What Happens After You Die?

Have you ever been asked the question, “Do you know what will happen to you when you die?” The intent is often to discuss our eternal destination in heaven or hell. As a Christian, we understand that there is a heaven and a hell, and that on judgement day God will judge the world and separate the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46).

What about between your physical death and judgment, what happens then?

This is a complex question to engage in as there are many ideas and speculation coming from many different religions and worldviews. Let me simplify this into a number of the main categories you may hear as you engage with others in conversation about Christ and the gospel. What does the Bible says about this? While there is much we are not told, there are some clear teachings about what does and what doesn’t happen. Let’s look first at what others may believe.

Atheism: You cease to exist

The atheist claims, “Your body decomposes, and goes back to the earth. That’s all. What you believe does not change what happens after you die. If god does not exist, then there is no afterlife, and that’s just the way it is.” This is a materialistic claim that the body is all that exists. There is no soul that continues after life, there is no supernatural, only the natural that we see and experience.

Hinduism: Reincarnation

The Hindu “believes in the rebirth and reincarnation of souls. Souls are immortal and imperishable. A soul is part of the limited being who is subject to the impurities of attachment, delusion and laws of karma.” While they believe in the separation of the body and soul, they believe the body is separated from the soul and reattaches to a new body in your next life over and over until you achieve perfection.

Mormonism: We become spirits or gods

Mormon teaching says, “Death is not the end. Death is really a beginning—another step forward in Heavenly Father’s plan for His children. Someday, like everyone else, your physical body will die. But your spirit does not die, it goes to the spirit world, where you will continue to learn and progress and may be with loved ones who have passed on.” This idea that we become spirits, or gods, or even angels after death is a popular one, but it simply isn’t biblical.

Jehovah’s Witness: Annihilation and recreation

The Jehovah’s Witness site says, “When we die, we cease to exist. The dead can’t think, act, or feel anything” and, “Those resurrected to heaven will eventually number 144,000.” So, there are similarities with the Atheist claim that we no longer exist, but some are later resurrected into heaven, receiving consciousness again. Some refer to this as soul sleep.

Catholicism: Purgatory

Catholic tradition states that purgatory is a “state after death in which those destined for heaven undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Since we cannot achieve perfection on earth, they believe we can become good enough through temporal punishment to enter into God’s presence.

What do we learn from Scripture?

With that basic understanding of what others believe, let’s look at what the Bible says about this question. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes the biblical witness that “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous… are received into the highest heavens… And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.

The Apostle Paul writes that we are either alive in Christ or we depart to be with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:21-24). There is nothing in between, no other state. Luke tells of Jesus response to the thief on the cross next to Him, emphasizing “today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

The body is not all that exists, there is also a soul which at death is separated from the body (Ecclesiastes 12:5,7). The soul continues and returns to God, but the body decays and is corrupted (Matthew 10:28). This separation happens only once, it does not repeat (Hebrews 9:27). We don’t get a do-over until we get it right.

We learn a lot from Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-29). After death, both individuals were brought to either Abraham’s side (heaven) or the place of torment called hell (Luke 16:22-23). This happened immediately rather than waiting until the day of judgment since we see the Rich Man asking Abraham to send Lazarus back [to life] to warn his brothers who are still alive. (Luke 16:27-29)

At the point of death, your final destination is already determined and cannot be changed after death. In this parable Abraham tells the Rich Man that we cannot pass between heaven and hell (Luke 16:26).

The Christian does not start with punishment or torment after death and proceed to Christ’s presence.  The suffering that we experience is in this life, not after death (1 Peter 4:13-16, Philippians 3:7-11). We are to depend solely on Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith rather than our own endurance (Hebrews 12:2-3). We can not achieve this ourselves, it is only through Christ.

Likewise, it is a popular belief that we turn into angels who need to earn their wings or to complete some unfinished business. This is a false believe that ushers us back to a dependence on our ability rather than Christ. Angels are different created beings (1 Corinthians 15:39-40, Nehemiah 9:6, Hebrews 1:4,14) and God has separated the rebellious angels which we know as demons and committed them to judgment (2 Peter 2:4,11).

Why does all this matter?

In all of this, why does it matter what we believe about the afterlife? For the Christian, we find hope and comfort in the promises of God.  We are encouraged to endure suffering and hardship for Christ in this life, resisting temptation but to look to Christ alone to make us right with God. We do not become complacent, thinking it doesn’t matter what we do, or that we will get another chance later. We are not deceived into thinking that we can become like God, eventually achieving his glory. Nor are we drug into anxiousness not knowing if we have done enough or endured enough to be accepted. Instead, we are spurred on to strive for righteousness and to be prepared for His return and His kingdom.

We are reminded that there is a heaven and hell and each one of us will be judged in righteousness. God has made a way for us to be reconciled to God. It is through His son Jesus Christ and His sinless sacrifice (Hebrews 4:15) on the cross to turn God’s wrath away from us. Instead of depending on our own thoughts, our choices, our actions, our own intelligence, our own endurance, we rest in what Christ has completed on our behalf.

Because of the bodily resurrection of Christ we have assurance that God has accepted the sacrifice. It gives us the assurance that we too will enter the kingdom of God and into the joy of His presence. His resurrection assures us of His love for us. “If only in this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Without Christ, there is no hope beyond this life. He calls us to repent and turn from our ways and to put our faith and trust in Him. Unless Christ returns during your lifetime, you will experience death. Only Christ has conquered death.

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  -Acts 17:30-31

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Author: Jon Neifert
Posted on October 26 2019