Lazarus' death is mentioned in John 11:1-46. Jesus meets Lazarus' sister Martha and tells her that her brother will rise. She agrees saying, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Obviously, when Jesus walked this earth, it was taught and believed the dead were dead and the only hope for them was the resurrection. When did Christians start teaching that the dead are not really dead but go to heaven or hell?
The Old Testament and Jesus Christ teach us that the spirits of dead people do go to heaven or hell and their physical bodies are resurrected in the future.
Yes, Lazarus died according to Jesus (John 11:14). Later in John 11:23, Jesus said that Lazarus would rise, which He did (John 11:43-44). Martha responded according to her understanding of the future. We know from Jewish history that the Pharisees taught a resurrection from the dead, but the Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection (Luke 20:27). In Luke 20:27-33 we are told the Sadducees tried to trap Jesus with a question about the resurrection. Jesus surprised them with His answer (Luke 20:34-40) saying,
Now He is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to Him. (NASB) Luke 20:38
Did Jesus teach that the dead are dead until the resurrection? Does Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 teach this when it says,
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. (NASB) Ecclesiastes 9:5
The answer is implied in Eccl. 9:2 when the writer of Ecclesiastes says “There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked.” We know from scripture that the righteous go to heaven where they spend eternity and the wicked go to eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46; John 3:16-18). So what is the writer saying? He is talking about physical death. It is true that death overtakes the wise man and the fool alike, and all living creatures end up in the grave and become dust. That physical corpse in the ground no longer remembers anything, no longer has any rewards, and is eventually forgotten.
Is there a heaven?
However, man’s spirit lives on. Let us look at three Old Testament men. The first one is Enoch. Genesis 5:24 tells us that Enoch walked with God and “was not.” He was a very righteous man. In 2 Kings 2:11 we are told that the prophet Elijah was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. The third man is Moses, who died in the wilderness and was buried according to Deuteronomy 34:5. They all ceased to have physical bodies. Yet, in Matthew 17:1-4, Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus in an unusual display of His divine glory. Moses and Elijah were alive. Where were they? They were together in heaven.
Is there a hell?
Jesus taught that there was a heaven and a hell in the parable found in Luke 16:20-31. There is a contrast between two worlds, Abraham’s bosom and Hades. The poor man is in Abraham’s bosom, and the rich man is in Hades or Hell. Notice that the rich man wants someone to go back to earth and warn his five brothers. That implies Hades or Hell was a real place, and the spirits of these men could think. But their bodies were in the ground and their dead bodies could think, had no glory, and no reward.
Resurrection at Jesus’ death
If we say the dead are dead until the “resurrection on the last day” and we mean both the physical and spiritual, then Matthew 27:52-53 creates a problem. Scripture tells us that “many bodies” came out of the tombs at Jesus’ death. Where did they go between now and the “resurrection on the last day?” The last day has not come yet!
The Holy Spirit tells us in Phil 1:23 that Paul struggled with living on this earth or departing to be with Jesus Christ,
But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; (NASB) Philippians 1:23.
Paul, the apostle, expected to depart immediately and to be with God. He did not expect to wait until the last day. He wanted to be with Jesus now. Some day when we die, we will go to either heaven or hell. Then someday we enter the New Heaven and Earth or go to the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:11;21:1). It all depends on who you are depending on. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
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Heaven, Paradise or Hell, & Hades