Do Good People Really Go to Heaven When They Die?
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William was a teenager when his father died. He was devastated because he loved his dad. He remembered the times when he walked beside his dad with his little fingers clutching his father's much larger hand.
He couldn't help but wonder why a loving God, if indeed there were such a Being, would allow his father to die prematurely, before his time. It just didn't make sense. His anger turned him away from the God that he had learned about in Sunday school. "If God works this way, I want nothing to do with him," he lamented.
He sought answers from his pastor, but the minister said he didn't understand it either, that God worked in mysterious ways. This didn't help young William get over his anger. After a few years, he simply gave up in frustration with the thought that there was no answer as to why or where God took his father.
Sometimes, thinking his father was up in heaven and could somehow hear him, William would try to talk to his dad—but, as always, there was no response. Little did he know that what the Bible revealed about where his father went and his father's future were quite different from what he had been taught.
Are good people promised heaven?
When good people die, do they go directly to heaven as so many believe? Since life here is so short and eternity is so very long, shouldn't we want to clearly understand the truth on this crucial subject?
To comprehend what the Bible teaches about heaven, we first need to understand that there is more than one heaven. Often the Bible refers to heavens, plural. In fact, three distinct "heavens" are mentioned in the Bible.
The first of these is simply the sky above us—earth's atmosphere, containing the air we breathe. It is in this heaven that birds fly and clouds give rain and snow (2 Samuel 21:10; Job 35:11; Isaiah 55:10).
The second biblical heaven is the realm beyond earth's atmosphere, what we commonly call outer space. Here we find the "stars of heaven"—the planets, stars, constellations and galaxies of this awesome physical universe (Genesis 22:17; 26:4; Deuteronomy 1:10; Isaiah 13:10).
The "third heaven" is different still—it is the location of God's majestic throne (2 Corinthians 12:2).
Obviously the deceased, Christian or not, are not floating around unnoticed in the first two heavens. No one seriously believes they can be found drifting about the sky or in outer space. Therefore they must be in the third of these heavens, right?
Many people assume so, but the whole argument about heaven being the reward of deceased Christians runs into a brick wall with these words from the apostle Peter's first sermon: "Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day . . . For David did not ascend to heaven . . ." (Acts 2:29, 34, New International Version, emphasis added throughout).
God called this same King David "a man after My own heart," one who would "do all My will" (Acts 13:22). Surely, if anyone had a right to heaven, wouldn't it be a person such as David? Yet Peter tells us God did not carry David off to heaven. The only one who had ascended to heaven, said Peter, was Jesus Christ (Acts 2:29-35).
Was Peter mistaken? Did he simply misspeak?
We might assume so, but notice what the Gospel of John says: "No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man [Jesus Christ]" (John 3:13, NIV).
Jesus never promised Christians heaven after they died. The New Testament plainly says that of the faithful men and women who had gone before—such spiritual giants as Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, to name some of those listed in Hebrews 11—not one has ascended to heaven. In fact, says verse 39 of Hebrews 11, "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised" (NIV).
If they aren't in heaven, where are they? And what was it they were promised, if it wasn't heaven?
No consciousness in the grave
Many people are surprised to discover what the Bible really says about what happens to us when we die. Yet, when we remove our preconceived notions, the answer becomes quite clear from the Scriptures—and it is immensely encouraging to all.
Notice what God inspired King Solomon to write about the state of the dead: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
Scripture clearly tells us that at death we cease to know anything. The dead are unconscious and unaware. All our emotions, thoughts, knowledge and feelings go to the grave with us. No consciousness continues living in another place or state. We do not have an immortal soul that goes on living somewhere else. In Ezekiel 18, verses 4 and 20, God plainly tells us that "the soul who sins shall die"—not continue living apart from the body.
The patriarch Job echoes Solomon's words. He writes: ". . . Man dies and is laid away; indeed he breathes his last and where is he? As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep" (Job 14:10-12).
Job goes on to ask the most crucial question about life after death: "If a man dies, shall he live again?" (verse 14). His answer is found in Jesus Christ's own words.
Death's mystery solved
The key to the mystery of life after death is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die" (John 11:25-26).
It is because Christ was resurrected from the grave that we can be assured we, too, will be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:12-21). Throughout the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians, the apostle Paul eloquently argues this important fact—that since Jesus was resurrected from the grave, He will resurrect all those who have been faithful to Him.
Job, as we saw above, raised the question of life after death. Notice how he answered it: "O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time [the time of the resurrection], and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. Thou shalt call, and I will answer thee . . ." (Job 14:13-15, King James Version).
Job understood that life after death comes about by God's divine power. Speaking of each person whom the Father would call to understand His truth, Jesus explains, "I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:44).
The promise of life after death hinges on Jesus Christ's resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The fact that Jesus Christ was resurrected to become "the firstborn from the dead" (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5) means that He has opened the way for others to follow in a resurrection from the grave. The raising of the dead is a mighty and magnificent part of God's great master plan. Through it, mankind has the opportunity to live again, as faithful Job knew and confirmed.
The doctrine of the resurrection is listed among the fundamental doctrines of the Bible (Hebrews 6:1-2). It is the hope of all true Christians, for it nullifies and makes void death itself (1 Corinthians 15:54).
The resurrection voids death
Paul confirms that many people were eyewitnesses to the fact that Jesus Christ had indeed risen from the grave:
"For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas [Peter], then by the twelve [apostles]. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep [in death]. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time" (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
Too many credible witnesses saw and interacted with Christ Jesus after He was raised from the dead for His resurrection to be denied.
Paul also offers a simple but incontestable logic about how our resurrection from the dead is directly tied to Jesus' resurrection: "But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
"More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [in death]. For since death came through a man [Adam], the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man [Jesus Christ]" (1 Corinthians 15:12-21, NIV).
The mystery of what happens to human beings after they die is incontrovertibly solved in the vibrant life of the resurrected Christ. Our future life beyond the grave is directly connected to the resurrected Jesus Christ and the fact that He is the One who will raise us from the dead. When this happens—and it surely will—the Bible reveals it will not be so that we can go to live in heaven forever.
Death likened to sleep
When Christians—or any others—die, they do not go directly to heaven or to any equivalent of heaven. Their bodies simply decay in the grave, returning to the dust from which they were made (Genesis 3:19).
Solomon confirmed the fact that the dead are unconscious, knowing nothing. He illustrated the superiority of life over death with an interesting analogy: "Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing . . ." (Ecclesiastes 9:4-5, NIV).
The writers of the Bible describe our experience after death not as going to heaven or hell, but simply as sleep. Notice, for example, how Daniel refers to the state of the dead in this prophecy of the resurrection: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). When an individual is in a deep sleep, he has absolutely no conscious awareness of the passing of time nor any knowledge of events that are occurring while he is asleep.
Paul repeatedly compared death to sleep (1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15). Peter similarly writes of the patriarchs who "fell asleep" in death (2 Peter 3:4).
Jesus Himself also spoke of death as sleep. Speaking of a deceased girl whom He intended to raise from the dead, He told the mourners, "Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping" (Luke 8:52; compare Matthew 9:24).
Before He resurrected Lazarus, He told the disciples, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." The disciples misunderstood, thinking Lazarus was sleeping because he was ill. "However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep" (John 11:11, 13).
When will the dead be resurrected?
We can see that the Bible clearly teaches that good people don't go to heaven at death; instead they sleep in the grave awaiting the resurrection of the dead. All of the dead —good and not so good alike—will eventually be resurrected, each in his own time (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
The dead in Christ will be resurrected to immortal life at Jesus Christ's return to earth, and those faithful servants who are still alive at that time will be changed from mortal to immortal. Specifically, this happens at the sounding of "the trumpet of God" (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), called "the last trumpet" in 1 Corinthians 15:52 and corresponding to the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11:15.
This event is called "the first resurrection" in Revelation 20:5. In John's vision of the future, those in this resurrection came to life and "reigned with Christ for a thousand years" (verse 4), during the period commonly known as the Millennium. Notice that they do not go to dwell in heaven—they live and reign with Jesus on earth, to which He has returned to establish God's Kingdom!
Verse 6 goes on to explain: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power [because they will then be the resurrected, immortal children of God], but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." Revelation 5:10 confirms that they will be "a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth" (NIV). (For more details, see "God's Awesome Purpose for Those in the First Resurrection,".)
Since Christ is coming back to earth (Zechariah 14:3-4), it makes good sense that that's where we will be. After all, Jesus said that we would be with Him: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also" (John 14:3; compare Isaiah 11:1-9). Clearly, Jesus is coming back to earth and we will reign with Him here, not in or from heaven.
Another resurrection follows
So if there is a first resurrection in which God's faithful servants are raised to immortality to reign with Jesus Christ, will there be other resurrections? And what happens to those who lived and died without ever knowing or hearing the name of Jesus, the only name by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12)?
Those who died without knowing Christ will be resurrected to physical life and given their time to repent and receive salvation 1,000 years later (Revelation 20:11-13). Verse 5 tells us clearly that "the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished."
Ezekiel 37 vividly describes a second resurrection to a temporary physical existence, when human beings who have never understood God's truth in this life will be raised from the dust of the earth to learn God's way for the first time. God is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" and "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4). He will not unjustly condemn those who never had an opportunity to come to that knowledge, repent and receive His gift of eternal life.
Each person raised to life again in this great resurrection will be given sufficient time to learn God's way of life (see Ezekiel 37:12-14, 23-24), during which they will be judged or evaluated according to their works, by the standards and values "which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:12).
These "books" (biblion in Greek, from which we get the word Bible) are the Scriptures, the only source of the knowledge of eternal life and the basic standard by which all are ultimately judged. Most, probably the vast majority, will go on to receive eternal life because the Bible tells us that "all Israel will be saved" (Romans 11:26)—and by extension most of the gentile world likely will be saved as well. (To learn more about this resurrection, see "All Those in the Tombs Will Hear His Voice".)
Some individuals, regrettably, will stubbornly choose to reject this marvelous opportunity for eternal life. But rather than suffer torment for eternity in hell (as many people incorrectly assume the Bible teaches), Scripture shows their fate will be to be consumed in the lake of fire, "the second death." As Malachi 4:3 states, they will be burned to ashes and simply cease to exist.
You can take something with you
People of many ancient cultures, such as the Egyptians, buried items of physical worth with their dead. They believed that the deceased would be able to use those important things in the next life. Yet the patriarch Job refuted this idea: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there" (Job 1:21). This may be where we get the oft-repeated saying, "You can't take it with you."
However, this old cliché is not entirely true. In a sense, God will allow you to take something with you when you die—godly character. A true Christian is one who builds God's character for the duration of his Christian life (1 Corinthians 3:9-15). When raised to life again in the resurrection, that same character will be a part of us in our new life. For the true Christian, that godly character will be with him forever (1 John 2:15-17).
The Egyptians and many other long-dead peoples didn't know this, or they would not have buried valuable physical objects with their dead. But a young teen learned this truth from God's Word, the Bible.
A teen learns the truth
Do you remember William, whose father died prematurely while he was a teenager? That youngster is the author of this article; William is my middle name. Eventually I came to understand the purpose of life and the fact that the dead are not lost in the grave, that all men, women, children and babies who have ever lived will be resurrected, each in his or her own time. All will eventually have the opportunity to learn God's truth.
In time I came to comprehend that the common denominator to all human death was and is the resurrection of Jesus Christ to eternal life, and that His resurrection guarantees our resurrection, too. Although death is a great enemy of human beings—and it has hurt and stung me deeply three separate times—we can take great comfort in God's truth. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:54-58, the resurrection from the dead removes this great enemy and its sting!
Jesus Christ reveals that in time God the Father will come to the earth (Revelation 21:1-3, 10). Listen to Jesus Christ's description of this time: "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4).
Knowing God's ultimate plan for mankind—that human death doesn't end it all—gives us a great and wonderful comfort and sets us free from the myth of a passive eternity in heaven or eternal torment in hell. Finally, the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 urges us to share this holy truth with others: "Therefore comfort one another with these words." GN