What Happens To Us When We Die?
By Kevin Probst
It is very sad to witness the loss of innocence. Adam and Eve were perfect beings living perfect lives in a perfect paradise. Then the Liar entered the garden and convinced Eve that if she sinned she would not surely die. But God had said, "If you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall surely die." (Gen. 2:16, 17) It turns out God was right and Satan was wrong because Gen. 5:5 declares that "…the days of Adam were nine hundred and thirty years and then he died."
Their return to dust may actually be considered a blessing. Had Adam and Eve lived forever then sin would have existed in their hearts forever. Christ paid the penalty of death so that our sins might be forgiven but we all must suffer the ultimate consequence of sin. “For the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) God used death as an instrument to destroy sin in the unrepentant hearts of mankind when he flooded the earth and destroyed all but the faithful eight.
All men are destined to die. (Hebrews 9:27) Death has been a great mystery down through the ages. We know so little about it because our sources are so limited. Many live with thanatophobia, the fear of death. They fear the unknown. They fear their destiny. They fear the powerful spirits who dwell on the other side.
There are two basic theories as to what happens to us after we die. Many believe that we are mortal beings with mortal spirits. Our spirits are put to rest after we die in what is referred to as "soul sleep." Those who believe in the mortality of the soul don't believe that men just have a soul so much as they believe that men are souls. Proponents of this belief would argue that we are not immortal, but rather we are striving to "put on immortality." (1 Cor. 15:53-54) David spoke of the "sleep of death" in Psalms 13:3. Jesus referred to the death of Lazarus as a sleep. (John 11:11-13) Stephen, the first martyr, finally succumbed to death by stoning. The Bible says he "fell asleep." (Acts 7:60) Finally, when Christ returns he promises a resurrection for believers. "The dead in Christ shall rise…so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Leonardo Da Vinci may have been expressing this idea of soul sleep when he said, “As well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well lived brings happy death.”
The grave danger for those who believe in soul sleep is that so many modern mediums attempt to awaken those spirits and communicate with them. This is strongly forbidden in God’s Word. There were to be no necromancers (those who communicate with the dead) among God’s people. This was an abomination to God. (Deuteronomy 18) These communications are forbidden because Satan is a great deceiver and he does surely use these attempts to deceive those who are foolish enough to dabble in areas that can bring great danger into their lives. There lies between the living and the dead a great gulf that has been fixed so that we cannot go to them nor can they come to us. (Luke 16)
The majority of believers embrace the belief that the soul is immortal. Paul said that he would rather be "Absent from the body and present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:8) The assumption is that Paul would instantly enter the presence of the Lord at death and he would experience no period of "soul sleep".
On the darkest of days the Son of God hung on a splintered cross and turned to the penitent thief hanging next to him and said, "…today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43). But in the previous verse the thief said to Christ, "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Is he not referring here to the Second Coming of Christ or is he expecting to be taken to heaven. Would the thief have enough theological understanding to even realize what he was saying?
Some think it is a punctuation problem. If the comma in Luke 23:43 is placed after 'today' it reads like this. "Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise". If we move the comma so it is positioned before today it reads like this, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise." Scriptures weren't divided into verses until long after the original scriptures were written. It was at this time that much of the punctuation was added.
The research of Dr. Sam Parnia of New York City's Weill Cornell Center seems to indicate that perhaps the soul is immortal and does not sleep. After examining 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest, Parnia observed that when blood flow is cut off, brain activity begins to cease within 10 seconds. Many people have been resuscitated after experiencing more than an hour of no heart activity. Up to 20% of these people claim to have experienced consciousness. They claim to have been hovering over the doctors, observing and hearing all that goes on in the struggle to save their lives. (1)
God gifted man with time so that we might organize our lives and form necessary life patterns. Man needs time but God does not. Surely, a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day to God. (2 Peter 3:8) Those who die today and those who died 1,000 years ago will all arrive at judgment simultaneously because time is no longer relevant when we live in eternity. It is very difficult to wrap the human mind around the fact that everything that is going to happen has already happened in the mind of an eternal, omniscient God. When time is removed from the formula either theory might be true, the soul might be suspended until the resurrection or the soul might go directly to heaven. To a God who lives in timelessness the whole argument must seem nonsensical.
We will all look into the faces of loved ones who will pass on before us. Whether they go directly to a heaven or a hell or whether they enter a sleep to await the resurrection seems irrelevant in view of the fact that all will one day stand before the Judge of the Universe. They will then be rewarded with life eternal or punished with everlasting torment. "…man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." (Hebrews 9:27) What is important is not how long it takes, it's where we arrive.
1. What Happens When We Die? By M.J. Stephey, TIME Magazine, Sept. 18, 2008
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.