Afterlife and the Bible

From Issue: R&R Volume 25 #1

We human beings find it very easy to live life as if we will be here forever. On occasion, we come face to face with death when a loved one or friend passes away. But the essence of daily living is such that it is easy to ignore the reality of death and the certainty of existence beyond the grave. Numerous ideas exist in the world regarding life after death—from annihilation to reincarnation. Islam speaks of “paradise” while Catholicism speaks of “purgatory.” While it does not answer all of our questions, the Bible nevertheless speaks definitively and decisively regarding afterlife.

The Bible teaches that human beings are composite creatures. Humans possess a fleshly body that is composed of physical elements made from “the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). Unlike animals, humans also possess a spiritual dimension—made in God’s own image—that transcends the body and physical life on Earth (Genesis 1:26-27). God places within each prenatal person at conception a spirit that makes each individual a unique personality that will survive physical death, living on immortally throughout eternity (Zechariah 12:1). At death, the spirit separates from the body and exists in a conscious condition in the spirit realm (Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21-22). Thus the Bible defines “death” as “separation”—not “extinction” or “annihilation” (Thayer, 1901, p. 282; Vine, 1940, p. 276). Since “the body without the spirit is dead” (James 2:26), the separation of one’s spirit from one’s body results in the physical death of the body. But what about the spirit?

The clearest depiction of existence beyond physical death is seen in Luke 16:19-31. In this account, both men are said to have died. Wherever Lazarus went, angels transported him there. The rich man’s body was buried—but his person was in Hades where he was tormented in flames. The rich man could see and recognize Lazarus and Abraham. Abraham referred to the rich man’s former existence as “your lifetime.” Abraham made clear that their respective locations were irreversible. The rich man’s brothers still occupied their father’s house on Earth. The rich man’s plea to send Lazarus to his living relatives would require Lazarus to “rise from the dead” (vs. 31).

The term translated “hell” in verse 23 (KJV) is the Greek word hades, and is not to be confused with the term gehenna. “Gehenna” (found twelve times in the New Testament) refers to the place of eternal, everlasting punishment—the “lake of fire” where Satan, his angels, and all wicked people will be consigned after the Second Coming of Jesus and the Judgment. Gehenna is hell. On the other hand, “hades” (occurring ten times in the New Testament and paralleling the Hebrew Old Testament term sheol) always refers to the unseen realm of the dead—the receptacle of disembodied spirits where dead people await the return of the Lord (Revelation 1:18). Hades is not hell.

Observe further that Luke 16 depicts Hades as including two regions: one for the deceased righteous, and a second for the deceased wicked. The former is referred to as the “bosom of Abraham” (meaning “near” or “in the presence of ” Abraham—cf. John 1:18). Jesus referred to this location as “paradise” (Luke 23:43; cf. Acts 2:25-34). The term “paradise” is of Persian derivation, and referred to “a grand enclosure or preserve, hunting-ground, park, shady and well-watered” (Thayer, 1901, p. 480). The Jews used the term as “a garden, pleasure-ground, grove, park,” and came to apply it to that portion of Hades that was thought “to be the abode of the souls of the pious until the resurrection” (p. 480). The word is used in three senses in the Bible: (1) In the Septuagint (Genesis 2:8,9,10,15,16; 3:2,3,4,9,11,24,25), the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it refers to the literal Garden of Eden on Earth where Adam and Eve lived (Septuagint, 1970, pp. 3-5). It normally is translated “garden” in English versions; (2) It is used one time, in a highly figurative New Testament book, to refer to the final abode of the saved, i.e., heaven (Revelation 2:7); and (3) It is used in connection with the Hadean realm.

While Jesus, the thief, and Lazarus went to the paradise portion of Hades, the rich man went to the unpleasant area that entailed torment and flame—tartarosas, or Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6). The occupants there await “the judgment of the great day.” Thus, Hades is a temporary realm that will be terminated at the Judgment (Revelation 20:13-14).

God gives people only their earthly life to prepare their spirits for their eternal abode (Hebrews 9:27). When a person dies, his or her body goes into the grave, while the spirit enters the Hadean realm to await the final Judgment. At the Second Coming of Christ, all spirits will come forth from Hades and be resurrected in immortal bodies (John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 15:35-54). All will then face God in judgment, receive the pronouncement of eternal sentence, and be consigned to heaven or hell for eternity.

[NOTE: For an audio sermon on this topic, click here.]


Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (1970 reprint), (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Thayer, J.H. (1901), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint).

Vine, W.E. (1966 reprint), An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell).


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