind to allow for the possibility that the fact that not everyone will feel this is good news means it isn't in fact incredibly good news. 1 Cor 1:18 and 2 Cor 4:3. The gospel is foolishness, and hidden, from those who are perishing, but to us it is our salvation. And finally, John 3:16-21. Even though Jesus came into the world as light, to save it, the world didn't see him as light, preferring their sins, and they stood condemned already. Everyone always reads John 3:16-17. They don't read further.

    From most of the OT verses you provided, I can't prove that the soul doesn't completely wink out of existence. But they don't necessarily prove it either. Although comparing Genesis 2:7 and Ecclesiastes 12:7 it says that the spirit shall return to God who gave it. So Jesus "gave up"his spirit and Stephen commended his Spirit to Jesus.

    A serious problem in this discussion doesn't come from the Hebrew or the Greek, but rather from the English in that early translators translated Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Tarturus as simply "hell" when just leaving them untranslated would have made things easier.

    Sheol is Hades. We know this because when the Jews decided to begin translating the Torah into common Greek (around 200BC) for dispersed Jews who no longer read Hebrew, we have strong word-for-word, Hebrew-Greek translation. Sheol is translated across the board as Hades.

  2. I'll suggest that, while by itself it isn't conclusive, it is significant that Hades, the realm of the conscious dead, was used to directly translate Sheol and not the Greek word for grave which was readily available. That doesn't mean that everything the Greeks believed about Hades was what the Jews believed, but it indicates that they felt this word had more in common with the concept of Hades which everyone would have been aware of, than the simple word for the grave. You don't make serious substitutions in the translation like that if you mean a completely different concept. It will only confuse people and defeat the purpose of putting the Bible into a commonly used language.

    Tarturus is used twice, once in the NT (2 Peter 2:4) and once in the Greek OT (Job 41:32). I don't think its relevant to this discussion.

    What is relevant is that Gehenna is not Hades. That is, the burning lake of fire which is what everyone commonly thinks of hell as, is not where anyone goes when one dies. Among many other texts, we know this from Rev 20 where dead people are resurrected from the graves, from Hades, from the sea, and then cast into the Gehenna lake of fire which is said to be eternal.

    So, Sheol/Hades is temporary, whatever it is. Gehenna is eternal and with the exceptions of angels/false prophets/and those that have the mark of the beast, no one goes there directly, but instead they wait until the Great White Throne which is after the Second Resurrection (again, the order of things in Rev 20).

    So, you can't actually disprove Gehenna by trying to prove that Sheol/Hades is perhaps an unconscious state or something else. To me, I have my own opinion but its something for academics to debate because no one really is worried about Sheol. And Sheol is primarily what the OT writers are talking about.

    So, forget the translations of the word hell. Leave the words untranslated.

    As far as any human being can see, good or evil, Sheol looks like a comparitive rest.

    You also wrote of Job 14:12 "until the heavens be no more, he will not awake nor be aroused out of his sleep." Same thing when Mary talked about expected Lazarus to wake up on the last day. The Jews knew about the last day. That was important to them. Not so much the temporary Sheol/Hades.

    You brought up Dan 12:2. Of a handful of OT scriptures, this is fairly powerful because it discusses those who are sleeping being raised up, and their fates. Some wake to everlasting life, others to everlasting shame and contempt. It's not a hard exercise in grammer to understand that life is compared as an opposite to everlasting shame and contempt. This doesn't necessarily prove that second fate is the Gehenna eternal lake of fire, but as you will see, it fits the concept in the NT to a "T".

    To sum up: Sheol is Hades. Sheol and Hades are NOT Gehenna. Proving that Sheol/Hades are periods of rest does not prove that Gehenna is the same (even if the uninspired but hopefully honest translators decided to use the same English word for all).

    Excepting Dan 12 and a few others I haven't mentioned, I think we will see in the NT that Gehenna is something entirely different.


  3. Re: Noah preaching the Gospel, that's at the end of 1 Pet 3, which spills into 1 Pet 4. It's generally accepted that this is the same preacher for 1 Pet 4 but if you think its tenuous and doesn't explicitly say Noah preach the gospel in his day, its not material to my point. Just keeping myself honest! :)

  4. Dave, I appreciate your comments very much. Your thorough study is wonderful to see.

    Your point of Gehenna and Hades are two different things, and that one being itself does not disprove the other, etc., is well received. However, my point was not to "disprove" Gehenna whatsoever. My point was that the interpretation of what Gehenna is, is generally misunderstood. Gehenna is not a description of the second death vs. the first death, but merely a symbolic pitch of the unpleasantness non-existence.

    When you die, you cease to exist. Sleep is the best way to describe that, and therefore the term was used so many times that it becomes eye catching, and therefore hard to refute as a truth. The experience is equal to death both on the first occasion, and then - if you are unwise enough to refute God after the knowledge of Him covers the Earth "as the waters cover the sea" (Is. 11:9), then you will be headed unto the second death, which just like the first, will be a state of non-existence. II Thes. 1:9 is a good example, where is states that they "will pay the penalty of eternal destruction" (NAS) We state that this is after the resurrection, after the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea, after Jer. 31:34 is true, and then as William Barclay describes it in :8 "to execute divine vengeance on those who refuse to recognize God, and on those to refuse to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." I agree there is an eternal punishment for some, just as you do. However, we might have a slight disagreement on when that punishment is dished out, and what it actually entails.

    The Gospel is definitely "good news", and you're right, that does not mean everyone accepts it that way. But that does not make it no longer good news. Of course there were those who rejected the message - it meant they had to change, and people at large hate change. The Pharisees, being faced with setting themselves aside to allow Jesus, the said-to-be Son of God, to instruct them from here on out, was just not going to happen. There was too much pride, and of course way too much comfort in the lives of the Pharisees to teach these old dogs any new tricks. But, that does not mean that Jesus came with bad news.

    Jesus came with a message, and that message was that he came to wipe out Adam's sin (Rom. 5:16-20; I Cor. 15:21-22). He came to abolish eternal death. He spoke in Matt 13 that this is not for everyone to understand, so of course those who did not understand did not consider it such great news.

    I will look for your response to my "Part 3" section when I discuss how the OT and NT tie together, and especially in conjunction with the coming Kingdom, where sense is made of all of it. What was described in parts 1 and 2 was simply that we can obviously see an evident connection between death and sleep, as opposed to the traditional "die and go to heaven or hell" theory that is largely preached. In order to understand the study as a whole, we must understand the plan of God, and how the pieces fit into the puzzle.

    That will be discussed in part 3, which might take me another several days to put together before its official "launch" lol. There I will look for your opinion, as I very much enjoyed reading your comments. Very well put, very well studied; I appreciate you.

  5. At the least you'll know you have one avid reader! :)