After death comes the judgment. So, when unbelievers die, their souls go to hell, where they await the resurrection of their bodies, at which point they will experience the final judgment: the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20). Until the second coming, believers too must experience the painful separation of death. In this intermediate state between death and resurrection, the souls of believers are “away from the body” but are consciously “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). They “depart” the “flesh” in order to “be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23-24). But this disembodied state is not the final word.
Is there life after death? Will I live on in a state of eternal bliss or in a state of eternal torment? Or will I simply cease to exist? These questions have intrigued and haunted human beings from our origins. Every world religion and philosophy has had some answer or other to these most pressing questions, from the ancient Egyptians, who mummified the dead and gave them provisions for the netherworld, to modern atheists who reject any notion of personal existence after death. The answers to these questions shape not only a one’s hope for the future, but they also give purpose and meaning to life in the present. From a Christian perspective, the answers to these questions are woven throughout the whole fabric of Christian theology: what we believe about God, the person and work of Christ, the identity, destiny, and constitution of human beings (body and soul), the meaning of salvation, the mission of the Church, and the end of history.
So, what does the Bible say about the afterlife? The best place to begin is not at the end but at the beginning. In the creation account, God formed Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed into him the breath of life, constituting our first father as a “living soul” (Gen. 2:7). Likewise, Eve was taken from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:21-22), as a co-equal divine image bearer (Gen. 1:27), and Adam’s posterity share in that same image as well (Gen. 5:3). Thus, all human beings possess dignity and goodness as ensouled bodies (or embodied souls). The tragic sin of our first parents, however, introduces the sentence of death to the human race. Now, after the fall, the unnatural state of death is our common human lot. Death introduces not only a spiritual separation from God, a relational separation from one another, and an existential separation from our own selves; it also introduces a separation of the soul and the body.
Sometimes the Old Testament can speak of death as a definitive end (Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17; Isa. 38:18), but this is only from the perspective of life on earth. In other places, the Old Testament speaks of some kind of ongoing personal existence after death. The righteous dead are said to “go to [their] fathers in peace” (Gen. 15:15) or to be “gathered to [their] people” in death (Gen. 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:33; Num. 20:24; 27:13). Echoing the creation language of Genesis 2, the Preacher writes that “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7). For the unrighteous, a more sobering prospect remains after death. Those who participated in Korah’s rebellion were swallowed up by the earth and went “down alive to Sheol,” the place of the dead (Num. 16:30, 32). Elsewhere, the Old Testament speaks about the possibility of “going down to Sheol” in “mourning” (Gen. 37:35). Sheol (the Greek term was Hades) was the abode for all of the dead in the Old Testament, but it appears that there were at least two possible outcomes in that netherworld: the righteous dead experience the peace of being gathered to their people and the unrighteous dead experience Sheol as judgment. The calling up of Samuel from the dead by the medium at En-Dor, though an illicit attempt to communicate with the dead, is further evidence of this teaching in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 28).
But the Old Testament also points to another, more glorious state of life after death: the resurrection of the body. There are hints of this teaching in multiple places in the Old Testament. After all of his suffering, Job waxes poetic about the prospect of an embodied afterlife: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26). Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones being restored to life also points in this direction (Ezek. 37). But the clearest teaching on the resurrection of the body in the Old Testament comes in Daniel 12 in his vision of the end of history:
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Dan. 12:2-3).