This is the first of a series of questions I am addressing on the topic of death, something all of us have to face but none of us want to. And the most logical place to start is with the most frequently asked question: what happens when we die?
What is Death?
We were created in God’s image as both body and soul, intertwined. We do not believe, as some do, in the false dualism that says we are a “good” soul trapped in a “bad” body, and that death is an ‘escape’ from our bodies. Death is an unnatural separation – the tearing apart – of eternal soul from mortal body. This is why death is so horrible: it is not meant to be.
What happens when someone dies?
At death, until the Day of Resurrection, the bodies of all people go to the grave. The souls of unbelievers immediately begin to suffer the “second death,” the torment of eternal punishment in hell, from which there is no escape. On the Day of Judgment, the bodies of unbelievers will join their souls in hell, making for an eternal punishment of body and soul.
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. Hell is the absence of God, and all that God is. It is existence without life; burning fire without warmth; to be without love. And all who go to hell go there of their own desire, as all have had countless chances to repent, or turn from their rebellion against their Creator.
God has made it clear that the cost of our sin 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. What that means really is that God doesn’t send people to hell for not believing in Him; unbelievers choose eternity in hell over belief in God.
What happens to a believer who dies?
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.
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 yet their joy is not yet fully complete until the resurrection. The final restoration of all things will be on the Day of Christ’s return. On that Day, we 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.
So yes, there is a heaven and a hell. But hell is not a punishment for people who grew up with the “wrong” religion; it is the place we all deserve for our sin. And say what you want about sin, but I don’t know anyone who can honestly refute the terrible things that humans have done, both individually and as a whole. We universally deserve to be destroyed – and yet, God has mercy on us and offers us the free gift of salvation simply because He loves us. If we reject that free gift, how can we possibly say that God is the one who is unfair, unjust or “mean?” It is our own pride and arrogance to think that we are somehow worthy of a reward from a God whom we reject, ridicule, criticize or outright ignore for most or all of our lives.
But I’m not going to take any more time here to argue about whether or not you should believe this; it just is. It’s not my opinion, it’s the teaching of God’s Word, the Bible. God said it, so we believe it, whether we like or fully understand it or not.
But this is good news – the greatest news ever given! That whatever you have done or failed to do, God has sacrificed His only Son in order that we might be saved in spite of ourselves! So have no fear of death, you believer in Jesus Christ. When your walk on this earth comes to an end, you will be at peace with your Creator, Savior and Sustainer – until the Last Day, when you will be raised from the dead and gathered together with all believers from all times and places to live forever with no more sickness, no more pain, no more death and no more tears – and that is something to look forward to! And that is also the reason we should be concerned for those who do not know God – not the real God, who loves them enough to offer the free gift of salvation to them. That is why we should do everything in our power to love them – and to share the love of Christ with them – so that they might see and believe and be saved.
Christianity is not about condemning someone to hell – it is about doing whatever we can to help them be saved from it, before it is too late.
Ghosts, Saints and Angels: Are Our Loved Ones Looking Down On us?
- Barry, A. L. What About… Death and Dying. Concordia Pub. House, 1998.
- Engelbrecht, Edward, and Robert C. Baker. The Lutheran Difference: an Explanation & Comparison of Christian Beliefs. Concordia Pub. House, 2010.
- Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. I, III, Concordia Pub. House, 1950.