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What happens when people die?

The question of "What happens when people die" has been important to all people for all generations. It is an important part of nearly every religion. The leaders of most religions exert a lot of control on their members by promising a "good place" to go for those who are faithful, and a "bad place" for those who are not.

But the Bible teaches that God and His Son, Jesus the Christ will decide what happens to each person, not a group of men. Furthermore, the teachings of the Bible are very different than what most people—even most Christians believe. Here are some "shockers":

  • There is no Bible verse that says anything like: "when people die they either go to heaven or hell".
  • The Bible never talks about believers being up and heaven watching us.
  • "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of  the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.... For David did not ascend into the heavens" (Acts 2:29-34),
  • The Bible describes the heroes of faith as: "These all died in faith, not having received the promises,... that they might obtain a better resurrection....  And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us (Heb 11:13, 35,39-40).

Part of the difficulty in understanding the Bible is the words "forever" or "eternal". In English, that implies a never-ending time, something that is infinite. The Hebrew and Greek words from which are most often translated "forever" or "eternal" are olam and aion. They do not mean "forever", but " an age" or "a long uncertain length period of time". We derive our English word "eon" from it. Notice the verses below:

As Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them in a similar manner to these, having given themselves over to sexual immorality and gone after strange flesh, are set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire (Jude 1:7).

"And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:23-24).

The "eternal fire" that consumed Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19 has the whole story) lasted until the end of the physical age of those cities. They were burned up and everyone in them died--it was the "end of the age" for them. But notice the people of Sodom will be alive again in the judgment, and they will have an easier time than the people of Capernaum who actually saw Jesus and did not believe. Christ also taught that Sodom would not have needed to be destroyed if it had witnessed the power of Christ personally. Does God condemn people to suffering forever when He has not done all He could do to save them? No! He judges them fairly based upon what they know:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience (2 Corinthians 5:10-11, ESV).

When Christ was talking to a group of self-righteous religious leaders who claimed to be serving God, He told them that they would enter the Kingdom of God after (later in time sequence than) other known sinners:

"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go, work today in my vineyard.' He answered and said, 'I will not,' but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, 'I go, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said to Him, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you" (Matthew 21:28-31).

The word "before" actually means "before in time sequence". None of these sinners are ready to enter the Kingdom of God without knowing Christ. But they will arise to judge each other, and some will have an easier time than the others:

"The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here" (Matthew 12:41-42).

"Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!" (Matthew 10:15).

Christ died not only for those sins of Christians today, but for the whole world.

He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins -- and not only our sins but the sins of all the world  (1John 2:2, NLT).

And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation (Hebrews 9:27-28).

While God has a plan to raise everyone from the dead, we are much better off to be eagerly awaiting our resurrection and judgment. If we know the scriptures and judge ourselves and others fairly, we will not be judged:

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).

For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you (Matthew 7:2).

For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged (1Corinthians 11:31).

by Norman Scott Edwards, June 2011


For more information, click on the articles at right or look up "resurrection", "judgment" and "eternal" in a concordance or computer bible.

Read Related CBTM Articles On-Line
All Who Die Shall Live Again -- short
What Does the Bible Say About Eternal Judgement -- read on-line, thorough
What Does the Bible Say About Eternal Judgement -- PDF (83 pages)
Historical quotes from famous Bible scholars about the state of the dead.
Articles written by others
Doctrine of Endless Punishment by Thomas B. Thayer, written before 1855.