What happens when we die?
Death is perhaps the biggest mystery for us humans. We know that it happens – and we know that it happens to all of us – but we’re not really sure what it is. We love a good back-from-the-dead story, trying to grasp snippets of the reality beyond that great curtain, but still we remain clueless about much of the reality.
There are enough ideas about death to last several lifetimes. Is there life after death? Where do we go? What will we do with all that time? And there are a huge number of “Christian” ideas floating around that simply are not Biblical.
The Bible doesn’t give us an enormous amount of information, but there’s plenty to give us a bit of a picture, so let’s take a look at some of the misconceptions, then some of the truths, and then figure out what that means for us.
What doesn’t happen?
1. We don’t go to heaven
Yes, you read that right. We don’t go to heaven when we die. Heaven is not our final destination but it is the place that God dwells. He dwells in Heaven and we dwell on Earth. When humanity turned from God, Heaven and Earth were separated: humanity was separated from God; but Jesus’ coming, and what He achieved on the cross, began the reconnecting of Heaven and Earth. Where God’s Spirit is as work in the world, Heaven has come down: Heaven and Earth meet. We look forward to the final day when Jesus comes again because Heaven and Earth will be reunited: God and humanity will dwell together completely again. On that day, God will renew all creation: there will be a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Christians, our final destination is the new Earth: we will live there forever; and it will, in many ways, be like this Earth, except it will be completely good, completely perfect, and there will be no suffering or pain or death. As the new Heaven and new Earth will be perfectly united, we will effectively live in both – we will dwell in the whole of the new Creation. Take a look at Revelation 21 for a beautiful picture of this.
2. We don’t become angels
Nope, neither do we become angels. Angels are a different type of creature which has existed since the beginning and will be there at the end. We are human beings and we will be human beings in the next age. We will be given new bodies by God, but they will be perfect human bodies, not angel-bodies. (See Matthew 22:30 and Hebrews 12:22-23)
3. We don’t sit on a cloud, looking down on the world
When we die in this life, we don’t float around looking down on this world, waiting for the new Earth; instead, the Bible talks about death as entering sleep. Those who are dead are asleep, oblivious to all going on in the world, until Christ comes again and raises them (Daniel 12:2). From the perspective of the person who has died, the time will almost certainly pass in an instant – just like in sleep. The up side of this is that great aunt Bessie isn’t watching you in the shower.
What does happen?
So as you can see, a lot of common ideas about death are simply not true… so what actually does happen?
1. We are raised from the dead
On that day, Christ will come again to usher in the new age. There will be two enormous events, and the first is the resurrection: we will all be raised up from the dead. (John 5:28-29)
2. We are judged
The second big event is the judgement. Jesus will judge the living and the dead: everyone who has ever lived (Revelation 20:12-13). Those who are found to be righteous will be welcomed into the new Creation. Those who are not will be cast from God’s presence forever. We have all fallen short of God’s glory – none of us have lived the perfect life. Therefore, we all deserve to be in the second category, but through what Jesus has done for us, those of us who choose to be His followers exchange places with Him and are counted as righteous: we inherit the new Creation (Romans 4:23-24).
3. We are welcomed into the New Earth
When Christ comes, the saints (Christians) will be welcomed into the new Earth. The new Earth is a remaking of this Earth, but completely pure. We will also be made perfect: 1 John 3 says that, on that day, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is. At the moment, what we see of God is only partial, but we will see HimHHim completely and we will be changed to be like Him: perfect.
What does this all mean?
1. Death is wrong
The first thing to acknowledge is that death is wrong: it is the result of sin, not part of the original creation (Genesis 3:19; Romans 5:12). It is not the way it was intended to be, and Christ came to wage war against it. When a loved one dies it is not wrong for us to be upset or angry. God understands loss and is angered by death too.
2. Christians have nothing to fear
It’s also absolutely key that we realise that Christians have nothing to fear. When we accept Jesus, we are adopted as God’s children and are lined up ready to inherit the new Creation. The final day will be an amazing and glorious day because we will meet with God fully and we will enter our new perfect home. God is so good and gracious and kind, and we will experience all of Him in His fullness. It’s going to be amazing!
St Paul said “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). He sees death as a wonderful moment where he will finally see the hurt and pain and suffering of this world fade away and be replaced with God’s new and perfect world.
3. We have a job to do
Finally, we need to not focus simply on “to die is gain”, but also on “to live is Christ”. Paul is grappling because he wants to go to be with the Father, but he also knows that it is more important that he remains on Earth until God calls him home so that he may go on serving. God is calling all of us to join in His mission to save the world. There are many who do not yet know the fulfilment of giving their lives to Jesus, as we have. We must tell them and show them and encourage them towards the Good News that Christ’s sacrifice is for them too, so that on that final day they might be counted among our number, entering the new Creation together.