Where Does Our Soul Go When We Die?

The present state is where you are now. You exist in this present state. From the moment of conception, you became a human being, that is, a “soul.” Your soul is eternal. Scripture teaches us that we exist from conception until death, from death until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the General Resurrection from the dead, and then, the New Heavens and the New Earth.

You are both soul and body.

It is important to admit that the word “soul” is not merely a disembodied entity. In the Bible, “soul” is who you are. Consider Genesis:

God “breathed the breath of life” into Adam, and he became a “living soul” (Genesis 2:7; the New Revised Standard uses the word, “being”). Thus, in the biblical view, Adam does not have a soul; Adam is a soul (i.e., a person, a living being). The soul is, literally, “. . . that which breathes, the breathing substance or being.[1] In his article “Soul,” G.W. Moon says “In Christian theology the soul carries the further connotation of being that part of the individual that partakes of divinity and survives the death of the body.”

Augustine and Thomas Aquinas rejected Platonic dualism, which saw the soul as good and the body as corrupt. These two theological giants, separated by centuries, agreed the Bible teaches that the spirit is the eternal person, but will one day have an eternal body:

“According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who follows Aristotle in his definition of the human soul, the soul is an individual spiritual substance, the ‘form’ of the body. Both, body and soul together, constitute the human unity, though the soul may be severed from the body and lead a separate existence, as happens after death. The separation, however, is not final, as the soul, in this differing from the angels, was made for the body.[2]

The Psalmist spoke of our soul as the very inmost being of our person: “Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (Psalm 103:1 NIV).

Jesus spoke of the inestimable value of the human soul (and simultaneously taught that soul and body will be reunited for either eternal life with or, in that case, without God):

“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” (Matthew 10:28 NIV).

Your body and soul, like all of Creation, are marred by the Fall and its consequences. Or, as John Milton titled the situation in his epic poem, Paradise Lost. The fallen soul must be redeemed. This is the plan of God, the Covenant of Grace, that constitutes the single scarlet thread that binds the entire Bible together.

Therefore, we must admit:

Your body and soul need redeeming from the Fall.

David wrote in Psalm 19 about the wonder of God’s world, His creation. But in verse seven David makes a turn. The “general revelation” gives evidence of Almighty God, but “special revelation,” God’s Word, is necessary to do this one thing: “revive” the human soul. Psalm 19:17 says “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul” (KJV).

Indeed, we are to be born again, the soul undergoing a supernatural transition, making it “fit” for heaven. Our souls are “lost” without redemption.

The Bible teaches that there is no other redemption available except that “way” that Almighty God has provided through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV).

Jesus Christ is the Redeemer according to the Covenant of Grace.

When the Gospel is proclaimed and received by faith, the terms of the Covenant are imputed to you (the terms are expressed in “a great exchange:” the repentant and believing sinner receives Christ’s righteousness and His atoning sacrifice on the Cross; Christ received the sinner’s sin and punishment for sin). You pass from death and judgment to forgiveness and eternal life. “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24 ESV).Not so the unrepentant. The soul remains in a fallen state, responsible for the terms of the Covenant of Works (the soul that sins must die). It is for this reason that the Psalmist, speaking in the voice of the Messiah to come, declares that God will not leave his soul to perish. This truth is also picked up by Peter in his first sermon at Pentecost. The soul without God will undergo unimaginable loss that is described by Jesus with the most severe imagery (e.g., Matthew 25:46: “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”).

My dear reader: your soul and mine must be redeemed from the auction block of sin and the devil lest we — that is, our souls — face certain loss and punishment. And the only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ. Repent. Trust in the resurrected and living Christ while you are still reading this article. Stop what you are doing and turn to Jesus Christ by faith.

Our study leads us, then, to the place of the soul between death and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

When we say, “the intermediate state,” we are not speaking of “limbo” or “purgatory” or any such thing. We are speaking of that period in which the soul is in heaven and our remains await resurrection. That is the “intermediate state” in our personal eschatology.

At the very instant of death, the human soul is immediately translated to Almighty God.

The redeemed are ushered into the eternal presence of the Lord, and those without an advocate (righteousness to meet God’s Law and sacrifice to atone for sin) are ushered into hell to await the New Heaven and New Earth.

The Bible teaches that the human spirit, upon departing the body, goes immediately into the presence of God for either His welcoming or His disapproval. Thus, our blessed Savior taught this truth when He gave the parable of the wicked in Hell crying out to Abraham for refreshment:

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish (Luke 16:19-25 ESV).

There is no more concise and thoroughly Biblical expression of faith about the soul going immediately to be with God until the resurrection than the 38th question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism:

Q. 38. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at the resurrection?
A. At the resurrection, believers being raised up in glory (1 Cor. 15:42-43), shall be openly acknowledged and acquitted in the day of judgment (Matt 25:33-34), and made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God (Rom. 8:29, 1 John 3:2) to all eternity (Ps. 16:11, 1 John 3:2).

The body returns to the elements: “dust to dust . . .” But the soul resurrects with a new heavenly body. 

At the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the General Resurrection commences. The redeemed bodies are renewed with the eternal soul and rise to meet Jesus Christ, joining Him in the air, taking their place with the glorious company of angels, archangels, prophets, apostles, martyrs and the whole company of heaven. The Great White Throne Judgement has been the subject of classical Christian teaching throughout Church history: “And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them” (Revelation 20:11).

The unregenerate bodies are also resurrected. United with soul, each appears before the Great Final Judgment. Without the Advocate, our Lord Jesus Christ, these suffer the righteous sentence of God for unbelief. The redeemed also appear before the Lord. But Jesus Christ is their Advocate. His perfect life is accounted to theirs to meet the Divine requirement of perfect obedience (Christ fulfills the Covenant of Works). The Lord Jesus’ atoning death on Calvary’s Cross provides the blood sacrifice of the only Son of God applied to their lives. The punishment of their sins has been placed upon the Second Person of the One true and holy God.

The redeemed are fully acquitted, by God in Christ, their Savior. The unredeemed are cast into eternal hell with the devil and his angels (demons). Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel summarized it in their article “Eschatology” with brilliant concision and brevity:

“All who have died will come to life. This will be a bodily resurrection, a resumption of bodily existence of each person. For believers this will take place in connection with the second coming of Christ and will involve the transformation of the body of this present flesh into a new, perfected body (1 Cor 15:35-56). The Bible also indicates a resurrection of unbelievers, unto eternal death (Jn 5:28, 29).

The great Dutch commentator, William Hendriksen, wrote with unsurpassed theological and Scriptural fidelity as he described this event in his book “More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation”:

“Christ’s coming in judgment is vividly described. John sees a great white throne. Upon it is seated the Christ (Matt. 25:31; Rev. 14:14). From His face the earth and the heaven flee away. Not the destruction or annihilation but the renovation of the universe is indicated here. It will be a dissolution of the elements with great heat (2 Pet. 3:10); a regeneration (Mt. 19:28); a restoration of all things (Acts 3:21); and a deliverance from the bondage of corruption (Rom. 8:21). No longer will this universe be subject to ‘vanity’. John sees the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne. All individuals who have ever lived on earth are seen before the throne. The books are opened and the records of the life of every person consulted (Dn. 7:10). Also, the book of life, containing the names of all believers is opened (Rev. 3:5; 13:8). The dead are judged in accordance with their works (Mt. 25:31 ff.; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). The sea gives up its dead; so do Death and Hades. Here is the one, general resurrection of all the dead. The entire Bible teaches but one, general resurrection (read Jn. 5:28 f.). This one and only and general resurrection takes place at the last day (Jn. 6:39 f., 44, 54).”

The New Heaven and the New Earth

The universe, earth, and all things are both burned and then renewed as the New Heavens and the New Earth is unveiled. While the souls (and bodies reunited) of the unrepentant are cast into eternal hell, believers are welcomed into the New Heaven and New Earth. One of the most remarkable passages among so many equally astounding passages is found in St. Paul’s first epistle to the Church at Corinth. In Chapter 15, the inspired Apostle makes the resurrection the centering point for “eternity past” and “eternity future.” Paul seeks to give words to what he sees at the farthest reaches of the future state: “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

Thus, the human soul. From the breath of life at conception to the inscrutable event in ages to come when, body and soul, we witness the climactic fulfillment of the ancient Covenant, this is the soul of a believer. The soul without Christ is in peril. The soul of any who calls upon the name of the Lord to be saved will be gloriously transformed.

“What happens to my soul when I die?”

As a pastor and a teaching theologian, this is one of the most frequent questions I receive. However, the inquiry most often comes to me, not in the form of an abstract question, but in the context of crisis. Indeed, this is how the question was posed by Mrs. Henley: in a defining moment of her faith on trial.

I was a young pastor. I was on assignment as a pastoral care intern for a congregation not my own. I was a pastor “on loan,” one might say. My mission? I was dispatched by the church leadership to provide pastoral ministry to a family I didn’t know. I was told that the Henley family was gathered at a nearby nursing home and that they had requested a pastoral presence. The elder who telephoned me gave instructions that I would find Mr. Henley, a long-time member, in room 201. Mrs. Gladys Henley, his wife of sixty-some-odd years would be there to greet me. Mr. Henley’s forty-something-year-old son and his wife would also be there. They had flown in from the West Coast to be with the matriarch and patriarch in this difficult time.

I rehearsed the coming pastoral visit in my mind as I pulled into the covered parking garage. I guided my trusty old Buick sedan into that most appreciated of privileges — clergy parking. I put her in park. I killed the engine. I drew in a breath of hope as I exhaled a prayer for help: “Lord, guide me.”

Before departing for the brief stroll to the nursing home, I opened my Bible. I needed a passage that would serve as my “pastoral prescription” for the spiritual cure to the anticipated spiritual condition of this family. I keep a list of familiar Bible chapters and verses for hospital visits. The passages are arranged, in smeared fountain ink from my own hand, according to spiritual cure of common conditions — aging, bereavement, conflict, and so forth. I came to “vigil.” The family vigil is the gathering of family members (and close friends) in anticipation of a loved one’s passing. My eyes found the words of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles and Saint Peter’s quotation of 

Psalm 16:10, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:27, 28 ESV).

The family greeted me at the lobby of this elegant elderly care facility. Formal introductions in hushed tones formed the introduction to the family. The Henley son, Robert, Jr., asked me to follow them to Mr. Henley’s room. Mr. Robert Henley, Sr., Esq., was nearly 100 years old. The wise old jurist was a long-time follower of Jesus Christ. Others recognized his gift of gentle leadership and patient wisdom. He was a well-beloved elder, a lay officer, in his home church. Robert Henley had been a prominent attorney in the community where I served. The phrase “city father” comes to mind. Mr. Henley was known as a godly, devoted family man, who also gave much of his life, and not a small amount of his fortune, to the service and needs of his neighbors.

He never had political aspirations. However, if you were a politician and wanted to increase your chances of election, you likely would pay a visit to Robert Henley before you even filed as a candidate. I guess one could say that Mr. Henley had gravitas. He was a big man, a great man, and a faithful man. His immediate family—Mrs. Henley and her adult son, Robert, Jr., and his wife, Katherine—were gathered in a family vigil. For, by then, Mr. Henley was a dying man.

It would be a familiar scene in my ministry for years to come. A grieving family gathered around a weakened figure. Prayers, hymns, silence, and memories converge to form a needed blanket of peace for the one about to depart if not more so for those remaining. Being with a family at such a tender time remains one of the greatest honors of my life. Ask any pastor. He will tell you the same.

I had been in Mr. Henley’s room at the nursing home — for all intents and purposes, it was a hospital room — for more than two hours. The family had been there much longer. I was thinking about the man before me, the man I didn’t know, but the man I was called to prepare for a journey home. My contemplations were pleasantly interrupted when a cheerful nurse came in to check for vital signs of her patient. As she finished her monitoring, she looked at Mrs. Henley and smiled. The kind woman leaned over and put her arm around Mrs. Henley and spoke softly: “Hon, why don’t you go to our café and get you some coffee and a sandwich? They have got some good sandwiches! And you sure need a break.” I certainly agreed. Poor Mrs. Henley looked so tired. The nurse encouraged Mrs. Henley with another whisper, as she helped her up, “Come on, now, Mrs. Henley. There we go . . .”

Reluctantly, Mrs. Henley agreed and stood erect in the room. Her son, Robert, Jr., and Katherine, his wife, the younger Mrs. Henley — a demure but smartly-dressed young lady with a pretty and seemingly permanent smile — guided the weakening wife away. I listened to the echoes of their steps in the hall. I heard the elevator ring its arrival. Then a sacred stillness seemed to descend on the scene like someone’s mother casting a cotton sheet on a bed in slow motion. Still. Slow. Silent. Holy.

I was alone in the hospital room with Mr. Henley. The various medical mechanisms mimicked the beating of his heart, inhaling, and exhaling of his lungs. I listened to the rhythmic beep-beep of a monitor, and the oscillating hiss of oxygen. I had taken a seat when the family had walked out. Yet, at that moment, I felt led to stand. I also felt led to speak, “Mr. Henley, I am not sure if you can hear me, Sir. Mr. Henley, I have a Scripture for you from God’s Word. It is a very simple and powerful truth. I am certain that you know it.” 

The blips, beeps, and hisses were unimpressed by my announcement. The background noises continued as a kind of technological witness. “Mr. Henley, this is the Word of the Lord: ‘We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV). Did you hear that Mr. Henley? Jesus will never leave you nor forsake you. And if He comes for you, your spirit — the real you! — will be with Jesus. The One you have loved throughout all of the days of your life will receive you.” He moved not. However, I was not deterred. I was convicted by early experience in my internship to read Scripture even if a patient was in a coma. I would follow for over three decades, occasionally with memorable results. This was one of them.  

I began to pray the Lord’s Prayer audibly: “Our Father . . .” Suddenly, and quite astonishingly, Mr. Henley’s lips began trying to move. I drew closer, still praying, “who art in heaven . . .” The old saint was seeking to pray with me. I continued. “Hallowed be Thy Name . . .” This dear man of God was giving the last measure of strength to do what he had done for nearly five thousand Sundays. He began to worship God. It was as if the words to the Lord’s Prayer sparked an autonomic response of the soul. He opened his dry, cracking lips for just long enough to pray with me. He uttered the next phrase as if waiting to catch up with me. “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done . . .” As I continued, more confident in my own faith because of his, his voice went silent. The small motion of his lips ceased in mid-sentence. And as suddenly as he had begun, he stopped praying. Mr. Henley had stopped breathing. At just about “Thy Kingdom come . . .” Mr. Henley’s prayer was answered. Mr. Henley was in the presence of the Lord.

I stood without movement. I was transfixed by the sight. There was even a kind of beauty, though I was holding the hand of a dead man. I thought of the Psalmist’s words, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15 KJV). My fixed gaze of wonder was interrupted by the necessary practicality of nurses, residents, and orderlies hastening to the scene. In witnessing this miracle of the migration of the human soul, I didn't even notice the alarms. The mechanical sentries had sounded their call. The compassionate health care professionals answered in a second. But as I watched them, the scene was less of an emergency and more of, well, more of a tender moment of confirming what all were anticipating.

Soon enough, the family returned. Robert Jr. and Katherine both put their arms around Mrs. Henley. It was a holy moment. Soft sobs replaced the electronic sounds of the medical machinery. I knew the power of the ministry of presence as Mrs. Henley moved from her son to look at me. This new widow needed the promises of God, the assurance of the love of God, and the hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, I was there. I embraced her — perhaps, better put, she embraced me — and she wept, ever so softly. This elderly woman of God, smaller than I, nestled her gray head on my chest. I was being inaugurated into the ministry by Mrs. Henley.

And then it happened. Right after I spoke these words, it happened: “Mrs. Henley, the Bible says that your dear husband is in the presence of our Lord Jesus at this very second. He passed from this life into the loving arms of Jesus. I was with him as his soul departed this room. He is more alive than ever.”

She confirmed my words by nodding her head as I held her. But something happened that I will never forget. The still, quiet sobs were broken by a rather stern word from her son. “Mother, I am sorry, but that is not right. Daddy is not here. And Daddy is not anywhere else. He is, well, for all practical purposes, just asleep.” He spoke the words for his mother, but he aimed his arrows at me. I was stunned, not by the theological error as much as the inappropriateness and even callousness of his words. “Mother, come out here and let me talk to you.” Mrs. Henley followed obediently. Scolded as her husband had died, she had, in the opinion of her son, succumbed to “nonsense.” She followed obediently. What else could she do? I stood motionless as both the family departed, and the medical professionals began procedures for removal of the body.

It could not have been more than about three minutes when Mrs. Henley returned. By this time, her late husband’s remains had been removed from the room. I extended my hands to welcome Mrs. Henley back. She took my hands without ever moving her eyes from mine. I smiled as if, perhaps, a warm gesture could erase the recent unpleasant words. Mrs. Henley broke down in heaving tears. I could barely hear her words: “Oh Pastor, my son says that my husband’s soul is just asleep! He is not with the Lord! Oh Pastor, everything I have ever known, ever believed, must be wrong!” I held Mrs. Henley and felt the deep grief rising through her sobs. “He is gone, Pastor. But where? Where is my husband?

I shared that intimate story with you because I believe that it illustrates the deep emotions that are involved with the question, “What happens to the soul at the time of death?” The question is not an esoteric inquiry into the unknowable. God has revealed to us in his word what happens to the human soul at the moment of death. In order to understand the answer to this question according to the Scriptures, we would do well to employ a systematic theological study of the Christian faith concerning the question of the soul. To do so, let us arrange the biblical material according to the Bible’s explanation about the soul and the soul’s destiny. We will see that there is a present state, an intermediate state, and a final state. Theologians call this a personal eschatology. Eschatology speaks about the last things. We often think of eschatology in more cosmic terms, for example, what happens to the heavens and the earth in the future. That is a cosmic eschatology. But a personal eschatology is concerned with what happens to you. So let us begin.

As I opened my Bible and asked his grieving widow to read the Scriptures, she wiped her eyes, sought to compose herself, and adjusted her 1960s-framed-spectacle before leaning in to read: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV). Mrs. Henley looked up again, her silver-haired, intelligent head raising, her eyes meeting mine. “Pastor, I read that according to the Bible my Robert — my husband, Mr. Henley — is with the Lord. As soon as his spirit left his body he went to be with Jesus. That is what I had always been taught. But my son . . . Oh, pastor, is this the truth?”

I put my right hand on her shoulder seeking to agree. “Yes, Mrs. Henley. I watched as the soul of your husband departed his body. According to the Word of the Lord, there is no doubt that he is in the presence of the Lord Jesus.” I gently placed my left hand to a shoulder, now looking at her intently, holding her shoulders, directing my gaze with the strongest possible position of attention: “My beloved Mrs. Henley,” I paused to prepare for an unequivocal declaration to this grieving woman: “Ma’am: According to the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ I say to you that in the name of God, you will see your husband again.” And she rested in the promises of God.

But have you? I say to anyone reading: God created you as a person: soul and body. The soul lives forever in one of two places: with your Creator or without Him. The adjudication of your eternal life rests with the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. And He welcomes any and all who will turn from all other persons and plans and turn unto Him. For Jesus our Lord says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Rest from the frantic search for answers. Trust in Christ Jesus the resurrected and living Lord of life. His Covenant of Grace — Christ’s righteousness accounted for what you lack, and Christ’s sacrifice applied for your sins — has secured your destiny. And you will never walk alone.

God’s promises are your destiny: when you die, your soul goes immediately to the Lord. Your earthly remains are precious to God. “If the farmer knows where the corn is in the barn, then our Father knows where His precious seed is in the earth.” And in Christ, God will raise those remains to eternal life. If you have received Jesus Christ as Lord, you will be acquitted of all sins by the righteousness and the sacrifice on the cross by your Savior. And safe in the arms of Jesus. Why not pray with me?

Lord, our Heavenly Father: I am in awe of Your mighty creative power demonstrated not only in the wonder of the stars above or in the microscopic invisible world, but, especially, in the coming of Your Son Jesus our Lord; and in Him, in His perfect life lived for me and His sacrificial death offered for me on the cross, I do repent — turn away from — my sin of unbelief, self-sufficiency, and trusting in anyone and thing other than Your Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth; I know that I am a soul and body, and I ask that You transform my soul according to Your promises and Your power; I ask that you forgive me and receive me as Your child; and I believe that when I depart from this life I will go immediately to You, O dear Lord; So, take me and use me for Your glory. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.


Notes:

[1] Richard Whitaker, Francis Brown, et al., The Abridged Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament: From A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and Charles Briggs, Based on the Lexicon of Wilhelm Gesenius (Boston; New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1906).

[2] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1531.

Michael Milton author photoMichael A. Milton, PhD (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary), Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/ipopba

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