Author: Ron Graham
Where are the Dead, and in what state are their souls? The Bible answers the question clearly, though not in detail. In this lesson, and the one to follow, we will answer that question as far as the revealed word of God will allow.
We know that death is a separation. The spirit leaves the body. The fleshly body returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God.
¶ “5...For man goes to his eternal home, and mourners go about the streets. 1So remember now your Creator in the days of your youth... 6before the silver cord is loosed... 7when the dust shall return to the ground it came from, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:1,5b-7).
James says that "the body without [separated from] the spirit is dead" (James 2:26).
Earthly life ends when “the silver cord is loosed” and the spirit leaves the mortal body. The body corrupts and becomes dust. This, however is not a permanent state, for there will be a resurrection at the last day.
¶ “ 28...An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice 29and they will come out. For those who have done good, it will be the resurrection of life. For those who have done evil, it will be the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).
Paul likens the resurrection of the body to the sowing of a seed. The seed you sow dies in the ground, and from its death life springs up in a far more glorious form. So it is with our bodies.
¶ “ 37...And the seed you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.... 50flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable... 53This mortal must put on immortality” (1Corinthians 15:37-38,50,53).
So the dead go to the grave; the body undergoes corruption; dust returns to dust. Yet there is the promise that out of that death will come an immortal, glorified, and incorruptible body at the resurrection.
But what of the spirit? Is it still alive? Where has it gone?
The question of where the spirit goes is answered by the Bible, but without detail. There's no point me making stuff up to fill in the detail. I'll simply do the best I can to give you a Bible answer.
When "the spirit returns to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7), where does it reside until the resurrection? In the vision that John saw of the resurrection and judgment, the dead are said to have been in Hades (Revelation 20:11-15).
¶ “ 11Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. 13And the sea yeilded up the dead who were in it. Death and Hades yielded up the dead who were in them. All were judged, every one of them, according to what they had done. 14Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. (This lake of fire is the second death). 15Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).
A prophecy about Christ speaks of Hades or Sheol (cf Psalms 16:10, Acts 2:27,31).
¶ “8I have set the LORD always before me. He is at my right hand, so I shall not be moved. 9Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices. My flesh also dwells secure. 10For you will neither abandon my soul to Sheol, nor let your holy one see decay. 11You make known to me the path of life. In your presence joy is full. At your right hand are pleasures evermore” (Psalm 16:8-11).
¶ “ 25I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken. 26Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced. My flesh also will dwell in hope. 27For you will neither abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption. 28You have made known to me the paths of life. You will make me full of joy with your presence” (Acts 2:25-28).
¶ “ 31 David foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).
The Greek name hades may come from the prefix a- (meaning not) combined with oida (meaning "see" or "know"). This suggests that Hades or Sheol is a place unseen or unknown —not a place for us to comprehend.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus takes place in Hades (Luke 16:19-31). Some think that we can learn what Hades is like from the descriptions in this story.
However (and it's a pretty significant however) our Lord pictures people in Hades as having bodies, when in fact the dead have lost their natural bodies, and do not yet have their immortal bodies. This raises speculation about how literal a picture Jesus intended to give us in the setting he provided for the story.
¶ “19There was a rich man dressed in costly purple cloth and fine linen. He dined with extravagance every day. 20Meanwhile at his gate there was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores. 21Lazarus was longing to be fed with the mess from under the rich man’s table. Added to that, the dogs came and licked the poor man’s sores.
¶ “22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades the man who had been rich suffered torment. He lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his embrace. 24And the rich man cried out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me! Please send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in such anguish in this flame.'
¶ “25But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you, in your lifetime, received your good things. Lazarus at the same time received bad things. But now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26Besides all that, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed. Those who would pass from here to you cannot, and none may cross from over there to us.'
¶ “27And the man in torment said, 'Then I beg you, father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house. 28I have five brothers. I want Lazarus to warn them, so they won't come into this place of torment.' 29But Abraham said, 'They have [the writings of] Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'
¶ “30And the man replied, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 31Abraham said to him, 'If they won't hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead' ” (Luke 16:19-31).
From that story, and other scriptures, a traditional diagram is drawn, a simplified version of which is shown below.
Hades is not a physical place experienced on a physical level. Therefore it does not have physical attibutes. In the story, the physical attributes that Jesus gives to Hades are representative of its actual attributes, which are presently beyond our ken.
The point of telling the story, is not to answer the question, “Where are the Dead?” nor to inform us about what it is like to be dead, or what Hades looks like. Rather, the point of the story is that this life is the time to hear, believe, and obey God's word. In Hades there is no opportunity to change your eternal destiny (Revelation 20:11-15) quoted earlier.
Everyone who dies goes to Hades, but there is a difference. Those who have heeded God’s word, and have a faith like Abraham’s, will be in a blessed state. Those who won't listen to God will be in a state of condemnation. And in Hades no change can be made.
¶“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, 'Write this down: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' And the Spirit says, 'Yes, that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!' ” (Revelation 14:13).
In our next lesson we will consider three related questions...