What happens the moment after we die? For me, this is a very personal topic, as I have watched three loved ones die in the last eleven months. First, my father; then my aunt; and then my cousin’s 13 year-old son. Day after day, I sat with them at their bedside and watched as the doctors tried all of the advances of science and medicine, but death still came. I have personally gone through all the stages of grief. At their funerals, I looked at them in their caskets, touched their cold hands and saw death close up. When you see death from such close range, it’s ugly and you can understand why we all fear it. I spoke at two of the funerals and I couldn’t help but think, where are they now? As their friends and family gathered to remember them, I wondered, What are they doing? What are they experiencing right now?
God in the Bible answers these questions clearly. First, the Bible says we don’t have to be happy about death. We don’t have to say, “This is what God wanted.” Rather, the Bible says death is an enemy, both of God and of us.
The Apostle Paul writes, “For He (Christ) must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26).
This is comforting to me. God doesn’t like death any more than we do. He calls it an enemy. Why is death the enemy of God? It’s because death destroys life, whereas God is the Creator, the author of life. When man chose sin, to rebel against God, his sin brought on death. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 15:21, “For since by a man (Adam) came death.” Romans 5:12 says, “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.”
When man sinned, death entered our existence and became the enemy who snatches a child before he learns to play in the sunshine. It is the enemy who takes the life of a teenager who was just beginning to enjoy life. Death is the enemy who takes the newly married husband away from his loving wife just when life is the sweetest, the enemy that can rob young children of loving parents and leave them orphans. But the Bible also tells us that through Christ, this enemy—death—can be met, and we are assured that eventually Christ will eradicate it completely.
Revelation 21:4 says, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying; neither shall there be any more pain. For the former things are passed away.”
When I looked into the casket of my cousin’s 13 year-old son, I told his twin brother Joshua that we didn’t have to be happy about Joel’s death. Death is an enemy and part of the reason Jesus Christ came into the world. To all those who put their trust in Christ, death can sting us, but it cannot conquer us. That is, death doesn’t blot us out and we don’t stop existing. It’s not the end of everything.
As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law.” What does this mean? Because we have sinned, we will experience the sting of death. But it won’t ultimately destroy the Christian.
We all fear wasps and bumblebees that can fly around and quickly sting us. But if you remove their stingers, they look scary, but they are actually harmless. Because of Jesus Christ and His promise to give those who believe on Him eternal life, death now is like a bumblebee that has had its stinger removed. It will come to us all, but for the Christian, death doesn’t conquer or destroy us. It is actually the moment we pass behind the veil into a wonderful new life for all eternity.
The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
Also, death cannot separate us from the love of God. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8:38, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So first, God’s Word tells us, for believers, death is an enemy already partially con‑quered, its stinger removed, and someday it will be completely eradicated by Jesus Christ.
Second, what if we’re Christians and we’ve been told we have an incurable disease and in a few days, weeks or months we will experience death? How can we handle our fear? Death is an unknown, something we haven’t experienced.
Well, when we set out on a trip, we need a reliable road map. When we make the transition from this life to the next, we all need a reliable road map that can tell us with certainty our final destination. That sure, certain road map is God’s Word the Bible.
The only reliable guide is not some person who has had a near-death experience, that is, one who has had a heart attack and was resuscitated, and lives to tell us what he experienced. We can’t trust him. Why? It’s because the Bible tells us Satan and his angels can give us experiences that deceive us. The Bible says Satan masquerades or puts on a disguise, “presenting himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). Over 12 million Americans have had near-death experiences, and the majority of those people have been deceived by an angel of light which has told them false information (information that contradicts what God says in the Bible) about the afterlife.
No, the only reliable guide that can tell us with certainty what lies behind the curtain of death is One who has actually died, not one who has been resuscitated. One whose body laid in the tomb, cold, broken and stiff for three days, and then rose from the dead. The only person who ever conquered death was Jesus Christ. He alone has the right, the authority to tell us what comes after we die. And what does He say?
When Jesus came to Lazarus’ tomb, He found that Lazarus had been dead for four days. Right in front of Lazarus’ grave Jesus proclaimed, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
After making this claim that He had the power to give life that lasts forever, He provided the proof that backed up His claim. He actually raised Lazarus from the dead. Death is inevitable for all of us. We must trust someone as to the future. Is there any reason why you wouldn’t want to trust Jesus Christ?
The Apostle John went so far as to say, “Anyone who does not believe God, has made Him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given of His Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:10-13). The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). If you are approaching death and you are afraid, God wants you to trust His promises to you. If you will simply believe in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and ask Him to forgive you of your sins, to be the Savior of your life, God promises that death will be just a transition into everlasting life in Heaven with Him. Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me. In my Father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I’m going there to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3).
The Apostle Paul, in approaching his own death, could write, “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in (referring to his body) is destroyed, we have a building (that is, a new body) from God, an eternal house (that is, an eternal body) in Heaven not built by human hands…. Meanwhile we groan (that is, as we grow older, the aches and pains come, then disease and suffering) we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—our new body” (2 Corinthians 5:1-3). In fact, Paul could confidently say, “I am willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).
What does this mean? When we die, our body is placed into the ground and our spirit goes to be with the Lord. For example, in the Bible there is a clear distinction between the grave where the body rests and Sheol where the spirits of the dead gather. The Old Testament speaks of the afterlife using the Hebrew word Sheol 65 times in the Old Testament. Sheol refers to the realm of departed spirits. In describing this region, it seems that not all people have the same experience in that realm. For some people it is a region of gloom. But for others it is a place where they dwell with God.
In the New Testament the Greek word for Sheol is the word Hades. Just like Sheol, the word Hades is never used solely of the grave, but always refers to the world of departed spirits. Before Jesus’ death and resurrection, He described Sheol, or Hades, the realm of the dead, as having two compartments.
In Luke 16, Jesus talked about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. After describing their deaths, listen to what Jesus said happened to them: “And the rich man died and in Hades [the Greek translation of the Old Testament word Sheol] the rich man lifted up his eyes being in torment and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able and that none may cross over from there to us.”
From Jesus’ story, we can answer the question, “How long will it take, after you die, to determine whether you’re in Heaven or in hell?”
Jesus’ answer: “The rich man closed his eyes in this life and he opened them in the next.” It was immediate! As an unbeliever in Hades, the rich man was fully conscious. He had a spirit body that could speak, could feel, could experience pain. He could remember back over his lifetime.
We also see that his eternal destiny was irrevocably fixed. Abraham told him, “Between us and you there is a great chasm fixed in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.” This means that once you pass through death’s door, your final destination will be fixed forever. You won’t be able to change it.
What happened to the believing man Lazarus? Jesus said Lazarus was escorted by the angels to that region of the underworld, Sheol or Hades, which is called here Abraham’s bosom. He was comforted and happy. It’s interesting that in the New Testament after Christ’s death and resurrection and His ascension, believers are no longer said to go to the underworld where the righteous dead existed. No. Believers are now said to go directly into Heaven. In other words, the two regions of Hades no longer exist side by side. Abraham’s bosom is in Heaven today. But Hades for the unrighteous dead still exists. The Bible says someday Hades and those who reside in it, according to Revelation 20:14, will be thrown into eternal hell. The Bible describes God’s judgment of the world with these fearful words: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them and they were judged every one of them according to their deeds. And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death (the lake of fire). And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:13-15).
The Bible does not teach there is a purgatory. The Bible says nothing about a temporary place of punishment and cleansing which people endure and then go to Heaven after 1,000 or 10,000 years of suffering. No. The Bible does say that Hades will be thrown into hell someday, but the only difference for the people who are in Hades will be their location. There will be no difference in punishment. Unbelieving people who die will not escape any of the agony and eternal suffering that will be part of hell.
The Apostle Peter clearly tells us, “The Lord knows how…to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment” (2 Peter 2:9).
Some ask, “What happens to my body? What happens to my spirit when I die?” James says, “the body without the spirit is dead.” That is, the body goes into the ground and if you’re a Christian, your spirit goes to be with the Lord. “Absent from the body is to be [immediately] present with the Lord.”
But on the other hand, if you’re an unbeliever, if you have not placed your faith in Jesus Christ and what He did for you at the cross, your body goes into the ground and your spirit goes to Hades where there is no hope, only agony and despair.
The Bible also teaches that at the return of Christ, those who have believed in Him, their spirits will be reunited with their old bodies. But God will resurrect their old bodies and make them new. 1 Thessalonians 4:14ff. says, “We believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him (that is, those who have died believing in Christ); and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.”
That’s why Jesus said in John 6:40, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
On the other hand, those who have rejected Christ, their bodies will be buried, but at death their spirits will immediately enter Hades.
Daniel in the Old Testament refers to the Resurrection when the bodies of both unbelievers and believers will be reunited with their spirits: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground (referring to our bodies) will awake; these to everlasting life but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
Jesus taught in Matthew 25 that when the spirits of the wicked are someday reunited with their bodies, then their life will be judged. After a fair judgment, Jesus, the eternal Judge, will say to those who are found to be wicked, “Depart from me, accursed ones, into eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels….These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
If you are an unbeliever, you should fear death because of what you will experience immediately after you have died. How can anyone keep from fearing death? It is only possible if we believe in the Lord Jesus.
The Book of Hebrews chapter 2, verse 15 says, “Jesus came that He might deliver those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all of their lives.”
We intuitively fear death because we do not know what lies after death. We fear death because, if there is a God, we don’t want to meet Him. We are afraid we won’t measure up to His standards. If that’s what you fear, the Bible agrees with you. None of us will measure up to God’s standards. We are all sinners. That’s why God, who loves us, “sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
The Bible says God wants to give us a gift. “The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
In other words, God wants you to have eternal life. He wants you to have your sins forgiven. That’s why He sent Christ. And once we place our faith in Jesus Christ, God gives us His gift of eternal life.
The biblical writers describe our approaching death and our hope of Heaven like a ship, sailing on uncharted waters. To hold us safely in position, we need a good anchor. Notice what the Bible says: “We who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged. We have this hope (in Christ) as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf” (Heb. 6:18-19). Scripture describes our hope as an anchor, resting in Jesus’ hands. Our anchor stretches from Jesus to where we are, and Jesus isn’t moving. Like an anchor holding a ship safely in position, our hope in Christ guarantees our safety. Whereas the ship’s anchor goes down to the ocean bed, the Christian’s anchor goes up into the true and heavenly sanctuary where Jesus is moored to God Himself. We are safe and secure in Christ.
Another question people ask is, What about grief and sorrow? If you have lost your wife, your husband, a child, how do you handle their loss? Know that it is good and natural for Christians to grieve. It is okay for us to shed tears. It is natural to miss our loved ones. But “we grieve not like those with no hope.”
The Apostle Paul says, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, about those who fall asleep (that is, those who die believing in Christ), nor do I want you to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope” (1 Thes. 4:13). Paul expected Christians to grieve, but remember we would see them again.
When David was told that Absalom his son was killed, the Bible records, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said, ‘O, my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. If only I had died instead of you’” (2 Sam. 18:33).
When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha grieved. When Jesus came, He asked, “Where have you laid him?” (referring to Lazarus). “Come and see, Lord, they replied.” And when
Jesus got there the Bible records the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.” Those who were gathered around watching said about Jesus, “See how He loved him?” (John 11:35-36).
When death separates us from someone we love, many times we feel as if no one could suffer any more than we have. But grief is universal.
The Bible says Jesus Himself experienced it. Even God the Father watched His Son die an agonizing death on the cross. We can bring our sorrows and grief to God, knowing He understands and sympathizes.
The Scripture says, “It was fitting that God for whom and through whom everything exists should make the author of their salvation (that is, Jesus) perfect through suffering…and since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Heb. 2:10-15).
The Bible continues, “For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way in order that he might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in service to God and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because He Himself suffered when He was tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:17-18). That is, because Jesus experienced death, suffering and temptation, we can bring our griefs to Him. He is merciful and faithful, He understands the pain of what you’ve gone through.
If you are grieving right now, I want you to know that these promises of God have helped me a lot. Think on them and let me give one more.
God tells us to remember, that if our loved one died believing in Christ, he or she is more alive now than before. In thinking of my dad, my aunt, or my cousin’s 13 year-old son, if I knew they had gotten on an airplane and flown down to the Bahamas, and I knew right now they were sitting on the beach and swimming in the warm, beautiful ocean, I’d miss them, but I wouldn’t feel too bad. I would know they were having a great time. I would only hope I could join them. Well, if your loved one has died believing in Christ, they’re in a better spot than the Bahamas. They’re in Heaven, in the Father’s house where there are many mansions.
Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them; they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).
When the Apostle Paul tried to tell us about Heaven, he ran out of words trying to describe it. He said, “Eye has not seen nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for them that love Him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
Thanks to Christ, we can be free from the fear of death. We can know for sure that Heaven is our final destination. If your loved one is with Christ, you have the hope of going to be with him or her, of seeing them again. He is with Christ right now.
If you do not know the Lord as your own personal Savior and your loved one dies, you will never see your loved one again. We need to be prepared for death. We all know we are going to die, but we don’t know when. The Bible says God gives each of us the opportunity while we live to make decisions that will determine the kind of life we’ll have in eternity. Specifically we need to decide now whether we will believe on Jesus Christ and receive His gift of salvation, or choose not to believe and be separated from God in Heaven for all eternity.
If you are looking for more information on how to find freedom from the fear of death, many of our listeners have found the “What will Happen One Minute After You Die?” series with Dr. Erwin Lutzer to be helpful.