What Happens When We Die?

Several years prior to my dear friend’s passing last December, Vinny Saccone had challenged me to reconsider my view of what it means to be dead. He had come to the conclusion that after we humans die, we are then not alive in another place awaiting the judgement (as popular church tradition teaches), but that we are actually dead. Something Vinny had said in one of our conversations about what happens after we die always stuck with me. He had made the simple and direct point that…

“Dead means dead.”

When I became a Christian, the most astonishing thing about the Gospel message (to me anyway) was that Jesus, who is God, actually died on the cross and then came to life again three days later. It meant that God did not assign the task of dying and then rising from the dead to someone else to go through, but that He did it Himself. He did not delegate. This realization is what caused me to be in complete awe and respect of Christ, giving me the confidence that He was a God that I could actually trust and bow the knee to, because He both died and rose Himself. It meant that for all that is wrong, disordered, and chaotic in the cosmos, God needed to fix it all… personally. In other words, He could not leave the job for someone else to do.

I became a Christian in March of 2001. At the time, I was 33 years old. (I am now 53.) A few weeks after my conversion, I had an excitement about Easter morning that year that I had never really experienced before. Easter was now known to me for the first time as “Resurrection Sunday.”

As the years went by in my walk though, everything that I had heard in church regarding the nature of death slowly chipped away at its sting, almost neutering it. As a result, resurrection (a key component to my conversion) became less and less impressive, all because “dead” did not really mean dead in the church circles that I was in.

I was exposed (as most of us are in church) to a tradition which teaches that after a being alive here on earth (as Vinny had eluded to), the dead were not really dead, but actually alive someplace else: awaiting the judgement, separated from their bodies, kind of like a ghost. Those who were believers were still alive but in a “disembodied” state with Jesus (while Jesus Himself is not disembodied) happy as could be. Unbelievers who had died were also alive in a disembodied state, but they were instead being tormented in fire. A passage in Luke 16 was usually used to verify Biblically this way of understanding what it means to be dead. Here is Jesus addressing both the Pharisees and His disciples…

Luke 16:19-31 (NLT) – Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man who was splendidly clothed in purple and fine linen and who lived each day in luxury. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man’s table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores. “Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to sit beside Abraham at the heavenly banquet. The rich man also died and was buried, and he went to the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side. “The rich man shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames.’ “But Abraham said to him, ‘Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.’ “Then the rich man said, ‘Please, Father Abraham, at least send him to my father’s home. For I have five brothers, and I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment.’ “But Abraham said, ‘Moses and the prophets have warned them. Your brothers can read what they wrote.’ “The rich man replied, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent of their sins and turn to God.’ “But Abraham said, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’

The weird thing is, even though this account didn’t seem to logically make any sense to me, I just ignored it. Here’s what I mean…

I simply overlooked the fact that in this account from Luke, disembodied people had eyes to see, ears to hear, tongues to speak, skin to feel the heat of flames, etc. They could also feel thirst because they were dehydrated, and they each had a brain to process thoughts. Disembodied dead people were not only described here as being embodied, but they were not really dead. They were alive. Also, because they could speak, it meant that they had breath. A detail that the Bible usually reserved to describe the living.

Also, according to what I had been told about this account, it shows that dead people experienced “good things” after they had died (if they had been believers), while “bad things” were experienced by those who were unbelievers when they were alive (even though the judgement had not happened yet). This meant that all of the “dead” already knew the future verdict regarding their final fate PRIOR to the judgement. Think about it… they had already experienced either good or bad things in the pre-judgement place. Therefore, the judgement itself (just like the resurrection had for me, due to dead not really meaning dead) had also lost some of its impact, because again, its outcome was already known! Yet, as in this reference from Matthew 7 below, we have a scene at the judgement depicting surprise about their final fate by those who had just been raised from the pre-judgement place of the dead (where they had been experiencing torment) because they were not believers when they were alive…

Matthew 7:21-23 (NLT) – “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”

Maybe they were shocked because they had experienced “good things” while they were “dead,” and God wanted them to be surprised for effect? But, I don’t believe that God operates that way. It makes more sense that they were actually dead when they were dead; and at the resurrection they had simply awoken to a trial and decision by God that they did not anticipate that they would find themselves in at the judgement prior to dying.

Going back to Luke 16, whatever one’s opinion might be of this account (whether it was a parable or an actual event in history), its point was not to give us a picture of what the experience of death was like. It was about encouraging the reader to “listen to Moses and the prophets,” so that they would not end up having the same final fate that the unbeliever does. (For those interested, some scholars connect this account with folktales that were well-known at the time. This has been pointed out by a number of authors, some or all of whom are traditionalists when it comes to the intermediate state. Most notable is the account’s similarities to a story about a tax collector named Bar Ma’jan.)

Another commonly used reference to show that the dead are really alive in some disembodied state, is Revelation 6…

Revelation 6:9-11 (NLT) – When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them.

Again, if tradition wants to defend its disembodied view by referencing this text, well, this is yet another example of disembodied people who have mouths, tongues, and voices (which means that they also have breath). We also know that they have bodies, because they are given white robes to wear.

A student of the Bible knows that reading Revelation wrongly will produce all kinds of theological confusion. It’s “apocalyptic” literature, so it needs to be handled differently when referenced. When reading these three verses in Revelation 6 according to tradition, questions comes to mind…

Is there currently a group of dead martyrs crowded together underneath an alter somewhere, begging God to do justice and to bring vengeance to their murderers (for the past 2,000 years mind you), really the way that we should understand this passage? Or, is it possibly more likely that this is akin to Abel’s blood crying out to God from the ground regarding Cain’s murderous act in Genesis 4? It seems kind of odd to have an actual account of dead people (who are really alive), packed together in this way, crying out to God for all this time, away from God’s presence and bliss mind you, don’t you think?

I believe it’s more likely that this imagery is meant to use a dramatic word picture of fellow brethren, whose blood was mingled together after they had been killed in a sacrificial manner upon an alter for their faith, in order to show that there is an ongoing, universal longing for God to make things right at some point in the future on behalf of those who had died for Christ’s name. In other words, it’s meant to encourage us believers (who are still alive now) to persevere. Paul once said in the same vein…

Romans 8:19-25 (NLT)For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.)

So, that brings us to the question that we all ask and think about a lot…

What happens when we die?

The Bible says that…

“…each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27, NLT)

…and this is what is at the heart of why we Christians must continually look for opportunities to share the Gospel. As Jesus said…

John 5:28-29 (NLT)“Don’t be so surprised! Indeed, the time is coming when all the dead in their graves will hear the voice of God’s Son, and they will rise again. Those who have done good will rise to experience eternal life, and those who have continued in evil will rise to experience judgment.”

Unfortunately, when most people ask…

“What happens when we die?”

…they don’t have in mind the judgement, but what the experience of being dead actually is. In academic terms, the time between death and judgement is labeled as: “The Intermediate State.” It is my opinion that this topic is a secondary issue, and it has no bearing on the Gospel message. Therefore, what I am about to present (even if I am wrong) might not matter as much as we think it does. Plus, my mind could change. What really matters is whether a person whose life has ended will then later rise to experience either “eternal life” or “judgement.” THAT is the vital concern, and this topic is not worthy of us (Christians) dividing over it.

Job

Job 14:10 (NLT)But when people die, their strength is gone. They breathe their last, and then where are they?

Job basically asks the very same question that we all ask… “What happens when we die?” The very next verses provide an analogy for what death is like…

Job 14:11-12 (NLT)As water evaporates from a lake and a river disappears in drought, people are laid to rest and do not rise again. Until the heavens are no more, they will not wake up nor be roused from their sleep.

When the Bible describes what the death of a person can be compared to, it says that it is akin to a lake or a river drying up. When a lake or a river completely loses its water, they both just end up becoming dust. Here is a way of thinking about the analogy that Job offers…

lake/river – water = dry lake/river bed (dust)

The point is, a lake or a river each do not go anywhere when a full evaporation occurs. They just dry up. The same goes for us when we are, as Job says, “laid to rest.” In other words, we do not go anywhere when we die. We also just dry up. This is consistent with what the psalmist says about the fate of humans and animals when they expire…

Psalms 104:29 (NLT)When you [God] take away their [humans’ and animals’] breath, they die and turn again to dust.

God said something similar to Adam about his eventual fate after he had eaten from a specific tree that he had been told not to eat from. Adam had been warned that eating from a particular tree would then result in his death. After eating from it God said this to Adam…

Genesis 3:19 (NLT)“For you were made from dust, and to dust you will return.”

The equation and outcome for when we and animals lose our breath is similar to what happens to a lake or a river when each of them loses its water…

humans/animals – breath = dust 

Again, it is understandable why Job uses the lake/river analogy in order to describe what happens when we die. The illustration provides an accurate picture of what death is. It’s not that we go anywhere to see, hear, taste, smell, or feel anything when we die, that’s the wrong assumption. Instead we remain, slowly turning back into dust, which the experience of is likened by Job to “sleep.” Jesus uses this same analogy with regards to His friend Lazarus when he had died…

John 11:11-14 (NLT)Then he [Jesus] said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but now I will go and wake him up.” The disciples said, “Lord, if he is sleeping, he will soon get better!” They thought Jesus meant Lazarus was simply sleeping, but Jesus meant Lazarus had died. So he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

Was Lazarus praising God while he was dead?

Based upon examples such as these, I do not think so…

Psalms 6:5 (NLT)For the dead do not remember you. Who can praise you from the grave?

Psalms 30:9 (NLT)What will you gain if I die, if I sink into the grave? Can my dust praise you? Can it tell of your faithfulness?

Psalms 88:10 (NLT)Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you?

Isaiah 38:18 (NLT)For the dead cannot praise you; they cannot raise their voices in praise. Those who go down to the grave can no longer hope in your faithfulness.

The dead have no breath, therefore they cannot voice praise to God. Silence is all that is heard from the dead…

Psalms 115:17 (NLT)The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD, for they have gone into the silence of the grave.

Only those who are alive (who have breath) can praise God…

Psalms 104:33 (NLT)I will sing to the LORD as long as I live. I will praise my God to my last breath!

Psalms 146:2 (NLT)I will praise the LORD as long as I live. I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath.

Psalms 150:6 (NLT) Let everything that breathes sing praises to the LORD! Praise the LORD!

Why would Jesus describe what happened to Lazarus (the four days that he was dead) as someone who had “fallen asleep”?

He was being consistent with how the rest of the Bible talks about what being dead is like. Lazarus didn’t sing praises to God when he died, because he had no breath. Not only that (as Job said about the person who is dead), his “strength” was “gone” while he was slowly turning back into dust; just as a lake or river loses its sparkle and energy when the water “evaporates” and “disappears in drought.” Again, just as only dust remains when the water is gone from a lake or a river, the same happens to us when the breath is gone.

After Lazarus had “breathed his last,” though, he did not disappear. He still existed. Lazarus was right where his family had placed him… in his tomb. A few years later on the Day of Pentecost, Peter would describe in the same way where David still was, even though his death had taken place hundreds of years earlier…

Acts 2:29 (NLT)“Brothers, I can confidently speak to you about the patriarch David: He is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.“

In order to demonstrate the power that He had over death, Jesus reversed it for Lazarus and made him to be alive once again…

John 11:17-44 (NLT)When Jesus arrived, He found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem (about two miles away). Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. As soon as Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet Him. But Mary remained seated in the house. Then Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Yet even now I know that whatever You ask from God, God will give You.” “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her. Martha said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die — ever. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she told Him, “I believe You are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” Having said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” As soon as she heard this, she got up quickly and went to Him. Jesus had not yet come into the village but was still in the place where Martha had met Him. The Jews who were with her in the house consoling her saw that Mary got up quickly and went out. So they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to cry there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet and told Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died!” When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved. “Where have you put him?” He asked. “Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Couldn’t He who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, angry in Himself again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. “Remove the stone,” Jesus said. Martha, the dead man’s sister, told Him, “Lord, he’s already decaying. It’s been four days.” Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You heard Me. I know that You always hear Me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so they may believe You sent Me.” After He said this, He shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Loose him and let him go.”

I love how resurrection minded Martha was. She understood its significance, because she had a proper understanding of death.

Job goes on…

Job 14:13-17 (NLT)I wish you would hide me in the grave and forget me there until your anger has passed. But mark your calendar to think of me again! Can the dead live again? If so, this would give me hope through all my years of struggle, and I would eagerly await the release of death. You would call and I would answer, and you would yearn for me, your handiwork. For then you would guard my steps, instead of watching for my sins. My sins would be sealed in a pouch, and you would cover my guilt.

Job’s hope (that the dead might “live again”) is exactly what Jesus has established will happen in the future because of His own death and resurrection. The church in Thessalonica had the same concern as Job. They were worried that the dead in Christ would miss out on His return because they shared both Martha’s and Job’s understanding of death. However, the Thessalonians did not quite grasp the concept of resurrection and its uniting quality regarding the living and the dead in Christ. So Paul reassured the Thessalonians, explaining that both the dead and the living brethren at Christ’s return would meet Him jointly, meaning neither group would precede the other in greeting the Lord prior to the trumpet call of God…

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NLT)And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died [“those who have fallen asleep” in the Greek]. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died [“the dead in Christ” in the Greek] will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. So encourage each other with these words.

The dead in Christ do not get to meet Jesus until after two things have happened:

1) They have been awoken from their sleep, and

2) they are united with the believers who are alive at Christ’s return.

It’s interesting how believers in the past were concerned that they would get to meet Christ without those believers who had died, where today most living believers think that the dead in Christ are now with Him without them. There will come a time though, just as Job had hoped for, when God will awaken those who have already fallen asleep with His trumpet call in order to join the living and the dead who are in Christ to TOGETHER meet the Lord for the first time in person. We (who are alive now) ought to be encouraged, and we ought to encourage one another just as Paul said, “with these words.”

Without the resurrection, the dead in Christ would remain forever as they are now… dead. But, Christ has been raised from the dead. As a result, a future new life awaits not only the living believers, but also the sleeping believers. This was Paul’s point when he wrote to the church in Corinth…

1 Corinthians 15:17-23 (NLT) And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ [“fallen asleep in Christ” in the Greek] are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.

Again, not until Christ returns will anyone of us be with our Lord. We cannot lose sight of the importance of the resurrection. Without it, we remain forever “lost” (“perished” in the Greek) when we die.

John 3:16 (NLT) For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

Back to Job

“Until the heavens are no more, they [the dead] will not wake up nor be roused from their sleep.” 

As Job said (which is consistent with everything else that we have looked at) it is not until at this age’s end that the dead will all awake to be judged. That is when the dead are “roused from their sleep,” and not any sooner. Resurrection means nothing, unless we actually awaken from a silent, sleep like death, to then be singing praises to God as breath re-enters our lungs and our sight is restored…

Psalms 17:15 (NLT)Because I am righteous, I will see you. When I awake, I will see you face to face and be satisfied.

(On a side note: I think that Job did have an inkling of the concept of resurrection, because he anticipated seeing the Savior after he would die: Job 19:25-26, NLT – For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God…)

When God brought human beings into existence, this is how it was described…

Genesis 2:7 (NLT)…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person.

Psalms 104:30 (NLT)When you give them your breath, life is created, and you renew the face of the earth.

God will repeat at the resurrection what He did at the beginning, in order to once again make us alive…

Ezekiel 37:1-10 (NLT)The LORD took hold of me, and I was carried away by the Spirit of the LORD to a valley filled with bones. He led me all around among the bones that covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. Then he asked me, “Son of man, can these bones become living people again?” “O Sovereign LORD,” I replied, “you alone know the answer to that.” Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to these bones and say, ‘Dry bones, listen to the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Look! I am going to put breath into you and make you live again! I will put flesh and muscles on you and cover you with skin. I will put breath into you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’” So I spoke this message, just as he told me. Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Speak a prophetic message to the winds, son of man. Speak a prophetic message and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, O breath, from the four winds! Breathe into these dead bodies so they may live again.’” So I spoke the message as he commanded me, and breath came into their bodies. They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army.

We (Christians) all must embrace the comforting final words that the man dressed in linen spoke to Daniel in order to encourage him about what would happen to him after his temporary rest in death…

Daniel 12:13 (NLT)“As for you, go your way until the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days, you will rise again to receive the inheritance set aside for you.”

Some Final Thoughts

I understand why some brethren have hesitation when it comes to “dead” actually meaning dead. There are many questions that come to mind, which I hope to get to in the future, and some I have already addressed in some form…

What is the constitution of man?

What about the continuity of identity?

What happened to Jesus during the three days after His crucifixion?

What about the transfiguration scene?

What about the thief in the cross scene? (See my article What Our Goal Should Be…)

What about the Witch of En-Dor scene?

What about the rich man and Lazarus scene in Luke 16? (I touched upon this briefly in my presentation. Also, see my article The Rich Man and Lazarus)

What about what Paul says in Philippians 1 and 2 Corinthians 5? (See my article To Die Is Gain)

How has Platonic and also Greek thinking in general impacted how one might interpret what the Bible says?

What is the difference between Hebraic and Greek thinking?

How might having a better understanding of nephesh/psuche and ruach/pneuma inform how we read Matthew 10:28, the scenes where Jesus and Stephen both confidently commit their spirit to God as they breathed their last, and what was Solomon (in Ecclesiastes) and James (in his epistle) describing when they talked about the spirit leaving the body?

What church fathers’ and modern scholars’ throughout the church age are not in line with tradition regarding the intermediate state?

What did the Jewish leaders during the inter-testamental period believe about the intermediate state?

What happens to animals at death and how are they different from humans? (See my article The Difference Between Humans and Animals)

What exactly is “paradise”?

What about Enoch and Elijah?

What do monists vs dualists vs trichotomists each believe?

What are the differences between the full spectrums of both dualism and monism? Such as: dualism (emergent dualism; holistic dualism; naturalistic dualism; integrative dualism; Thomist dualism; Cartesian dualism; idealism; pluralism; Aristotelian hylomorphism) versus monism (non-reductive physicalism; dual-aspect monism; dipolar monism; reflexive monism; constitutional materialism; emergent monism; deep physicalism; eliminative materialism), as well as several reductive forms?

Questions such as these (and there are many others) show how broad in scope this topic actually is. There is also a lot of insight offered by fellow brethren who are experts in neuroscience. Unfortunately (in my experience anyway), most brethren are simply afraid to even talk about these things without getting overly emotional or defensive. I know, because that’s how I naively was when Vinny first said to me that… “Dead means dead.”

Godspeed, to the brethren!

Check out my NEW book! (click here)