Question: When a Christian dies, we believe his spirit ascends immediately to heaven; when an unsaved person dies, does his spirit go directly to Hell---or is there a "waiting" place for them----and are their spirits alive and alert? Does the New Testament story of the rich man and beggar apply now?
(Note: Because of the involved nature of this question, I have extended the response beyond the 500 words I normally strive for. My apologies.)
According to both the Old and New Testaments, when a person dies whose spirit has not been regenerated (born again) through faith in Jesus Christ the spirit of that person resides in a spiritual region the Bible refers to as Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek). Unfortunately, many English versions of the Bible inconsistently translate these two terms as “Hell,” or “the grave,” which refer to entirely different things.
The Old Testament has a specific word for “grave” (Heb., qever):
1 Kings 13:31 After burying him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave (Heb. qever) where the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones.
Sheol, on the other hand, typically refers to the realm, or region, where the spirit of a dead person exists:
1 Sam. 2:6 The LORD brings death and makes alive; he brings down to the grave (Heb. Sheol—realm of the dead) and raises up.
In Sheol, the spirits of the dead are normally in a state of unsettled consciousness:
Eccl. 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave (Heb. Sheol—realm of the dead), where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
But they can be emotionally aroused:
Is. 14:9 The grave (Heb. Sheol—realm of the dead) below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations.
They are aware of a confined existence:
Ps. 18:5 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.
In Jesus’ story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk. 16:19-31), the unrighteous rich man died and went to Sheol:
Luke 16:23 In hell (Gk. adehs—Hades, the realm of the dead), where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
As unpleasant as Sheol (or Hades) is, it is not as horrifying as what awaits after the Judgment, where the dead in Sheol are condemned to an eternity of fiery torment in Hell:
Rev. 20:11, 14-15 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. …The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades (Gk. adehs—Hades / Sheol, the realm of the dead) gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Of this eternal torment, Jesus said:
Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell (Gk. geenan—Gehennah, the realm of eternal torment), where the fire never goes out.
The good news is that Jesus came to save mankind from both Sheol and Hell:
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.