Kingdom: What happens when we die?
Losing someone you know, and love, is perhaps the most painful experience in life. In those seasons of loss, something in us simply knows that something has gone terribly wrong as what we are experiencing is unnatural. Having been to numerous funerals as pastors, we have seen the grieving family and friends respond in one of six ways.
One, some people don’t know what to believe or say and so they echo pithy statements from greeting cards meant to make people feel better. Examples include, “they are in a better place now”, “they are with the Big Guy upstairs”, and “they are standing in line at the Pearly Gates”. Rather than providing any real hope, these are often well-intended ways that people are saying they have no idea what happens after you die, but they hope it gets worked out somehow.
Two, some people do not believe in life after death and so their grief is final. Without anything beyond the eternal horizon, the loss of life becomes bitter without any hope of getting better. Naturalism is the belief that you are only a physical body without a spiritual soul, and that once you die there is nothing more. Not surprisingly, even the most hardened naturalists find it psychologically devastating to accept the logical conclusion of their own beliefs. Subsequently, they try to live on forever through the memory of others, their offspring, or their efforts to change the world in some way that their mark on it remains after their death with such things as foundation, cause, or memorial.
Three, some people believe in a concept of Heaven, but not Hell, and assume that once you die, you get to go to Heaven. Universalism is the belief that, to go to Heaven, you don’t need to repent of sin and trust Jesus, but simply die. When pressed, universalists struggle to explain the fairness of the worst people living their entire lives harming others without ever changing and being rewarded eternally. While it sounds nice at first, universalism makes it hard to get excited about living in a home between Genghis Khan and Stalin, with unrepentant pedophiles, sexual predators, and sociopaths as our roommates forever.
Four, some people believe in the concept of purgatory. A bit like an airport, it’s the place where you wait as you travel from earth to Heaven. For Catholics, purgatory is a place or state in which those who died in the grace of God expiate their unforgiven sins by being punished before being admitted to heaven. Practically, this would mean that we need to add to Jesus’ work for our sins and contradicts the fact God made us “alive together with him [Jesus], having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” [FOOTNOTE: Col. 2:13-14]
Five, people who believe in reincarnation claim that, after you die, you will come back repeatedly until you have paid off your karmic debt, trapped in a cycle of rebirth where the only hope is that after millions of attempts, you finally get it right and escape into the eternal oneness (Nirvana) which is the end of all personhood. Many Americans follow their personally devised versions of neo-paganism, Tibetan Buddhism, Kabala, and Gnosticism. They reject most of the disciplines and beliefs of the original religions in favor of some sort of wishful hope that they are doing it right and that in their next life they will be ascended masters of the universe. Reincarnation cannot solve the sin problem for the simple reason that, even if you could live multiple lives, you would not be paying off your old sin as fast as you would be adding on new sin, and you would thus return as a lower life form every time, which means when you die you have nothing to look forward to forever but increasing doom.
Six, Bible-believing Christians grieve the loss of someone they love, but with the reassurance of eternal life, resurrection of the dead, and reunion of God’s entire Forever Family. This is grieving God’s heart, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” [FOOTNOTE: 1 Thess. 4:13 (NIV)]
God created humans as thinking, feeling, moral persons made up of spirit and body tightly joined together. [FOOTNOTE: Gen. 2:7]. Death is not normal or natural, but an enemy, the consequence of sin. [FOOTNOTE: Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12.] Death is the tearing apart of these two intertwined parts, the end of relationship with loved ones, and the cessation of life on this earth. The body goes to the grave and the spirit goes into an afterlife [FOOTNOTE: Ps. 104:29; 146:4; Eccles. 3:20–21; 12:7; James 2:26] to face judgment. [FOOTNOTE: Heb. 9:27.] The Bible is clear that there will one day be a bodily resurrection for everyone to either eternal life with God or eternal condemnation apart from Him in hell. [FOOTNOTE: Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46.]
Christians believe our eternal status depends on our relationship with Jesus Christ. We really believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” [FOOTNOTE: John 3:16, 36.]
Upon death, a believer’s spirit immediately goes to heaven to be with God. [FOOTNOTE: 2 Cor. 5:1–10; Phil. 1:23.] Some, like the Seventh Day Adventists, cannot see how a soul can exist without a body. They mistakenly believe that the soul sleeps unconsciously between the death of the body and its resurrection on judgment day. Others believe the soul exists in God’s memory until it is “re-membered” at the end of the age. Such existence in the divine database doesn’t fit with John’s vision of the souls of the martyrs crying out with a loud voice, “How long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 6:10.] Paul’s confidence that death will be “far better” than fruitful work here on earth can hardly mean only a long nap with Jesus. [FOOTNOTE: Phil. 1:23.]
Jesus gives us a picture in Luke 16:19–31 of existence after death. Lazarus, the godly beggar, goes to be with Abraham, while the self-indulgent rich man is in a place of torment. His deeds show that he does not love God. [FOOTNOTE: 1 John 3:10; 4:8–21.] The rich man, self-absorbed to the end, expects Abraham to be his servant and bring him some water. In this place, there is neither repentance for his sin nor the expectation that he can get out of torment now that he is dead.
Jesus, who has come back from death and is thus the expert on what awaits us on the other side, was emphatically clear that a day of judgment is coming when everyone will rise from their graves and stand before Him for eternal sentencing to either worship in His kingdom or suffer in His hell. [FOOTNOTE: John 5:21–30.]
At the final judgment, all—even you—will stand before Jesus. Jesus’ followers, whose names are written in the Book of Life, will be with him forever. The Bible could not be clearer: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” [FOOTNOTE: Rev. 20:15.]