WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE?
Many people spend a lot of time thinking about this important question and many other people try hard to avoid thinking about it. Three score years, and then – what?
The only way we can really know the answer to that question would be if somebody came back from the dead to tell us. So the only person in history we can trust for the answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ the Son of God died on the cross but three days later God raised Him from the dead. And Jesus has revealed to us the truth about life after death, the glorious hope of heaven which Christians share and which everybody can discover for themselves in the Bible. We will consider what the Bible teaches about life after death and then we will need to think about some wrong ideas which some people have, which are as confusing and dangerous as they are mistaken.
Death is the ultimate statistic – one out of one die. Some people see no hope beyond death. Bertrand Russell wrote, “There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere. Only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.” In contrast, Christians are guaranteed not a hopeless end, but an endless hope. The Bible tells us about what happens when we die. As Christians we have been saved – our sins have been forgiven, we have been born again to eternal life. We are being saved – we enjoy that life in all its fullness which comes from our relationship with God as our heavenly Father. But the best is yet to come. We will be saved. One day Christ will transform our lowly bodies so they will become like His heavenly body. Now we see as in a glass darkly, then we will see face to face. Now we know in part, then we shall know even as we ourselves are known. This is our wonderful Christian hope. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)
Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote, “We have a new citizenship, we are in Christ, and because we are in Christ, we are seated in the heavenly places with him. Certain things will happen to us before we finally arrive in heaven, but our citizenship is as definite now as it will be then. There will be a physical translation when we die, but spiritually we are there already, we belong there.”
The apostle Paul said this about the wonderful hope we have as Christians.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. …
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:36-38, 42-44)
So God has promised to give us a new kind of body which will be appropriate for heaven. Heaven will be so different and so wonderful that our human minds cannot even imagine it, but the Bible does give us different pictures of heaven. It will be like a city, a place of community. It will be like a party, a celebration. It will be a place of continual glorious worship. Most of all we will be in the very presence of God. Jim Packer wrote, “We know very little about heaven, but a theologian once described it as ‘an unknown region with a well-known inhabitant.’”
To believers who have learned to love and trust Jesus, the prospect of meeting him face to face and being with him forever is the hope that keeps us going, no matter what life may throw at us. The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter expressed our Christian hope like this.
My knowledge of that life is small, The eye of faith is dim,
But it’s enough that Christ knows all, And I shall be with him.
Christians sometimes ask, “do believers go straight to heaven when they die?” What we call life ‘after’ death is not simply some chronological continuation of this life. Heaven is life in the presence of God and in His eternal Kingdom. Like God Himself, ‘eternal’ life is not only everlasting but also more importantly outside all time as we know it. From the perspective of people who are still alive, it might appear that the body of a dead person is ‘asleep’. But Jesus promised the repentant thief hanging on the next cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:53). So we can be sure that believers enter the presence of Christ immediately when we die. We will not be waiting around in some kind of ‘limbo’. Adrian Snell has written a marvellous song called “This Land” which is printed on the front page. For me it gives a wonderful picture of what it will be like to go to sleep in this life and wake up in the next.
This is what the Bible teaches about life after death. This is the Christian hope. But at the same time there are some wrong ideas around about what happens when we die. They are popular ideas but they are sadly mistaken and the first is that people in this life can make contact with those who have died. People try all kinds of ways to do this. Some turn to mediums and séances and spiritualism or spiritism. Others look to Ouija boards or other ‘mechanical’ ways to reach beyond the grave. Some people are motivated by deep grief to try to stay in touch with loved ones who have died. Others are driven by fear of their own death, or fear of the future, or simply by curiosity. Whatever the motives, attempts to make contact with dead people are tragic, futile and potentially very dangerous.
Ben Alexander was once one of Britain’s leading spiritualist mediums. Then he became a Christian and ever since Ben has spent his life warning people of the great dangers of spiritualism, séances, mediums, Ouija boards, clairvoyance and all other attempts to contact the dead. Ben’s book, Out of Darkness, is full of examples of truly dreadful things that have happened to people who have dabbled in spiritualism and similar doorways to danger. People cannot contact the dead – they only come into contact with forces of evil. For that reason, all attempts to communicate with the dead are condemned by God and explicitly forbidden in the Bible.
Let no-one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practises divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, (Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
Attempts to contact the dead involve real dangers of contact with the forces of evil. Anyone who has dabbled in spiritualism or any such form of the occult is strongly advised to seek the help of a Christian Minister. Spiritualism, mediums and séances are cruel lies and only deceive people with false hopes.
As Christians we have the wonderful hope of eternal life, life in all its fullness here and now which not even death can take away. This Christian hope is not some vague optimism but a happy certainty. Hope is a combination of expectation and desire. I would love one day to walk on the moon. But since I have no expectation of that ever happening I can’t say, “I hope to walk on the moon.” On the other hand, one day I am sure I will have to visit the dentist. But since I have no desire to visit the dentist it would be wrong to say, “I hope to visit the dentist.” But as a Christian my greatest desire is to spend eternity with Jesus. And the promises of God make it absolutely certain that I will spend eternity with Jesus. So it is correct to say that my hope is spend eternity with Jesus.
This is not wishful thinking. This is the happy certainty of our Christian hope. And this promise is for every person who puts their trust in Jesus Christ who died and rose again; Jesus who said, “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)