Before Jesus came, where did people go after death?

Q. Where did people go after their death prior to Jesus being crucified on the cross?

As I say in this post in response to a similar question, the Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about things like this. However, it does give us a couple of tantalizing hints.

Peter writes in his first letter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah when the ark was being built.”

This suggests that the people who had perished centuries before in the great flood had been kept “on hold” somewhere (it’s hard for us to imagine or describe exactly where), and that Jesus, between his death and resurrection, went in the Spirit and preached the gospel to them.  Perhaps these people, because of the great wickedness on the earth at the time when they lived, were considered not to have had a reasonable opportunity to respond to God, and so Jesus came and proclaimed the gospel to them in its fullness, in light of his just-completed death on the cross. We don’t know for sure, and we shouldn’t speculate too much, but as I said, there are hints like this in the Bible.

Paul gives us another one. He seems to suggest that some of those who heard the gospel under these circumstances responded positively.  In Ephesians he quotes from Psalm 68, “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train,” and then applies these words to Christ: “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the depths of the earth?”  The “captives” would be the souls whom Jesus led out of their “imprisonment” after they responded positively to the gospel when he proclaimed it.

Even though Peter doesn’t mention people from other historical periods (since his concern in this part of the letter is to develop an analogy between baptism and rescue from the flood in the ark), it’s possible that between his death and resurrection Jesus also proclaimed the gospel to other “imprisoned spirits” who had lived at different times.  Peter says more generally later in his letter that “the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regards to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.”

So perhaps the answer to your question is that people’s spirits were kept waiting somewhere (again, it’s hard to describe exactly where) to get the chance to hear the good news of Jesus clearly and to have the opportunity to respond. However, someone else might argue, appealing to other things the Bible says, that people who lived in the time before Jesus would have been sent directly to the place of their eternal destiny after they died, based on how they responded to the light they did have—that is, how they responded to the evidence of God in creation, the dictates of their conscience, and whatever they might have heard about God’s promise to send a Savior in the future. So I think your question is one we don’t have a clear and definitive answer to. Instead, we need to fall back on what the Bible does say unambiguously and clearly: that God is just and fair, and that God “does not want anyone to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Is “aionios” punishment not really eternal?

Q. Some websites and teachers say that “eternal” punishment and  separation from God is not really forever. This position seemingly stems from the Greek aionios, which, according to them, can mean an age or a short time. How can this match up with the holiness of God? Holiness demands justice and judgment, does it not? I am attempting to get in my mind how God could be both holy and just by letting those unrepentant sinners who spend a short time in Sheol, Hades, or whichever term may be chosen to then enter the joys of heaven. If this were true, wouldn’t Jesus’ death on the cross have been a farce?

I had previously heard the idea that “eternal” punishment does not go on for eternity but rather remains in force for eternity–that is, it is “permanent punishment,” not “everlasting punishment.” People who have this understanding of the term “eternal” often argue that the wicked are annihilated after their death and final judgment, they aren’t tormented forever. I discuss this view in a series of posts that begins here.

You are describing a different view, one that I hadn’t heard before, according to which the Greek term aionios, typically translated “eternal” in English Bibles, can actually refer to various lengths of time, potentially short or long. I looked around on the Internet to see whether I could find someone presenting that view, and while I didn’t find it exactly, I did find some people arguing that aionios actually means “pertaining to an age,” and so what is often called “eternal” punishment is simply punishment that relates to the period when God is punishing people after their deaths for what they did during their lives; that period won’t necessarily last forever.

I don’t find this argument convincing because, as I understand it, aionios actually means “of unspecified duration,” that is, pertaining to an age of its own, not measured or demarcated by any other time reference. I see it as the equivalent of the Hebrew ‘olam, meaning “to indefinite futurity.” So this  effectively means that anything that was aionios would be “eternal” in the sense of unending.

That is my response to your question about the word aionios. But you had a theological question as well: If “unrepentant sinners” (that is, people who chose with determination not to follow God’s ways in this life) who were sentenced to punishment after death could be pardoned after a relatively short time, wouldn’t that mean that Jesus had died for nothing on the cross?

I would actually say just the opposite. What if there actually were people who wanted to cry out to God for mercy after they had been sentenced to separation from God for the choices they  made in this life? If such people could not seek and find mercy based on what Jesus did on the cross, then it could be argued that there was indeed a sense in which Jesus’ death was not completely effective in satisfying the justice of God.

I realize that I’m tipping my hand here and admitting that I believe there could be such people.  As I say in another post, “It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.” However, I go on to say that “I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter.” The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like to know about the afterlife, and so we have to live with some unanswered questions and differences of opinion.

To get some further background to my perspective on this, you might have a look at this post as well: Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?

I realize that I may be opening up even more possibilities than you were trying to get your mind around when you asked your question, but I hope that even so this response might be helpful to you.

Is it too late for my loved one who has passed away?

Q. If God’s will is for us all to be in heaven and to have the full assurance of our salvation, why did He not tell me how to tell my loved one before she died how to have that? I could not tell her because I myself do not have that. The Bible says, “If it’s God’s will,” and if I know nothing else, I know that is His will. But it’s too late now because my loved one died and the Bible says a person must accept Jesus Christ as their Savior while ALIVE.

First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on the loss of your loved one. And I feel that I can add, in all sincerity, “may she rest in peace,” because as I explain in this post and in this post, as a biblical scholar, I believe there are some Scriptural grounds to believe that people may have some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death. For example, Paul included “death” as one the things that cannot separate us from the love of God as he described those things in Romans. It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who truly want to come in.

I recognize that people of genuine faith, who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures, disagree about this matter. But I’d encourage you to think, precisely because there are these different understandings, that maybe things are not as hopeless for your loved one as they appear to you right now. And I hope that you will meet Jesus as your own Savior, Lord, and friend on this earth, and find assurance of salvation for yourself. I truly hope that there’s someone in your life who radiates the love of Christ. If you can recognize a person like that, please ask them to explain more about this to you. God bless you.

Is there a second chance for salvation after death?

Q. A loved one passed on recently who was not a Christian. A relative who was very close to him was desperately trying to find some information on how, maybe, there could be a chance that he would not go to hell. We stumbled onto this concept of Hades as an “interim destination” for the dead, distinct from hell as a final destination, where people might have a second chance. We’d like to know your thoughts on this.

On this blog I’ve expressed some thoughts very similar to those in the post you found, which I read and in which I found much to agree with. For example, in my post entitled, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?” I summarize my position this way: “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.” I’d invite you to read that post and I hope it will offer you some further encouragement. As I also say there, “based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell [or Hades]—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”

Will we see our pets again in heaven?

Q. Will I see my pet dog in heaven? I miss her every day. She has passed on due to a hit and run accident 4 years ago. At first when it happened, I was very upset with God. I couldn’t understand why he allowed this to happen. I entrusted my dog’s safety to him. But over the years, I saw how God used her death for good purposes and slowly, I heal. I kept wishing and hoping that I would see her again but I fear so much that it wouldn’t happen.

I haven’t found a specific, direct answer to your question in the Bible, but my personal belief is that yes, we will see our beloved pets again in heaven.

I base this answer not so much on a particular biblical teaching as on the overall biblical message, that God’s salvation is intended to renew the entire creation. It is not limited to the regeneration of human souls and the eventual resurrection of human bodies. God wants to restore the creation to its original harmony and beauty, and originally humans lived with animals peacefully and cooperatively.

So I don’t see why heaven wouldn’t bring back this arrangement, and I don’t see why individual animals who lived on earth wouldn’t get in on it, just as individual humans who lived on earth will. Certainly the biblical prophets’ visions of God’s renewed creation include animals, and they are living once again in harmony with one another and with humans. As Isaiah says, for example:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.

So while, as I said, I can’t cite a specific biblical passage that answers your question directly, I think you have every reason to hope confidently that you will see your friend again.

William Strutt, “Peace,” 1896


If our sins are forgiven, why will we “receive the things done in the body, good or bad”?

John Martin, The Last Judgment, 1852 (Tate Gallery, London)

Q.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”  How do we reconcile this statement with receiving forgiveness for our sins? I know many of the forgiveness verses but struggle with reconciling them with verses like this one.

The difficulty you’re feeling is a classic example of what happens when the Bible is presented to us as a collection of “verses.” There are some biblical statements that simply can’t be reconciled with others if we take them to mean what they appear to say in isolation from their contexts.  But when we do consider them in context, we typically realize that they’re not quite saying those things, and that they can be reconciled.

I think the statement you’re asking about, which Paul makes in Second Corinthians, cannot refer to us being punished for our sins, because only a little bit afterwards, he asserts once again that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”  So then what does Paul mean by the statement you quote?

When we consider it in its context, we see that Paul is contrasting his own ministry with that of the rival teachers who had come to Corinth and who were trying to establish themselves by putting Paul down.  In the very next paragraph he says, “We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.”

In other words, it will all be sorted out at “the judgment seat of Christ.”  Don’t listen to what those rival teachers are saying about me, Paul says; for that matter, don’t listen to what they’re saying about themselves.  Christ knows who the people are who are faithfully following him now, and he will acknowledge them before his heavenly throne.  And Christ also knows the people who are fakes, who are claiming to follow him but who are really only out for themselves, and he will expose them before his heavenly throne.

That isn’t our job here on earth.  We can take people at face value, at their word.  If they say they are sincerely following Christ, then we can work with them on that basis and trust that God will bring good fruit out of any ministry we have with them—so long as we pay careful attention to any “alarm bells” that warn us not to associate with a person who would be manipulative, exploitive, or abusive, to us or to others.  There is a certain discernment we are called to, but it stops short of guessing what’s in another person’s heart.

So the statement you’re asking about isn’t a threat or warning about punishment for our sins.  God no longer counts those against us, because we are reconciled to him in Christ.  Rather, it’s an encouragement to leave it to Christ to judge in the end the nature of anyone’s ministry, and to work in good faith with anyone who names the name of Christ and appears to be of honest and trustworthy character.  We can be confident that glory will ultimately go to that name, both now on earth as ministry is done, and later in heaven as everyone’s motives, good or bad, are shown for all to see.

Can people in hell be ‘saved’?

Q.  I have two items. The first relates to something you wrote on your blog. The second is related to your book, Paradigms on Pilgrimage. [That book is now available free online through the link provided. I will answer this reader’s second question in my next post.] 

Do you believe in proportional punishment in hell and an eventual ceasing-to-be? (Jesus said, “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows, but the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows” and “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.)  Or do you believe people in hell can be “saved” if they repent enough?

I believe you’re asking this question in response to my recent post, “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?”  In that post I say, in reply to a reader’s question about my own personal views, “I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.”

I’m grateful to have the opportunity here to clarify that such a response, if one were indeed possible, would not require a person to “repent enough” or in any other way do penance or make satisfaction for their earthly sins.  In other words, I don’t subscribe to the idea of some sort of purgatory in which a soul “does its time” and in that way is made fit for heaven, in a way that it wasn’t at the time of death.

Rather, I believe that if a person did still have the opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation after death, this offer would be extended in the same way as to us on earth:  completely on the basis of grace, on the merits of Christ’s death for us on the cross.  I’m hopeful that something might bring a person, even after death, to realize that in life they should have embraced this gracious offer from a loving God, and that they want to do so now.

I don’t believe we have a clear teaching in the Bible about many of the specific details of the afterlife.  Rather, this is a view that I hold in light of the character of God, as that is revealed quite clearly to us in the Bible.  As I say at the end of the series that prompted the reader’s question about my own views:

“The Bible doesn’t tell us nearly as much as we would like about the fate of people after death.  But it does tell us a great deal about the character of God, in which justice and mercy are perfectly balanced. . . . Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death.”

And as I say in the more recent post about my own views, “Based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.”

To state this in terms of your question, I think this means that I do believe that people in hell (that is, people who, after death, have not entered into the presence of God based on their grateful acceptance in life of what Christ did for them) can still be saved, but not on the basis of anything they do except embracing God’s gift now.

As for an eventual ceasing-to-be of those who resolutely and permanently hold out against God’s gracious offer, I think that’s implied in what I say in that same post: “God’s ultimate design is to bring all things back under his rule and authority. . . .  Then hell will not exist for all eternity, since it is a place where, by definition, God’s authority is denied and resisted.”

Finally, as for the idea of proportional punishments, I believe that the parable you cite from Luke, about the knowingly disobedient receiving more blows than the unknowingly disobedient, is not actually talking about proportional punishments for those who are not saved, but rather proportional rewards and punishments for those who are saved.

This is one of those master-and-servants parables that Jesus told to teach his own disciples about how they should relate to him.  It is clearly “eschatological,” that is, concerned with Jesus’ Second Coming.  And it teaches, like similar parables, that our faithful service to God on earth will help determine the responsibilities and opportunities we are given in the kingdom of God once it has fully come.  In this particular parable, we discover that there are not only rewards for faithful servants but punishments for unfaithful ones–some form of chastisement.

But even this must be seen as the expression of God’s love for us.  The author of Hebrews, quoting Proverbs, encourages us, “Don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.”  And Jesus himself says in his letter to Laodicea in the book of Revelation, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline.”

Still, this ought to put the “fear of God” in us, quite literally, and help us to be more diligent in doing God’s will as we know it!  But I think it is taking this part of Jesus’ parable about servants and their master quite out of context to hold that it teaches there will be proportionate punishments for those who have not been God’s servants.

A contemporary depiction of the exhortation in Jesus’ parable, “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks.”

Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?

Q. I read your series of posts on “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” with great interest. Which view do you personally favor?

When it comes to my own personal reflections on this issue, I actually start with a different question, not “Does hell last forever?” but “Will there be anyone in hell who doesn’t want to be there?”  I say at the end of my last post in the series you mention, “Maybe the thing to do is to allow our understanding of the character of God to inform our view of what happens after death, rather than letting possible interpretations of the afterlife make us question what we would otherwise believe about what God is like.”  And based on what I understand God to be like, I can’t imagine God leaving sincerely repentant people in hell—that is, people who wish they had repented, based on what they now realize.  (I recognize this view might be controversial, something that many people may not have heard before, but this is the view I favor.)

So I guess you could say I believe in some kind of opportunity to respond to God’s offer of salvation even after death.  Paul did include “death” as among the things that cannot separate us from the love of God in his list in Romans.  It’s hard for me to imagine God shutting the door of heaven to people anywhere who genuinely want to come in.

On the other hand, there actually are people who will want to be in hell.  They will take the same attitude as Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”  To give another example, in James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the main character, Stephen Dedalus, after explaining that he has “lost the faith,” continues:

“I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning. . . . I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity too.”

William Ernest Henley wrote similarly at the end of his poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

So there are some people who will chose self-determination above God’s gracious offer of salvation, because they want to run their own lives, no matter where that leads. (These are all examples from literature, but they capture an attitude that can be found in life as well.)

So hell is a place where people do not acknowledge the sovereignty and authority of God.  My next question is, “Would God allow such a place to exist for all eternity?”  I don’t think so.  I think we see from the Bible that the end matches the beginning.  In the original creation, everything was harmonious and under God’s rule.  God allowed the rebellion of sin for reasons we don’t fully understand, but I believe God gave only conditional and temporary permission for this rebellion to occur.  God’s ultimate design is to bring all things back under his rule and authority.  (Paul wrote at the beginning of Ephesians, for example, “With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.”  Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians, “For Christ must reign until God has put all his enemies under his feet”—no lingering rebellion.)  If that’s the case, then hell will not exist for all eternity, since it is a place where, by definition, God’s authority is denied and resisted.

Well, that’s the view I favor, anyway, though I respect the opposite view as well.  Both views can appeal to much in the Scriptures for support.  I don’t think we can dot every I and cross every T when it comes to filling out all the details of our understanding of the afterlife.  But that’s how I think about these things personally, anyway.

Do the souls of believers “sleep” after death until the resurrection?

Q. Some people say that if you are going to heaven, you go right away after you die. Others think that you just “sleep” until the second coming. (One snag in this idea might be Jesus saying to the thief on the cross, “Truly I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”) What do you think?

You’re actually asking about an issue that has been the subject of continual debate throughout the history of the Christian church. References to controversy over the subject extend back to at least the AD 240s. The debate remains lively today.

The actual issue is whether the soul is immortal, in which case it survives death, or whether it is mortal, in which case it dies with the body and is resurrected with the body, or else it “sleeps” until the body is resurrected (perhaps “dreaming,” as some have suggested, of life in the person’s future ultimate state). There is, of course, no philosophical discussion in the Bible as to the mortality or immortality of the soul. (The Bible isn’t that kind of book.) So we have to try to come to some conclusion about this based on what the Bible does say.

Without intending any disrespect for the view that the soul is mortal, since this view has a long and venerable pedigree in Christian theology, let me nevertheless cite some passages in the Bible that lead me to believe that the soul is immortal, and that believers who die therefore pass directly and consciously into the presence of God:

• The author of Hebrews writes that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” I believe this means more than that the lives of faithful people, catalogued just before this statement (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc.), are witnesses and inspiring examples to us. I believe the author is saying that such people are currently witnesses of our lives, so that we should “run the race” in the awareness that they are in the grandstands, as it were, cheering us on. But this means that they would have to be conscious and aware, looking on from a heavenly vantage point.

• In several places the psalmists express what seems to be the lively expectation of going immediately and consciously into God’s presence when they die, for example:
– In Psalm 16, “You will not abandon me to the realm of the dead . . . you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand”;
– Near the end of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever”;
– Perhaps best known, in Psalm 23, “Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”

• As you mentioned, Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him “today” in Paradise.

These are only a few of the passages that could be considered in support of the immortality of the soul.  I don’t doubt that proponents of soul mortality would counter with some passages of their own. This is, in short, a question on which people of good will who are equally committed to the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures have long disagreed. So we each need to be “fully convinced in our own minds” but respectful of the other position.

Still, as I said, all things considered, my overall sense from the Bible is that the soul of a believer does pass directly and consciously into the presence of God upon death.

Titian, “Christ and the Good Thief,” c. 1566