Where Do We Go When We Die?

Where do we go when we die?


Today we are going to answer the question:What happens to people when they die? Where do they go? Are they awake or asleep?

And I want to answer this question first by quoting from the Westminster Confession of Faith which answers these questions, and then I’ll walk through some of the biblical passages that support those answers.

WCF 32.1 – Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead.

  1. The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
  2. At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever.
  3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor; and be made conformable to his own glorious body.

So this is the answer to what happens when people die right now in 2021 AD. And after I walk through this, I’ll explain what used to happen in the old covenant and how Christ’s death and resurrection change all that.

What happens to people today when they die?

  1. Their physical body returns to the dust and sees corruption.
    • Gen. 3:19, says “For out of the ground you were taken, for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
    • Acts 13:36 says, “For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption.”
  2. But their soul, which can neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately returns to God who gave it.
    • Luke 23:43, Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” That is only possible if man has a soul.
    • Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
    • So there is no soul sleep or time when the soul is without consciousness. Sleep is used as a metaphor for death. And this metaphor gets misunderstood in John 11 when Jesus says that Lazarus sleeps. Then he had to explain to them, Lazarus is dead. So being awake or being asleep refers to your physical body being alive on the earth, not to your soul. And if you think, “but what about Revelation 6:9 where the souls under the altar are told to rest a little while longer?” Well, they are clearly not asleep because they were just talking and crying with a loud voice saying, “How long, O Lord.” Rest in this sense in Revelation refers to resting from our works, heaven is the ultimate Sabbath rest.
  3. If you are righteous, your soul is made perfect in holiness and you are received into the highest heavens, where you will behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of your body.
    • Hebrews 12:22-23 says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect…”
    • 2 Cor. 5:1-8 says, For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.
    • Philippians 1:21-23 says, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.”
    • 1 Cor. 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”
  4. But if you are wicked, your soul is cast into hell where it remains in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.
    • Luke 16:23-24 describes the death of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus, “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 “Then 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.’ 25 But 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. 26 And 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.’
    • Speaking of Judas, Jesus says in Matthew 26:24, “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
    • Matthew 8:12 says, But the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
    • Matthew 25:29-30 says, For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
  5. And then the Confession denies the existence of purgatory by saying: “Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.” And this is true, there is not a single verse that speaks of anything like the purgatory that Rome teaches.

So that’s what happens to people when they die, if you are a believer, your soul goes to be with the Lord, if you are wicked, your soul goes into punishment. And both await resurrection and final judgment.

It’s an amazing doctrine that even when we die, we don’t really die. Our bodies die, but our consciousness will be unbroken, our soul which possesses eternal life right now if you believe, will live forever. Jesus is John 11:25-26, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. 26 And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Dying we shall never die. A glorious promise.

Okay now let’s explore the strange underworld of the Old Creation and look at what happened to people when they died prior to Christ’s resurrection.

What happened to people under the Old Covenant when they died?

Well let’s define some of the terms that get used to describe this reality.


  • In most English Old Testaments, when you see the word hell, the Hebrew word beneath it is Sheol.
    • Sheol appears 65 times in the Old Testament and in the NKJV it gets translated as hell, grave, pit, or is sometimes even just left as Sheol (transliterated).
      • And if you look at those 65 instances of that usage, you’ll see that Sheol is where everyone goes when they die.
      • For example Psalm 139:8 says, “If I make my bed in hell, behold you are there.”
      • Psalm 16:10 is another famous passage: “for you will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will you allow your holy one to see corruption.” So there the righteous soul is said to go into hell, but it won’t be left there forever.
      • I should also mention that Sheol is overwhelmingly described as a literal place in the heart of the earth. And we need to remember that just because something is spiritual, does not make it immaterial. Jesus is currently in heaven with a physical resurrected body. So there is interplay between what we call the visible physical world, and the spiritual invisible world. Just because something is invisible does not make it immaterial. Jesus had a physical material resurrected body, he could be touched, he could eat food, and yet he could also pass through walls. And I agree with C.S. Lewis that the resurrection and new creation that awaits us, is not wispy or immaterial, but is actually more solid, more material, more “real” such that this world feels like shadows.
      • Another proof of this would be Hebrews 8:5, which calls the physical tabernacle, which you could see and touch, a copy and shadow of the heavenly things.
      • Or Colossians 2:17, which says the OT festivals, new moons, and sabbaths were a shadow of the things to come, but the substance (soma, body) is of Christ.”
      • So we are not gnostics trying to escape the body in order to transcend space and time. Only God is outside of time and space, and we as finite beings, even in the eternal state and resurrection will experience the passage of time and limitations of space. We never lose our status as created beings.
      • So Sheol is presented as a real, literal (even spiritually material) place in the heart of this earth where the souls of the dead reside.


  • The Septuagint (Greek version of OT) translates the Hebrew Sheol as Hades, as does the New Testament when it cites a passage like Psalm 16. So in the NKJV of Acts 2:27 it says, “For you will not leave my soul in Hades.” Also in 1 Cor. 15:55 quoting Hosea 13:14, “O death where is your sting, O Hades, where is your victory?”
    • So Hades and Sheol refer to the same place. Hades is the Greek word, Sheol is the Hebrew word. And the NT gives us more insight into what Hades/Sheol is like, particularly in Luke 16 when we have that scene between the rich man and Lazarus. This gives us a window into Sheol/Hades.
    • There we learn that Sheol/Hades has at least two sections to it. There is the side where the rich man is and there are flames of fire and torment there, and then there is the great chasm or opening where nobody can cross over to other side. And on that other side is Abraham and Lazarus in his bosom.


  • Within Sheol/Hades there appears to be this place called Tarturus, and it’s referenced only 1 time in the NT and that is in 2 Peter 2:4 which says, “For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell (Tartarus) and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment…”
    • So Peter is saying the angels who sinned are chained in darkness in Tartarus. Now what is this Tartarus?
      • In Greek Mythology, Tartarus was the place where souls are judged after death. It is mentioned by Plato, Hesiod, Homer, Virgil and others.
      • In the Septuagint, Tarturus is mentioned in Job 40:20 and Proverbs 30:16 and there it appears to refer to the deep places of the earth.
      • You also find it mentioned in the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch 20:1 where different holy angels are said to have various realms of authority. Uriel is the one over Tartarus.
      • Now those are all questionable sources to build your cosmology from so we don’t want to import all of that meaning into Peter’s usage in 2 Peter, but some of it does fit with Peter’s statement that Tartarus is the place where angels who sinned are kept in chains. Tartarus is the deepest place within Sheol. Kinda like the maximum security prison.


  • There is another common word for Hell in the NT and that is the Greek word Gehenna. And it appears to be derived from the Valley of Ben Hinnom in the Old Testament, which was a place known for pagan sacrifice, where people burned their sons and daughters in fire to false gods. It’s mentioned in Jeremiah 7:31 and elsewhere.
    • This Greek word Gehenna shoes up 12 times in the NT, and it’s frequently just translated as hell by the KJV.
      • And from these 12 uses, we see that Gehenna is connected to fire. When Jesus says in Matthew 5:22, “whoever shall say to his brother “you fool,” shall be in danger of hell fire.” And it’s literally Gehenna tou puros (Gehenna of fire).
      • When James says in James 3:6, “the tongue is set on fire by hell,” it’s literally set on fire by Gehenna.
      • Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Hell there is Gehenna.
      • Now at the end of history, in Revelation 20:14, it says that “Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire.”
      • And so the question is: Is Gehenna the same thing as the lake of fire, or is it just the bad side of Sheol? I lean towards thinking Gehenna refers to the final judgment in the lake of fire, but you do see that in Luke 16, the man in torment in Sheol is in flames. Either way, you don’t want to go there, it is fire in Sheol and then Sheol eventually will be thrown into the lake of fire.
  • So to summarize: When a wicked person died in the Old Covenant, their soul went to the fiery torment side of Sheol. And I believe that is the same for unbelievers today.
  • What is different is where the righteous used to go under the Old Covenant. So if you were Abraham or David or Daniel, righteous men, you went down to Sheol, but you were on the Abraham’s bosom side (Luke 16). And this is called Paradise in the NT.


  • Paradise shows up only 3 times in the NT. The first time is in Luke 23:43 where Jesus tells the thief on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
    • Jesus says in Matthew 12:40, that just as Jonah was in the fish for three days and three nights, so shall the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. So Jesus was in Sheol for 3 days, but he was also with the thief on the cross in the Paradise (Abraham’s bosom) side of Sheol.
    • We are told in 1 Peter 3:19-20 that while Jesus was in Sheol, “He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah.”
    • So Jesus announced his victory to these spirits in Sheol and Tartarus and then having the keys of Hades and Death, it says in Ephesians 4:8-9, that he descended to the lowest parts of the earth and then ascended on high, leading captivity captive and gave gifts to men.”
    • On the third day, Jesus rises from the dead, and brings all the saints who were in Paradise up with him. So that by the time Paul is caught up to the third heaven, he can say in 2 Corinthians 12:4, that he was caught up to Paradise.
    • So one of great blessings of dying in Christ after his resurrection, is that your soul no longer goes down to Sheol Paradise, it goes up to Christ’s Heavenly Paradise.