There is a follow-up question to this question which I answer later on this page.
First question: Where do people go the instant they die? Before Jesus' resurrection – what we would call the Old Testament Age or dispensation – the soul of man was held in a state often referred to as "soul sleep," and the body returned to the earth from which it came. Hence the phrase “’Dust to dust’ or ‘ashes to ashes’.”
God distinguishes between the soul and the body when He says in Genesis 2:7
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed
into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
The soul of man (Hebrew - nephesh; Greek – psuche) is who he/she is. It is our mind, will and emotions. It is what distinguishes you from someone else. There will never be another you because you are your own unique soul. Our bodies are merely earth suits given to us specifically for life on Planet Earth. In Eternity we will not recognize each other by our physical bodies but by our soul-persona. (See The Bulletin, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Ask the Pastor: WILL WE RECOGNIZE LOVED ONES AND THOSE WHOM WE KNOW IN HEAVEN? Part 2 of the question.)
In Job 10:9, Job 34:15, Ecclesiastes 3:20 God tells us that our bodies return to the earth. Specifically, Job 34:15 says,
All flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust.
However, in Ecclesiastes 12:7, God makes it clear that our soul returns to God. That is, the soul does not perish or decay, but is eternal and is in His hand.
then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit [soul] will
return to God who gave it.
Back to “soul sleep,” there are numerous Scriptures which support this thought. 1) When the Witch of Endor called up Samuel from the dead, (this was an act of God, not an act of the witch) Samuel was resting, or in a state of "soul sleep."
1 Samuel 28:15 says,
Then Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"
The King James Version words it: “And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” In other words, Samuel was resting and King Saul disturbed him.
2) Another passage of Scripture which tells us the souls of men rested until the resurrection of Christ is 1 Peter 3:19 -20. Here we see the mercy and justice of God giving all a chance to respond to the only way to Heaven – Christ, but that is another subject – the point is, even wicked souls were held in a state of rest.
19through whom also He (Christ) went and preached to the spirits in prison 20who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. There were exceptions to “soul sleep.” For instance, in the case of Enoch and Elijah, they were taken directly to heaven. But we do not have time to explain these matters here.
Second question: “Does the believer go to the same place as a non-believer?” In the New Testament Age, after Christ conquered sin and death through His death, burial and resurrection, it appears that the souls of men/women go directly to heaven or hell. Here are some Scriptures which indicate such:
2 Corinthians. 5:8
We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
… having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. 24Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.
In Luke 16:19-31 we read:
19"There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. 20But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' 25But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' “
Although this is a parable told by our Lord, the specificity of it clearly implies that there was coming a day – which would be after Christ’s resurrection -- when the dead would go directly to heaven or to hell.
This is then realized in the words of our Lord to the Thief on the Cross when he said, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." Luke 23:43
Not to add confusion to this matter, but Scripture does indicate that during the Millennium (the 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth) souls are once again held in a “state of rest” until the Millennium is brought to closure. Then both sinner and saint are judged by what they have done in the body and rendered rewards and punishments accordingly. Rev. 20:11-15 tells us:
11Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, … 12And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. 13The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. 14Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 15And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.
Again in 2 Corinthians 5:10 we read,
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.
It couldn’t be any clearer, saint and sinner alike will be judged by what we have done while here on earth. However, those who come to the Father by the “blood of Christ” are “saved” and live with God throughout all eternity, those who reject Christ, spend an eternity in Hell. Both the saved and the unsaved will be judged. The “saved” will receive rewards determined by God directly relational to the intent and motive (1 Samuel 16:7), the “unsaved” will too receive rewards, but his/her will be a matter of “degree of punishment.”
Let us therefore look at every man and woman and, as Rosalind Ringer puts it, say: “There goes a sinner for whom Jesus died,” and do our utmost to introduce them to the love of the Father in Christ Jesus our Lord.
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