This is part of a series of posts looking at your questions about theology.
Question: What happens when we die? When I read the Bible it sounds like we go into a sleep state until resurrection day, but I have also heard that we see God and other people that have passed. So which is it?
Jeremy Jernigan – Executive Pastor
“As I go into a cemetery I like to think of the time when the dead shall rise from their graves … Thank God, our friends are not buried; they are only sown!” Dwight L. Moody
Death isn’t a subject we usually enjoy discussing. We tend to approach the theology behind it in the same way. Just cue up this song to play in the background while you read the rest of this post and you’ll see what I mean. D.L. Moody’s quote about a cemetery takes a bit of work to truly relate with ourselves.
It’s not just that we have to wrestle with our own death, but also the loss we experience with those who go before us. We struggle with the pain and hurt of this even as Christians who believe our loved ones are in Heaven with Jesus. One might envy Albert Einstein’s nonchalant position on this when he wrote these words about his friend Besso who died: “Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Illusion or not, the grief we feel is painfully real. Yet dwelling upon the resurrection after death allows us to match the grief with hope. In the Old Testament, not much is said specifically about eternal life. One of the best examples we have is Daniel 12:2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
In the Greek mindset, the soul was thought to be immortal and the body was thought to be temporary. This Greek idea of dualism, or the separation of the body and the soul, did not lend itself easily to the concept of resurrection. That’s why in Acts 17:16-32, as Paul teaches on the resurrection of the dead, their initial response is to say “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean” (verse 20). When Paul finishes his argument we read that “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject'” (verse 32).
The point that the writers of the New Testament were trying to stress is that death cannot separate Christians from Christ. Conversely, those who choose not to follow Christ will experience separation from Him for eternity. Some of the Biblical language refers to believers falling asleep. Paul does this multiple times in 1 Corinthians 15 (verses 6, 18, 20, and 51) and Jesus does the same in John 11:11-14. In his letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul again uses the language of falling asleep. Yet read the following and note his overall tone:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, 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. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
When Paul talked about death he did it in the context of encouragement. If we’re honest, that sounds strange to most of us. While we won’t get a firm answer from the Biblical texts on all the specifics of what happens after we die, the truth we can hold to is that we will be with Jesus. According to Paul, thinking about death should provide Christians with encouragement. To borrow the New Testament language, we will fall asleep to be awakened by Jesus as a new creation for all eternity. Jesus conquered death on the cross and it no longer serves as a separation for those who follow Christ.
Disclaimer: I’m providing you with my answer to these questions and what makes the most sense to me Biblically. There are numerous other Christians who would provide different answers. If you disagree with me, there’s no need to email me or any other staff member. I’m not making sweeping statements that define all views of Central and its leadership. The point is to create an environment where we go deeper in our understanding and experience with God. At the very least I invite you to consider thoughtfully the answers I give, even if they differ from your views. If you would like to talk through this post with someone, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.