At Advancing Native Missions we are now in a period of mourning. We have just recently lost one of the oldest members of our staff. The Reverend Gordon Shira was a part of ANM from the very beginning. Following a successful and varied ministerial career, he had spent the past 25 years doing volunteer work in our offices. He served as the mission chaplain for decades. He also did clerical work in our receipting department since the earliest days of this ministry. He was a generous, kind-hearted and deeply devout man of God. We will miss him greatly.
Being conscious of Gordon’s passing has made me aware of the issue of death, of the mortality that we all face. And it prompts me to write about death itself, and what happens when we die. May I tell you that this is an area where there is an abundance of myth and misunderstanding. Even in the church I often hear Christians make assertions about those who have died that are simply not true. We do not know everything about what happens when we die. But we do know quite a bit. The Scriptures are very clear on a number of things.
Let me first of all lay to rest some of the myths. Based on the clear revelation of the Bible, I can affirm that when we die these things do not happen:
- We do not become angels. Angels are a different category of being—non-human spirit creatures.
- Everyone does not go to heaven. There is a heaven and hell. Everyone goes to one place or the other.
- We do not go into a state of “soul sleep” or face the annihilation of our existence. We are spiritual beings with a soul that exists into the afterlife.
- We do not go into a holding pattern, waiting to be reincarnated in another body
- We do not go to heaven and live there as pure spirits for eternity. (This is probably the most common “Christian” myth about death.)
- We do not enter into a boring existence, sitting around clouds, strumming harps, and having nothing to do for eternity.
So what does happen when a person dies? Let’s address this by looking at what the Bible teaches us.
First of all, we will all die and then face the judgement of God (Hebrews 9:27). This verse refers to the immediate judgement pronounced on the soul at death, indicating whether the deceased will go to heaven or hell. Some call this the “judgement of faith.” This is a very individual judgment, based on whether a person has faith in Christ. The general judging of all souls will occur later.
For the unbeliever, one who has not repented of sin and come into a living relationship with Christ, they are condemned to hell. Hell (called Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek) is a place of torment, devoid of the blessedness of God’s presence. The Bible is clear that this is the fate of nonbelievers, the wicked and unrepentant (see Psalm 9:17, Psalm 55:15, Isaiah 5:14, Matthew 11:23). Jesus himself gives us a very clear picture of a wicked man who is cast into hell (Luke 16:19-31).
Now what I am going to say next may surprise you. Hell is not eternal. Hell (Sheol or Hades) is the temporary abode of the dead. It is where all the wicked go after death to await the final judgment. Hell is temporary, but the judgement of God on sinners is not. The Bible is clear that Hell will one day be emptied (Revelation 20:13-14). This happens when the ungodly come before God and face their final judgement (Revelation 20:11-13). After that, they are then cast into the eternal abode of the wicked, which the Bible calls the Lake of Fire, which is also known by the Greek name Gehenna (Revelation 20:15, 21:8). This is the eternal, final state of those who have rejected Christ (Matthew 10:28: 13:41-42,49-50; 25:41; Mark 9:43-48, Luke 3:17, Hebrews 10:27, Jude 1:7, Revelation 14:9-11). All of this occurs in the future, after Christ’s Second Coming.
This then is the eternal fate of the ungodly. But what about Christians, the righteous who believe in Jesus Christ? Let’s examine their destiny.
First of all, when a believer dies they also face judgement (Hebrews 9:27) and based on their faith in the atoning work of Christ, they are declared righteous and worthy of entering heaven. When death occurs, the soul is separated from the body and it enters into heaven, into the very presence of God (2 Corinthians 5:8, Ecclesiastes 12:7). This is a conscious existence (Revelation 6:9-11). We will live in heaven until the future resurrection of the dead.
Heaven is a wonderful place. God brings healing, joy and bliss to all of His children. The woes and sorrows of earth are ended. This is hard to imagine, but it is true. However, the greatest joy of heaven will be living in the very presence of God Himself (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
One thing that every Christian will face is the judgement of works. This is not a determination of whether someone goes to heaven or hell—which occurs at the judgement of faith immediately upon a person’s death. This is a judgement for rewards, judging what a believer did for Christ while on earth. This is called the judgement seat of Christ, or the bema (a Greek word for throne). The Bible says we will all stand before the bema (Romans 14:10-12, 2 Corinthians 5:10). Each believer will be examined for what he or she did before death, and with what motivation. Each Christian receives rewards based on their works and the condition of their hearts while doing these works (1 Corinthians 3:11-15, 1 Corinthians 4:5). It is unclear exactly when the bema-seat judgement occurs. Some think it immediately follows the judgement of faith. Others believe that it occurs later, at the time of Christ’s Second Coming.
As wonderful as heaven will be, it is also a temporary state. Here we must dispel a very common misunderstanding. Many Christians think when believers die they go to heaven and exist as spirit beings forever. However, the clear teaching of the Bible is that God created us as hybrid creatures, both spiritual and physical (Genesis 2:7, 1 Thessalonians 5:23). Both aspects are essential for us. Without both a spiritual and physical component we are not fully and truly human. Therefore, there is coming a time when Christ will return to this earth. When He comes, He will bring all the dead saints who have been with Him in heaven (Revelation 19:14, 20:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17). These spirit beings will reunite with their bodies in a resurrection experience. The promise of the resurrection is one of the most distinctive and important doctrines of our faith (John 5:24-29, Daniel 12:2-3). Redeemed mankind will then exist in a glorified state (Philippians 3:20-21), both physical and spiritual at the same time (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). The resurrection begins the eternal life of the saints. (See 1 Corinthians 15 for a discussion of the importance and nature of the resurrection of our bodies.)
This is a brief summary of the important doctrine of the afterlife, what happens to us when we die. As Christians, we long not only for the blessedness and joys of heaven, but we look forward to a future culmination of God’s salvation plan when we are resurrected into a glorious and wonderful life in new, resurrected, eternal spiritual bodies. We then will live in a New Heaven and New Earth (see Revelation 21 & 22), enjoying the blessings of God forever.
Truth Builders is a ministry initiative of Advancing Native Missions. However, the content of this site is the personal opinion of Victor Morris, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions, views or conclusions of Advancing Native Missions, its leaders or staff