What Happens When We Die?

By Pastor James Travis (A Lutheran Perspective)

This question of what happens when we die has intrigued billions for thousands of years. Answers have varied to this question from family to family. Yet, who can really answer this question but God himself. Any other answers do not have credibility because those who come up with them have not actually been to heaven. Even if they have had a near death experience, they can not prove their experiences because they did not bring cameras with them. Plus, these experiences are as different as the person telling them. Some may be true while some may be not true! How do we distinguish?

Since we know God does not lie and that he is creator of the heavens and the earth it seems best that we ask him about this question. How do we ask him? We ask him by consulting his own words given to us in the Bible: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

To answer this we must divide up time and eternity into two parts. There is the time between now and Jesus second coming and then there is the time after Jesus' second coming.

Why do we have to die in the first place?

In scripture it is clear that God never intended for people to die. But because Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden by eating of the forbidden fruit death became part of life. This sin has been passed on to all people. God through his servant Paul puts it this way in Romans 5:3, "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned--" In other words, we all sin and are not exempt from sins consequence namely death (See Psalm 90:7-8).

How do we get out of death?

God had a plan beginning all the way back to Genesis 3:15. God’s plan was not just to cover up the result of sin, but to actually remove sin and death. Had Adam and Eve merely ate from the Tree of Life in Genesis they would have lived forever, but they would have lived miserable lives because they would not been able to stop sinning. God wanted better for us than mere eternal life. As a result, God sent his Son Jesus: "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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son." (John 3:16-18)

It is clearly God’s design to save all people from sin and death. However it is also clear that people can choose to be condemned by rejecting Jesus. This is the persons own fault, God has done everything possible to prevent such unbelief and failure to follow him. Some simply reject God's wonderful gift in Jesus.

What happens immediately after we die?

There is not much written that talks about what happens immediately after we die. Certainly our body is put into the ground and our soul separates from our body. Separation of body and soul is the definition of death.

A second distinction must be made. For those who believe in Jesus there is a different result than for those who do not believe in Jesus. For example to the believing thief Jesus says, "You will be with me today in paradise!" (Luke 23:43) The Word paradise in Hebrew means, "Garden." In other words, Jesus was saying that the thief on the cross would return to something like the Garden of Eden, the way things were supposed to be in the first place before sin.

However for the unbeliever there is a different result: "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side." Luke 16:22-23 Here it is clear that unbelievers suffer (See also Psalm 106:16-18, 1 Peter 3:19).

It is interesting that when we die we will no longer worry about what is going on here. Isaiah 57:2, "Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death." In fact, in Luke 16:26 says there is a chasm fixed between those in heaven and us remaining on earth.

These passages although not extremely clear about heaven do leave us comfort that we will be in paradise and we will have peace and rest. For those who do not believe the opposite is true. A basic summary of the scripture is that believers will have it good and unbelievers bad.

What happens when Jesus comes again on the last day?

The Bible has pages and pages devoted to the subject of heaven after the last day. On that day all the corpses of people will be raised from the dead and their souls will be reunited with these bodies. We will receive new glorious bodies. Believers will go and live in glory whereas unbelievers will live bodily in the lake of fire in torment. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 says, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (See also Job 19:25-26, Isaiah 26:19, Daniel 12:2, Matthew 22:31-32, I Corinthians 15:42-49, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17).

The Bible speaks of images beyond our imagination: streets of gold, a city 1000 miles wide, by 1000 miles long, by a 1000 miles tall, a place full of beautiful gems (See Revelation 20-21). It also says there will be no crying, sickness, or pain (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21:4).

For, those who do not believe a far different image is described. The place is described by Jesus himself in Mark 9:47-48, "It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where "`their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"

What about judgment day: Do I need to be afraid?

Luther says, "The Judgment pertains to the believers as little as it does to the holy angels. All believers enter out of this life into the kingdom of heaven without judgment and are even the judges of others." (See Matt. 25:32-33)

The only way we would have to be afraid if we do not believe in Jesus. By believing, I mean, that we turn over all our sins to Jesus for his forgiveness, not just the ones we think are wrong, but all of them! John the Baptist put it simply, "Repent and believe." Repent in Greek means "to make a 180 degree turn in your life. If you were stealing now you are to give back. If you were not worshipping you will worship. Granted, only Jesus can save us from sins not repentance. However repentance is a sign that we do truly believe! He forgives them all by his death on the cross so that now we with his help can serve him!

The answer is that we need not be afraid. In fact death for the Christian is a joy because we know we will be with our Lord Jesus forever. Paul says it this way in Philippians 1:23-24, "I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body." In fact, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession Article 6:56 says, "Death itself serves this purpose, namely, to abolish this flesh of sin that we may rise absolutely new. Neither is there now in the death of the believer since by faith he has overcome the terrors of death, that sting and sense of wrath which Paul speaks, 1 Cor 15:56. this strength of sin, this sense of wrath, is truly a punishment as long as it is present; without this sense of wrath, death is not properly a punishment." Death then is a good thing for the Christian not to be feared!

Passages for Further Reading and Comfort:

Psalm 16, 24, 27, 46

Job 19

Isaiah 51 - What Jesus does for us.

The book of John - How Jesus wins for believers eternal life.

Romans 8

I Corinthians 15

Scripture above from (NIV 1984)