…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…
While speaking of the superiority of the new covenant, God inspired the Hebrew author to make the profound statement that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). This phrase in itself answers one question held by many: “Is it possible to die and then come back to life?” God has brought back to life several who have died, the most noteworthy being his Son. Yet he has done so miraculously in every case, and miracles by definition go against the established laws of nature he put into place in the beginning. Outside of the miraculous, which the Bible says has ceased (1 Corinthians 13:8-10), God has decreed that death will visit each of us but once. Thus, the stories commonly told of people dying and then coming back to life after “seeing the white light” and “spending time with God in heaven” are just that: stories with no basis in biblical truth.
As Hebrews points out, we die once “and after that comes judgment.” Yet the Bible does offer more detail. Jesus spoke of a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus who lived at his gate (Luke 16:19-31). Both died, and “the poor man…was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (v. 22). The rich man found himself “in Hades, being in torment” (v. 23). He “lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side,” and then called out to them, asking, “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” (vs. 23-24). Yet Abraham declined, citing that “between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us” (vs. 25-26).
We learn much about what happens to us after we die from this account. Obviously, Lazarus died in a saved state and the rich man died in a condemned state. Apparently, angels carry the souls of the deceased who are saved to Abraham’s side. Jesus would tell the thief on the cross whom he forgave that “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Thus, Jesus, the thief, Abraham, Lazarus the beggar, and all who die in a righteous state go to Paradise after they die. Those who die in an unrighteous state such as the rich man go to Hades and are in torment.
Yet, interestingly Peter said that Jesus also went to Hades after he died (Acts 2:23-27). If Jesus was in Hades (where the rich man was said to be), how could he also be in Paradise, a place obviously off limits to the rich man? Remember that the rich man, Abraham, and Lazarus could see, speak, and hear each other. They were only separated by a chasm. Jesus and the thief also went to where Abraham and Lazarus were, which Peter says was in Hades, where the rich man was said to be. Thus, Hades must consist of two sections: Paradise where the saved go, and torment where the unsaved go. These two sections are separated by this chasm.
The Bible teaches that on the day of judgment, “Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13). We all must stand before God’s throne and be judged (2 Corinthians 5:10). After judgment, the unsaved will be cast into hell (Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8; Matthew 25:46) and the saved will enter into heaven (Matthew 25:46; 1 Peter 1:4; John 14:2-3; cf. Mark 16:19; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
To briefly sum up, we each have a singular appointment with death. After death, we will go to a place the Bible calls Hades. If we die in a saved state, we will be in the section of Hades known as Paradise. If we die in an unsaved state, we will be in the part of Hades which is torment. At judgment we will leave Hades and be judged by God, and then enter either heaven or hell for eternity. There’s more in Scripture to this topic than this column can cover, but you have the basics here. If you would like to study more about this, reach out in the comments.