In our last article we examined the question of what happens to the soul of man at death: does it go to a place called “Hades” to await the resurrection, or does it go directly to heaven?
We showed, from the scriptures, that from the world’s creation and until the death and resurrection of Christ that all souls went to Hades — the wicked to “Tartarus” and the righteous to Abraham’s bosom or Paradise. Jesus taught this and there seems to be, among believers, unanimous agreement this principle is true.
Not all agree the same thing is true today. Many believe that after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Paradise (Lk. 23:43) or Abraham’s bosom (Lk. 16:22), the abode of righteous souls, was emptied by Jesus, who having entered heaven as a forerunner, transferred all the righteous souls in Hades to heaven. And, all those who hold this view and have written on it regard heaven as just another “temporary” place (as was Abraham’s bosom) and that one day those in heaven will be resurrected and given an incorruptible body and dwell on this earth. We will reserve comment on this latter part for a later article. Let’s now address the question, “Has Hades been emptied of its righteous souls and do righteous ones go directly to heaven?” What reasons do men give for such teaching?
One of the most prominent arguments that at death righteous souls go directly to heaven is that from both the language of Stephen and Paul, both Stephen and Paul expected to go directly to heaven when they died. Stephen, the church’s first martyr, saw the heavens open with Jesus standing at God’s right hand and to whom Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59) and Paul, writing to the Philippians, said, “I am in a strait betwixt the two: having the desire to depart and be with Christ which is very far better” (Phil. 1:23). Taken by itself, one might conclude that both Stephen and Paul expected to go directly to heaven, but one must remember the Bible teaches by NECESSARY INFERENCE, not simply inference. Two other passages could imply the same thing, but we know they DO NOT TEACH such. In Eccl. 12:7 Solomon wrote, “And the dust returneth unto the earth as it was and the spirit returneth unto God who gave it.” When Jesus died on the cross He said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Lk. 23:46). One could infer from these latter two passages (Eccl. 12:7; Lk. 23:46) that the spirit went directly to God at death just as easily as he could infer Stephen and Paul expected to go to heaven at death. Yet we know that neither passage so taught. The Old Testament universally taught that at death the spirit went to “Sheol” (the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek “Hades”) and that Jesus told Mary after His resurrection He had not yet ascended to His Father (Jn. 20:17). Rather, He had gone to Hades (Acts 2:31) or Paradise (Lk. 23:43). The Bible does not teach simply by inference. Neither Acts 7:59 nor Phil. 1:23 teach that the soul goes directly to heaven at death.
Some see in Ephesians 4:8 (a quotation from Psalm 68:18) proof that the righteous go to heaven at death. The passage reads, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men.” The inference concludes that the captive souls are in Hades and they are freed; this is the gift Christ gave to them — they are released from the prison of Hades to heaven. But does Ephesians 4:8 so teach? Does leading “captivity captive” refer to righteous souls in Hades and the “gifts given to men” refer to those souls being transferred to heaven? There may be different views over “leading captivity captive” (some see a picture of a returning conquering general leading a procession of captives he took, while some see a parallel with Hebrews 2:14-15 in which the writer affirms Christ “brought to naught him who had the power of death, that is the devil;” both views perhaps true), but nothing in the text implies that the “gifts given to men” was the transfer of righteous souls from hades to heaven. The text tells us what gifts Christ gave: “apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). The abode of departed spirits, righteous or unrighteous, is not in the narrative at all. Spiritual gifts, empowering men to provide the full needs of the Christian, was provided by Christ. Some of those gifts were supernatural (apostles and prophets). Some of these may have been, but not necessarily so, natural gifts (evangelists, pastors, teachers). Ephesians 4:11-12 does not teach that righteous souls were taken from Hades and transferred to heaven after Christ’s ascension there.
Some argue that since Revelation 20:14 says that “death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death, even the lake of fire” the righteous must already have been removed from Hades when Jesus ascended to the Father, else none would be saved since “Hades” was cast into the lake of fire. But such an argument ignores the fact that the writer had said clearly that Hades had already been emptied of all the souls so that they could be judged: “And the sea gave up the dead that was in it; and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works” (Rev. 20:13). In Revelation 20:14 both “death” and “Hades” are personified: “death” the great enemy of man, is forever abolished and “Hades,” the realm into which all souls as the result of death must go, is likewise abolished.
NEXT: Did Paul really expect to go to heaven when he died? Is there proof that righteous souls still go to the same place Old Testament worthies went?