Where do we go at death?
At any point in time (since the cross), God views humankind in at least three classes:
- The blessed dead: Made up of glorified O.T. saints and the souls of saints temporarily kept under the altar awaiting their glorified bodies. (Few – if any – of the N.T. Saints have yet to receive their glorified bodies.)
- The living: Made up of unbelievers, Jews (chosen but have not accepted Christ as Messiah), Laodicean christians (churches and people who are part of the church but for some reason, they are not ready to be caught away at the coming of Jesus), and Philadelphia saints (rapture ready). There are other classes of living persons after the rapture.
- The unforgiven dead: These are tormented souls who are physically dead, living in unimaginable suffering, in hell, waiting on the Great White Throne Judgment and the second death.
For the present, each person alive on earth is a triune being, consisting of body, soul & spirit (compare 1 Thessalonians 5:23). It may seem strange, but each element of our being is dealt with differently at death and, the destinations are also different. All who have less than all of these elements are anxiously awaiting their resurrection (see Note 1, “Reunion of Body and Soul”).
Regardless of our spiritual standing with God, when we die, our BODY is buried and eventually returns to dust. It may be burned beyond recognition or buried at sea or even melted in an atomic blast but, one way or another, it returns to the earth. This is just a visible reality of life. It is often rehearsed by a priest or minister as the undertaker lowers a casket into the ground and they drop soil into the grave, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” (from the 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer). This is clearly why Solomon would (wrongly) declare in Ecc 3:19 that “the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both… (v.20) All go to the same place.” (To understand why this verse is in error, read our article on “Understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes“. Each time we visit a funeral, we are reminded that our existence in this body is limited to a few short years of increasing pain.
But there is a resurrection! And the bodies of those who have been “born again” are miraculously changed! They will no longer be just mortal “dust” but these become the immortal (eternal) bodies that will never again experience pain or suffering. (For more about this, see our article on the “Rapture”.)
The SPIRIT (of life) returns to God who gave it. In the Bible, the words “spirit” and “wind” (or “breath”) are often used interchangeably. (If you read the original languages, you will understand that they generally are just different translations of the same original word.) Jesus used the two words in John 3:8 to describe being born of the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples (in Acts 2), they described the event as including a sound of a “rushing mighty wind.”
In Ezekiel 37:9, it was the spirit/breath/wind that brought the dry bones back to life. At the creation (Gen 2:7), God breathed life into Adam and he became a living soul. (See John 5:21 to understand that all life is given from God the Father, or the Son). So, when He chooses, God can withdraw His spirit (breath) and we die (physically).
We have no real control over when or how we die, where our body will be buried, or the return of the Spirit to God. Our family determines where and how our body is “put to rest.” Someone might say that we can control the time and manner of our death – we can kill ourselves. But I am not so sure that is absolutely true. It appears from Scripture (See Note 2, What is the #1 cause of death?) that God can keep people alive even if they try to die.
In the larger scope of things, God chooses when we stop breathing the breath of life. And, since He gave the spirit of life, He can reclaim it at any time. In Ecclesiastes 12:7 (see Note 3, How to study the book of Ecclesiastes), Solomon wrote a profound truth, “the dust [body] returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit [of life] returns to God who gave it.”
In summary, the Judgment of Actions states that since all have sinned, then we will all die a physical death. At death, the body is buried and returns to dust. And the spirit of life (or breath) returns to God the Father who gave it. That just leaves us with the soul‘s destination:
Where does the SOUL go at death?
The question of where our soul goes when we die must be answered if we are to have peace in this life. The Judgment of ACTIONS is involved but, I believe that the soul’s eternal destination is determined in a separate judgment, the Judgment at DEATH.
Logically, the next article is “Why God judges us“.
Note 1, Reunion of Body and Soul. There are many references in the Bible to Resurrection. Although some near-death experiences may differ, TRUE resurrection is the point where a person’s soul is reunited with their body. The process varies for different groups, so we will deal with it more completely in a future article.
Note 2, What is the #1 cause of death? An interesting thought was revealed to me a few years ago… We do not die of heart attack, stroke, or cancer – we die because God withdraws His spirit, or breath of life (Rev 9:6).
Note 3, How to study Ecclesiastes. See our article here about how to study the book and see this article about how to use context to understand the Bible better.