What Happens after Death?

One of the inescapable realities that every human must face is death. Because we are all going to die, everyone wants to know the million-dollar question, “What happens after someone dies?” The answer is not the same for every person. Nor is the answer good for everyone!

The Souls & Bodies of Believers
It is very clear that while the body of a believer remains on the earth, the soul of the believer goes immediately into the presence of God. When believers die they enter immediately into the joy of their Master. The Apostle Paul taught that to be away from the body is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8). He also said that his desire was to “depart and be with Christ” which was far better (Phil 1:23).

This instruction refutes two common misunderstandings concerning the soul of believers. First, there is no such thing as soul sleep. Some have erroneously taught that when believers die they go into a state of unconscious existence which will not be resuscitated until Christ returns and raises them to eternal life. This aberrant teaching is supported only by certain passages of Scripture which uses phrases like “sleep” or “falling asleep” (Matt 9:24, Jn 11:11, 1 Thess 4:13, 5:10). But it is clear that these phrases are simply metaphorical expressions used to indicate that death is only temporary for the believer.

The second erroneous teaching is Purgatory. To be clear the Bible does not teach the doctrine of purgatory. This Roman Catholic teaching originated in the thirteenth century teaching that believers go to a place to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. This doctrine believes that believers need further purification and suffering for the sins they committed during their lifetime. This doctrine is rejected by Protestants for two reasons. First, the doctrine of purgatory is found nowhere in the Bible. Catholics can only find vague & unclear support for this doctrine in the writings of the Apocrypha, particularly in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45, which Protestants deny should be a part of the inspired canon of Scripture. Second, this is a blasphemous doctrine that minimizes the complete atonement of Christ for believers. Purgatory would only be needed if indeed Christ’s work on the cross were not sufficient. But since Christ’s atonement cleanses us from all sin (past, present and future), the idea of purgatory is unnecessary. The doctrine of purgatory is necessary for Catholic dogma due to the fact that Rome denies that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Rome’s misunderstanding of justification leads them to develop a doctrine that adds to the atonement of Christ.

Bodies: While the bodies of believers fully decay, they will eventually be fully redeemed when Christ returns and raises their bodies from the grave. This doctrine is known as the doctrine of glorification. On the last day, Jesus will raise the body of every believer who has died and unite them with their souls. Jesus made this clear when He claimed four times in John 6 that He will not lose any of those who are His but “raise him up on the last day” (Jn 6:39, 40, 44, 54). Jesus stated elsewhere, “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice, and come out, 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). When Christ returns to earth the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16) and the bodies of believers will be glorified into powerful, imperishable and immortal bodies (1 Cor 15:42-44, 49) just like Jesus’ glorified and resurrected body (Phil 3:21).

The Souls & Bodies of Unbelievers
Horribly the souls of unbelievers go immediately to eternal punishment. Jesus told a story about an unbelieving rich man who died and went immediately to hades (Luke 16:19-34). Jesus emphasized that there was a great chasm that has been fixed which cannot be passed from hell to heaven. Jesus was very clear that those who believe in Him will not perish but those who do not believe in Him will perish and be condemned forever (Jn 3:17-18, Heb 9:27).

There are also two false teachings that must be addressed. First, the Bible does not teach postmortem evangelism which teaches that unbelievers will have a second chance to turn to Christ. Some have taught that unbelievers will have a second chance on the basis of 1 Peter 3:18-20 which describes Jesus preaching to those in prison. This is an inadequate interpretation of this passage and does not support a second chance.

A second false teaching is the doctrine of annihilationism which teaches that unbelievers will ultimately be destroyed or ‘annihilated’ and thus not experience eternal suffering. This teaching sounds attractive, but is not biblically supported. It is clear that those who reject Christ will experience eternal punishment day and night forever and ever (Matt 25:46, Rev 14:11, 20:10). Hell is a real place with real fire that is described as eternal. Jesus said that those who don’t know him will be cast into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and that they will “go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt 25:41, 46).

Bodies: While unbelievers go immediately into eternal conscious punishment, their bodies will not be raised until the day of judgment. At that time their bodies will be raised and reunited with their souls and they will stand before God’s Great White Throne Judgment where they will be pronounced guilty and cast away from His presence forever and ever (Rev 20:12, 15, John 5:29).

No Fear of Death
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31). But this fear of death can be relieved by simply putting one’s trust in Jesus Christ, who came to make a literal payment to a holy God in order to propitiate, or satisfy, His wrath against sinners (Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:1-2). For those who do not receive the gift Christ offers, payment must be made by being personally punished in an everlasting separation and eternal fire. God is a holy and just God who cannot simply overlook sin. But for those who trust Christ, they can rest in peace that their sins have been paid. When believers die, they will not die in their sins, but rather will die justified by grace in the finished work of Christ.

Click here to listen to a sermon on this topic from John 11:17-27 & John 5:28-29.