Luke 16: 19-31
‘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 Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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 set in place, 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 family, 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.”’
Over the next few days we are going to think a bit more about Heaven - where is it, what's it like and what will we do when we get there?
If you as most people, 'what happens when we die?' they'll likely say something along the lines of: "We all go to heaven", or, "Good people go to heaven and bad people go somewhere else" – and of course they always put themselves in the category of 'good people'.
As always, let’s see what the Bible teaches.
We have already learned that one day the physical world is going to be renewed and recreated and we will live there – but in the meantime what happens to those who die?
At the present time Heaven - and by Heaven I simply mean the invisible/spiritual dimension - is the world in which all spiritual beings have their current existence. God, angels – good and bad – and the spirits of every human being who has died.
As human beings we are made up of a physical part – the body – and a spiritual part, called the soul or the Spirit. I’m going to refer to this unseen spiritual part as the spirit. When we die, the physical part of us is actually the part which dies. Our bodies stop working, our hearts stop pumping. But the spiritual part of us, our spirits, go on living.
Jesus at the point of death said this in Luke 23:46:
“Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.”
Stephen the first Christian Martyr, as he was about to die cried out:
“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." (Acts 7: 59)
Both Jesus and Stephen were expecting part of them – their spirit – to pass from this life into the presence of God when they died.
Is this the way we stay forever when we die – as spirit beings in Heaven? Absolutely not.
God created us originally to be fully human as spirit/soul and body and it is His intention that when all things are made right that we will once again have a physical body, a new resurrected body.
We’ll look at this shortly in more detail – but if that is the case – if one day we will have a new physical body – what happens to our spirits in the meantime? If I die right now – where does my spirit go? Are we in some sort of suspended animation? Is it purgatory – a place of limbo between heaven and hell? This is a tricky one.
In the Old Testament, we read of a place called Sheol – the place of the dead.
So in Genesis 37, when Jacob thinks that Joseph is dead, he says this:
“…he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” (Gen 37: 35 ESV)
Sheol, the place of the dead. The NIV translates this as ‘the grave’. It was the place where everyone’s soul went when they died.
Then when we get into the New Testament, it was translated as 'Hades'. Often today we use Hades and Hell to mean the same thing, but we shouldn’t – they are two totally separate words.
By the time of Jesus, there was also this view that Sheol or Hades had two different sections if you like – that there was a separation, a division between the righteous and the unrighteous. So when Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, who both die, we read that there were two areas, one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous – and notice what it says: "..there is a great chasm between them that can’t be crossed."
In other words – there is no purgatory. There is no in between place where you go for a while until you’ve cleaned yourself up or paid for your sin. No amount of prayers for the dead or anything else done down here on your behalf makes any difference.
When you die – it’s too late. We make our decisions and choices in this life, and God respects those. He honours our free will. He gives us what we want. If we want Him, we get eternity with Him. If we don’t want Him, He won’t force us to be with Him.
So we have this place where our spirits go when we die – an intermediate state – and we have this division or separation there between the righteous and the unrighteous. The moment we die, we end up in one or the other place.
Jesus consoled the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:42)
Many scholars would say, based on this verse, that those who belong to God when their spirit leaves their body – their spirit goes to Paradise. It is the presence of Jesus, the place in the heavenly realm where God has complete and total rulership and authority. It is an unbroken atmosphere of love, joy and praise. But it is an intermediate heaven where we live in God’s presence until Jesus returns and the new heaven and earth are created.
But there should be no mistaking – when we die we go immediately to be with Jesus –we are not in some sleep or suspended state. Do you remember Paul's dilemma in Phil 1:22-23:
“If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
So Paul was clear that if he were to die today he would go and be with Jesus – no stuck in some place of sleep or limbo. That’s Paradise. It a good place to spend a while! Tomorrow we will answer the question, "What happens to our bodies?"