What Happens When We Die? Article L: Future Reward and Punishment
July 5, 1992
We live in a time when there is great fascination about life after death.
S A few years ago Raymond Moody wrote a best-seller called Life After Life, which purported to detail the near-death experiences of men and women who “died” and then came back to tell remarkably similar stories of weightlessness, bright lights and reunions with loved ones.
S Hundreds of so-called “channelers” claim to be able to contact the spirits of the dead.
S The New Age Movement has popularized such eastern concepts as the transmigration of souls, reincarnation (thanks especially to Shirley MacLaine), spiritualism, and communication with the dead.
S The Ouija Board remains a perpetual fascination for youngsters. My oldest son came home from school several months ago to report that a group of students spent a good part of the day playing with a Ouija Board–in class and with the teacher’s knowledge.
S Time-Life Books sell more copies of their Mystic Secrets series than any other series they produce.
Why this fascination with the world beyond the grave? Is it not because death is so final? Whatever one thinks about the reports of “near-death” visions, death when it finally comes is irreversible. When you finally cross the line, there is no coming back from the other side. Death wins the battle every time. After the doctors have tried the latest wonder drug, after the best minds have pooled their wisdom, after the philosophers have done their best to explain that death is only a natural part of life, we come face to face with the ugly reality that some day we will all die. And that death–whether planned or accidental, whether comfortable or painful–will be the end of life as we have known it.
Three Great Questions
Nothing is certain–except death and taxes. But death is more certain than taxes. A clever man can find ways to evade taxes but no one evades the Grim Reaper. When your time is up, it’s up.
No wonder the human mind is drawn to the question, “What happens when we die?” In many ways it is the one remaining unanswered question. We know so much about so many things, but about life after death, we know so very little.
There are three great questions every person must answer:
1. Where did I come from?
2. Why am I here?
3. Where am I going?
It is the third question that most grips the heart of man, for in one sense, the question “Where did I come from?” is yesterday’s news and the question “Why am I here?” is one that we answer every day, but the third question takes us into the unseen future–into the unfolding years and decades. What happens when we die? Is death the end of everything? Does man live for a few years and then simply vanish from the screen? Do we simply play our part and then shuffle off the stage into the misty obscurity of nothingness? Or is there something more, something beyond the great divide? Thousands of years ago Job spoke for the rest of us when he asked, “If a man die, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14)
In answering questions about life after death, we are left with only two sources to consult. Either we turn to human experience or we turn to the Word of God. If we turn to human experience, we find many guesses, many ideas, many theories–but no sure answers. That’s because, in the nature of the case, no human has a sure answer. The only people who have the answer are dead! That leaves us with the Word of God. In God’s Word we find ample, abundant answers. God who knows the future knows what happens when we die…and he hasn’t left us to wonder about it. The Bible is filled with information on this subject, so much in fact that I could never hope to cover it all in one brief message.
If you want the answer in one sentence, what happens after you die depends on what you do before you die. While it is true that death is the great equalizer of men, it is also the great separator of men. Article I. Section L of the revised Calvary Constitution explains the matter this way:
“We believe that at the moment of death, believers pass immediately into the presence of Christ and remain there in joyful fellowship with Him until the resurrection of the body at His second coming, after which they will be forever with the Lord in glory. We also believe that at the moment of death, the unsaved descend to Hell where they are kept under punishment until their bodies are raised at the final judgment, after which they will suffer everlasting conscious punishment separated from the presence of the Lord. Matthew 25:31-46; John 3:16; 14:1-3; 17:31; II Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; II Thessalonians 1:7-10; Revelation 20:11-15; Revelation 21:1-5.”
A quick glance at that statement shows that it divides human destiny at the moment of death into two distinct camps–those who are believers in Jesus Christ encounter one destiny while those who are not believers face an entirely different future. Using that division as our guide, let’s examine the statement in more detail.
I. What happens when a Christian dies?
A. “Passes immediately into the presence of Christ”
This statement suggests two facts about the Christian’s after-death experience. First, he immediately passes into the presence of the Lord. At this point we might remember the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross, “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) This appears to be a straightforward promise that at the moment of death the repentant thief would pass from his life of crime and his agonizing death into the realm called “paradise.” This would seem to contradict the teaching called “soul-sleep” which implies that at death a believer “sleeps” in a kind of suspended animation until the day of the resurrection. How could the thief be that very day in paradise if his soul were to go to sleep when he died? Second, the believer passes immediately into the personal presence of Jesus Christ. This is our hope and comfort as we stand at the graveside of a loved one. Paul said he had a desire to depart and “to be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). He also said, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body (that is, separated from the body by death) and at home with the Lord” (II Corinthians 5:8). These are the words of a man who believed that heaven would begin at the moment of his death. Was Paul looking forward to an unconscious slumber after his death? No! He was looking forward to the personal presence of Jesus Christ.
B. “Joyful fellowship with Him”
This statement takes us back to Luke 23:43, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That particular Greek word was used for the walled gardens of a Persian king. Whenever the king wanted to honor one of his subjects, he invited that person to walk with him in his “paradise.” That’s the picture of heaven Jesus is drawing–a place of incredible beauty, endless delight, freedom from pain, separation from sickness, disease and death, a place where believers may indeed enjoy the fellowship of Christ forever.
That also answers a frequently-asked question: “Where is heaven today?” To me, the answer is not geographical but relational. Heaven is wherever Jesus is. If you are with Jesus, you are in heaven–wherever that might be.
C. “The resurrection of the body”
But that truth, as wonderful as it is, does not exhaust the believer’s destiny. The first two points emphasize what happens to the believer after death but before the second coming of Christ. They cover the destinies of millions of believers who have lived and died in the twenty centuries since Christ walked on the earth. But what happens to those believers when Jesus returns?
To answer that question it helps to think in two different terms. At the moment of death the soul goes to heaven where it enters the personal conscious presence of the Lord. At the same time–or a day or two later–the body is buried in the ground. There the body “sleeps” until the resurrection at the second coming of Christ. (By the way, there’s a very good reason why Christian theology refers to death as a kind of “sleep.” When you lie down to sleep, you expect to wake up! In the same way, when we bury our loved ones in Jesus, we call it “sleep” because we fully expect them to “wake up” some day!)
To clarify, we don’t believe in soul-sleep, the doctrine that believers are unconscious between death and the resurrection, but we do believe in body-sleep, the doctrine that the body sleeps in the grave until it is “awakened” by Jesus at the moment of the resurrection.
I Thessalonians 4:14 says, “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.” Here you have both sides of the truth. Christians who die are said to be “with Jesus” (that’s the soul in the conscious presence of the Lord) and “have fallen asleep in him” (that’s the body which “sleeps” in the grave). Listen to Paul’s description of that great reunion of body and soul: “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” (I Thessalonians 4:16). Here is a clear promise of future bodily resurrection for the believer.
I Corinthians 15:51-55 adds the crucial fact that our bodies will be “raised imperishable”–that is, with a body that is perfect in every way, free from the vestiges of death and decay. In this life our bodies wear out, like a clock continually running down, but when we are raised, it will be with bodies that can never decay, never wear out, never suffer injury, never grow old, never get sick, and thank God, never die.
Ben Franklin’s Epitaph
Before he died, Benjamin Franklin wrote his own epitaph. With his own brand of wry humor, he caught the essence of the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection:
Like the cover of an old book,
Its contents torn out,
And stripped of its lettering and gilding,
Lies here food for worms;
But the work shall not be lost,
For it will (as he believes) appear once more
In a new and corrected edition,
Revised and corrected by the Author.
(From Macartney’s Illustrations, p. 307)
D. “Forever with the Lord in glory”
That brings us to the final truth. Once our bodies are raised, we will be with the Lord forever. Wherever he is, there we will be, rejoicing, praising, singing and celebrating throughout the ages of eternity. I Thessalonians 4:17 says, “We will be with the Lord forever.” Speaking of his own return, Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am 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 you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).
* * * * * * *
What is ahead for us when we die?
1. Our soul goes into the conscious presence of the Lord.
2. Our body is buried until the day of resurrection.
3. When Christ returns, we will be raised bodily from the grave.
4. Body and soul reunited, we will be with the Lord forever.
II. What happens when an unbeliever dies?
We now come to the other side of the picture, about which it can only be said that the fate of the wicked according to the Bible is as horrible as heaven is wonderful. The terms used, the pictures drawn, the symbols used, the images painted by the Holy Spirit speak of a future so desperate, so hopeless, so terrible that they are almost impossible to contemplate. And yet we must face them squarely because the Bible has much to say on this subject.
It will help to understand one major similarity between the fate of believers and unbelievers. At the moment of death, the body is buried in the grave while the soul enters a new realm. For the believer, the moment of death brings him into the personal presence of Christ. For the unbeliever, death begins an experience of unending conscious punishment.
A. “Descends to Hell”
In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus told a startling story about a rich man who died and went to hell. While he was in hell, he looked across the great divide to “Abraham’s bosom” (a Jewish term for heaven) where he saw Abraham with a beggar named Lazarus at his side. Jesus says specifically, “In hell he was in torment.” What was hell like? The rich man gives us a graphic picture when he cries out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.” Abraham also gives us a clue when he says, “Now he (Lazarus) is comforted here (in heaven) while you (the rich man) are in agony.”
Scholars like to debate whether this is a literal story or a parable, but in one sense it doesn’t matter. Jesus always told parables from life. His stories were always based on a fundamental truth about the world and the way it operates. Even if this is a parable–and that is not entirely certain–it is a richly-detailed parable which must be based on the fundamental facts about life after death.
From just the little bit I have mentioned (there is much more in the story), we may draw the following conclusions:
1. Heaven and hell and both real places.
2. Those who are in heaven and hell are conscious of where they are.
3. Heaven is a place of glorious comfort while hell is a place of suffering
4. The torment of hell may be compared with the torment of burning fire.
B. “Kept under punishment”
In Mark 9:43-48 Jesus gives us a shocking, graphic picture of what hell will be like for those who go there:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot offends you, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye offends you, cut it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.
Here we have additional information about hell. It is a place filled with fire; the fire never goes out; those who go there remain in conscious torment (the meaning of “their worm does not die.”)
John R. Rice has a helpful, yet sobering word about heaven and hell as places of conscious pleasure and conscious suffering:
People in the next world–both the saved in Heaven and the lost in Hell–retain all their senses. Though their bodies are yet in the grave, they see as if they had eyes, they hear as if they had ears, they speak as if they had tongues and lips. The rich man in torment saw Abraham and Lazarus in Paradise. They heard one another speak. The rich man felt the torment of Hell. Lazarus was comforted as sensibly as the rich man was tormented. (Dr. Rice, Here is My Question)
So far we have learned that unbelievers face the awful prospect of entering the sufferings of hell at the moment of death. But even this–as terrible as it is–is not the end of the story.
C. “Body raised at the final judgment”
Many people are surprised to learn that the Bible teaches a double resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. Although these two resurrections do not happen at the same time–being separated by at least a thousand years since the righteous are raised before the millennium while the unrighteous are raised at the end of the millennium–they are both clearly taught in God’s word. In fact, Jesus refers to both resurrections in John 5:28-29: “A time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” The resurrection of the just we can understand. They are raised to be given eternal rewards.
But why are the dead raised “to be condemned” after they have already suffered in hell? The story in Luke 16 may suggest an answer in that the rich man was somehow able to converse freely across the great divide that separated hell from “Abraham’s bosom.” He evidently hoped to convince Abraham to send someone to ease his torments. He also wanted someone to go back and warn his five brothers. These facts suggest that while hell is a place of torment, those who are there know it is not their final destination. They are conscious not only of their sufferings, but of other places, other people and other possibilities. Is it possible that some in hell resent their sentence and argue that they have been treated unfairly? If so, then it makes sense that they will be raised bodily to face the Lord at the final judgment. At that time, all secrets will be revealed, the books will be opened, and ultimate judgment determined. This is not to suggest that after spending a thousand years in hell that the Lord will discover they should have gone to heaven. Nor does it suggest that hell is a kind of short-term purgatory preparing people for heaven. Perhaps the case is similar to a man who is arrested, denied bail and kept in jail until his trial, at which time the final sentence is pronounced.
But what is that “final sentence?”
D. “Everlasting conscious punishment”
Here we come face to face with the most awful reality in all the Bible. After the unsaved dead are raised, after they face the Lord in the final judgment, they are condemned forever to suffer everlasting conscious punishment away from the presence of the Lord. Note the words of II Thessalonians 1:8-9, “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.” The phrase “everlasting destruction” seems like an oxymoron–destruction that never ends, a process that goes on and on and on. It is an apt description of the final fate of those who do not know Jesus Christ. They suffer forever, they are destroyed forever, they are punished forever.
In my opinion, the most terrifying passage in all the Bible is Revelation 20:11-15. It describes exactly what happens when the unsaved dead are finally raised to stand before the Lord.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to the things they had done as written in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown in the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Think of it. An entire lake filled with waves of burning fire. A lake as vast as an ocean, a lake with no shoreline, only wave after wave of burning sulphur and brimstone. In this lake, unbelievers are cast one by one, screaming, pleading, cursing, their voices drowned by the crackling of the flames as they enter the burning water. Acrid burning smoke fills the lungs, fire hotter than any earthly fire engulfs the human body, pain unlike any human pain courses through the burning veins. Voices cry out, but no one hears, people sink but do not find the bottom. Fire is everywhere, and smoke, and poisonous fumes. Here and there ghastly hunks of humanity desperately swim through the flames. Although they swim forever, they never reach the shore. No ships ply the lake of fire, no fishermen ever visit, no vacationers ever come this way.
As you stand in the distance, two striking facts come before you. First, there is no sun, only an eerie orange-yellow glow that seems to come from within the lake itself, a hideous, hellish emanation that seems to have come out of the bowels of evil. There is no light, no sun, only darkness and shadows. But then you notice something else. Although the fire is burning across the lake, and although the lake is filled with people, no one is consumed. What kind of fire is it that burns but does not destroy?
This is the lake of fire, the final destiny of the unsaved. If my description be rejected as a lurid literalism, let me ask the reader to consider this: If the lake of fire is not literal, if we are to understand it as a kind of symbol, must it not be true that the reality behind the symbol is even worse than the symbol? I have no objection to those who say the fire in hell is not “literal,” if by that they mean that the fire is not the same as human fire since it burns but does not consume.
If this picture of a lake of fire is not “literal,” that must mean that the reality is so terrible that no human words can describe it. Please do not make the mistake of trying to “humanize” hell by playing down the images. The Bible uses “fire” and “darkness” and “torment” too many times for us to glibly say, “That’s not literal.” It means something and the something it means is so eternally terrible that only these awful words and pictures can remotely begin to convey the ultimate meaning.
Let me clarify that point. I am sure my description of the lake of fire is no closer to reality than was Dante’s Inferno. But of this much I am sure. The reality is much worse than anything I or Dante or anyone else could ever imagine.
This is what we mean by “everlasting conscious punishment.” It is the final destiny of those who do not know Jesus Christ. To make it more personal, it is the final destiny of your friends and neighbors, your loved ones, your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your children, if they die without Jesus Christ.
And, yes, it is your destiny if you die without Jesus Christ. Let that thought linger in your mind. The reality of hell is more than just a theoretical doctrine. There is a place reserved for you in the lake of fire unless you by a conscious choice put your complete trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior.
* * * * * * * *
To summarize, this is what happens when an unbeliever dies:
1. His soul goes to hell where he suffers in conscious torment.
2. His body is buried in the grave.
3. At the Great White Throne Judgment, his body will be raised
from the dead and he will stand before the Lord to be judged and
4. Body and soul reunited, he will suffer eternally in the lake of fire.
III. What difference does it make?
1. Eternal issues are at stake every time a person accepts or rejects Jesus Christ.
Because the consequences are so enormous, the decision to accept or reject Jesus Christ is the biggest decision a person can ever make. Every other decision pales before it because every other decision has implications which end with death. But the realities of heaven and hell do not begin until the moment of death. A man may decide to marry a certain woman and that decision will shape life for 50 years. He may decide to live in New Mexico and not Vermont and that decision radically affects the course of his life. He may choose to go into parasitology instead of taking over the family business and that choice will follow him all the days of his life. But those choices–as momentous and life-shaping as they are–share this in common: Their significance ends with the day of death. Not so with the decision concerning Jesus Christ. Whatever a man says, whether Yes or No or Not now, he must live with the consequences of that choice throughout time and eternity. He will never make a more important choice because eternal issues are at stake.
2. The great division in the human race takes place at the moment of death.
Most people don’t see it this way. We tend to divide humanity into groups based on our heritage or our position in life–rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, white or black, native or immigrant, white collar or blue collar, and so on. To most of us, the real division in life is between the people who “make it” and the people who don’t. In this world, you are either on top or trying to reach the top.
But those divisions are artificial because they all end at the moment of death. While death is the Great Leveler in that all die eventually, it is also the Great Divider because at the moment of death, believers and unbelievers are eternally separated. Believers go one direction, unbelievers go another. There is no third option. At that point, we will see things as they really are. Some people who seemed to have it all together, in that day will be seen to have missed the very purpose of life. Others who seemed to pass their years in insignificance will be revealed as having found the secret of life itself.
No, death is not the end but only the beginning. As we pass through the gates of death into the great beyond, the whole truth about ourselves will finally be revealed.
3. We may face the future with confidence since our destiny, whether we live or die, is to be with Christ forever.
Here is a word of lasting hope. Here is a reason to get up in the morning. Here is the strength to face disaster, sickness, opposition and even death itself. Here is why believers can stand smiling on the brink of death. Here is the explanation for courage in the face of unbearable suffering. Here is the one thing that will keep you going when your world has fallen apart.
If you know Jesus Christ, your destiny is to be with him forever. Should you lose your health, you will not lose Jesus. Should your family fall apart, he will never forsake you. Should your career be ruined, he will not give up on you. Should you face a shattering physical illness, he will walk with you through every painful step. And should you come to the dark waters that divide this life from the next, you will never be alone, for your destiny is to be with him forever.
Cheer up, my Christian friend. Your future is secure. The things that worry you will seem so small 10,000 years from now. That “impossibility” that today stares you in the face will someday vanish away. No matter what may come your way, Jesus has promised to be with you–now and forever. Can you think of anything better than that?
4. We may rest secure knowing that believers who die in Christ are in a state of perfect happiness with him.
I freely admit that there are many mysteries here, mysteries concerning heaven that are not revealed because we probably couldn’t understand them even if they were revealed. How can a “soul” be in the presence of Jesus Christ in heaven while the body is buried in the ground? I do not have the faintest idea how such a thing is possible, only that I fervently believe the Bible teaches that it is so. Do our loved ones watch us from heaven? I do not know that either. What exactly are the believers doing in heaven with Christ while they await the resurrection? I assume they are praising the Lord and enjoying his presence, but precisely what that means I cannot say.
But those mysteries must not overshadow the greater truth. When our loved ones who know the Lord die, they go to be with him. They are with Christ in paradise … because wherever Jesus is, that’s where heaven is. They are in a state of perfect happiness, perfect bliss, and perfect communion with him. That much we know. The rest is up to the Lord. We may rest secure in the knowledge that God will take care of his children–both in this life and in the life to come. No harm can come to them. Their days of toil are over. They are truly in a “better place.”
5. Since everyone is going to live forever somewhere, the most important thing we can ever do is to introduce someone else to Jesus Christ.
Think about that. Everyone is going live forever somewhere. In heaven or hell. In bliss or in torment. In conscious delight or in conscious torment. In the city of God or in the lake of fire.
Five billion people on the earth today. All of them destined for one place or the other.
And we have the message that makes the difference. What a privilege. What an opportunity. What an awesome responsibility.
The Last Word
Billy Graham put the matter in proper perspective with these penetrating words:
God made man different from the other creatures. He made him in His own image, a living soul. When this body dies and our earthly existence is terminated, the soul lives on forever. One thousand years from this day you will be more alive than you are at this moment. The Bible teaches that life does not end at the cemetery. There is a future life with God for those who put their trust in His Son, Jesus Christ. There is also a future Hell of separation from God toward which all are going who have refused, rejected, or neglected to receive His Son, Jesus Christ.
Years ago I heard a pastor say that whenever he met a new person, he would remind himself, “He has a soul.” By repeating that simple phrase he called to mind the awesome truth that the body dies but the soul lives on forever–in the glories of heaven or in the torments of hell.
May God grant that this study of heaven and hell may spur us on to love and gratitude for the Savior and fervent concern for those around us who will live forever somewhere. If you truly believe in heaven, make sure you don’t go there alone.