Heaven, Hell, and the End of the World: Individual Eschatology
What happens when someone dies? Where will people spend eternity?
When a believer dies. . .
II Corinthians 5:8
8Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
21For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
43And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
When a believer dies, they go immediately into the presence of the Lord. This is a conscious experience.
There is a doctrine commonly known as “soul sleep” that is taught by some so-called Christian groups. The doctrine of soul sleep says that when a person dies, they become unconscious, and that when a believer dies, they are unconscious until the resurrection. In other words, there is no conscious existence apart from the body. The Bible does not teach the doctrine of soul sleep.
Scripture does refer to the death of believers as sleep.
I Corinthians 15:6
6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
I Thessalonians 4:13
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
However, the scriptures do not teach that when a person dies, they become unconscious until the resurrection. In fact, the scriptures clearly teach a conscious existence after death for both the saved and the lost.
What about purgatory?
The Bible does not teach the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, the doctrine of purgatory is clearly contrary to scripture.
The doctrine of purgatory makes the redemptive work of Christ inadequate to pay for a person’s sins.
What about unbelievers?
When an unbeliever dies, they enter immediately into a state of conscious suffering.
19“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'”
But these two states, the disembodies conscious blessedness of the redeemed, and the disembodies conscious misery of the lost, are not final and eternal.
People will not spend eternity as disembodied spirits.
Death is a temporary cessation of bodily life and a temporary separation of the soul from the body.
All people, both believers and unbelievers, will be resurrected bodily.
25“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
2And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall) awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
So we will not actually spend eternity in heaven – at least not in the usual sense. Instead, we will be raised from the dead to spend eternity in glorified, immortal bodies.
I Thessalonians 4:13–18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
I Corinthians 15:50–57
50I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
So where will believers spend eternity?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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. 4 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.”
5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
9Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. 12It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel were inscribed— 13on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. 14And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
15And the one who spoke with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city and its gates and walls. 16The city lies foursquare, its length the same as its width. And he measured the city with his rod, 12,000 stadia. Its length and width and height are equal. 17He also measured its wall, 144 cubits by human measurement, which is also an angel’s measurement. 18The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, clear as glass. 19 The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. 21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
22And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Cf. Romans 8:18–25
18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
In addition to being raised from the dead, both believers and unbelievers will be judged.
The judgment of believers:
10Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
II Corinthians 5:10
10For 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.
Believers are judged, not to determine salvation, but to determine rewards.
I Corinthians 3:12–15
12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
18The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and(D) for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
The judgment of unbelievers and the reality of hell:
Matthew 25:41, 46
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
9And another angel, a third, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.