What Happens When We Die?

Probably most people would not be too excited to talk about our topic for this study. Some people would do if they could what King Louis XV of France in 1700s did. I’ve read that he forbid the mention of death in his presence. And no one was permitted to speak of his birthday or of anything that pertained to his age. He tried to avoid the sight of cemeteries or anything that would remind him of death.

Many share the same feelings as the person who wrote this, “I forget about it sometimes; I might be at a party or having dinner with friends, and then it hits me all over again. I’m going to die! I don’t know when, but I do know it will happen sometime. One day I won’t be here, none of us will. I feel frightened, sad, and immediately stop enjoying myself – what’s the point because I’ll be dead one day anyway! It happens at night sometimes, too – I become acutely aware, not just a thought, but a strong feeling that one day I’ll be gone…forever. I just want to forget about it like other people seem to do; after all, I’m young and, as far as I know, healthy…”

But I’m hoping that you’re not that way about death, or at least that you won’t leave here feeling that way about death. I’ve found that looking into what the Bible says on the topic is very encouraging for those who are willing to do the will of God in their lives.

We all know what happens to the body when we die. The heart stops beating. The lungs quit breathing. Brain activity ends. All biological function quits. And the body begins to decay. But we’ve seen that there’s more to the nature of man than just a body. Man is a spirit or non-material self within a body (see study on The Nature of Man). What happens to the spirit, the self of a person at death?

According to the Bible…

At death the spirit, the inner self, departs from the body.

Notice the definition of a dead body in James 2:26, “… the body without the spirit is dead…” So dead bodies are bodies no longer inhabited by the spirit of the person. At death the spirit departs.

Just before Jesus died He cried out with a loud voice saying, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” (Lk23:46). As Stephen was being stoned to death he was saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:59).

Luke 8:55 when Jesus commanded a dead girl, “Child, arise!” it says “her spirit returned, and she got up…” Notice when she was dead her spirit was gone from her body. She was made alive again when her spirit returned to her body.

Often death is spoken of in the Bible as a departure, as simply leaving the body.

  • Genesis 36:18 when Rachel was dying after giving birth to Benjamin it describes it as “her soul departing“.
  • Psalm 90:10 says at death, “we fly away.” Similar language to departing.
  • In Luke ch2 there’s a righteous old man named Simeon in Jerusalem at the temple. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk 2:26). When Mary and Joseph brought baby Jesus into the temple, Simeon took Him into his arms and said (Lk 2:29), “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word…” Death to that old righteous prophet was a departure.
  • When Jesus took Peter, James and John up a mountain and was transfigured before them, His face changed and His garments became white and shinning, it tells us that Moses and Elijah appeared also in glory and they were talking with Jesus about “His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” In other words they were talking to Him about His death, but it calls it “His departure.”
  • In II Corinthians 5:6-8 Paul speaks of life on earth as being at home in the body and death as being absent from the body.
  • In Philippians 1:23 considering the pros and cons of staying alive on earth or death, Paul says “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”
  • In II Timothy 4:6 speaking of his imminent death Paul said, “the time of my departure has come.”
  • Likewise Peter II Pt 1:13 explaining that he wrote about the things previous in the letter because he knows he’s about to die soon and he wants these Christians to be able to call these things to mind when he’s gone. He says, “I consider it right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by way of reminder, knowing that the laying aside of my tent is imminent, as also our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will also be diligent that at any time after my departure you will be able to call these things to mind.” Death to Peter was a laying aside of the old worn out tent and departing for somewhere else.

Departed spirits continue to exist.

A physical body is not needed for a spirit entity to live. God is spirit, says John 4:24. He lives without a physical body. Angels are spirits, says Hebrews 1:14 (see also I Kg 22:19-23). They live without physical bodies. Likewise demons are spirits (see Lk 10:17,20). Remember the visionary experience Paul recalls in II Corinthians 12:1-4 where a man in Christ (Paul) was caught up to the into paradise in the 3rd heaven and heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted speak. And Paul says he doesn’t know if he was in the body or apart from the body when it happened. Apparently Paul believed it’s quite possible to exist consciously apart from the body.

Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:28 tell us that the dissolution of the body does not dissolve the soul of a person. Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” So the killing of the body does not kill the soul. The soul lives on apart from the body.

At death the spirit is gathered to the spirits of people who died before them.

I think the first insight we encounter in the Bible concerning what happens to the spirit when it departs the body is the phrase “he was gathered to his people.” It’s a phrase used repeatedly in the OT to describe what happened to a man when he died. This phrase or one very similar to it was used to describe the death of Abraham (Gen 25:8), Isaac (Gen 35:29), Jacob (Gen 49:29,33), Aaron (Num 20:24), Moses (Num 27:13; Deut 32:50), a whole generation of Israelites (Judges 2:10), Josiah (II Ki 22:20; II Ch 34:28). Some believe that the phrase means that their body was buried in a tomb with the bodies of their ancestors. But that understanding does not fit with some of the cases. In the cases of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob the burial of their bodies is mentioned separately after it says “he was gathered to his people.” Notice especially the case of Jacob. In Genesis 49:28 he announced to his sons that he was about to be gathered to his people. Then he gave them instructions to bury his body in the cave that his father and grandfather were buried in. Jacob knew that being gathered to his people was inevitable, but the burial of his body in the ancestral tomb was the responsibility of his sons. Jacob viewed being gathered to his people and the burial of his body with his ancestors as separate events. The first is what would happen to his spirit at death. The second is what would happen to his body. Then notice that when Jacob died in Genesis 49:33 it says he “he drew his feet into the bed and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.” But then next verse (Gen 50:1) says, “Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, and wept over him and kissed him.” Jacob had already been gathered to his people while his son Joseph fell on his face and wept over him and kissed him. And then the text explains that it wasn’t until several months later that Jacob’s body was finally buried (Gen 50:2-13). Also consider the case of Moses. Moses was gathered to his people (Num 27:13; Deut 32:50), and yet his body was not buried in a tomb with his ancestors. Deuteronomy 34:6 says that God Himself buried the body of Moses somewhere in the valley of the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no man knows his burial place. So apparently when Moses was gathered to his people it wasn’t that his body went to his family’s tomb; it was that the spirit of Moses joined the spirits of those who had died before him.

Another insightful passage in the OT regarding the afterlife is in I Samuel 28. King Saul was about to go to war with the Philistines and was very nervous about it. When he inquired of the Lord about it, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. And so Saul did something that was strictly forbidden in the Law of God. He went to a woman at En-dor who was a medium, a necromancer, somebody who communicated with the dead, and he asked her to conjure up the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel. And she actually did it (I Sam 28:3-14). Now, was this the only time that God actually let her bring up the spirit of a dead person? Had she deceived people into thinking that she could communicate with the dead before? I don’t know. Whether she’d ever been able to actually do this before or not, she did it on this occasion. The occasion indicates that the spirit of Samuel continued to exist after his death. And notice a couple fascinating statements that Samuel made to Saul. First in I Samuel 28:15, the first thing Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” It was bothersome to Samuel to have to come talk with Saul. Now, I think to be disturbed or bothered you must exist. And apparently Samuel was existing somewhere in spirit comfortably, because it was bothersome to him to have to come talk with Saul. He was more comfortable where he was than when he had to come talk with Saul. Then notice the statement Samuel made to Saul in v19, “Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.” Samuel was saying that Saul and his sons were going to die the next day, which is exactly what happened (I Sam 31), and that when they died they would join him in the realm of the dead. Again we see that at death the spirit of a person is gathered to the spirits of those who have died before.

Another passage that indicates this is II Samuel 12:23 where King David makes a statement about his infant son by Bathsheba who died.  “But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” Notice David knew that while his dead son would not come back to him, eventually he would go to his dead son. At death the spirit of David would be gathered to the spirits of the dead, including the spirit of his infant son.

This is also supported by some verses in Isaiah 14, where there is prophecy about the fall of Babylon and it pictures a taunt that the Israelites will take up against the king of Babylon (Is 14:4). In the taunt against the king of Babylon they will say, “Sheol [which is the Hebrew word to refer to the realm of the dead] from beneath is excited over you [King of Babylon] to meet you when you come; It arouses for you the spirits of the dead, all the leaders of the earth; It raises all the kings of the nations from their thrones. 10 “They will all respond and say to you, ‘Even you have been made weak as we, You have become like us. Your pomp and the music of your harps Have been brought down to Sheol; Maggots are spread out as your bed beneath you And worms are your covering.” Do you see the picture? It’s picturing the King of Babylon going to Sheol, to the realm of the dead, and the spirits of leaders and kings of the earth who have died give him a mocking reception into their company. Well, would that literally happen to the king of Babylon or not? I don’t know. But it does seem to assume that when a person dies their spirit is gathered to the spirits of the dead in Sheol.

The NT confirms the idea that there is a realm into which the spirits of people are gathered at death by its use of the term “Hades.” If you’re a little familiar with Greek mythology you know that “Hades” was the name given to the god of the underworld, the figure who ruled over the world of the dead. And it became common terminology to also speak of the realm of the dead as Hades. Jesus and the writers of the NT take up that word and assert that there is such a place where departed spirits are gathered at death. In Acts 2:31 it appears that Jesus went to Hades when He died. The apostle Peter explains in that verse that the statement in Psalm 16:10 about someone being neither abandoned to Hades, nor his flesh suffering decay refers to Jesus. That Jesus was not abandoned to Hades implies that He was there in Hades for a little while, but was then brought out. Luke 16:23 speaks of a dead rich man being in Hades. Revelation 20:13 envisions a day when Hades gives us the dead which were in it. So there is a realm, a gathering place, for the spirits of the dead.

The departed spirits of the righteous are gathered to be with Christ.

Stephen’s dying prayer was that the Lord Jesus would receive his spirit (Acts 7:59).

II Corinthians 5:6,8, says, “while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord… we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” So when a Christian leaves the body he or she goes to be with the Lord.

Remember Philippians 1:23 considering the pros and cons of staying alive on earth or dying and he says, “I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” Paul knew at death he would depart his body and be with Christ.

The vision John received in Revelation 6:9-11 suggests that the departed souls of the righteous are near to the Lord and able to talk with the Lord. “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.” He saw the souls of the martyrs. They weren’t embodied. What disembodied souls looked like to John, I don’t know. But he says they were souls. And they were talking with the Lord. I know some of the vision is probably figurative (the altar and white robes). But I think it does illustrate the fact that the departed souls of Christians go to be with the Lord.

Revelation 20:4-6 is another fascinating passage that I think illustrates this, but I plan to have a future study on Revelation 20, so we’ll look at it then.

The condition of departed spirits is either blissful or miserable depending on the life they lived on earth.

Remember that the departed spirit of the prophet Samuel appeared to have been comfortable (I Sam 28:15). The apostle Paul was sure looking forward to being absent from the body and at home with the Lord (II Cor 5:8; Phil 1:21-24).

Jesus told the repentant thief dying on a cross next to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.” The word “paradise” comes from the Greek word paradeisos, which meant a park or a garden. The word is found over 20 times in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) referring to the Garden of Eden or the Garden of God. Paradise became a technical word used by the Jews for the Garden of God. Jesus wants the repentant thief dying next to him to think of where he’s headed as being like the Garden of Eden. It was a place where every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food grew. And the tree of life that could provide life forever was there (Gen 2:9; 3:22). A beautiful crystal clear river flowed through it (Gen 2:10). God walked and talked with man and woman like good friends do (3:8). There were no thorns or thistles (3:18). And food was much easier to come by (3:19). There was no hunger or thirst. There was no sickness, no disease. Everything was just very good (1:31). That’s the image Jesus gave the penitent thief of where they were headed that day.

Isaiah 57:1-2 says that at death the righteous and devout are “taken away from evil,” and they enter into “peace” and “rest.” The prophet Daniel was told that at death he would “enter into rest.” The souls of the Christian martyrs were told to “rest” (Rev 6:11). Revelation 14:13, And I heard a voice from heaven, saying, “Write, ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!'” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow with them.” So those who “die in the Lord” enter into a kind of blessed, restful, peaceful existence.

But what about the unrighteous, those who die outside the Lord? Scriptures do not present us with any pleasant images of their condition in the afterlife. Isaiah 57, after saying that at death a righteous man “enters into peace” (Is 57:1-2), it says “‘There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.’” (Is 57:21). I Peter 3:19-20 speaks of the spirits who were disobedient in the days of Noah as being in “prison“. II Peter 2:9 say that “the Lord knows how… to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment.” Earlier in II Peter 2 at v4 Peter said that “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into tartarus and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment“. In 2:9 Peter appears to be saying that the same kind of thing God did with the rebellious angels, He also does with unrighteous people when they die. He confines them to a prison where they are kept under punishment until the day of judgment. In II Peter 2:4 the word in the Greek text, tartarus, should not be translated “hell” as some English versions have it. The word for hell in the NT is gehenna. The word tartarus only occurs in this verse in all of the Bible. Like the word “Hades,” “Tartarus” was a word borrowed from Greek mythology. Tartarus in Greek thought was a region in the underworld where rebellious gods, like the Titans, and the worst of sinful people were confined. Peter’s use of the word indicates that there is such a place. Perhaps tartarus where the rebellious angels are imprisoned is the same place where the spirits of the unrighteous dead are also imprisoned.

All of this is confirmed by…

The story Jesus told about a selfish rich man and the beggar, Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

The Lord told this story, Luke tells us, to the Pharisees who were lovers of money (Lk 16:14-15a). The Pharisees heaped wealth upon themselves. They justified selfish extravagance. People around them were hungry. People around them were inadequately clothed and needing medical attention. People around them were suffering. But their daily concerns were just things like “Which pair of shoes should I buy to go with this outfit? What kind of latte should I get this morning? Should I sell that piece of property I have north of town and by a motor home with the money? Should I have lunch at that new Italian place or the good old steakhouse? I wonder when the new i-phone is coming out. I want to be the first person at work to get one. Should remodel that 6th bathroom in my house? Should I golf or take out the jet ski on Saturday?” Jesus told them this story about a lover of money like them. This story is most insightful passage we have about the condition of human spirits after death.

Some, not liking the implications of this story if it’s a true story, call this story a parable, and suggest that it’s just a figurative illustration of something, not actually a true depiction of the afterlife. But I think that’s an unwarranted assumption for a couple reasons. One, nowhere is this story called a parable. And then something that you never see in parables is people in this story are called by name. There is Lazarus and Abraham in this story. You don’t find people given actual names in parables. So I think likely this story depicts something that actually happened. But even if I am mistaken about that and this is a parable, I think we can still conclude that this is an accurate depiction of the afterlife. Jesus’ parables are never mythical fairy tale fantasy kind of stories about things that could not possibly happen. They are realistic stories about things could very easily take place.

But some also argue that this account cannot involve a representation of actual facts, because while the bodies of the characters in the story are actually decaying in their graves, because they’re dead, reference is made to their physical features, like Abraham’s bosom, the rich man’s eyes and his tongue, and the tip of Lazarus’ finger (v23-24). How could this be an accurate depiction of the afterlife when it speaks of the dead in bodily terms and yet we know that the dead are spirits without bodies? Probably we should understand Jesus to be using what we might call accommodative language. Jesus speaks of these characters in bodily terms, I think because He has to in order to convey to us some idea of what it is like in the afterlife. We have never experienced existence apart from our bodies in the spirit realm and so we do not have the vocabulary to describe whatever it is that is experienced in that kind of existence. So Jesus has to use bodily physical things that were are familiar to try to relate to us what it’s like. It is similar to the use of physical characteristics in describing God, like God’s hands and eyes and face (cf. Isaiah 59:1-2; 1 Peter 3:12), even though we know He does not have a physical humanlike body (John 4:24; Luke 24:39).

With that said, let’s look at this story that Jesus told for the Pharisees. Jesus begins the story describing the conditions of 2 men while living on earth. Luke 16:19-21. “Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.” Purple was the most highly prized dye in the ancient world. It was obtained from secretions of various shell-fish from the Mediterranean Sea. It took approximately 8,000 shell-fish to produce one gram of purple dye. So purple cloth was extremely expensive. And the stuff called here “fine linen” in our English versions was soft white material made from flax that grew on the banks of the Nile. I read one commentator that said this stuff was worth twice its weight in gold. This guy is so wealthy that his ordinary everyday clothes are fine linen underwear and purple garments on the outside. v20 “And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.” So there we learn that the rich man just heaped his wealth upon himself and ignored the needs of suffering people around him. He allowed a man to starve and suffer at his own gate.

Then Jesus explains how the tables were turned when these 2 men died. 22 Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom…” He was gathered to his people by the angels. And among those to whom he was gathered was Abraham. To be at one’s bosom is what would happen when 2 where reclining next to each other at a table. In Jesus’ day dining tables were not made to be sat around in chairs. They were made low to the ground and people reclined around them on cushions. When 2 people were reclining right next to each other at a table often the head of one would be at the bosom of the other. For example, in John 13:23 when Jesus was sharing His last Passover meal with His disciples, it says, “There was reclining on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples, whom Jesus loved.” Lazarus didn’t get to recline at banquet tables during his life on earth. But the picture of his condition in the afterlife is that of reclining at a banquet table in the most desirable spot for a Jew, right up next to Abraham. The afterlife for the people of God is often pictured as a great banquet. Jesus said, “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt 8:11; see also Luke 13:23-30). But now notice the condition of the rich man. “and the rich man also died and was buried.  23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.  24 And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’  25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’” Apparently after death we will be in one of two conditions. In both we are conscious and able to remember our life on earth and able to communicate with others. One condition is of comfort, like reclining at a table with the righteous who have passed on before us. The other possible condition is torment, like being engulfed in a flame. And I cannot think of something that would be much more painful than that. Some say this is illustrating the spiritual torture of extreme remorse. Maybe. I just know from this that it will be a great misery of some sort. And we learn that once a person has died there is no way to change his or her status or place of residence. It is only while we still live on this earth that we can change where we will be when we die, paradise or torment.

In the rest of the story Jesus continues to relate the conversation between the rich man and Abraham. It reveals what’s required of the living in order to avoid the place of torment where the rich man was. v27, “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house — 28 for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’” We must listen to the Scriptures and repent.

– James Williams

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