What Happens When We Die – Chapter One

What Happens When We Die - CoverSection 1: The Intermediate State

1. Know Your Enemy

An even more fundamental question than: ‘What happens when we die?’ is ‘Why is there death in the first place?’ It just seems so wrong and somehow unnatural – surely death was not part of the plan!

Back in Genesis 2, God warned Adam that if he ate the forbidden fruit he would surely die. Logically, then, this suggests that if he had not eaten it, there would be no death. Apart from sin, Adam would still be around today, rather than only living for a measly nine hundred and thirty years!

Since eating the fruit was a bad thing, God’s perfect creation plan was clearly that people should live forever. This would explain why we have this in-built desire and even an expectation that ours lives should simply keep going for all eternity – this is what Ecclesiastes refers to as, “Eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecc. 3:11). And yet, this is not what we see being lived out on earth. Why is that millions upon millions of people have died before we were even born, and why are we and all those we know also going to die, unless Jesus returns first?

The simply answer is that Adam chose death. And it is important we see it like this, because Adam’s choice to accept the death penalty for disobey God’s clear and simple command, means that all of his offspring – the entire human race – is also condemned to death! Death is the enemy that Adam willingly invited into the arena of creation, and from the moment he rebelled against God, our own deaths were assured. There’s a line I remember from a song I heard as a kid, “As soon as you’re born you’re dying”. It’s a bit of a morbid line, and isn’t typical of the sort of music I tend to listen to, but you get the imagery – from the moment of birth, eventual death is the one certainty in life.

This is even true for those of us who are no longer ‘in Adam’, who by faith are now ‘in Christ’, through whom we already died. This really plagued me as a teenager – why should I, as a Christian, have to die? Certainly our death is not a punishment for our sin. Rather, though spiritually we did indeed ‘die with Christ’, physically we still have fallen bodies that are liable to sin, negative emotions and the ageing process, and they need renewing. God, in His wisdom, chose not to give us new, perfect bodies when we are spiritually born again. Instead, we will all receive new bodies together when Jesus returns. Until then, however, everyone, whether they have trusted in Christ or not, will surely die.

There is good news about death too, though. In 1 Corinthians 15, which we’ll look at in more detail next time, Paul wrote that in the end, death itself will be destroyed. There will come a day when death will die, and it will never rise again to set itself against us.

In the meantime, though, we do all still die. So the last question I want to briefly look at is: What exactly is death? Simply put, it is the end of our physical life on this earth. When my body stops doing all the complicated things it does to stay alive, at that point I will die. And in that instant, my body and soul will separate.

Let’s see this illustrated in Luke 12. In verses 4 and 5, Jesus said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” Clearly then there are two parts in this equation. The first is the body, which can be killed. The body is disposed of in some way, but remains here on the Earth. The second part, however, referred to here as ‘you’ is sent elsewhere. This is understood to be the person’s soul or spirit – for ease of use, I’ll refer to it in this book as the ‘soul’. So death involves the end of the body’s life, but the soul continues to live separately elsewhere.

Let’s move on then to our bodies. After all, our bodies are part of who we are just as our souls are. But now they’re dead, do we just forget about them and look forward to the new bodies God is going to give us?

The short answer is no, and we will deal with this is more detail in Part 5, when we look at the Resurrection. But as a little preview, let me say this – through such things as the Empty Tomb, the metaphor of bodies as seeds and the terminology used of the Resurrection bodies, the Bible shows that these bodies we are living in right now, which are part of who we are, are the same bodies that will be ‘renewed’ to become those Resurrection bodies. It is these physical bodies that will rise to re-join us and become our bodies for all eternity.

How this works when the atoms are redistributed into the ecological system of the planet and join back into the food chain is something we’ll happily leave God to sort out! Our concern for now is what happens to these bodies in the meantime.

Firstly, through whatever method is chosen (usually burial or cremation) our bodies will return to the dust from whence they came, either quickly or by degrees. The Bible refers to this as the body ‘sleeping’ or ‘resting’. We come across this in various passages, such as 1 Kings 2:10, “David rested with his fathers and was buried.” Daniel 12:2 refers to “Multitudes who sleep in the dust” and Job, in one of his chirpy moments, said, “Why did I not perish at birth. . . For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest.” And in 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to those who saw the risen Lord Jesus but who were now dead as having, “Fallen asleep”.

The body that has died, even though it is returning to the dust, is said to be sleeping – it is at rest. This suggests expectancy, doesn’t it? It suggests hope of awakening again when the time is right. And indeed a day will come when our fallen, dead bodies will be redeemed and will be brought back to life, not as they were, but as something different, something new, something spectacular, something… that we’ll look at later.


2. The Intermediate State – Hell

Leaving our bodies to sleep for now, let’s consider the soul. If Jesus does not return before our time comes to die, what happens to our souls? This is where we come to ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’, though it’s worth getting our terms straight first.

While the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is often discounted as having any real information about the afterlife, Jesus’ parables always seem to be based on factual things – sowing seeds, finding things, families, servants, vineyards and the like – so I see no reason to assume that Jesus is not talking here about real things, if not real people and events. Let’s pick it up from verse 22 of Luke 16:

“The time came when the beggar (that’s Lazarus) died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side (we’ll come back to that). The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (vv 22-26)

The word ‘Hell’ here is the Greek word ‘Hades’. It is equivalent to the Old Testament word ‘Sheol’, which is translated as hell (a spiritual place) or the grave (a physical place). ‘Hades’ only has a spiritual sense, and it literally means ‘the unseen place’. It was the general term for where all the dead went, regardless of whether they were righteous or unrighteous. When a person died, their physical body would be buried in the grave, and their spiritual soul would continue a life in hell unseen by those in the world. As such, we can think of Hades as the Spiritual Realm or Spiritual World – beyond our physical senses, but none the less very real.

Actually the English word ‘hell’ comes from an Old English word meaning ‘the hidden place’, so it’s very closely linked to this idea of Hades, being the general place of the dead. However, over the centuries the meaning of this word has changed to take on just one aspect of ‘Hades’ – the place of torment.

We saw this word back in Jesus’ warning about the one who, after the body is killed has the power to throw you into hell. The word for ‘hell’ here is ‘Gehenna’. It means ‘the valley of Hinnom’ and referred to the great rubbish heap that was created by King Josiah. It had been a place of idol worship and human sacrifice to Ba’al and Molech, and so, to defile it utterly, Josiah turned it into a dumping ground for all Jerusalem’s filth, from copses of animals, criminals and outcasts, to excrement and rotten food and other refuse that people did not want clogging up the city’s streets. It was a stinking, festering place, which was often set on fire to destroy the mounds of refuse that was rotting away there.

So when Jesus refers to ‘hell’ by the word ‘Gehenna’, he is talking about an unimaginably abhorrent, shameful, unclean place of fire and decay. This word is used almost exclusively by Jesus, for example in Matthew 5, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (v29) And it is always a place you really do not want to go to. So much so, in fact, that Jesus suggests it would be better to gouge out your own eye than risk going there!

Unfortunately for him, this is where the rich man of the parable went. Just listen again to the description: “In hell (Hades), where he was in torment (this is Gehenna), he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” Torment, agony and fire. This is where the dead who are not ‘in Christ’ go. There, but for the mercy of God, the sacrifice of Jesus, the spread of Gospel and the leading of the Holy Spirit, we would all go!

So, we have Hades – the Spiritual World and so the general place where the souls of the dead continue to live, (and to avoid confusion, I will continue to refer to it as ‘Hades’ throughout this book). Then, within Hades there is a place of fire and torment, which Jesus called ‘Gehenna’, but which I will refer to as ‘hell’, since this is really what our English word has now come to mean.


3. The Intermediate State – Heaven

Thankfully, in Hades there is more than just hell. There is also this place referred to in Jesus’ parable as ‘Abraham’s side’. The Jews called it ‘Abraham’s Side’, because they looked forward to being restored to their great ancestor, the father of the Jewish people. Its more common name, however, was ‘Paradise’.

In Luke 23, we see Jesus hanging on the cross talking with criminal number two. “Then he (the criminal) said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (vv 42-3)

This word paradise comes from a Persian word meaning, ‘a garden or walled enclosure’. It was very closely associated in the Jewish mind with the Garden of Eden, and conjured up beautiful images of sunlight and cool waters, the shade of trees and the sound of the breeze in their leaves, the smell of flowers and the beauty of colourful plants and animals of all kinds, rich and peaceful, joyful and wonderful. Paradise. And note these two important things that Jesus says about paradise to this dying criminal.

  • Firstly that he will be in paradise today. Many people believe that when they die, they will sleep until Jesus returns – for example, the RIP on gravestones is meant to mean rest in peace until the Lord’s return. While there is sleep involved, it has to do with our physical bodies. Our souls do not sleep, nor do they slip outside of time, as is also often suggested, immediately appearing with Christ at the Resurrection. Instead, at the point of death, they go to Hades, fully conscious and aware of what is happening. And the wonderful news for this dying criminal, who let’s face it was promised far more than he requested, was that he would be going to paradise that very day!
  • The second important thing is the phrase ‘with me’: “you will be with me in paradise.’ Where, before, Abraham was the focal point of this paradise, now it is Christ Himself. This is why Paul could say in Philippians 1 that he longed to, “die and be with Christ.” For me it is a great comfort to know that I won’t just be shoved away in some waiting room until Christ returns, but that the instant I die I will go to be with Him.

So what about the term ‘Heaven’? In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says, probably of himself, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. . .(and a verse or so later he calls this) caught up to paradise.”

The Jews thought of ‘heaven’ in three parts. The earth was the middle ground, standing between heaven and hell, and the first heaven was the atmosphere around us. Beyond this was the second heaven, made up of the rest of the physical universe, including the sun and moon. Finally, they believe there was the third heaven, the term used to describe what was beyond even that – the place where God dwelt. And Paul refers to this ‘third heaven’ as ‘paradise’ – the very place we’ve been talking about!


The Three Heavens in Ancient Judaism

As a brief aside, back when the earth was flat, and everyone knew that to be the case, all this layered understanding of things is what led to the belief that heaven was ‘up’ there, and so God also is ‘up’ there somewhere. The logic follow-on, then was that, just as bodies went down into the grave, so too did the souls of the unrighteous go even further ‘down there’ into hell. However, remember when we talk about heaven and hell, we’re not talking about physical places. ‘Hades’ is the Spiritual World, the ‘hidden place’, and so to think in terms of up and down is probably unhelpful. Instead, let’s stick with what is actually revealed in Scripture, that all the dead go to Hades, and within Hades there is ‘hell’, where the unrighteous go. And there is also ‘heaven’ – where Jesus is, in ‘paradise’, where the righteous in Christ go. And between the two is a chasm that cannot be crossed – there is no movement between the two.

The image below may help to make this clear.