Where We Go When We Die

Last Sunday evening the lesson was about what we can learn from the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).  In that passage we are given the most detailed description of what happens after we die.  Jesus reveals Hades (death / grave / place of the dead) as a spiritual realm with three parts.  First, there is a side that is described as torment and agony because of the flames.  Second, there is the side of comfort and water.  It seems inescapable that this second part is what Jesus refers to as Paradise (Lk. 23:43), where He and the thief on the cross would go the day they died.  The third part of Hades is a “great chasm” that prevents anyone from crossing over from one side to the other.

Based on this picture of Hades, many think of it as a waiting room.  When we die, we either go to a comforting place of rest where we await our eternal reward in heaven or we go to an agonizing place where we await our inevitable eternal damnation in hell.  However, I stirred up some questions at the end of the sermon when I stated that I don’t think the waiting room is the destination for Christians today.

It might have been a mistake for me to mention that and not go into more detail.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have said anything at all.  But I didn’t say more because I try to avoid speculation in sermons.  But, if you will accept that I am only speculating now, perhaps this article can answer why I’m not convinced Christians go to the same Paradise that Lazarus and the thief on the cross went to.

The reason I don’t think Christians go to the spiritual realm described in Luke 16 is because it does not appear to me that Paul expected to go there.  When Paul faced a life-or-death situation, he was torn as to which one was better (Phil. 1:21-24).  To live, he reasoned, would give him opportunity to serve Christ and Christians.  That was good.  To die, on the other hand, meant he would “depart and be with Christ.” “That is very much better,” Paul concluded.

This poses two problems for the waiting room doctrine.  First, Jesus isn’t in Hades today.  We know that He has ascended to be at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Acts 2:33; Col. 3:1).  If Paul was going to be with Jesus, then he wasn’t going to Hades.  Second, Paul’s entire argument appears nonsensical if he was only going to go to a waiting room.  What attracted him to death wasn’t rest from his work but going to be with Jesus.  If Paul only went to a waiting room, he wouldn’t be in Jesus’ presence any faster regardless of whether he lived or died.  In which case, why would he be “hard-pressed” to know what fate was best if departing and being with Christ wasn’t even an option?  Do you see the problem?

There is no denying that Jesus’ teaching on Hades is clear, and I believe that it was absolutely true when He said it.  But perhaps something changed in the realm of the afterlife between Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s dilemma.  Here is where we have definite speculation.  Could it be that the waiting room only existed for righteous people because the payment for our sins had not yet been paid by Jesus’ death on the cross and death had not been conquered because Jesus had not yet been resurrected?  Once those two events occurred, perhaps our immediate destination after death changed too.  In which case, our hope is not in a comfortable waiting room but in going to be with Jesus, which is “very much better.”

Additionally, the book of Revelation describes the dead saints as being below the altar in the heaven scene (Rev. 6:9-11).  Perhaps that is a hint of their location.  But with the book of Revelation, taking interpretations and conclusions with a healthy grain of salt is always advised.

Wherever Christians go after we die, we have reason to be encouraged and hopeful.  After all, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them” (Rev. 14:13).  When the Spirit says, “from now on,” we can rest assured that this statement still applies to us today.  Additionally, since Jesus told us that Lazarus was carried away by angels (Lk. 16:22) then we don’t need to worry about knowing where to go when we die.  Just follow the angels!

Whether Christians go to a place of comfortable waiting or go to be immediately with Jesus in heaven, I am convinced that they will not be disappointed by what awaits them after death.