Where Do Spirits Go After Death?

Spirit Rising

In a previous post we established people have both a body and spirit.  Recapping:

For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return."
(Gen 3:19)

"May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community…” (Numbers 27:16)

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26)

“The spirit is willing, but the body is weak." (Mark 26:41)

“When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30)

“An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. (1 Corinthians 7:34)

“There is one body and one Spirit… (Eph 4:4)

We know where the body goes after it dies: into the earth to turn back to dust.  But what happens to the spirit? 

“He [Jesus] took her by the hand and said, ‘My child, get up!’  Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up.” (Luke 8:54-55)

This girl’s spirit returned at Jesus’ command for her to raise to life from the dead.  But where did her spirit come back from?  Where do our spirits go after we die?  That’s the question of this post…

Here is what Solomon had to say in response to this question:

“The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Eccl 12:7)

So Solomon says the spirit returns to God. 

This begs the question, “Where is God?” 

We know his Spirit is everywhere, but what else do we know?

"Our Father in heaven,
   hallowed be your name…”
(Matthew 6:9)

“And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.” (Matthew 23:9)

If the Father is in heaven, and our Spirit returns to God, do all spirits go to heaven?  Apparently not:

“But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5)

Ok, I’ll cut to the initial chase: according to the Bible, spirits go to either heaven or hell when the body dies. 

But there is more to this story… let’s keep digging.

Let me start by asking, “Iis heaven up or down?”  Some verses imply upwards:

"But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Matthew 26:64)

He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, ‘Ephphatha!’ (Mark 7:34)

“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:55)

“As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” (Mark 1:10)

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight…

‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10-11)

Some verses indicate hell is downwards:

“It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.(Matthew 5:22)

“But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol.  (Prov 9:18 NASB)

Sheol is a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament for where spirits go. 

Strong defines Sheol as: hades or the world of the dead (as if a subterranean retreat), including its accessories and inmates: – grave, hell, pit.

Shortly before Moses died he sang a song wherein he quotes the Lord making a judgment against Israel.  The judgment begins thus:

“For a fire is kindled in My anger,
And burns to the lowest part of Sheol
(Number 32:22 NASB)

This is an interesting verse and implies that in Sheol (the place where all spirits go) fire is burning down at the bottom. 

We know that hell is a place of fire:

“It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43)

From these verses (and others) I’m going to make this postulate: in relation to each other, heaven is higher than hell.

This totally fits with the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus too:

"The rich man also died and was buried.  In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away…” (Luke 16:22-23)

The picture you get is this large area where spirits go when they die. This area is called Sheol in the Hebrew and Hades in the Greek.

In the lower area spirits reside in flames and torment while in the upper area spirits reside in clouds and peace. 

So it would appear heaven literally sits on top of hell, with the two areas visible to each other and even communicable with each other (though the latter phenomena may be unusual). 

In the New Testament there are three words used for the location of the afterlife where souls go:

  1. geenna (hell) used (figuratively) as a name for the place (or state) of everlasting punishment (used 12 times in the NT)
  2. ouranos (air, heaven, sky) the sky; by extension heaven (as the abode of God); by implication happiness, power, eternity; (used 284 times in the NT)
  3. hades (grave, hell) properly unseen, that is, “Hades” or the place (state) of departed souls (used 11 times in the NT)

I want to focus on the word “Hades,” the Greek word that refers to the place I mentioned above: to wit, a large area where departed spirits are kept. 

Quickly recapping what we know so far: within this open place called Hades there is an up and a down.  Towards the bottom is fire and is called “hell” (or geena) whereas towards the top is a place called "heaven” (auranos).  “Hades” then is an all-inclusive word that includes both heaven and hell. 

All spirits go to Hades.  According to the Bible, when I die my Spirit will go to Hades.  Either to the top part or the bottom part.

It is important to note that spirits in Hades will not be able to travel between heaven and hell (that is, up and down).  This is what Abraham said in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

“But Abraham replied… ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (Luke 16:26)

Let’s go ahead and look at that entire story:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.

At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.

In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side…

Let me cut in here and say I think it’s interesting that right after Jesus says the rich man died and was buried he says he’s in hell in torment.  For one thing this is a strong argument for people still having consciousness after death. 

Furthermore, I feel that by the way Jesus is telling this story he is alluding to the fact that hell is downward (by pointing out the rich man was buried and next directly shows up in hell) and heaven is upward (by not mentioning the beggars burial but rather emphasizing he was directly carried by angels – whom we generally think of as flying beings – to heaven).


So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’"

(Luke 16:19-31)

Notice that nothing was said about spirits not being able to return to earth. 

In fact, the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent back to earth to warn his brothers. 

Abraham doesn’t respond with, “Naw, that’s impossible,” but rather implies through his answer it was possible, but wouldn’t result in any good.

I think if Lazarus had been allowed to come back to earth he would have been given a body as well, because in every instance of someone coming back to earth from the grave in the Bible (and I can think of at least 7 examples) they also came back with a body, not as a spirit alone (except for one example I just thought of: Samuel’s spirit called back by the witch of Endor).

If a soul were allowed to come back to earth from the grave, I suggest it would be a soul from heaven, not from hell.  I base this on several observations:

  1. in all the rare instances in the Bible of  humans coming back to earth from the grave, they were Holy people
  2. those in hell are being punished as captives while those in heaven presumably have greater freedom

I think of an example from my time in the classroom setting: sometimes a note had to be run to the office.  I remember asking, “Who would like to take this note to the office?” and everyone’s hand would shoot up in excitement. 

Now I had to pick someone.  Would I pick the kid sitting in the back corner for misbehaving or one of the well behaved kids?  The answer is obvious.

Similarly, perhaps the Rich Man (who presumably knew more about the rules surrounding such requests than myself) understood he wouldn’t be allowed out of hell so didn’t even bother asking.  Instead, he asked that someone from heaven be sent back to earth to warn his brothers. 

The fact he asked Lazarus be sent might imply he still looked down on him as a servant, a nobody.

Did you catch that there were six brothers? Lazarus and five others? Numerology throughout the Bible is consistent. Six is the number of man, and these brothers appeared to be selfish men, not faithful God-followers.

Notice the word used for hell in this story:

“In hell [Hades], where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away…” (Luke 16:23)

Why did Jesus use the Greek word Hades here in this story instead of the common word for hell, geena? 

Perhaps Jesus did so because he was telling a story of both heaven and hell.  Therefore, we could rewrite it as, “In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham who also was in Hades, far away”

Jesus’ main point in this story was that in the afterlife (in the location called Hades) some spirits will be suffering while others comforted, all based on their decisions in this life.

Here is another example of Hades used in the NT:

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

We often think of both heaven and hell as having gates, and perhaps they do, but this verse states at least Hades has gates. 

Gates for heaven or hell are never mentioned in the Bible (except for the New Heaven which has 12 gates of pearl).

The Bible says the gates to Hades have keys.  Guess who carries around the keys?

“I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for      ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)

The last time the word Hades is used in the Bible tells us it will be destroyed:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14-15)

In conclusion, spirits go to Hades after death.  There they wind up either below in fire or above in heaven, depending on the result of their judgment.

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