“The Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to be in the intermediate state with Jesus in a place of paradise or is separated from Him in a place called Hades.”
I heard Lee Strobel say this to Alisa Childers in an interview. I have a lot of respect for Lee Strobel and highly recommend his work. However, I don’t believe that’s what the Bible says. Let’s break it down.
Soul vs. Spirit
The Bible does not conflate the concepts of “soul” and “spirit” as Strobel does here. The Bible uses the word “soul” (Hebrew nep̄eš / Greek psychē) to refer to an individual life — a person (e.g., Genesis 2:7 and 1 Peter 3:20). It uses the word “spirit” (Hebrew nᵊšāmâ / Greek pneuma) to refer to the life force — the breath of God (e.g., Genesis 2:7 and Luke 23:46). Of course, these Hebrew and Greek words are sometimes translated differently into English, and that can be a source of some confusion. However, the point is that the Bible distinguishes these two concepts.
Genesis 2:7 helps us see the distinction clearly:
The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [nᵊšāmâ / spirit] of life, and man became a living being [nep̄eš / soul].
According to the Bible, BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL. As George Macdonald suggested, we don’t have souls; we are souls. We are souls when our bodies are animated by the spirit.
So, what happens when we die? The animation process is reversed: BODY – SPIRIT. The life force (spirit) is withdrawn, and the person (soul) ceases to be. The life force is withdrawn, and the individual life comes to an end.
What is it that separates from our physical body at the point of death? The spirit, not the soul. The death of Jesus as recorded in Luke 23:46 illustrates this:
Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit [pneuma].”
That’s when Jesus breathed His last breath.
The Bible vs. Plato
Is this just semantics? Does this matter? I’ve rightfully been accused of pedantry before, so I’d better get somewhere with this.
I understand the Bible to say that it’s the spirit (the life force) that leaves the body at the point of death. But, what if it were the soul (an individual life) that leaves, as Strobel suggested? Now we’re leaving biblical territory and heading straight toward Platonism.
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pagan notion that people are disembodied souls who fall from heaven, get imprisoned in bodies, and then return to heaven upon death. These souls are conscious, somehow experiencing life without a body. I believe this to be impossible, as we need a brain to think and a body to sense, but it’s the prevailing view. Most Christians today believe that, upon death, people go on living. Grandma reunites with Grandpa. Mom guides and encourages her children. A dead child becomes an angel.
That might sound lovely (although I could argue that not all of the implications are pleasant), but it takes a sinister turn for the conscious souls who end up in “the other place.” According to the mainstream view, some people will experience suffering forever and ever.
The Bible, however, says, “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The animation process is BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL. Death is the reverse process: BODY – SPIRIT = NOTHINGNESS. Just as Genesis 2:7 tells us how life comes about, Ecclesiastes 12:7 tells us how it ends:
The dust returns to the earth where it was,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
Death is the opposite of life. It’s the absence of life. A person ceases to be when the life force is withdrawn, returning to what they were before the life force was given. The dead are as Adam was before God breathed: nothing. Adam’s soul wasn’t in heaven, waiting to come to earth and inhabit his body. Nor did it return to heaven when he died so that Adam could go on living.
Plato would think so, though. While Plato popularized the notion that, when you die, you don’t really die, he certainly didn’t originate it. That dishonor belongs to someone else:
The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die!“ (Genesis 3:4).
The Intermediate State
According to Strobel, “the Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to be in the intermediate state with Jesus in a place of paradise … .” The only intermediate state the Bible refers to is death prior to resurrection. The Bible talks about two resurrections: the resurrection of the redeemed when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and the resurrection of the lost at the end of the thousand years (Revelation 20:5,13).
While the Bible specifically mentions Enoch, Moses, and Elijah being in heaven now, it does not say that they immediately went to heaven when they died. Enoch and Elijah didn’t die; they were simply taken to heaven. Moses died and was buried. At some point later, he was resurrected and taken to heaven (Jude 1:9). He’s an exception to the rule.
For example, David is counted among the redeemed. The Bible says, ”The patriarch David … died and was buried, and his tomb is still here among us. David himself never ascended into heaven” (Acts 2:29, 34).
Let’s look at two times when people died and then came back to life to see what we can learn about where they were or what was going on when they were dead.
The story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus is recorded in John 11. Lazarus got sick and died. His body was wrapped in cloths and buried in a tomb. Four days later, Jesus—declaring Himself to be “the resurrection and the life“—called Lazarus back to life. Lazarus got up and walked out of the tomb.
The Bible doesn’t say anything about those four days for Lazarus. It seems that, if something happened, we would hear about it. If Lazarus had been in heaven, I think we’d learn of him being rather disgruntled to have to come back to earth. But, I’m speculating.
We get a clearer picture from Jesus’s death. After He died, did He go anywhere? Did He experience anything? We do know this: After He rose, he said, “I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:1:17).
But, Jesus might have gone to hell, right? After all, He died with our sin. That leads to the next point.
A Place Called Hades
According to Strobel, “The Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to … paradise or is separated from [Jesus] in a place called Hades.”
What’s “Hades”? According to paganism, Hades is the underworld—the place where dead people are alive. According to the Bible, Hades is the grave—the place where dead people are dead.
Revelation 20:5,13-14 describes Hades as the grave where people are dead and from which they are resurrected at the end of the thousand years:
“The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. … Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one by his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”
An exception to this is found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16. Jesus’s story includes this: “In Hades [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23). The context and the rest of the Bible point to this parable being metaphorical (rather than literal), teaching about character (rather than the afterlife and eternal destiny). I wrote more about it in another post.
Do people go to Hades when they die? If we use the word “Hades” the way the Bible does, yes, because the Bible uses “Hades” to mean “grave.” Everyone who dies the first death goes to the grave. And, according to the Bible (Revelation 20, etc.), those who experience the second death go to an eternal grave.
So, the question returns to what’s going on in the grave. According to Plato and Dante, there’s a whole lotta conscious torment going on. According to the Bible, there’s a whole lotta nothin’ going on.
The wages of sin is death, not eternal conscious torment. There will be no more crying or pain. That doesn’t apply just to the saved. No more. Period.
That’s really good news.