Throughout much of the world, it is popularly believed Christianity teaches that when people die, their bodies go into the ground but their souls go to heaven or hell; we see in the Synoptic Gospels, however, that Jesus believed the spirits of the dead went to Hades.
Here is some background on ancient Jewish postmortem beliefs:
In the Old Testament, we read that when a person died, they went to the underworld (Sheol) and slept in peace. There was no belief in heaven or hell as postmortem destinations, and the only place we see resurrection mentioned is in the book of Daniel. In the book of Daniel, chronologically the last book of the Old Testament, we read about a resurrection involving “many”—both good and bad. It appears this passage refers to a future resurrection of all Jews from Sheol.
The New Testament, however, builds on the apocalyptic themes in Daniel (and intertestamental literature). In the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, and Revelation, we still read about the underworld (Hades); however, by the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and other Jewish sects had views of the underworld that no longer treated the dead equally. Instead, the ghosts of the righteous were separated from the ghosts of the unrighteous. The righteous went to a part of Hades called Paradise (Abraham’s bosom) where they were rewarded, while the unrighteous went to a different part of Hades where they endured suffering. You can see Jesus’ teaching on this here: Luke 16:19–31. The Pharisees also believed in a future resurrection of the dead.
In Mark and Matthew, Jesus speaks of those resurrected being like angels. And in Luke, Jesus speaks of the worthy being resurrected. I think it’s likely the writers of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are accurately reflecting Jesus’ view that Jews would be resurrected upon his return from heaven; however, unlike in Daniel, it appears only righteous Jews would be resurrected at Jesus’ return.
In Acts, Luke records Paul saying he believes in the resurrection of the just and unjust (Acts 24:15). But in Paul’s epistles, Paul speaks of attaining to the resurrection, and he says those who die “in Christ” will be resurrected when Jesus returns. From these statements, it’s not clear that Paul actually believed the unjust would be resurrected; however, it seems Paul considered all believers—Jew & Gentile—eligible for resurrection.
The book of Revelation speaks of two different resurrections separated by 1000 years. The first resurrection would take place at Christ’s return and applied to those who recognized Jesus as Messiah and died as martyrs. The second resurrection, which was to occur after a long period of time (symbolized by 1000 yrs.), would be a resurrection of all the dead. This resurrection would take place right before the day of judgment: The righteous would inherit eternal life and the unrighteous would be destroyed in the lake of fire. (I believe the Bible teaches complete annihilation, not eternal torment.)
The New Testament repeatedly speaks of two kinds of Christians—those who are alive in Christ and those who are dead in Christ. Paul wrote that when Jesus returned to earth, the dead in Christ would be raised from Hades–like Jesus was–and then they, along with those alive in Christ, would meet Jesus in the air. This imagery likely refers to welcoming Jesus as he returns to earth to reign in person over God’s kingdom.
We do read about a day of judgment in the Synoptic Gospels, but it appears this is a judgement of the Jews conducted by Jesus at his return (Matthew 25:31-46).
2 Corinthians 5:8 says, “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
This verse suggests Paul believed that upon death, a believer’s spirit waited in heaven for the resurrection when their body would be raised imperishable; however, it’s likely Paul was using figurative language here since this was not a Jewish belief during the Second Temple period. (Some Jews did believe that heroes of the faith, such as Adam, Abel, Enoch, Abraham, Moses, Elijah, etc., were exalted to heaven upon death.1)
John 14:2-3 says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
It appears the author of the 4th Gospel agrees with the view we see in the Synoptics that the dead go to Hades; however, this author does not believe Jesus will return to establish the messianic kingdom. Instead, at Jesus’ return, all the dead will be resurrected. The unrighteous will be judged and destroyed, and the righteous will be taken by Jesus to heaven. (John 5:25-29)
I don’t expect the traditional view to change because it provides more peace to the religious since the thought of going to heaven upon death sounds better than waiting in Hades for a future resurrection.
1(4 Ezra 14; II Bar. 13; 2 En. 67; 2 Kings 2; etc.)
1. Justin Martyr wrote in the second century that it is the heretical minority that was teaching the soul goes to heaven or hell upon death.
2. Some Christians point to near-death experiences and say the tunnel and bright light Christians see in these situations leads to their heavenly destination; however, practitioners of every religion have reported seeing a tunnel and bright light during near-death experiences, which suggests this is likely a normal biological response to a depleted flow of blood and oxygen.