The world offers many answers, but what does the Bible say?
Twin caskets lie side by side beneath the prairie sod in a little cemetery near Rockham, South Dakota. In one lies my shy, godly father, who, as a Great Depression teen, plowed farm fields 20 miles south of here. Beside him rests my mother, who had a less strenuous childhood. In the next county north she earnestly practiced circus horsemanship tricks while herding cows.
“Doesn’t it make you feel strange?” my brother asked me on the icy February evening after Dad’s funeral. “Here we are in this warm farmhouse living room, and he’s out there in the cold ground.” Though both of us really knew our father could no longer feel the cold, we shuddered—and stared longingly into the dark, mysterious afterlife.
What happened to Mom’s three-ring-circus personality? Where is Dad’s humble, dependable spirituality? Are my beloved parents gone forever like breath from a mirror? Are they disturbed spirits roaming through some dark forest—and should I be worshiping them along with my other ancestors? Or are they somewhere up there, looking down on me, thrilling to my joys and feeling my pain?
It’s no wonder we’re so obsessed with the afterlife. After all, God designed us to live forever, so, He didn’t program our brains to accept death. Death is so unsettling to us that if we don’t have facts about what happens next, we quickly invent some. But the good news is that the same God who gave us life tells us clearly what happens when we die.
How we’re made
Remember your high-school algebra? Try to spot the equation in this “story problem”: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breather into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7*).
Do you see the equation? Dust plus breath equals a living being.
Does this formula hold true at life’s end? It sure does. “Then,” says Ecclesiastes, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (12:7) Dust minus spirit (breath) equals death.
“Hold on a second,” someone says. “Tell me more about that ‘spirit’ that goes back to God. Isn’t that the conscious, immortal soul that lives on after the body dies?”
That’s a good question—but a ticklish one. Not only did God build into our minds a strong “life-wish,” but He’s also given us an awesome imagination.
Here’s another equation: A strong life-wish plus a great imagination equals a powerful myth-factory if you’re not careful.
Your Bible—just the plain print on its pages—is the safest place to find the truth. And God is very clear about what your spirit is and isn’t.
The apostle Paul makes no bones about it. He says that Jesus Christ is “the King of kings and Lord of lords who alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:15, 16, emphasis added). So, if Deity alone has immortality, that means that human spirits or souls don’t. And sure enough, the Bible never once speaks about the soul being immortal and never even uses the phrase “immortal soul.”
Yet, Paul encourages us to seek for immortality (Romans 2:7) and even tells us exactly when this immortality will be given to the faithful seekers: at the resurrection.
“We shall not all sleep,” he says, “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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53, emphasis added).
But today, twenty centuries later, brows furrow. “Let me get this straight,” someone says. “Does this mean that nobody goes to heaven when they die?”
Aside from a few Bible saints I’ve mentioned in the accompanying box, no other human being has gone to heaven. We get hints of this surprising truth from one of Peter’s sermons. “ ‘David,’ ” he says, “ ‘did not ascend into the heavens’ ” (Acts 2:34).
The harp-strumming psalm-singer himself knew this, too, because he wrote “In death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5). Similarly, one of his fellow psalm-writers said, “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
Solomon says . . .
David’s son Solomon, Ecclesiastes’ author, was clear-eyed about this subject. “The living know that they will die,” he said, “but the dead know nothing, and they have no more
reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).
But, praise God, that’s not the end! Back in the most distant reaches of the Old Testament, the truth of the resurrection shone brightly. “ ‘I know that my Redeemer lives,’ ” said Job, “ ‘and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!’ ” (Job 19:25– 27, emphasis added).
Jesus says . . .
It’s fitting that we should give the last word on this subject to our loving Creator, the Savior Himself. What happens when you die? Jesus gave the answer when He learned that Lazarus, a close friend of His, had died: “ ‘Our friend Lazarus sleeps,’ ” He told His disciples gently, “ ‘but I go that I may wake him up.’ Then His disciples said, ‘Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.’ However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’ ” (John 11:11–14).
And, four days later, Jesus stood facing Lazarus’s tomb. “ ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ” He called. And Lazarus came to life, blinking in the light and struggling with his grave clothes.
That great Voice gives me hope as I think about those silent caskets beneath the South Dakota prairie where my parents lie sleeping. Often, during their days on the farm, they
would tumble into a sound sleep after a busy day, knowing nothing till the alarm’s ring next morning. A wise and merciful God has granted them just as dreamless a sleep until His glorious resurrection morning.
Paul says . . .
“This we say to you by the word of the Lord,” Paul wrote, “that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, emphasis added).
The Bible gives us a real reason to hope when we’re bereaved and grieving. Praise God for His wisdom—and His glorious hope!
Who’s in Heaven Today?
The Bible tells us about three human beings who we can be sure are in heaven today.
Enoch lived very early in earth’s history, before the Flood. The Bible says that he “walked with God,” and he “was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:24, NIV). Genesis doesn’t clarify what this means. However, in the New Testament we learn that “Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, ‘and was not found, because God had taken him’ “(Hebrews 11:5). Obviously, if Enoch did not experience death, then he is still alive, either in heaven or perhaps on a planet in some other part of the universe.
Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who lived in the kingdom of Israel during the reign of the wicked King Ahab. The Bible says that while he was out walking one day with his associate Elisha, “a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). The New Testament confirms this story, because Elijah was one of two people who came down from heaven to speak with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2, 3).
Moses also is in heaven, because he appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration with Elijah (Matthew 17:3). Enoch and Elijah were taken to heaven without experiencing death, but the Bible says that Moses died in Moab, and God buried him there (see Deuteronomy 34:5, 6). Obviously, if Moses died yet was alive with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, then at some point he was resurrected. And the New Testament suggests this: Jude 9 says that “the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not dare to bring a slanderous accusation against him, but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ ” (NIV). Apparently, Michael (who some interpreters associate with Jesus) planned to resurrect Moses, but Satan claimed him as his own. Michael refused to argue with Satan though. He just took over and resurrected him in spite of Satan’s objections.
Saints Raised at Christ’s Death
These are the three people we know are in heaven today. There’s one other possibility. According to Matthew 27:52, 53, when Jesus died, “the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people” (NIV).
The Bible doesn’t say who these “holy people” were. Some Bible students have suggested that they were all the saints from the time of Adam who had been martyred. What happened to them after they went into Jerusalem? Again, the Bible doesn’t say. However, it would be strange for God to resurrect them and then leave them to die again. It seems reasonable to conclude that at some point God took them to heaven.