What Happens When We Die?

It’s a fascinating question, and a question that has fascinated people for as long as people have been around. We barely like to admit we are aging, let alone deal with our own mortality, so the idea of immortality – living forever, living again, or living in paradise – is one that at least give us hope that this life is not all there is.

And while the Christian understanding of what happens after death has also become muddled by an assortment of ideas from other religions, philosophers, confused preachers and pop culture, the biblical idea of everlasting life is actually pretty straightforward:

We (human beings) were created in God’s image as both body and soul, beautifully intertwined. Death is the separation – the tearing apart – of eternal soul from mortal body.

For Unbelievers, this is the loss of all hope.

When the wicked dies, his hope will perish Proverbs 11:7

At death, until the Day of Resurrection at Jesus’ return, their bodies are in the grave, but their souls are kept “in prison,” in a place of punishment.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey. I Peter 3:18-20

On the Day of Judgment, the bodies of unbelievers will join their souls in hell.

They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day. 2 Thess. 1:9-10

It is unpleasant and horrifying to think about anyone spending an eternity in torment, and even many Christians want to believe that a loving God would not allow anyone to go to hell. God’s Word, though, says otherwise. All who go to hell go there of their own desire to exist without God’s presence, and all have had countless chances to repent of that desire.

And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly… then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime… Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved. For, speaking loud boasts of folly, they entice by sensual passions of the flesh those who are barely escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” 1 Peter 2

God has made clear the cost of our sin, and the cost is one we cannot ever repay. But God makes available as a free gift a substitute payment for what we owe: Christ pays our debt.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

To reject that payment is to welcome hell. In this sense, God doesn’t send people to hell, people condemn themselves there – and God grants them their desire to be without Him.

But the story is different for Believers. At death, our bodies rest in the grave, awaiting the Last Day, when body and soul will be reunited. Our souls, along with the souls of all who die in the faith, are immediately in the presence of Christ, where they have peace and joy until the Day of the Resurrection of All Flesh.

And (Jesus) said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”       Luke 23:43

The Bible uses comforting images to describe the death of a believer – phrases like “gathered to his people,” “depart(ing) in peace,” “sleep,” “rest,” “pass(ing) out of death into life,” and “gain.”

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. Philippians 1:21-23

Through death, the baptized child of God passes into life – into an eternity of peace and joy with our heavenly Father. Far from being the final loss of all hope, the death of a believer is a homecoming; the moment when sorrow and suffering end and they are glorified with the saints in heaven.

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!” Revelation 14:13

And yet their joy is not yet fully complete until the resurrection:

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 1 Corinthians 15:50-54

The final restoration of all things will be on the Day of Christ’s return. On that Day, all the dead will be raised, bodies and souls will be reunited, and believers will receive glorified bodies free from pain, suffering, sickness, aging and tears. They will be perfectly renewed and glorified resurrection bodies, in which we will spend all eternity in a new heaven and new earth, in the joy of the presence of God and all the saints, forever and ever.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Revelation 21:4

Some say death is natural, that it is just a part of the circle of life. Others even say death is a friend! But in truth, Death is the enemy; it is a horrible reality of this sinful, fallen world in which we live. Death is part of the curse of sin.

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26

God did not create human beings to die; He created us to live! Death was not part of our created nature – it came about because of our sinful disobedience; a disobedience passed down to every human being since the first.

The message of Christianity is not about good people going to heaven and bad people going to hell. The message of Christianity is simply the Good News that whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve failed to do, God sent His Son to pay the price for all of it – and to conquer death forever. And if you can believe that there is a God who loves you enough to save you in spite of yourself, then death is not the end.

And if this post makes you angry, then I am truly sorry. No Christian truly wants anyone to go to hell for eternity – it is our desire, as it is God’s desire, that all would hear the good news and believe it in order that we may all live without sorrow and pain and hate and bigotry – as we were meant to live when we were created.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. John 3:16-17

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