The destination of souls between death and resurrection

  • Question 144, from Robert S
    What happens to your soul when you die? Do our souls leave our body, and stay in Hades? And when Jesus returns, then will the believers’ dead souls be taken to heaven first, and then the living join them?

    There has been some debate about what happens to the soul in Christian theology over the centuries, partly because there has been a tendency to view the soul as almost like an ‘inhabitant’ of the body. This is an idea found more in Greek philosophy, which separates body and soul as two quite distinct entities. However, the Jewish view of human nature is much more ‘holistic’, in that body and soul are seen as indivisible, and it is that belief which appears to inform the New Testament emphasis on the resurrection being a physical, bodily event.

    However, there is the question of what happens between the moment of a person’s death, and the resurrection, which usually links in with the promised return of Christ. Broadly speaking there are four main ideas, outlined below, although there are variations on each of them.

    1. The believers’ soul goes immediately into God’s presence (and the flipside to that idea: unbelievers’ souls go to hell where they await judgement day)1. This seems to be implied by Jesus’ recorded words on the cross promising the thief crucified alongside him that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke chapter 23, verse 43). It also seems to be the apostle Paul’s view, given comments like: “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians chapter 1, verse 23)2.

    2. Souls go to some intermediate place and await judgement day. In Roman Catholic teaching souls enter Purgatory where they are ‘purged’ (purified) of sin to make them ready to enter Heaven. There is a reference in the book 2 Maccabees, in the Apocrypha, to ‘making atonement for the dead’3, which has been used to support this idea. However, there is also the possibility of people going straight to Heaven in Catholic belief, and also to Hell.

    3. Souls “sleep” until the Second Coming of Christ and ‘wake’ just in time for judgement day. This idea has no Biblical basis, although the Bible does often use the word ‘sleep’ as a metaphor for death. As such, the word ‘sleep’ is used to reassert the conviction that death is only temporary and there will be a resurrection. In Hebrews chapter 12, the reader is urged to press on with living a godly life in the presence of a ‘great cloud of witnesses’, i.e. those who have died and are now in Heaven. This seems to imply the dead have some awareness of what is going on among the living, and so must be ‘awake’.

    4. The souls of believers go to Heaven and the souls of unbelievers cease to exist. This is sometimes referred to as ‘annihilationism’ but is hard to square with the Biblical references to judgement day, or the historical Christian creeds which state that Jesus will judge ‘both the living and the dead’. If only the souls of believers survive death, then judgement is unnecessary.

    Regarding the second part of the question, the chain of events to do with the Second Coming of Christ is again a matter of debate. From what Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, it would appear he thinks that the souls of believers will return from Heaven to Earth with Christ and be reunited with their bodies when ‘the dead rise before the living’. Quite how this works is not really explained by Paul, and it should always be remembered that ‘resurrection bodies’ are a ‘glorified physical form’ which are remade perfectly4. On the basis of some Biblical passages5 it may be that unbelievers will also be resurrected at this time and then be judged.

    On a final note, however, the most important thing stressed by the Biblical writers is not how long it takes for a person’s soul to get to heaven, but the assurance offered to believers that their soul, body, and combination of the two will end up there. In one sense it makes no difference whether that is instantaneous on death, or after a period of ‘soul sleep’, which you would not be aware of anyway. Similarly the exact timing of the resurrection it less important than whether it happens, or not.

    Notes and references

    1For the purposes of this question, it is assumed that there is a separation between believers and unbelievers after death, although that is also a subject with a number of differing viewpoints.
    2 See also the phrase to ‘be away from the body and at home with the Lord’ in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, verse 8.
    3 See 2 Maccabees chapter 12, verses 42-45
    4 Philippians chapter 3, verse 20-21: “And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
    5 e.g. see Acts chapter 24, verse 15; Matthew chapter 25, verses 31-46 (The parable of the sheep and the goats)

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