As we read the Bible, we occasionally find a verse dealing with the fate of mankind after death. Even though we can see that it deals with this subject, it is often difficult to know exactly what the verse teaches. This is because of the way God has written the Bible. As a result, churches have not correctly understood what the Bible reveals about death and its aftermath.
Traditional church teaching holds that there is a place of torment where anyone who is not saved must spend eternity. However, the Bible reveals that God limits punishment to the price of a person’s life. For anyone who is not saved, the payment for his or her sins is that person’s life. Loss of that life marks the end of any suffering for an unsaved person. For those who have been saved, God has paid the penalty for their sins so that they can immediately enter eternal life with Him.
Besides verses concerning death for mankind in general, God occasionally makes statements about certain individuals in the Bible. These verses can be clues about whether or not God has saved that person. Such verses also help us understand the Bible’s general teaching about the meaning of death.
Jacob and Others Were “Gathered”
There is no doubt that God saved Jacob. We know this from many verses. Here is one of them: a verse telling us something God said to Moses. In Exodus 3:6, we read:
Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.
We know that Jacob was saved. With this in mind, it’s interesting to see how his death is recorded in the Bible. It’s found in Genesis 49:33:
And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.
In this verse, God tells us that Jacob was “gathered unto his people.” There’s a lot to think about in those words. Where are Jacob’s people, and who are they? Who did the gathering?
We can answer these questions based on what we have learned from many other verses throughout the Bible. It reveals that, before the foundation of the world, God looked into the future and selected certain people for salvation out of the entire human race. Then, at some time after He created Adam and Eve, God began saving people. The Bible doesn’t appear to reveal whether or not Adam and Eve were saved, but we know for sure their son Abel was saved (Genesis 4:4, Hebrews 11:4).
God uses the idea of constructing a building to show us that He was adding to the number of people He had saved. If someone was predestined to be saved, then at some time during that person’s life God caused him or her to read or hear His word. Salvation may have happened the first time the person heard God’s word, or only after he or she had heard or read it many times. It may have been when the person was very young (even before birth), or when the person was very old – possibly only a moment before death; but at some time during that person’s life, God applied His word to that person and gave him or her a newly resurrected soul.
Before any part of the Bible was written, God could have saved people by actually speaking to them. They would hear His voice, and therefore hear His words. For example, we know that Jacob actually heard God’s voice (Genesis 32:29-30); and so did Isaac (Genesis 26:24) and Abraham. God could have saved these men when He spoke to them, or possibly when someone quoted to them something that God had said years earlier.
The promise of eternal life is only for God’s elect; so at death, if a person is one of those chosen people, that person goes to be with the Lord. This is what God is telling us when we read that Jacob was “gathered unto his people.” God did the gathering. He took Jacob’s soul to be with Him in heaven, and that is where Jacob and his people (the elect who have died) are to this day.
God uses very similar language when He tells us about the deaths of some other well-known people in the Bible. For example, Genesis 25:8 tells us about the death of Abraham; and Genesis 35:29 tells us about Isaac’s death. We know that both these men were saved, and for them God uses the same Hebrew word He used to tell us about Jacob’s death (Strong’s number H622 – “acaph”): He “gathered” them at death.
It’s interesting that we don’t find that language used in verses recording the death of Moses. In Deuteronomy 34:5-6, God tells us that He (God Himself!) buried Moses in a valley in the land of Moab; but it doesn’t say that He “gathered” Moses. However, God did use that same word (H622, translated “gathered) when He told Moses what was going to happen to him. God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land from a distance before he died, as we read in Numbers 27:12-13:
And the LORD said unto Moses, Get thee up into this mount Abarim, and see the land which I have given unto the children of Israel. And when thou hast seen it, thou also shalt be gathered unto thy people, as Aaron thy brother was gathered.
We see from these verses that Moses was indeed “gathered to his people” when he died. Aaron’s case is similar. His death is recorded in Numbers 20:28-29:
And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount: and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they mourned for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.
From these verses, we can’t be sure that Aaron was saved; but other verses make it clear that he was.
The word “acaph” (H622) is also used in verses concerning Ishmael, Josiah and Naaman. We might not think of Ishmael as being one of God’s elect; but notice this verse about him – Genesis 25:17:
And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.
Here, God uses the same language He used in telling us about Jacob’s death.
Another person who was ”gathered” is King Josiah of Judah. The two verses telling us about his death are 2 Kings 23:30 and 2 Chronicles 35:24. Neither verse has the word “acaph” in it to tell us that he was “gathered” when he died. However, among other verses about Josiah there are two that do. God gave Josiah a promise that he would be gathered to his “fathers.” This promise is recorded in 2 Kings 22:20 and 2 Chronicles 34:28.
When King Josiah began to rule, he must have been hailed with the traditional words “God save the king” that we find recorded in 2 Kings 11:12 for King Solomon’s coronation. In King Josiah’s case, we know that God did exactly that.
There’s a different translation of the word “acaph” in a couple of verses about Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:3). God doesn’t tell us about Naaman’s death, but He tells us something else. Naaman was afflicted by leprosy, a terrible disease that can lead to disfigurement. God uses leprosy as a picture of sin.
Naaman had in his house a maid taken from Israel, and she waited on his wife (2 Kings 5:2-3). Through this maid, he learned about the prophet Elisha. Naaman was led to believe that Elisha might “recover him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3,6). And so Naaman requested and got permission from his king to go to Israel to find Elisha. Naaman was indeed cured of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:14). The word translated as “recover” in the phrase “recover him of leprosy” is that same word “acaph.” Naaman is even mentioned in the New Testament in Luke 4:27, where the Lord Jesus tells us that Naaman was “cleansed.” That word “cleansed” is also found in Acts 11:9:
But the voice answered me again from heaven, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.
Here, God is making it clear to the apostle Peter that salvation is not only for those who are born as Jews. It is for others too. If they have been cleansed, then God has saved them. Therefore, it is clear that God saved Naaman. Sadly, as a Syrian commander – even though he was one of God’s elect – he may have killed other children of God, even after God had saved him. However, there is no doubt that, when he died, he too was “gathered to his people.”
Rahab “Dwelleth in Israel”
We first read about Rahab in Joshua 2:1:
And Joshua the son of Nun sent out of Shittim two men to spy secretly, saying, Go view the land, even Jericho. And they went, and came into an harlot’s house, named Rahab, and lodged there.
The verses about Rahab tell us that, out of all the city of Jericho, only she and her family were spared when Israel destroyed the city. (Note that the word for Rahab’s name here is Strong’s number H7343, which is a feminine noun. There is another, different word – Strong’s number H7294 – that’s also translated as “Rahab.” That word is a masculine noun and seems to represent Satan and his kingdom in Psalm 87:4, Psalm 89:10, and Isaiah 51:9).
However, for Rahab there was something even more important than surviving the destruction of Jericho. The Bible reveals that God saved Rahab. We know that for certain, because we read about her in the New Testament. In Hebrews 11:31, we read:
By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.
This verse and another New Testament verse (James 2:25) make it clear that she was saved. If we keep this in mind when we read about her in the book of Joshua, we see something very interesting. It’s Joshua 6:25:
And Joshua saved Rahab the harlot alive, and her father’s household, and all that she had; and she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day; because she hid the messengers, which Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.
We don’t read about her death. Instead, we read “she dwelleth in Israel even unto this day.” If someone reads this verse only as history, the thinking will be that Rahab lived in Israel years after Jericho was destroyed and that she was still alive when Joshua recorded that sentence. Then, of course, she died; and that was thousands of years ago. However, we know that this verse is the word of God and that the Bible is much more than just history.
Undoubtedly, Rahab did live in Israel years after Jericho was destroyed – just as we read in that verse. However, God tells us that she dwells in Israel “unto this day.” God often uses Israel to represent those He has saved. So Rahab really is in Israel to this day, because she went to be with the Lord and those who had died in the Lord when she herself died many centuries ago. She is with her people right now, just as we are told in Joshua 6:25.
Of all the verses telling us about the death of various people in the Bible, nothing compares with what we read about Absalom. He was one of King David’s sons, and he plotted to steal the kingdom and kill his father. We read about his defeat and death in 2 Samuel 18. There, it is absolutely clear that Absalom was under the wrath of God. Verse 17 tells us what happened to Absalom’s body:
And they took Absalom, and cast him into a great pit in the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him: and all Israel fled every one to his tent.
Absalom was buried under a “great heap of stones.” That’s what happened to the king of Ai after he died, as we read in Joshua 8:29:
And the king of Ai he hanged on a tree until eventide: and as soon as the sun was down, Joshua commanded that they should take his carcase down from the tree, and cast it at the entering of the gate of the city, and raise thereon a great heap of stones, that remaineth unto this day.
The king of Ai was an enemy of Israel, and it’s clear from this verse that God never saved him. A “great heap of stones” was raised over his body. These are the same words in the original language that tell us about Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel 18:17. However, the verse that comes after it is even more helpful to our understanding of Absalom’s fate. In 2 Samuel 18:18, we read:
Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king’s dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom’s place.
The word translated as “place” is very interesting. It’s Strong’s number H3027: “yad.” It’s used over 1,600 times in the Bible, and most of those times it has to do with a man’s hand or his strength. Therefore, God is showing us where Absalom’s place is now. Absalom’s place, his strength, his hand and any other of his remains are right here on earth. That’s what happens to animals at death and to anyone who has not been saved, as we read in Psalms 49:20:
Man that is in honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish.
Rachel: Similarities with Absalom’s Story
In Genesis 35:19-20, we read this:
And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.
Notice the similarity to what we find in 2 Samuel 18:18 concerning Absalom’s pillar.
Rachel was one of Jacob’s two wives, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin (Genesis 35:24). The account of her death is in Genesis 35. There, we learn that she died as a result of giving birth to her second son, Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-19).
Outside of the book of Genesis, there are only four verses that mention Rachel: Ruth 4:11, 1 Samuel 10:2, Jeremiah 31:15 and Mathew 2:18. We should take a look at Ruth 4:11, because of a blessing we find there. It concerns Rachel, and it could be mistakenly understood as evidence that she was saved. The blessing is “The LORD make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel.”
God does often use “the house of Israel” to represent true believers. However, at other times those identical words in the original language identify people who are not saved. For example, in Ezekiel 3:7, we find:
But the house of Israel will not hearken unto thee; for they will not hearken unto me: for all the house of Israel are impudent and hardhearted.
Therefore, Rachel’s part in building the house of Israel doesn’t mean that she was saved. (Leah apparently was saved. Even though we don’t read about her death, God tells us in Genesis 49:31 that Leah was buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah. There’s no doubt that Abraham, Sarah and Isaac were saved. Rebekah was also apparently saved, based on the blessing found in Genesis 24:60. Since Leah was buried with these four, it appears that she too was saved.)
There’s another verse about Rachel that we should consider concerning any possibility that she was saved. In Genesis 30:22, we find “God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb.” Rachel’s statement in the next verse, Genesis 30:23, must be considered:
And she conceived, and bare a son; and said, God hath taken away my reproach:
The words “God hath taken away my reproach” could refer to Rachel’s situation before God; that is, by itself the verse could mean that God saved her when He took away her reproach. However, when we see the way that word reproach (Strong’s number H 7281: “cherpah”) is used in other verses, we find that it usually refers to scorn or shame that one person or group has for another. In other words, the world no longer held Rachel in reproach or shame as a woman who is childless. Therefore, we must not conclude that Rachel was reconciled to God by salvation when she said, “God hath taken away my reproach.”
The only verses concerning Rachel’s death and burial are found in Genesis 35, and none of the verses about her indicate she was saved. In fact, the words concerning the pillar Jacob set on her grave (“the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day” in Genesis 35:20) are very similar in the original language to words in 2 Samuel 18:18 about Absalom’s pillar. Both of them are associated with pillars set up as memorials to “this day.”
There’s something else as well. In the book of Matthew, we learn that Herod the king murdered many children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus. This is recorded in Matthew 2:17-18:
Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
These verses reveal that this event fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15, recorded several centuries earlier. However, this reference to Rachel also connects with Absalom’s story.
Recall that Absalom said “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” in 2 Samuel 18:18. It’s strange that he said that, because in 2 Samuel 14:27 we read that he had three sons. Perhaps they died; we don’t know. In any event, Absalom said he had no sons to keep his name in remembrance, and God made sure that those words got into the Bible. God shows us a similarity between Absalom and Rachel in this way because Rachel’s children “are not.”
Before Rachel’s sons were born, she said something to Jacob that is also relevant here. In Genesis 30:1, we read:
And when Rachel saw that she bare Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister; and said unto Jacob, Give me children, or else I die.
It’s almost as if God is telling us here that Rachel will die unless she has children; so when we read in Matthew 2:18 that her children “are not” and notice the similarities with verses about Absalom, it appears that Rachel was not saved.
There’s even another aspect to the question of Rachel’s salvation, and it has to do with Jacob’s reply to Rachel’s statement in Genesis 30:1. First, it’s important to realize that God uses the idea of the elect being born into a family when they are saved. This idea is expressed in Galatians 4:26:
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
The Lord Jesus even applied this idea to Himself in Luke 8:20-21:
And it was told him by certain which said, Thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to see thee. And he answered and said unto them, My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.
When a person is saved, he or she is born into God’s family. The idea of being born from above or born again appears to be in view when we read what Jacob said in answer to Rachel (when she said “Give me children, or else I die”). Jacob’s answer is in Genesis 30:2:
And Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel: and he said, Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb?
Do you see how Jacob’s reply can have another meaning besides the physical one? Instead of referring to a blessing of children for Rachel, the “fruit of the womb” can also refer to spiritual rebirth. It has been withheld from Rachel. She was never given a new, resurrected soul – that’s the fruit of the womb.
We know that later on Rachel did have children, but after that God tells us that her children “are not;” so her situation is similar to that of Absalom. Based on this and the other similarity to Absalom’s situation regarding their pillars, and based on Jacob’s statement in the preceding verse, it appears Rachel was never saved. Her “pillar” is still here.
No Delay For The Elect
God also tells us about other people whom He saved. He does this in different ways. For instance, in Exodus 1:21, God tells us something about the Hebrew midwives (Exodus 1:15) Shiphrah and Puah:
And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that he made them houses.
Based on this short verse, we can be sure that God blessed these two women. This verse may remind you of what the Lord Jesus said in John 14:2-3:
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.
When we compare these New Testament verses with what we read about Shiphrah and Puah in the book of Exodus, we have to say God must have saved them.
The process of being saved is what the Bible calls the first resurrection in the book of Revelation. From that time on, a saved person remains alive. Physical death for him or her is a change from one type of existence to another. The Lord Jesus revealed this truth by explaining what the Lord once said to Moses. It’s in Matthew 22:32:
I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob don’t have to wait for the resurrection on the last day to live again. They’re alive right now because their God is the God of the living. The apostle Paul also reveals this truth in Philippians 1:23:
For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better:
Paul knew he was needed where he was, with the Philippian brethren; but he also knew he would be with the Lord as soon as he died. That’s what he preferred. Paul also explains this truth in 1 Thessalonians 5:10, where he refers to the Lord Jesus:
Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.
The word “sleep” here refers to death. Once saved, a person remains with the Lord. Not even death can separate the elect from God. Even after death God’s children “live together with him.”
The Last Day: A Difficult Verse About The Unsaved
Some Bible verses teach about the meaning of death for anyone who is unsaved. For example, in Psalm 146:4, we read:
His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.
The unsaved return to the earth (as in Genesis 3:19) when they die, and their thoughts “perish.” Then, when the heavens and earth pass away, any trace that they ever lived will be destroyed. It will be as if they had never existed. This is what we learn when we consider many Bible verses.
However, there are some other verses that can easily give us a different idea because they are difficult to understand. One of these verses is Daniel 12:2:
And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
Based on this verse, we might think that the unsaved will be resurrected on the last day and come back to life – at least temporarily – to face judgment. The Bible has some other verses that also appear to teach this idea (e.g., John 5:28-29). Can we reconcile such verses with those verses teaching that the unsaved never live again?
Let’s look at Daniel 12:2. It states that some will “awake” to “shame and everlasting contempt.” However, compare that with Job 14:12:
So man lieth down, and riseth not: till the heavens be no more, they shall not awake, nor be raised out of their sleep.
In this verse, we find the same Hebrew word (Strong’s number H6974) that is translated as “awake” in Daniel 12:2; but here, we are told that the dead “shall not awake.” They lie down and rise not “till the heavens be no more.” This verse certainly appears to teach that the unsaved dead will never live again, because the earth and all graves will be also gone when the heavens are “no more.”
However, we still need to understand how Daniel 12:2 can be true when it tells us that some will “awake” to “shame and everlasting contempt.” First, we must recognize that God makes an understanding of certain verses very difficult. Here is one way He does this: in some verses, He applies different meanings to the same original language word. For example, Matthew 8:22 declares:
But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.
In this verse, the word “dead” appears twice. The same Greek word is used each time, but the word can have two different meanings. In the first case, the Lord is referring to those who are spiritually dead, but in the second case the word might refer either to those who are physically dead or spiritually dead.
There appears to be a similar situation in Daniel 12:2 concerning those that sleep in the dust and “awake” to shame and everlasting contempt. The word translated as “awake” usually means that someone wakes up and is alive. But the word also has the idea of movement, as in Psalm 44:23 where it is the word “arise:”
Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever.
Notice the word “arise.” That’s the same Strong’s number H6974, which was translated as “awake” in Daniel 12:2. We know the Lord doesn’t sleep, so this is a prayer for the Lord to act. Here, the word “arise” gives us a picture of movement or action.
Recall that some verses reveal that on the last day, graves will be disturbed. This suggests that the remains of many unsaved people will be moved. It could be that Daniel 12:2 is telling us about this aspect of the last day. The unsaved may “awake” in the sense that they will “arise,” which is another way of translating H6974. Their remains may move; but that doesn’t mean they will live again. (Jeremiah 8:1 may also illustrate this idea.)
Of course, the Bible may not give us every detail about a truth it reveals. In Deuteronomy 29:29, we read:
The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
There may be some things that God’s children will never learn or be able to understand, even in eternity. Certain things will remain the Lord’s secrets. However, when we consider all the verses concerning the fate of the unsaved, the Bible seems to reveal that they will never live again after death.
By prayerfully reading verses about life and death, we can understand what the Bible teaches about the meaning of salvation. We learn that the promise of life after death applies only to those whom God has saved, and that this life begins immediately after death. However, except for a couple of special cases recorded in the Bible (like Elijah), an elect person who has died will have to wait until the last day to receive an immortal, physical body.
The Rapture and Resurrection will complete God’s plan for all the elect who have died since time began. All the elect who die before the last day go to live with the Lord immediately at death. Those of the elect who are alive on the last day will be changed at that time into their immortal bodies; they will escape death. However, all the elect must wait until the end of the world to receive their new bodies.
On the other hand, unsaved people who have died will never live again in any way, place or form. There is no reincarnation or place of eternal suffering; no purgatory and no hell. This is a great comfort to anyone who has lost loved ones who never showed any evidence of salvation. The Bible also indicates that unsaved people who are alive on the last day will come to a very merciful end and simply vanish along with the rest of the universe.
God illustrates these and other truths about salvation by providing details about the life and death of certain people. For example, the Bible appears to tell us when God saved Job. In Job 42:10, we read:
And the LORD turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.
When God saves someone, He releases that person from captivity in Satan’s kingdom and brings him into His own kingdom as a captive. That’s why the apostle Paul called himself “a servant of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1) and why God tells us that He “turned the captivity of Job.” Job was now the Lord’s captive, because God had saved him!
The Bible also reveals that God saved Jacob and Rahab, and they are both with the Lord right now. And there is no doubt about Absalom: he definitely was not saved. In Rachel’s case, when we look closely we have to say the evidence is that she was never saved either.
It’s always been assumed that she was, and we can see this belief reflected in attitudes toward a tomb believed to be Rachel’s tomb. Over the centuries, many pilgrims have come to this tomb to pray to Rachel. Sadly, control over the tomb has been a cause of great strife among Christians, Jews and Muslims. (For more on this, see http://www.seetheholyland.net/tomb-of-rachel/). On the other hand, it became a custom to throw stones at the tomb thought to be the place (http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/1218/p14s01-wome.html) where Absalom’s remains lay.
Actually, there is no certainty that either tomb has been correctly identified. The pillar that Jacob built when he buried Rachel is long gone, and so is the one that Absalom built. Some scholars suspect that Jacob actually buried Rachel north of Jerusalem rather than at the commonly accepted site near Bethlehem. As for Absalom’s tomb, there is evidence that it is actually the tomb where Zacharias – the father of John the Baptist – is buried.
Of course, for those who are truly being guided by the Bible, these things don’t matter. For example, God doesn’t require anyone to make a pilgrimage since no place on earth is holier than wherever you are right now. The Bible also reveals that we are not to pray to (or for) anyone who has died. And we certainly shouldn’t be throwing stones at anyone’s property.
There’s something interesting in a verse near the end of the book of Job. This was after God had saved Job, and it has to do with an item given to Job by his family and friends. In Job 42:11, we read:
Then came there unto him all his brethren, and all his sisters, and all they that had been of his acquaintance before, and did eat bread with him in his house: and they bemoaned him, and comforted him over all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him: every man also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold.
Everyone gave Job “an earring of gold.” Only God can give anyone the ability to understand His word. The Bible equates this gift to the ability to hear God’s voice, and this is what the gold earrings represent.
The world’s religions are very concerned about controlling the tombs of those mentioned in their holy books; but people who can hear God’s word are concerned about truth revealed in the Bible. May God give each of His people the desire to search out these truths, and a golden earring to hear His word.