Tuesday, April 2, 2019

What Exactly Happens to Us at Death?

This question seems to be one that we should be able to answer quickly and easily. “We believers go to be with Jesus” is the expected (and correct) answer. However, recently I have had several people probe the matter a little further, wanting to know what does or does not take place when one dies. So, I thought it might be good for us to freshen up our thinking on the subject.

First, we need to remind ourselves of the biblical view of death. Though death is both real and inevitable, it is unnatural. When God created His “very good” creation, death was not a part of it. The sin of Adam and Eve brought death into the world, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12. But death was never intended to be part of the human experience, and this is why, eventually, death will be finally conquered and completely banished from the new creation (1 Cor. 15:26).

In the Bible, there are three kinds of death (Eph. 2:1; Rev. 20:14; Gen. 35:18-19). Death basically means “separation”. Death does not mean non-existence nor does it mean annihilation. Of the three kinds of death, first, there is spiritual death (the separation of a person from God---a condition that we are all born into); the second death (the eternal separation of a person from God in the “lake of fire”---which will be the terrible experience of all who do not receive God’s gift of eternal life); and then there is physical death
(the separation of the material part of man from the immaterial part---something that all will experience unless the Rapture takes place first).

And while all these forms of death are very important, the people who talked with me were particularly focused on the matter of what happens at the moment of physical death. The Bible is abundantly clear that at physical death we do not become angels; nor are we reincarnated, coming back as a German Shepherd or even as a German. We do not change who we are when we die physically.

The Bible is also clear on the matter that at death a person is in a conscious state. There is no such thing as “soul sleep”, a doctrine promoted by the Seventh-Day Adventists and a few others. What is less clear, however, is whether or not a person, in their conscious condition, has a temporary body or not. (We are speaking about the time of physical death which takes place before the time of resurrection). We don’t know for sure if the immaterial part of a person is housed in some sort of material body. The best we can offer is the presence of the Old Testament hero Moses at the “transfiguration” of Christ. He appeared in bodily form even though this appearance was chronologically prior to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. Jesus was the very first person resurrected; that is, the body was changed in such a way as allowing it to live forever. While a few like Lazarus were raised from the dead, they were still in their earthly bodies and not in a resurrection bodies. All like Lazarus, died again. So, based on Moses, perhaps we do not exist in spirit form but have some sort of “clothing” for our immaterial parts. It would not, of course, be a problem for the Creator to call such bodies into existence.

But once again, the question. “What exactly happens when we die physically?” In answering this, there are some great truths for us to hold onto. First, believers in Christ are guaranteed that nothing, including death, will ever separate them from the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). This all-inclusive statement by the Apostle Paul gives us an incredible level of comfort. We will NEVER be separated from Him and that includes at the moment of death. Second, believers in Christ never need to fear what happens at the moment of death. Death is not some long foreboding tunnel we must with fear travel through. There is no valley of the shadow of death for the follower of Jesus. In the NT, physical death for the believer is put in very non-frightening terms, such as “sleep” (Note 1 Thess. 4:13-15). Death for the believer is never framed in terms that are dreadful or frightening. Third, and of greatest important, is that the NT Scriptures assure believers in Christ that death brings them immediately into the glorious presence of Jesus Himself. There are two passages that are grammatically and theologically powerful (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21-23). In these scriptures, the Apostle Paul declares, without any reservation, that believers can only be in one of two places. They are either here on earth or they are with the Lord in heaven. We are either here or we are there. There is no third option. This absolutely rules out the Roman Catholic doctrine of “purgatory” as a stopping off point on one’s travels to heaven. The moment a believing person takes their last breath here on earth, they are with the Savior. They exhale here and inhale there. And again, these verses rule out other options, such as the Adventist’s idea of “soul sleep” (where the believer goes out of existence until the time of future resurrection).

So the precise, strong grammar that is used in Philippians and 2 Corinthians limits the options to two. And, they also include the point that there is no time lapse between physical death and being with Jesus. Death brings a believer instantly into the glorious presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So while none of us reading this article has experienced death, and therefore, we have no personal experience in the matter, we can with absolute certainty know what takes place when a believer dies. This truth is not our wishful thinking, but it is our living, resurrected Savior who is the