What Happens to Us When We Die?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 12:25pm
QUESTION: What happens to us when we die? Do believers go directly to heaven at the moment of death? What is the relation between our death, on the one hand; and Christ’s second coming, the resurrection, and the final judgment, on the other hand?
ANSWER: The answers to these questions require a lot more space than is available here. I have discussed them fully in my College Press books, The Faith Once for All (see the final chapters) and Bible Prophecy and End Times. Here I can only summarize my approach to these issues.
First, a proper understanding of the afterlife requires that we accept the Bible’s clear teaching that human beings are twofold in essence, i.e., each of us is composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul. When we die, the body and the soul become separated from one another; the body itself enters the state of death, while the soul experiences death but does not itself die. Our dead bodies are usually placed in some sort of grave, which the Bible calls Sheol (OT) or Hades (NT). The crucial issue is what happens to the soul.
Though many disagree, I am convinced that at death the soul (as separated from the body) continues to exist individually, consciously, without a body, and subject to the passing of time. It is thus in a state of waiting, i.e., waiting for the end of the aion (age) of this first (old) creation and for the second coming of Christ. When Christ returns the soul is joined once more to a body in the event called the resurrection of the dead. The replacement bodies for the wicked (the lost) and for the righteous (the saved) will not be the same.
In the interim, or the intermediate state between our death and resurrection, the conscious souls of the wicked are banished to another place also called Hades (Luke 16:23), a term that specifically refers to the realm of the dead, the place where death reigns. The grave is called Hades because it is the receptacle for dead bodies, both of the lost and the saved. This temporary place inhabited by the souls of the deceased lost is also called Hades because these souls are spiritually dead.
The souls of the saved who die, however, do not go to Hades, because they are in a state of spiritual life, not spiritual death. Their temporary post-mortem home is called Paradise (Luke 23:43), where the Jews thought of themselves as being ensconced in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:22) and Christians expect to bide their pre-judgment time in the presence of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Philp. 1:23).
Here are two things we need to know about this temporary place of waiting. First, the Paradise to which our souls are transported when we die is called “heaven,” but it is not the final heaven, the “new heavens and new earth,” the new universe in which we will live forever (Revelation 21 & 22). This final heaven does not even exist yet (see 2 Peter 3:8-13). Rather, the heaven to which we go at the moment of death is the angelic heaven, described by John in Revelation 4-5 (see Isaiah 6:1-7). This is part of the created invisible universe (Col. 1:16), the natural home for all angelic creatures. God has established a majestic throneroom in this angelic realm, and he presents himself there at all times to the angels in a permanent theophany (visible form). This throneroom is the center of the Paradise to which our souls are transported at the moment of death.
The second thing we need to know about this temporary place of waiting is that this divine throneroom in the angelic world is the same destination for both those OT saints who died before Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, and those Christian saints who die afterwards. Some think the souls of the OT saints were not yet admitted to this “heaven,” but had to wait in a sort of holding pen, called the limbus patrem (“limbo of the fathers”) until Christ’s death and resurrection. Only then, according to this view, could they actually enter this heavenly throneroom, and they are thought of as accompanying Christ at his ascension and entrance into heaven. This is all fiction, however. The souls of OT saints entered this heaven as soon as they died; they simply did not experience the presence of Christ in that place until his ascension and enthronement. (For these pre-Christian saints, existing in “Abraham’s bosom” would have seemed to be the epitome of glory and bliss.)
Thus in this sense, the soul of every saved person has entered or will enter this angelic heaven at the moment of death, to await the end of this present era. Many have already been waiting there for a long time, and there we will wait in comfortable bliss until the time for the second coming of Jesus.
When the Father initiates the grand event we call Christ’s second coming, Jesus will arise from his place on the throne and will pass through the dimensional barrier that separates the invisible realm of angels from the visible world we inhabit. He will take with him his holy angels as well as the souls of the saved who have been patiently waiting for this moment. This is the time when the dead receive their new bodies, and the living saints are transformed into a glorified body without having to experience death.
Then in our new bodies, we (the just and the unjust alike) are all taken back into the heavenly throneroom for the event called the Final Judgment. While this is taking place, the old physical universe is being replaced by the new heavens and new earth. Once the Judgment Day has been completed, the wicked are consigned to hell in their souls as clothed in their ghastly replacement bodies, and the saved are transported in their souls as clothed in their new glorified bodies to their eternal dwelling place, the new earth surrounded by the new heavens (new universe). There we shall live “happily ever after” in the presence of the glorified Christ, and in the presence of a new theophany of God, parallel to the one he still maintains in the angelic throneroom for the benefit of the angels. See Revelation 21 and 22.