Death is a taboo subject in many circles today. In our society it seems to be more acceptable to talk about sex than to talk about death. And yet that is our topic this evening. Our title is what happens after death?
People do want to know the answer to that question. And it is perhaps because people are so unsure of the answer that death has become the taboo subject that it is. Some people want to know what happens after death because they are worried about their own future. Some want to know the answer because they have recently lost a loved one – a friend or relative has died. But there is one thing that is absolutely certain, death awaits us all. So it is a question that all of us need to face.
As I researched into the different opinions that people in our world hold on this question I discovered quite a range. There are the atheists who believe that this life is all there is. After death you simply cease to exist. There are those who believe in an endless cycle of reincarnation until eventually the soul becomes one with God. Others think of the human spirit after death wandering around the earth without a home.
Then there are the stories from people who claim to be able to contact the dead. And of course I read of some people who talked about a near death experience and appeared to be claiming that they are good guides as to what happens after death.
But there is actually only one person who really knows what happens after death and that is God himself. Only God, the creator of life, can truly answer the question what happens after death. So this evening we are going to have a brief look at what the Bible says. We are going to look at what God tells us through his human authors about this topic.
There is much that we don’t know about what happens after death. Scripture is relatively silent about the period between death and the return of Christ. But there are a few things that we can know about what happens when we die, and I am going to try to highlight those this evening.
Firstly, BELIEVERS GO IMMEDIATELY INTO GOD’S PRESENCE
The first point I think we should note is that after death believers go immediately into God’s presence. Upon death, the believer, the one who has put their faith in God, leaves behind their physical earthly body, and their soul (or spirit) goes immediately into God’s presence. Bodily life temporarily ceases. The physical body remains on earth and is buried, but the believer immediately enters into God’s presence.
I have on a few occasions been at the bedside of a Christian who has been approaching death. I remember one particular lady whose body was racked with cancer. She was very weak and had not long left to live. But she was a Christian and her hope was set firmly on heaven. She was ready to leave her earthly body behind, and depart and be with the Lord. She was in no doubt that she was going immediately into God’s presence. To die was gain for her.
I want to emphasise the word ‘immediately’ because I think it is important that we realise that there is no delay for the believer in entering into God’s presence after death.
Let’s have a look at some Bible verses. If you could turn with me first to Luke chapter 23 and verse 39. Jesus is on the cross and we read verse 39:
“39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)
Jesus says, today, in other words, immediately you die, you will be with me in paradise, in heaven. He is saying that after death this former criminal will enter into God’s presence without delay.
If you could turn over next to Philippians chapter 1. I am sorry but there is going to be a bit of jumping around in the Bible tonight. Philippians chapter 1 verse 21, the apostle Paul writes about his ministry saying:
“21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil 1:21-24)
Paul equates his departure from this life, with immediately being with Christ. I desire to depart and be with Christ, verse 23.
And then if you could turn back a bit to 2 Corinthians chapter 5 and verses 6 to 10. Paul writes:
“6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Co 5:6-10)
Paul says verse 8 that he would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. Leaving our physical body behind upon death, we move immediately into God’s presence.
I am going to talk quite a bit more about what happens after death. But I want to pause there and highlight the great assurance that comes from knowing that after death believers go immediately into God’s presence. There is great comfort and assurance to be had for Christians who are trusting in God through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Christian believer has nothing to fear. Death itself might be a difficult and painful experience, but a Christian’s death is not an experience of fear and anxiety as to what is about to happen next. Rather death is the sure gateway into eternal relationship with God.
Paul is right when he says that to die is gain (Phil 1:21). To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord (2 Co 5:8). The Lord Jesus in his death and resurrection has already defeated the power of death once and for all. “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Co 15:54) even if we do not yet fully see that in our world. As Christians nothing can separate us from God – not even death (Rom 8:38). Whatever else needs to be said about life after death, the Bible is clear that believers go immediately into God’s presence.
So if you are a Christian tonight, and are looking toward your own death, the fact that you will enter immediately into God’s presence should be of great comfort and assurance to you. In a similar way if a Christian friend or relative has recently died, the teaching of the Bible should bring you comfort, even in the midst of your understandable and correct feeling of loss and grief. The Bible assures you that your friend is at home with the Lord (2 Co 5:8). Your relative has departed to be with Christ (Phil 1:23). They are with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43). They are experiencing God’s rest (Rev 14:13, Gen 47:30).
Secondly, TEMPORARY SEPARATION FROM THE BODY
Yet the experience of death itself is still an unnatural and perhaps painful one as we leave behind friends and family. And at the point of death we undergo a temporary and unnatural separation of our soul from our body. Bodily life temporarily ceases. That is my second point on your outline – after death there is a temporary separation from the body.
The Bible tells us that death entered our world as the result of sin and the fall of mankind (Rom 5:12). Physical death is an unnatural punishment or consequence of our rebellion against God. It is one aspect of the separation of sinful humankind from God. And yet the greater and more significant death experienced by human beings is spiritual death. Spiritual death is eternal condemnation and separation from God’s loving presence. It is the state of all human beings except by God’s grace.
For the Christian who is trusting in Christ our sin and rebellion has been totally forgiven. We have spiritual life instead of spiritual death. And although physical death still awaits us, we can approach it without fear. It has been conquered by Jesus. And one day death will be completely removed from our experience. When we enter the new heavens and earth, and are re-clothed with eternal physical bodies, we will never die – we will live forever.
Unclothed and re-clothed
If you look back a few verses to 2 Corinthians 5 verses 1 to 5 you can see Paul describing this experience of leaving behind an earthly body and longing to be re-clothed with an eternal body. He talks about our body as a tent or dwelling. Let me read these verses to you. Verse 1 of chapter 5:
“1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” (2 Co 5:1-5)
Paul is describing death in terms of being unclothed or naked. During this life we are clothed with an earthly body, upon death we are unclothed and temporarily separated from the body, and at the resurrection we will be re-clothed with our eternal body. In other words Paul is saying that being without a body to dwell in is not going to be natural or ideal.
As Christians we are longing to be clothed with our ultimate heavenly dwelling, our final eternal body. The experience of death itself is not something that we want. The period after death of being separated from the body is not ideal. Yes we will be with the Lord during that period, but as Christians we look beyond that temporary period with hope, knowing that one day, Jesus will return to earth and we will be given resurrection bodies.
When I was a student in Edinburgh, you had to be a very wealthy student to be able to afford a flat with central heating. We had a beautiful flat on the top two stories of a tenement that looked across the Meadows to the castle. We used to joke that we could light our flat from the flood lighting bouncing back off the castle walls.
The flat though was absolutely freezing. There was little insulation and no way of economically heating it. In the middle of winter we used to do drastic things like getting dressed or undressed in our bed. In order to survive and avoid hypothermia it was essential to spend as little time as possible in a state of undress. Being unclothed was uncomfortable.
In a similar way, Paul is saying that the experience of being temporarily separated from our body after death, will not be ideal. It will be great gain compared to being clothed with an earthly body since we will be with Christ. But what we ultimately want is to be re-clothed with our eternal body.
Awaiting Christ’s return
So there is a sense in which after death we will be waiting. After death we will be immediately in God’s presence, but we will be waiting to be re-clothed with our eternal resurrection body. We will be waiting, together with all the other saints (Heb 11, Rev 6:10), for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, for the renewal of all things, for the full realisation of God’s kingdom, and for all believers to be given new bodies with which to dwell in the new heavens and earth.
If you could turn with me to 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 and verses 13 to 18 we can read a bit more about this. Paul is writing to the Thessalonians to reassure them. They were expecting Jesus’ imminent return. They thought Jesus would come back a second time before any Christians had died. But now some Christians have died. Paul uses the biblical metaphor of “fallen asleep”. And the Christians to whom Paul is writing are grieving, they are wondering what will happen to those who have died. So Paul writes verse 13:
“13 Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep [in other words those who die], or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14 We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 therefore encourage each other with these words.” (1 Th 4:13-18)
Paul tells us that those who have died believing in Christ will return with Christ when he comes, verse 14. At that time they will rise in the sense that they will be united with their new resurrection body. Then those who are still alive at the time of Christ’s return will be caught up to meet the Lord. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians puts it this way. He says:
“We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Co 15:51-52)
I don’t know if you have noticed but Children are especially good at waiting eagerly or at least good at waiting impatiently. They eagerly want their birthday to come round or Christmas to arrive. There is joyful anticipation, something to look forward to, a time of waiting for what is yet to be.
Those who have died are waiting to be raised imperishable. So although believers after death enter immediately into God’s presence, they are in a time of waiting for Christ’s return.
It is perhaps a bit like sleeping
But what is this time of waiting without a body going to be like? What does it mean to be in God’s presence without a physical body? Well the Bible doesn’t tell us very much about what it is going to be like – perhaps because it is so temporary and transitory. There are some parables of Jesus that touch on this area but it is problematic to press too far on the details of a parable. The Book of Revelation uses pictures and visions that sometimes relate to what happens after death, but again it is difficult to base our answers on visions that did not intend to answer this question. And of course it may well be that our human minds could not grasp the exact answer even if we were told.
One metaphor that the Bible uses for death and what happens after death before the second coming of Jesus is the metaphor of sleep. This time of waiting in God’s presence without a body is perhaps a bit like sleeping.
I want to emphasise that this is a metaphor. It is a figure of speech that suggests a likeness between what happens after death and sleep. In the passage in 1 Thessalonians that we have just looked at those “who fall asleep” (4:13) or those “who have fallen asleep” (4:14) seems to be referring to the event of death rather than to life after death. When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead he describes her condition as asleep, even though she was clearly dead (Mk 5:39). He was using the metaphor of sleep to describe her temporary position. He was going to wake her as if from sleep.
Certainly the believer’s existence in God’s presence without a body is like sleep in that it is a temporary state. Believers will one day awake as if from sleep. The temporary state might even be like sleep because it is restful. And also like sleep because we are not conscious of just how much time has passed – we don’t count the hours as they drag by. You know the way if you go to sleep and then wake up eight hours later you are not aware of the time that has elapsed. At least that is assuming that you don’t have young children, or other reasons for not sleeping!
It is probably not bound by earthly time
I am pushing the bounds of what we can know here, but I do think that it would be correct to say, that when we die we step out of earthly time, and that those who are dead in Christ already belong to eternity. In other words the time of waiting in God’s presence is not exactly the same as waiting on earth. And there is probably not all that much awareness of what is going on, on earth.
However I don’t think it would be correct to say that we die and that the next thing we are aware of, or the next moment of time is Judgement Day and resurrection. Some people have gone with that model but I don’t think I can.
And here is why: Such an idea of unconscious nothingness after death, or time transfer to Judgement Day, doesn’t really square with what we have already read in the Bible about entering immediately into God’s presence. Paul was not expecting to depart and be unaware of anything until Christ returned. Rather he was expecting to depart and immediately be with Christ in heaven, consciously in God’s presence, awaiting resurrection.
It seems best to say that when death takes us out of earthly time, and we leave our earthly body behind, we have a conscious experience of being in God’s presence for a period, while awaiting Christ’s return and the beginning of the new creation. It will be a good experience, but we will be waiting for something better.
Thirdly, WHAT DOES NOT HAPPEN AFTER DEATH?
In some ways it is easier to answer the question “what does not happen after death?” That is my third and final heading on your outline. What does not happen after death?
No purgatory or limbo
It is important to note that the Bible does not teach us to expect an in between place between leaving earth and entering God’s presence. There is no place between death and eternal life where God is not present. There is no place of limbo. There is no such place as purgatory.
The Roman Catholic Church over the years has taught that the souls of believers suffer in purgatory until they are sufficiently purified to be admitted into heaven. In other words, after death there is a place of waiting or testing, where sin that has not been forgiven, can be paid for by limited suffering.
But the Roman Catholic Church has based that doctrine on some verses in non-Biblical writings and then read that meaning into some Bible verses. Such a doctrine contradicts the teaching of Scripture that Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to cover all sin (1 John 1:8-2:2, Rom 8:1, Heb 9:25-28). Such a doctrine suggests that humans can do the final bit of saving themselves. There is no need for purgatory, because Christians are forgiven and cleansed from all sin through Jesus, and they enter immediately into God’s presence.
No communication with the dead
Another thing that should be mentioned is that no communication with the dead should be attempted. In the Old Testament there are prohibitions against consulting mediums (Lev 20:6, Deut 18:11), and in the New Testament there are many warnings about deceiving spirits and the power of Satan (Eph 6:12, 2 Co 4:4).
The Bible doesn’t make it completely clear whether such communication is actually possible. It seems unlikely given that once you have died earthly life is over. You certainly can’t come back and haunt the world. The soul or spirit of a person does not travel wherever it wishes. God is the one who controls what happens after death. And the Bible seems to suggest that communication between the dead and the living is simply not possible (Luke 16:31).
If you happen to be here this evening and you are meddling in the occult or spiritualism let me say to you in passing that you are looking for power in the wrong place. God alone is sovereign over life and death. Look to the light not to the darkness.
No second chance
Sometimes people try to contact the dead because they are concerned about relatives who have departed. Some people even want to pray for the dead in order to try and change their eternal destiny. But the Bible is clear that our eternal destiny is determined by the events of this life, not by what happens after death. There is no second chance for those who rejected God while on earth. The writer of Hebrews says that “. . . man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment . . .” (Heb 9:27).
This is a hard point to end on this evening. And I am aware that this is especially hard for those who have non-Christian relatives who have died. But it is perhaps the most important point to end on given that this sermon and this question needs to affect how you and I live today. There is no second chance after death.
Perhaps you could turn with me for the last time to 2 Corinthians 5 and this time to verse 10. Paul writes verse 10:
10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. (2 Co 5:10)
There is no second chance after death. Judgement is based on the things done while in the body. If we have rejected God and his right to rule our lives we will be confirmed in that decision for eternity. Such a person will suffer God’s righteous judgement and justified wrath. The Bible speaks clearly its message and warnings about judgement and no second chance.
This warning is a warning to the living not to the dead. Therefore repent, if you have not already done so. Trust in Christ Jesus for your salvation today. Place your dependence on him to save you. God will cleanse you from your sin and restore you to right relationship with himself. When you die you will go immediately into his presence. Then on the Day of Judgement Christ’s goodness will have been credited to your account and you will enter eternity in a resurrected body. But there is no second chance.
I want to finish by returning to where I started. There is a lot that the Bible does not tell us about life after death, but what we do read is supposed to bring assurance and hope to the Christian. As we face our own death or as we think of believing friends and family who have died we can know with certainty that they are in God’s presence. To die is gain. To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.