What Happens When You Die?

Comment on this article

We have all wondered about life after death. Will we simply cease to exist forever? Will we spend eternity in a cloud-filled heaven or a fiery hell? Understanding what the Bible really teaches about our future can give our lives hope, peace, joy and real meaning.


There are many strange beliefs about life after death! Many conflicting ideas are taught in the name of Christianity. What really happens when you die?

We are all personally concerned about life and death. Some of us are very worried about our future after death. Will we end up in hellfire as soon as we take our last breath? Perhaps we expect that we will go to heaven to be with the Lord.

Science has its own answers to the question. But scientists admit that they cannot measure or test the spiritual realm. Thanks to the science of cryogenics, some individuals have paid vast sums of money to flash-freeze their bodies at death, in the hope that science will someday find a way to revive them and give them long life.

But science cannot—and will not ever—give anyone eternal life! Even so, many have a "blind faith" in science, even when it contradicts plain reason. Nobel Prize-winning scientist George Wald made an astounding admission in a 1954 article, "The Origin of Life," in Scientific American magazine: "The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. One has only to contemplate the magnitude of this task to concede that the spontaneous generation of a living organism is impossible. Yet here we are as a result, I believe, of spontaneous generation."

Incredible! He admits that spontaneous generation is "impossible" yet insists that it must be true. The truth is that science and the Bible, properly understood, are in perfect harmony. But the Bible also reveals an all-powerful God, who created all things. It reveals deep spiritual and eternal truths, which science admits that it cannot discover.

Hope for Immortality?

Whether death strikes friends or family members, we experience the pain of loss. And we wonder: "Will we ever see them again?" When we consider the inevitable end of life, we ask: "Is there any hope for the future?" The answer, thankfully, is: "Yes!" God Almighty—the Creator of life itself—reveals our true hope in the Bible!

Here is what the Apostle Paul wrote: "But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep" (1 Thessalonians 4:13–15).

Notice that Paul calls death a "sleep." He does not describe dead Christians as active or alive in heaven. Rather, they are "asleep," or dead, until Christ's Second Coming. "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (vv. 16–18).

Once, when the Sanhedrin was interrogating Paul, he made the resurrection the major issue in his response: "But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, 'Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee; concerning the hope and resurrection of the dead I am being judged!'" (Acts 23:6).

Paul looked forward to the resurrection from the dead, at Christ's return. He longed "that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10–11).

In Hebrews 11, often called the "faith chapter," we read of many heroes and heroines of the faith. Did they go to heaven at death? What does Scripture say? "These all died in faith, not having received the promises [of eternal life, and of inheriting the earth], but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13). Later, we read: "And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (vv. 39–40).

Faithful Christians who have died are waiting in the grave for the return of Christ! "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28–29, RSV).

This "resurrection of judgment" takes place after the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ and the saints (Revelation 20:5–6). Then comes the White Throne Judgment—the time after the Millennium when spiritually blinded human beings, who have not previously come to the Truth, will be resurrected and given their first genuine opportunity to truly accept Jesus' sacrifice. Those who reject it will be cast into the lake of fire, to die forever.

Immortality: A Gift from God

We would remain dead, if God did not resurrect us. As human beings, we do not already have immortality! Immortality is a gift from God! "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23, KJV). If we already had immortality, we would not need it as a gift of God. We receive the gift of immortality when we undergo a dramatic transformation at the resurrection.

Paul writes: "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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:51–54).

Yes, unless we have "put on" immortality through God's gift at the resurrection, a soul can die! The prophet Ezekiel made this plain when he wrote: "The soul who sins shall die!" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). The Hebrew word for "soul" is nephesh, which refers to physical life; it is the same word used to describe animal life in Genesis 1:21.

"But that's in the Old Testament," you may be thinking. "What does the New Testament say about the soul?" Jesus' teaching was the same. "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul [Greek psuche, "life"] and body in hell [gehenna fire]" (Matthew 10:28). Do you believe your Bible? Do you believe what Jesus said? God is able to destroy both soul and body in "hell"—gehenna fire.

The Bible plainly teaches that souls are mortal—not immortal. But God has a wonderful plan of salvation for all humanity—including you! He wants you to be a part of His family for all eternity. God is love, and He has given you the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for your sins. Sin brings the death penalty upon all of us. "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).

Our sin has earned us the death penalty, but God sent His Son to pay that penalty, so we can be reconciled to God and redeemed by God. Through His gift, we can walk in a new way of life, and have a new relationship with our Creator! Each of us was created in God's likeness to have an eternal and loving relationship with Him. But it is God who first demonstrated His love to us! Perhaps you are familiar with the precious "golden verse" of the Bible: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

God has created us in His own image—in His likeness. He wants to have a relationship with us, but we have separated ourselves from Him. "Your iniquities have separated you from your God" (Isaiah 59:2). Christians, however, have been reconciled to God through the death of His Son, through Christ's shed blood. As Christians, we are no longer separated—we have direct access to God, through our Savior Jesus Christ.

Are you a person after God's own heart? King David of Israel is another "hero of faith" mentioned in Hebrews 11. God called him a "man after My own heart" (Acts 13:22). Has he gone to heaven, or is he still in the grave?

In the Kingdom of God, yet to come to this earth, King David will be the ruler over all the tribes and nations of Israel and Judah (cf. Ezekiel 37:24; Jeremiah 30:9). Certainly David should be in heaven, if the righteous go there the moment they die. Yet the Bible plainly shows that he is not there! On the Day of Pentecost—the very day the New Testament Church was founded—the Apostle Peter said: "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (Acts 2:29). After the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, David was still dead and buried! Peter went on to plainly state: "For David did not ascend into the heavens!" (v. 34). David is awaiting the resurrection, as are all the other faithful saints!

Many religious people have been taught the false concept of the immortal soul, and as a result are frightened not only about their own future, but for their friends and relatives who, they fear, are right now being tormented in an eternal hell. But the truth is that not one human being who has ever lived and died is now suffering in hellfire!

Your Bible clearly refers to death metaphorically as a sleep. Jesus referred to His friend Lazarus' death as a sleep (cf. John 11). The dead have no consciousness. "For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing" (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The dead experience no conscious passing of time. In the next split second of their consciousness, they will awaken in the resurrection.

The Spirit in Man

We are not born with an immortal soul, but we do have a human spirit. As the Apostle Paul wrote: "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so no one knows the things of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Corinthians 2:11). The patriarch Job stated: "But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding" (Job 32:8). That spirit, combined with the human brain, gives human beings "mind power" totally unavailable to animals. But the human spirit is not a soul, and does not have a consciousness apart from the human mind. When one becomes a truly converted Christian, the Holy Spirit combines with the spirit in man as one becomes a begotten child of God. Then, the converted Christian grows in the grace and knowledge of Christ (cf. 2 Peter 3:18). By Christ living in us, we become transformed into the very nature and mind of Christ. We have God's character, love and nature!

How can we have such an amazing blessing? Because the Savior of the world was dead, buried and resurrected. Peter wrote: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:3–5).

We have a living hope because Christ rose from the dead. Some wrongly believe that Jesus preached to spirits in hell while His body remained in the grave. That is totally false! Jesus said plainly that when He died, He was dead! "I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death" (Revelation 1:18). Jesus preached to the "spirits in prison" as the pre-incarnate Lord during the days of Noah, "when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water" (1 Peter 3:20). Jesus was dead and in the grave, or "the heart of the earth," three days and three nights, just as He promised in Matthew 12:40. If He did not truly die, then we have no Savior (for more on this much-misunderstood topic, see "The Resurrection Was Not on Easter Sunday," on page 18 of this issue).

Lost Forever?

What happens to the billions of human beings who have lived and died without ever accepting Christ's sacrifice? Are they lost forever? No! God is just and fair. He will not send spiritually blinded human beings to a lake of fire without ever giving them an opportunity for salvation. God will give those sinners their first real opportunity for salvation at the "White Throne Judgment." The Apostle John writes: "And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:12).

Today, however, everyone who has ever died, except Jesus Christ, is without life or consciousness, awaiting the resurrection. Genuine faithful Christians will be in the first resurrection when Christ returns. "The rest of the dead" will be resurrected to judgment in the White Throne Judgment in the second general resurrection. Billions will then have their first opportunity for salvation through Christ. Their eyes will be opened, and they will understand the true gospel. They will be given a lifetime to repent and to give their lives to Christ. At the end of this period of judgment, those who rebel and sear their consciences, who commit the unpardonable sin, will be destroyed in the lake of fire and experience the painful "second death" from which there is no resurrection (Revelation 20:14–15).

Thank God that none of your deceased friends or relatives are now suffering the pains of hellfire. But they will be resurrected to judgment, either to face the consequences of rejecting God's Truth, or to be exposed to that Truth for the first time, if God has not previously brought them to the Truth. Are you being called now? If so, you cannot wait; God wants you in the first resurrection: "the better resurrection" (Hebrews 11:35). May God bless you with His true understanding of life and death and His hope for your future.

OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE

View All