What Happens to Our Souls When We Die?

There are many good reasons to believe we, as humans, are more than simply physical bodies. Humans are “soulish” creatures; we are living souls united to physical bodies. Even without the guidance of Scripture, there are good reasons to believe our lives will not end at the point of our physical death. The existence of an afterlife is reasonable, particularly given our dual nature as immaterial souls possessing physical bodies. But what precisely happens to each of us, as living souls, when our physical bodies cease to exist? What will we experience the moment we close our eyes for the last time in this temporal life? The Christian worldview offers an answer to this question, and it can be found by surveying the teaching of the New Testament:

Those Who Accept God’s Offer of Salvation Will Be United with Him Immediately
There is good reason to believe our afterlife experience begins the minute we close our eyes for the last time here on earth. For those of us who are believers, the instant our earthly bodies die our souls will be united with Jesus in the afterlife:

2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Luke 23:39-43
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Those who have accepted God’s offer of Salvation will be with Jesus in what we commonly refer to as “Heaven”. But our experience in Heaven prior to the earthly return of Jesus (and the resurrection of our bodies), while much better than our life here on earth, will not be complete. It will only be part of the experience we will one day have when Jesus returns to earth and resurrects the bodies of those who are already with Him in spirit. While He’s at it, He’ll bring those of us who are still alive home as well:

1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Only then, after the resurrection, will our joy and satisfaction be made complete; only then will we be able to experience the full physical, spiritual and emotional joy we were originally designed for.

Those Who Reject God’s Offer of Salvation Will Be Separated from Him
Unfortunately our experience of the afterlife is instantaneous upon death even for those of us who have rejected God. While believers will be united with God, unbelievers will not. The New Testament describes two different places where the unrighteous go after death. One such place is called “Hades”. This is described as the place where the unrighteous go immediately upon death to await their final destination. Take a look at this story Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke:

Luke 16:19-24
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.”

While Lazarus, a God fearing and righteous man died and immediately went to be with God, the unbelieving and unrighteous rich man went immediately to Hades. But the Bible also mentions another place for those who have rejected God; it is called “Gehenna”. This was actually a real location (just south of Jerusalem) where, at one low point in the history of the Jews, disobedient Israelites offered their children as human sacrifices to the pagan God, Molech. Later, this infamous valley became a place where waste from the city was dumped and burned in fires stoked day and night. Jesus chose this place as a metaphor to describe another real place, the eternal resting place of those in Hades who finally receive their resurrection bodies and are judged forever. While believers receive their resurrection bodies and stay in heaven with God, unbelievers receive their resurrection bodies and are moved from Hades to Gehenna.

Matthew 5:29
“And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (the word used for ‘hell’ here is ‘Gehenna’).”

Gehenna is the final resting place of all those who have rejected God in this life and in their unrighteousness have been judged at the return of Jesus.

I’ve written a lot about the reality of Hell and the nature of Heaven here at ColdCaseChristianity.com, and while that’s not the purpose of this particular post, this is a good pace to trace the path each of us will take after we die:

At the Point of Death
Each of us will leave our earthly bodies in the grave and our disembodied souls will go immediately into the presence of God or into Hades. Our destination is determined purely by our acceptance or rejection of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.

Prior to Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
We will remain in Heaven or Hades until Jesus returns to earth and gives us all our resurrection Bodies. While our experience after death will be tangible, it will not be complete. A complete afterlife can only be experienced with both our body and our soul.

After Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
If we are saved believers, we will experience the fullness of the afterlife in our resurrected bodies. If we have rejected Jesus, we will move from Hades to Gehenna and experience the fullness of judgment.

The afterlife is the focus of much popular media. Books and movies describing Heaven or Hell are plentiful, but few of them are consistent with the teaching of the Bible. As Christians, it’s important for us to understand and defend the nature of the afterlife so people will understand the importance of the Gospel message. If we can articulate the existence and character of the afterlife accurately, God’s offer of Salvation will be all the more relevant and meaningful.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.

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40 replies
  1. jcb says:

    We humans are many things, but mostly, if not entirely, we are physical bodies with various abilities (such as to “think”). There is no known “immaterial” part of us, it seems. We have no “soul”, unless you have a bodily ability, which is lost at death. There are no known abilities of “us” once we die, other than our particles dispersing, etc.
    There are not good reasons to believe we will continue to live after physical death, (also known simply as “death”). This is just wishful thinking. The existence of an afterlife is not probable. There is virtually no evidence especially of specific claims, such as that, once we die, we will be with god. Citing the Bible doesn’t make it probable that we will be with god.
    It is false that when some die, they go to “heaven”. No one knows that to be likely. Our lives after we die will be “worse”, not better, than our lives now. This is why people don’t usually kill themselves. Our next “life” is a life of nothingness: no family interaction, no movies, no enjoyments, nothing.
    There is no probably evidence that god exists, nor that a god exists who will distance himself from non-believers. (A rational god would say “good for you, non-believers: you passed the test!”, since the evidence for god is so thin.)
    There is no evidence of Gehenna/Hell, either.
    So to summarize: What remains of us when we die? Nothing of consequence. If our soul exists in any significant sense now (like being our ability to think/be conscious), it won’t exist when we die.

      • Andy Ryan says:

        If it turns out that JCB is wrong and there’s a God who sends non-believers to heaven and believers to hell then he’s fine while Christians and other theists are in trouble. Can you take this risk, Mark?

        • Mark Heavlin says:

          I was merely attempting to point out the fact that JCB has no evidence to prove that his opinion “that there is nothing after we die” is valid either. Logically speaking the opposite of “nothing” is “something”. Which in turn makes your argument invalid unless by your own definition what you call “God” is a contradictory being. Rewarding persons for non-belief and punishing other persons for belief is contradictory. Now if you have some other definitions of who you call “God” please let me know what those definitions are and we can discuss. I will work on my definition and to keep it straight I will define who I think “GOD” is.

          • jcb says:

            There is evidence: when people die, as far as we can tell, they are Not seeing any movies, driving any cars, etc. They are doing nothing, as far as we can tell, other than, as I said, existing as particles, not experiencing the world at all in a way as they were when alive.
            Rewarding persons for being rational, including not believing what one has little reason to believe, is more rational than punishing people for not believing when one has little reason to believe, and more rational than rewarding people for believing when they have little reason to believe.
            Main points:
            There is no god, (that we know of)
            There is no significant afterlife (that we know of). As far as we can tell, people who die aren’t doing anything, other than lying in the ground.
            (Please, no Weekend at Bernie’s scenarios).

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Rewarding persons for non-belief and punishing other persons for belief is contradictory.”
            Why? That’s just your standard – who are you to question God and say your standard is better? If God is perfect then anything he does must be right. Therefore if he rewards unbelievers and punishes believers then by definition that must be the perfectly moral thing to do. Much of what evangelicals tell me God wants and does strikes me as perverse, but they give me the answer I just gave you above – that it’s nonsensical to apply my own standard against his. God is the SOURCE of the standard – if his standard and morality involves rewarding unbelievers, then that’s what the standard is.
            Unless you think we can come up with some kind of standard that makes sense independent of any God’s standard?

          • jcb says:

            There is no god, and thus no god’s standard. I read the article, and responded to it in the comments section (already, before you linked to it). Read my response, and my points above, and if you think I’ve said anything false, please prove it.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “No it is NOT my standard but GOD’s standard”
            Right, so if JCB is wrong and it turns out that there’s a God whose standard involves rewarding unbelievers with heaven and sending believers to hell, then he’s fine. As you admit, your own feelings on whether that’s a good standard or not would be irrelevant, as God’s is the only one that matters. Of course, as a believer, you’d be in a bad place, as you’d be going to hell. Does this concern you at all?

          • Mark Heavlin says:

            Andy Ryan and JCB:

            Here is the definition and attributes of GOD:

            1. – “I AM”
            2. – Self Existing
            3. – Infinite
            4. – Immaterial
            5. – Timeless
            6. – Spaceless
            7. – Simple ( not composed of parts )
            8. – Personal
            9. – Perfect
            10. – Omni-Present
            11. – Omni-Potent
            12. – Omni-Scient
            13. – Unchanging / Immutable
            14. – Spirit
            15. – Holy – Set Apart Morally Perfect Love & Morally Perfect Justice
            16. – Righteous
            17. – Triune – 3 persons in 1 Divine Essence

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Here is the definition and attributes of GOD”
            The question you put to JCB was ‘What if you are wrong?’. I offered a scenario of him being wrong that involved a God who rewarded unbelievers. You’ve not shown that this is any more unlikely than the God you believe in – all you’ve done is conjecture a bunch of attributes for a God. None of those attributes actually rule out a God who rewards unbelievers and punishes believers.
            If such a God existed then rewarding unbelievers and punishing believers would be perfectly moral and righteous. We can say this with certainty by using that God’s own standard. If you want to make the argument that this God would be immoral and unrighteous you would need to refer to a standard outside of God Himself – this is nonsensical as there can be no greater standard than God’s.

          • Mark Heavlin says:

            Andy Ryan:

            I have provided my definition and attributes of GOD and am still waiting on your definition and attributes of God. So far you have only speculated on a God who punishes believers and rewards non-believers. Which is clearly contradictory unless you are speculating on a cosmic joker.

          • jcb says:

            Thanks for defining god. That helps. On that definition, there is no existing thing we know of that fits that description. That god does not exist.

          • jcb says:

            As to the other, minor issue: what would a perfect god do in regard to punishment and reward? The answer is: not send non-believers to infinite torture for all eternity (or anything like that). If anything, a rational, kind, god would reward reasonable thinkers, even if that thinking led them to conclusions that later turned out to be incorrect.
            To summarize:
            There is no known perfect god.
            If there were, he would more likely reward non-believers than believers.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            Mark, if a God exists then it has whatever attributes it has, regardless of whether definition you or I have for it. Your ideas about what is reasonable or moral are derived, you say, from the attributes you believe your God to have. If it turned out that God had a different set of attributes then it would be meaningless/pointless to judge that God by the standards of the God you previously believed in, as that God wouldn’t actually exist.
            Therefore even the name ‘cosmic joker’ would be misplaced – rewarding unbelievers and punishing the believers would in fact be perfectly reasonable. In fact it would be immoral and perverse for God to do anything else, as it would be against his nature.
            The only way you can argue against this is to make a case that there exists a standard if what is reasonable and what is perverse that exists APART from any God.
            That aside, why do you think we should be concerned with whether we are wrong about the non-existence if your God, but don’t thing you should be concerned about the possible existence of the God I conjectured? They both seem equally unlikely to me.

          • Mark Heavlin says:

            Andy Ryan:

            Sounds like you need to begin a “TRUTH QUEST” to discover what GOD is really like. Unless, of course you are NOT interested in the TRUTH.

          • jcb says:

            Until it is shown that the god you speak of exists, it is false that anyone should “begin a truth quest to discover what god is really like”.
            Prove that god exists first, if you can.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Sounds like you need to begin a “TRUTH QUEST” to discover what GOD is really like”
            You were asking ‘What if you’re wrong’. You seem happy to ask this of others while completely ruling out the possibility that you are wrong. This is hypocritical.
            And still you miss my point – you rule out the possibility of a God having traits different to the traits you believe your God to have. You do this by judging such a God by the standards of the God you believe in. But you also hold that the only standard we can have for judging anything is God’s standard. This means that whatever God exists cannot be judged by any standard but its own. Logically therefore, whatever God exists is perfect by its own standard, and that’s the standard we should use to judge anything.
            Therefore, a perverse cosmic joker God would be perfectly reasonable and moral by its own standard.
            Of course you can reject this argument by accepting that we CAN or SHOULD judge a conjectured God by a separate standard. But this leaves you open to us questioning the morality of the God you believe in, which you don’t want to do.

          • Mark Heavlin says:

            All of the wordplay is very interesting and logically you may have a point if my definition of GOD were mine and mine alone. However, this is NOT my definition of GOD but a Biblical definition of GOD. Your definition of a cosmic joker God is NOT supported by the Bible and is your individual invention.

            Are you denying that the Bible is true with what it says about GOD ?

          • jcb says:

            It doesn’t matter whose definition it is. It matters whether the concept once defined exists in reality. Your god, and that of the Bible (someone spoke and there was light, water, creatures, etc.) does not.

            So yes, the Bible is wrong about some things, including the claim that there probably exists a supernatural person who began the universe by speaking.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Are you denying that the Bible is true with what it says about GOD?”
            I don’t believe in God, so obviously I don’t think the Bible is true. Likewise, presumably, you think the Koran isn’t true with what it says about Allah.
            “Your definition of a cosmic joker God is NOT supported by the Bible”
            So what? Your question to JCB was ‘What if you’re wrong?’. There are a thousand ways he could be wrong – a million possible Gods that COULD exist, if JCB is wrong. If you wanted to ask JCB, ‘What if it turns out that the God of the Bible is real?’ then you should have been more specific. But it’s a funny thing that in your head the only two possibilities are ‘There’s no God at all’ and ‘My own specific interpretation of the Bible’s God is real’. And yes, it IS your specific interpretation. I’ve heard Archbishops say they think atheists can get into heaven if they’ve led a good life. Presumably their knowledge of the Bible is at least equal to yours.
            And again, if you can ask JCB the ‘what if you’re wrong’ question then have the honesty to ask it of yourself too. But my point isn’t to get you to consider ‘what if I’m wrong’, it’s to show how silly the question is. If you’re saying my perverse trickster God question is stupid because there’s no evidence to support it, well then you now you should understand why we reject your own God – we don’t see the evidence to support it.

    • Roughsoul says:

      Romans 1:20New International Version (NIV)

      20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

      Obviously we can’t see the immaterial God, but we can see the affects of his eternal power and devine nature. We see His eternal power sustain the immaterial laws of our universe that are so fine tuned to had happened by chance would be near impossible. We see His Devine nature in the sense that absolute truths exist and a moral law points to a devine standard. Above all else God isn’t just chillin and watching us from some fluffy cloud. God sent His Spirit to live within the believer and to be active in drawing nonbelievers to God. The Holy Spirit in the life of a believer changes them, heals them, encourages them, gives strength and guides them. Either all below throughout the centuries are crazy or there truly is something amazing at work in the lives of the believers.

      • jcb says:

        We see trees and such. Nothing about what we see (the “effects” you refer to) are known to be the result of god, his “eternal” power, nor his “divine” nature. That there are regularities like the “law” of gravity doesn’t show that there is a god who “sustains” these regularities. These regularities are not intentionally, deliberately “fine tuned”, as far as we know. A=A (an absolute truth). Nothing about absolute truths prove that god exists. Nothing about the fact that many people value love and kindness proves that god exists. There are no known metaphysical “moral laws”. Yes, many people in the past, and still today, are “crazy”, in that they hold false beliefs.

        • Mark Heavlin says:

          Your continued refusal to accept the evidence does NOT impact the evidence in any way.

          Romans 1:20 New International Version (NIV)
          20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

          • Mark Heavlin says:

            I did not cite Romans 1:20 to try and prove that GOD exists. I cited Romans 1:20 to show that you continue to DENY the evidence that is all around you. Again denial does NOT change the evidence. And to paraphrase another verse : “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no GOD.” You of course are free to do this as you have been given free will by the Creator. However, you should also KNOW the following paraphrased verse : “One day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of All.”

          • jcb says:

            You said: “I cited Romans 1:20 to show that you continue to DENY the evidence that is all around you.” Citing Romans also fails to prove that claim as well as that god exists.
            You’ve defined god. That’s a good start. Now be more specific about what evidence proves such a thing. Saying “it’s all around you” doesn’t help, and doesn’t prove god.

          • KR says:

            “I cited Romans 1:20 to show that you continue to DENY the evidence that is all around you. Again denial does NOT change the evidence.”
            I don’t think it’s a question of denying evidence – it’s a question of disagreeing on what actually constitutes evidence. In my world, evidence consists of observations that support a particular conclusion over other conclusions. I don’t see how pointing to the world around us supports a supernatural conclusion over a natural one. If you do, then it’s your job to support that conclusion. Just saying “look around you!” doesn’t justify your claim.
            “And to paraphrase another verse : “Only a fool says in his heart that there is no GOD.” ”
            To which the skeptic can always respond: “only the gullible will believe on bad evidence”. Do you see how singularly unproductive this line of argument is?

        • Jeremy says:

          In your world view how did the world as we know it come into existence?

          Is there a scientific study that shows we can duplicate this world?

          In a world view of only natural processes that is not designed. Scientist should be able to create something like this world in a lab.

          • jcb says:

            No one knows how our world came into existence. Assuming “god” did it, is God of the Gaps, poor reasoning, not thereby made probable.
            I doubt there is any study that shows how to duplicate our universe. Nothing about that proves god/disproves atheism.
            No, it doesn’t follow that if the world is not designed, scientists should be able to re-create an entire universe like ours. But, scientists have been able to create lots of things.
            Again, none of this proves god.

          • Andy Ryan says:

            “Scientist should be able to create something like this world in a lab”
            Who says? Have I got to produce a hurricane in a laboratory before you believe it’s a natural weather process?

          • KR says:

            If we needed to completely replicate a process in all its details before we could accept that it happened, wouldn’t that kind of leave all supernatural explanations dead in the water? It seems to me that all the processes we have been able to model or replicate are natural ones.

    • Eric Breaux says:

      And you would know because you’ve been dead and revived to tell that there is nothing after? If consciousness ended at death everything and one we could ever do or love would be a waste, so even living can’t be justified. But one needs to exist in order to even be able to know the truth of anything, so the implications of atheism are contradictory. Atheists admit that delusion is required to believe there is purpose to anything they do . . . in a life that can have none according to them. Way to be more logical than the majority population. Not caring about if it’s true or not that everyone will eventually not exist isn’t courage, it’s insanity.

      • jcb says:

        We know that people who are dead aren’t doing anything, as far as we can tell. They aren’t seeing any movies, they aren’t swimming in any pools, etc.
        Consciousness does end at death, but it doesn’t mean living can’t be meaningful/justified.
        That I exist, and know the truth of some things, such as that cats exist, is not in contradiction to the fact that god does not exist.
        No delusions are required to be an atheist, but believing in god appears to be: people claim something is there that is not, as far as we know/the evidence shows.
        No delusions are required to have purposes/goals.
        Yes, it is usually best to care about the truth, and the truth is that there is no god.
        Believing in falsehoods is more “insane” than believing in truths.
        There is no god. Be courageous, be truthful, look at the evidence (or lack thereof for a god, an afterlife, etc.)

        • Jeremy says:

          Can you show me proof of the truth you are talking about that there is no God?

          As far as I know there isn’t definitive proof either way if there is a God or not. But the evidence points to a designed universe rather than a total random universe.

          • jcb says:

            The proof is on the one asserting there is god. My claim is that there is no god, as far as anyone can tell. If one can tell/knows, they are the ones that need to show that this is true.
            The evidence does not point to/make probable a designed universe. What’s the evidence that you think does this?

      • Andy Ryan says:

        “If consciousness ended at death everything and one we could ever do or love would be a waste”
        Who says?
        “Atheists admit that delusion is required to believe there is purpose to anything they do”
        Speak for yourself.

  2. Daryn says:

    Christians do not die and go to heaven. They wait (in the grave) for Christ to return to this earth, “His reward with Him.”
    Perhaps the plainest scripture in the Bible regarding “going to heaven” belief is in the Sermon on the Mount—and it does not even mention the word heaven.
    1.Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
    God’s purpose for Christians is to “inherit the EARTH? there it is at the very beginning of the New Testament.

    2.The apostle John recorded the following: “And has made them [the saints] unto our God kings and priests: and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev. 5:10).
    The reward of God’s saints is to inherit future rulership “on the earth”—as “kings and priests.”
    Jesus said, “And no man has ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven” (John 3:13).
    Think of all God’s servants who had lived during the 4,000 years prior to Christ’s statement. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and many more, cannot be in heaven. So says Christ!
    If heaven is the reward of the saved, then none of these men made it. They all must have FAILED! Every one of them missed out on salvation. Of course, they did not fail.
    Heaven is not the reward of the saved—inheriting rulership over Earth is.

  3. Daryn says:

    JESUS CHRIST DID NOT TEACH HELL. Does “Hell” really exist? Is there a “Hell” in the Bible?
    Three different Greek words were indiscriminately translated “hell” in the common English versions: Gehenna, hades, and tartarus.
    gehenna = valley outside of Jerusalem where dead bodies of criminals will be disposed of.
    hades = unseen. (Just an invisible realm; no flames)
    tartarus = abode beneath the earth of sinning spiritual beings; no humans on
    the premises.
    The Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) mentions a place called Sheol.
    The Hebrew word Sheol clearly means “the grave” or “the abode of all the dead, good and bad.” The same is true in the New Testament, where the Greek word Hades also clearly means “the grave” or “the abode of all the dead.”
    Gehenna is not “hell” either, but a physical location in Israel known in Hebrew as Gehinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom.
    Today Gehenna is a lovely park and tourist attraction. Wonderful archeological discoveries have been made there, such as the healing pool of Siloam and the oldest Bible verses ever discovered, inscribed on small silver amulets. Those verses are the benediction “The LORD bless thee and keep thee; the LORD make his countenance to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee.” Those are wonderfully comforting words to have been discovered in “hell,” don’t you think?
    The simple, honest truth is that there is no “hell” in the Bible!
    Here is a simple, logical proof that there is no reason to believe in “hell,” according to the Bible itself: There is no mention of “hell” or any possibility of suffering after death anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament (OT). The Hebrew word Sheol clearly means “the grave,”


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