Where does a Christian or unbeliever go when they die. Do we go directly to heaven (or hell)?
The experience of death differs depending on whether a person is a saint (i.e., saved by faith in the Lord) or an unbeliever, and when in history a person lived.
For all humanity, the Bible teaches that when a person's body dies, the body returns to dust. The human body grows old and dies because of the curse God pronounced on the earth following Adam's sin in Genesis 3. The material God used to construct the human body came "from the ground," according to Genesis 2, therefore, the curse on the earth also condemned the human body to die, since the body is part of the earth. As the earth goes, so goes our physical body. (To learn more about this principle, please listen to our Genesis study.)
While the human body is temporary and eventually dies and disintegrates, the human spirit (also called the soul) is eternal. The spirit/soul exists forever and is always conscious. Our spirit is never "asleep" (as some teach incorrectly) and it was designed to exist within a physical body. Therefore, after a person's body dies, the person's spirit will exist somewhere in full consciousness yet without a body until a future day of resurrection, when God gives each spirit a new, permanent body.
At the point of death, a person's spirit will experience different outcomes depending on whether the person was a saint (i.e., a believer) and depending on when they lived in history.
For the Christian who dies today, his or her spirit moves directly from the body at the moment of death into Christ's presence in the Heavenly throne room escorted by angels, according to Jesus in Luke 16. As Paul explains:
2Cor. 5:4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.
2Cor. 5:5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
2Cor. 5:6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord —
2Cor. 5:7 for we walk by faith, not by sight —
2Cor. 5:8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
2Cor. 5:9 Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
Our physical body is the material, temporary part of our existence, so Paul says it is only a temporary home for our spirit, which is the eternal part of us. Our spirit occupies our body for a time, but when our body dies, our spirit moves to our next home to be present with the Lord (if we are a believer) into the throne room of God.
Paul goes on in 2Corinthians to tell us more about that moment:
2Cor. 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
After our physical body dies, Paul says we appear before the judgment seat of the Lord in spirit form to receive our rewards for service to the Lord.
Prior to Jesus' death and resurrection, the process for a saint operated differently. A story told by Jesus in Luke 16 give us the definitive Biblical account of life after death prior to the resurrection of the Messiah.
Prior to Christ's death and resurrection, the souls of Old Testament saints could not go directly to heaven at the moment of death, since the atonement of Christ had yet to be made on the cross. Though these saints were saved by their faith, the sacrifice to cleanse their sin had not yet been made by Christ. Because of their faith they were not due to receive a penalty for their sin, but because Christ had not yet died for them, they had not yet been cleansed from sin.
Therefore, God made a special provision for these Old Testament saints in the time before Christ. God held the souls of saints in a place of comfort, euphemistically called Abraham's Bosom, where they were waiting until Christ's appearing. Abraham's Bosom was the "good" side of a place called Sheol in the Old Testament. Sheol also held a side of torment called Hades, from which we get the word Hell. Abraham's Bosom and Hades existed side-by-side in Sheol until the time of Jesus' appearing in the first century.
After Christ's crucifixion, He descended into the earth following His death. There He preached to the OT saints waiting in Abraham's Bosom. Like Jesus introduced Himself as the Messiah these saints anticipated in faith, and He explained the Lord's plan of salvation. At the conclusion of three days time, Jesus ascended into Heaven, and He set these saints free from this place of waiting by escorting them directly into Heaven, as Paul and Peter explain:
Eph. 4:8 Therefore it says,
“When He ascended on high,
He led captive a host of captives,
And He gave gifts to men.”
Eph. 4:9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth?
Eph. 4:10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
1Pet. 4:6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.
1Pet. 3:18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;
1Pet. 3:19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,
Today, Abraham's Bosom stands empty, since the spirits of dead New Testament saints may enter directly into Heaven. By the start of Christ's thousand-year Kingdom on earth, all saints (both Old and New Testament believers) will have received new physical bodies as part of the First Resurrection, according to Revelation 20, and all will live eternally with Christ in their new bodies.
The Church saints are resurrected at the Rapture, which is the modern name given to the moment Paul described in 1Corinthians 15, when the Church saints who have died (and are present in spirit with Christ in Heaven) receive new physical bodies followed by those Church saints still alive on the earth. The Old Testament saints are resurrected at the conclusion of the Tribulation, according to Daniel 12. Then all saints enter the Kingdom together in new eternal bodies.
On the other hand, the destination for unbelievers in death is very different. Hades is still occupied and its numbers grow by the hour. Every unbeliever who dies is separated, soul from body, and the spirit enters Hades where they await their day of judgment. Hades is under our feet in the center of the earth, according to the Bible, and the spirits of all unbelievers go to this place regardless of when they died in history. They suffer in torment day and night, according to the Bible, yet Hades is not their final abode.
A final, future judgment called the Great White Throne Judgment awaits all unbelievers at the conclusion of the thousand-year Kingdom on earth, according to Revelation 20. At the start of this judgment, all unbelievers are removed from Hades and given new physical bodies in the Second Resurrection, according to Revelation 20. At this judgment, these will be condemned to the "second death," which is the Bible's term for an eternal existence in the Lake of Fire.
For a complete teaching on Sheol and the story in Luke 16, please listen to Lesson 16B from our Gospel of Luke study.
For a complete teaching on the Rapture, please read the following article.