When People Die, Do Their Souls Go to Heaven? What Did Jesus Say?

It is a common and comforting belief among many Christians that when people die, or at least when “good” people die, their souls go to heaven to be with God. Does that belief actually reflect the teachings of Jesus (or any first-century Jew for that matter)?

The afterlife was not so important in the ancient world as one might suspect today. Life in the present world was difficult enough and required all one’s effort as well as continuous attention to obtaining the necessary assistance from the gods in order to survive. Death was ever present. People died from ailments easily treatable today: infected scratches and wounds, colds and flus, malaria and worms. As a result, life expectancy was about 40 years for a man, somewhat less for a woman. Women began having children early because as many as half of all children died before the age of five. Women often died in childbirth and many men and women had multiple husbands and wives over the course of their lives. As many as a third of women were widows at any given time. The struggle to survive was paramount.

For most, the afterlife was not looked upon as a remedy or reward for living justly in this life. For non-Jews, one’s departed soul was often thought to reside in Hades with the god of the dead. This was not “hell” in the modern sense but a place of repose where the shades remained for all eternity. The separation of the human into body and soul was a Platonic concept derived from the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato and his student Socrates. It is a companion of the equally Platonic concept of a realm of perfect reality, what we might call heaven, juxtaposed against its imperfect shadow realm, our earthly world. Plato thought that souls faced a judgment resulting in reward or punishment. Some ancient eastern “mystery religions” advertised communion with its particular god in the afterlife as a benefit of membership.

Originally, Jews held the Biblical belief, not so different from non-Jews, that the dead reposed in a postmortem realm they called Sheol. There the nephesh, the essence of the human life, took up residence forever separated from God. It was not until a post-Biblical movement took root within Judaism that the hope of reward in the afterlife began to catch on.

This movement, one that reached its apex in the first century, is known by scholars as apocalypticism. Not all Jews were apocalyptic but those who were agreed that there were two competing forces in existence: heavenly host who sided with God and those evil forces under the command of Satan, a member of the heavenly host according to the Bible but later relegated to chief adversary of God. Apocalyptic Jews saw the battle between these forces as engulfing everyone and everything. They determined that this present world had become about as bad as it could get. Soon God would directly intervene and re-take control of creation wiping out all the forces of evil, both human and divine. God would remake creation as it was first intended; the world would be once again like the garden of Eden.

Concomitant to this view was the notion that righteous Jews who had suffered and been killed for their faith would not be denied the fruits of God’s ultimate victory. They would be resurrected in order to participate in God’s new kingdom on earth. This view can be first seen in the last book of the Bible to be composed, Daniel (especially 12:1-3), written in the second century BCE. Bodily resurrection was a strictly Jewish belief generally repugnant to non-Jews.

Just who would be raised from the dead differed depending on who was doing the teaching. Some taught that only members of a small, select few would enjoy a postmortem existence. Others proclaimed that any righteous Jew would be raised from the dead. Some believed that all Jews would be raised though some of them would receive a kind of postmortem punishment if they had died with unatoned-for sin. A few Jews even left the door open for one or two “righteous Gentiles” who might have unwittingly conducted their lives in accordance with the teaching of the God of Israel. But none taught that these raised Jews would go live with God in heaven.

According to ancient belief, heaven was the realm of the divine. Only gods, angels, demons, even deified humans (think Enoch and Elijah, or Roman emperors declared divine after their deaths, or god-men like Hercules) resided there. In general, people were not meant to live there. They were meant to live in the land promised to them in perpetuity. This was part of the promise made by God in the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:8). “The Land” was the Holy Land, what Jews once briefly knew as Israel and scholars today (and the ancients as well) call Palestine.

It is true that according to the Bible there are a couple of patriarchs who were considered so righteous that they simply left the earth, avoided death altogether, and went to reside in heaven. Those are Enoch, Elijah, and sometimes Moses (the Bible does not specifically say that Moses was assumed into heaven but this idea developed later in Jewish thought, a belief that would have been current in Jesus’s lifetime). They are the exceptions that prove the rule. And they were not resurrected – they did not die in the first place. Jesus, of course, was raised from the dead according to Christian preaching. Also, according to Christian claims, he rose to sit beside God the Father precisely in heaven. But the first Christians waited in anticipation of his return, not in anticipation of being raised to go live with him in heaven.

It is with these Biblical figures in view that we must assess Jesus’s story, recorded in the Gospel of Luke, about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this story, a rich man who ignored the needs of the poor beggar Lazarus in this life comes to regret that inattention in the next. After his death, according to the parable, Lazarus was “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” The rich man found himself “in Hades, being in torment.” Doesn’t this prove that Jesus taught that righteous souls go to heaven (and the damned would go to hell)? Unless we want to turn Jesus into a Platonist, he could hardly have taught that. (We cannot even be 100% certain that Jesus actually taught this parable – note his reference to “Hades” – but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he did.) Jesus is here making a distinction, one that fits comfortably within his teaching about the coming Kingdom: that status inversion will be a hallmark of life under God’s coming rule. The hungry will be fed, those who weep will be joyous, the sick will be healed, etc. The status of the rich man is here reversed as is Lazarus’s. Lazarus is depicted as being in a most wonderful situation, beside the patriarch Abraham (who was not originally one of those thought to have been assumed to heaven). Jesus does not say that Lazarus will reside for all time with Abraham, nor exactly where Abraham is, though heaven is a safe bet. Nor is the point of the teaching that good people will go to heaven. The point of the teaching is that those who have little or nothing now will prosper later; those who have much and do not share what they have will suffer. To make any more of this parable than that is trying to make it say what it does not.

What about Jesus telling his disciples, according to the Gospel of John (14:2-3), that in his “Father’s house there are many rooms” and that he will go “prepare a place” for them? Doesn’t that imply that at least his disciples will be taken into heaven to live in these rooms? This is unlikely. For Jesus then says “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” These “rooms” that Jesus refers to should not be crudely understood as bedrooms or apartments being constructed in heaven for all good souls. Unraveling the meaning of these rooms is aided by Paul who already wrote, in 2 Corinthians 4, comparing human bodies with dwellings. He called the material body an “earthly tent” (v 1) but referred to the resurrection body as “our heavenly dwelling…a building from God” (vv 1-2). Earlier Paul had explained that that flesh-and-blood bodies would not inherit the kingdom; “spiritual” bodies would (1 Cor. 15:44, 50). We see the same idea in the passage from John. These “rooms” Jesus will prepare are likely everlasting, spiritual bodies prepared in heaven, within which the disciples’ souls (note the growing Platonic view – the perfect body in heaven and the shadow of it on earth) will dwell when “I [Jesus] come again,” that is, to earth to reclaim God’s kingdom which the disciples would inherit. There is no teaching here that good souls go to live in heaven after death.

Speaking of Paul, doesn’t he say (1 Thess. 4:15-17) that Jesus will, in the last days, “descend from heaven” and that “the dead in Christ will rise first” and “then we who are alive…will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord”? That must mean that both the righteous dead and the righteous living will go with Jesus to heaven to reside forever. The problem here is that many modern readers of Paul are too separated from his time and place to recognize the historical and literary contextual cues in his writing. Paul was an educated Greek-speaking Jew who chose the Greek word parousia to describe the “coming” of the Lord for a reason. This word was used in a specific context in Paul’s day and was understood to refer to the visitation of a royal figure. The parousia was marked by a certain protocol wherein the visiting potentate and his party would arrive at the gates of the city in which he was intending to stay. The city dignitaries would form a royal entourage in order to march out of the city gate and greet their esteemed visitor. They would then escort him ceremoniously into the city walls often flanked by cheering crowds along the way. This is how Paul envisions Jesus’s return. Jesus will come down from the clouds and his faithful followers will rise into the air to escort him back down to earth where he will establish his kingdom. Paul nowhere teaches that the souls of the dead go to live in heaven.

So how did Christians develop the idea that the souls of the righteous dead would go to heaven? It took a long time and a number of historical developments before Jesus’s emphasis on the imminent kingdom was overshadowed. The unanticipated delay of Jesus’s second coming caused the church to lose much of its apocalyptic fervor. The church became more standardized and structured, an institution invested with the teachings of Christ that needed to established itself for the long haul, not just for a brief span of time before the second coming. Remember, both Jesus and Paul taught that the end would occur in their own generation (Matt. 16:28; Mark 14:62; 1 Thess. 4:17). When things changed, the church adapted.

Another major development occurred when a Roman emperor, Constantine, recognized and embraced Christianity for the first time in the early fourth century. Christians could not believe their good fortune. Some speculated that the Kingdom of God had now come, that church and empire were no longer at odds, that Christ, through Constantine, had defeated the pagan gods of Rome. Expectations for what was to come shifted from a redeemed world to the redemption of individual souls. This became the mission of the church – saving souls rather than preparing for Christ’s imminent arrival. Spiritual rewards in heaven, and the fear of eternal punishment, became the driving impetuses for living righteous lives.

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