Wednesday, September 8, 2021

What Happens When We Die?

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1Thes 4:13).

Death is not the end. When our bodies cease to function, the immaterial part of us — let’s call it our spirit — continues to exist. A day will come when all spirits will have bodies again (more on that later). Death is temporary; that’s why the New Testament frequently refers to it as “falling asleep.” One of two things will happen to our spirits while they wait for bodies.

One of the thieves crucified with Jesus came to trust in him. Jesus told him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). And it’s the same for all believers: To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (cf, 2Cor 5:6-9). When our bodies fall asleep, our spirits will “depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Phil 1:23). Sproul says, “There is joy in living, so we hold on to life with a passion. Yet for Christians, death is even better, because we go immediately to be with Christ, a hope verified by Christ’s resurrection.”1 Death has been called the last enemy, but in some ways it’s more of a frenemy because, in wounding us, it takes us to be with our Lord and those who have gone on before us.

This “intermediate Heaven” is not our final destination, however. Our spirits will wait there for the day when they will have new bodies like Christ’s resurrected body. Randy Alcorn uses the analogy of someone flying to their new home but having a layover in another city. While there they spend the afternoon enjoying the company of relatives who meet them there, family they haven’t seen in years. But as wonderful as that visit is, they’re not home yet.2 The intermediate Heaven will be a temporary stop, a layover on the way to our true home (again, more later).

But what about unbelievers? If the intermediate state of believers is just a foretaste of the ultimate fate that awaits us, the same is true for the intermediate state of unbelievers. Jesus said they go to “Hades”, a place of torment (Luke 16:23) where they will await their final fate (Rev 20:11-14) the “lake of fire” we call Hell. Does this make you uncomfortable? Good. It should. It is a terrible thing, but it is necessary.

If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? ... I said glibly a moment ago that I would pay ‘any price’ to remove this doctrine. I lied. I could not pay one-thousandth part of the price that God has already paid to remove the fact.3

God sacrificed a great deal to rescue people from Hell. But not everyone wants to be rescued, not if the requirement is to bend the knee to their maker. I have wept, ugly cried, over good people I know who refuse that “self-surrender”, but the distastefulness of the doctrine does not make it untrue.

But what makes it true? How do we know any of this is true? Maybe when we die, we really do just turn off like a light.

There are an increasing number of books out there that explore near-death out-of-body experiences as proof that humans have an immaterial component.4 But for proof of Heaven and Hell, we’re really just going to have to take the word of the Man from Heaven, the one who lived and died and rose again. He is the one who promised us Heaven; he is the one who warned about Hell. Will we call him a liar?

So what do we do with this? We need to live like it’s true.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.5

So let’s live in a way that makes the gospel attractive. And don’t forget to actually share the gospel with those who need to hear it.

For more on death, I recommend “The Authority of Christ Over Death” in Theology You Can Count On by Tony Evans. For more on Hell, see the chapter of the same name in CS Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.

1 RC Sproul, Everyone's a Theologian
2 Randy Alcorn, Heaven
3 CS Lewis, “Hell” in The Problem of Pain
4 For example, Gary Habermas and JP Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality
5 CS Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

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Part of Christianity 101

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