In my recent podcast on my Spiritual Disciplines habits, which included a Q&A from my listeners, someone asked me a specific question about my thoughts on “what happens after you die.” While I certainly spitballed my gut response to the listener question in that particular episode, upon further reflection and study, I feel as though my reply wasn't entirely adequate…
…and for a matter as important as death and the afterlife, I think that such a topic—although visited just a bit in my article about what I think heaven itself will be like and also my article about what Jesus likely experienced during his three-day “harrowing in hell”—still requires a bit more of a thorough and considerate response.
After all, death is a serious topic and not to be treated lightly or without deep thought. As author and theologian John Piper writes here:
“Jesus kicked the teeth out of death, crushing its power over his people (Revelation 20:6) and promising one day to destroy it forever (Revelation 20:14). But because death has been conquered, it doesn’t mean peace has been made with it. This isn’t a tennis match. Death is no less terrible, and should be no less hated.”
Not a tennis match, indeed. Just think about it…
Imagine Your Death
No, really, really think about it. Your death, I mean. So seldom is it that we actually, apart from those who may have undergone an actual near-death experience, truly imagine or experience death in vivid visualization.
Imagine, right now, as you are reading this very sentence, out of seemingly nowhere, a bullet rips through the wall of your room and buries itself with red hot fire into your upper right gut. You don't know where it came from. Perhaps it was a stray shot. Perhaps you're being assassinated. At this point, it doesn't matter. You've heard the tales of the temporary horror and debilitating pain of a sudden gallstone, or a heart attack, or a snapped femur, but this is far, far more horrific. As what feels like a live hornet's nest full of a million razor-sharp barbs is unleashed like a cluster bomb within your viscera and organs, your vision clouds over and your jaw drops open to scream in bone-chilling, blood-curdling terror.
You can't stop screaming. You keep trying to breathe through your screams, but as you struggle against the spasming in your gut t0 swallow precious air, blood instead bubbles up your throat and you choke violently on it, spitting thin flecks of bright crimson across the floor and walls in front of you. As the gore from your throat spatters against the wall, you double over and vomit dark green bile pooled with more blood, then you crumble to your side, your muscles failing as calcium floods into your cells and your entire musculoskeletal system begins to spasm.
You feel the cold, hard floor against your cheek. Desperately, you pull your knees to your chest in a fetal position, but this makes the pain even more unbearable, as though half a dozen daggers are plunging deep into your stomach and being twisted by a depraved demon again, and again, and again—each time causing bright bursts of lightning to flash across your eyes. Your head feels as though it is going to explode into a million fragments of brain and bones and more blood, but it doesn't explode. Instead, the unbearable pain stays inside your head, radiating more intensely with each second as the cluster of hornets travels into every corner of your skull, buzzing with a terrible fury, burrowing deeper and deeper, stinging, biting, and stinging again.
As the lightning bolts of pain continue to strike throughout your body, your head becomes heavy and feels nearly foreign. It seems as though there is a thick rope knotted around your neck in a noose, getting tighter and tighter. Your vision begins to cloud, and the puddle of thick blood in which your face lies slips in and out of visibility, flashing like a crimson strobe-light.
Somewhere in your bowels, something aggressively shifts, and you feel your own urine and fecal matter spill into your pants, along with pieces of your insides and more green, yellow, and red soupy fragments from within your intestines. You scream and squirm again and pain shoots through your body once more, but now your screams sound far away and muffled to your own ears as if your voice is echoing back at you from a distant cave.
Then, as endorphins, neurotransmitters, and photons of light pouring from your mitochondria and an enormous dump of DMT from your pineal gland all converge at once in a chemical thunderstorm in your bloodstream, pushed along with the final struggling beats of your heart, the pain begins to fade—and is replaced by an intense, black darkness that envelops your entire consciousness, accompanied by brief flashes of kaleidoscopes of color and, somewhere, still in the far distance, your own screams.
You cannot breathe. There is no oxygen. Everything becomes black. Dark, black, the velvetiest of black.
You glimpse a brief vision of your mangled body lying in a pool of blood and intestines.
Then that fades too.
You realize you no longer have a body. You've never felt this before. No flesh. Just a faint awareness of existence. And somewhere, like a tiny speck in that blackness, a single photon of light between where your eyes used to be.
You are separated.
Your soul, your consciousness, is fully disconnected from your body.
Life as you now it has suddenly, drastically, even horribly and painfully…
Are You Going To Be Reincarnated?
So what happens at that point, at the end, after your brain, your heart, and your entire lump of flesh have fully experienced physical death?
First, I'm not going to dive into reincarnation too heavily here, but in short, I believe it's an insult to God to believe that you are going to be reincarnated.
Why do I say that?
Perhaps you remember, or you should go and read, my writings on the horrific, gory, shocking details of Jesus Christ's brutal beating, torture, and crucifixion. This was the murder of a deity, a sacrificial death that was so unimaginably painful and profound that it caused the very earth to shudder, the temple curtains to be torn in half, Satan to be overthrown, and the entire spiritual underworld to experience a vast and irreversible transformation. And God gifted that sacrifice of his dear son to us, as the well-recognized verse from John 3:16 in the Bible states: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten son…that whoever believes upon him shall not perish but have eternal life…”
But the idea of reincarnation completely negates the necessity, meaning, and importance of that entire loving sacrifice.
See, both Judaism and Christianity believe in an important doctrine that directly challenges reincarnation: the resurrection of the dead. This resurrection means that our dead bodies will someday be revived and brought back to life on the New Earth that I talk about here. Reincarnation dictates that our immaterial souls will be inserted into a new human life and future human body, while resurrection dictates that our dead and decayed flesh will be brought back to a full and glorious, perfect life. In 1 Corinthians 15:13-14 and 17-18, the Apostle Paul is resolute in identifying this resurrection as the core of Christianity:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.”
In short, reincarnation negates God's free gift of salvation that is described in the New Testament, a gift that was manifested in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. If we are a disembodied self that isn’t related to any particular time, then this means that our real self only has a sort of accidental connection to any specific body, because we'll go on to another body and another body and another body. But we are embodied beings, not separate from our souls, but with bodies so intimately intertwined to our souls that upon our resurrection, these same souls we possess now will be in the same bodies we possess now, but in a perfectly restored state of perfection.
Paul experienced quite a bit of resistance to this idea when he visited Athens, and preached Christ's resurrection to the Athenians. The Athenians derided Paul for teaching such an outlandish notion as resurrection. In Acts 17:32, we are told, “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.”
See, Paul's reference to the resurrection of the dead ignited an interesting reaction among the Greeks, who repudiated the idea of a bodily resurrection. Though they embraced the concept of a soul living forever, they sneered at the idea of a bodily resurrection because they considered the body to be evil, and something to be discarded. This concept, known as dualism, was derived from the teachings of Socrates and Plato, who believed that everything physical is evil, everything spiritual is good, and that it really doesn't matter what one does with one's body so long as their spirit is good.
The Athenians' adherence to this philosophy blinded them to the truth of the gospel and the ability to be able to receive God's free gift of salvation for all humankind, in the very same way that an adherence to the philosophy of reincarnation blinds us from being able to accept God's free gift and Jesus's massive sacrifice. After all, if you (and you are both your body and your soul) are going to be resurrected, restored, and proceed to dwell in a blissful, eternal afterlife, then, if reincarnation is true, who's to say that “you” isn't a monk from a thousand years ago, you in your current state now, an astronaut living 2089, a butterfly, a bullfrog, or a brick?
It's as though reincarnation thrusts a giant middle finger up at God, shouting at him that we don't need salvation or resurrection because our souls are drifting along just fine down here, thank you very much, and we've already discovered eternal life—albeit a far less perfect eternal life than what God has promised us if we simply believe in Jesus, and go forth fully inspired to love God and love our neighbors.
What Happens After You Die
So if you're not reincarnated, what does happen after you die?
In summary, when the final breath empties like a wind-blown wisp from the lungs, the heart shudders in the death roes of its final contraction, and that last electrical wave fades from the brain, those who die in Christ will immediately find their souls in his presence, while awaiting the resurrection in their physical bodies that will occur at His return. As Psalms 16:11 says, we long to be near him and experience the fullness of joy and eternal pleasure that his presence offers. And as soon as we are out of this wrap of flesh for a temporary period of time, there is no reason that he will not welcome us into that presence upon our death, rather than making us wait in some kind of dark (or even blissful) state of floating consciousness.
Why do I believe this is what happens?
First, as I write about here, the Bible does not describe eternity in the afterlife some kind of disembodied existence in the heavens, such is not the language of the Scriptures. Rather, as Romans 8:23 says “And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” This verse demonstrates the hope we can have in the eventual redemption of our physical bodies, which is ultimately what the resurrection will be.
That redemption and resurrection, however, does not happen upon our immediate death, but will rather occur upon the return of Christ at the end of the age, as 1 Corinthians 15:22-23 alludes to when Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
But in the meantime, what exactly occurs during that “waiting period” between the death and resurrection?
Many people (including me when, upon reflection, I responded incorrectly to a listener question in this spiritual disciplines podcast, but subsequently studied up more on the matter) believe that we will experience something referred to as “soul sleep” during this time, which is a state of some kind of unconsciousness or soul floating or unattached, ethereal existence, after which we are to be awakened at the resurrection, whether that is a few years, a century or a millennia after our physical bodies have died. However, this seems to stand in stark contrast to what we read in the Bible.
For example, in Luke 23:43, Jesus says to a thief who is dying on the cross beside him that today they would be together in paradise. Later, in Philippians 1:22-24, Paul expresses his hope to, upon his death, “depart and be with Christ.” Even clearer is the testimony of 2 Corinthians 5:1-9:
“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
If you read carefully here, Paul actually identifies three separate stages of existence for those who believe in Jesus: 1) life in this mortal, fleshly “tent,” which is our earthly home—a home in which we, as Romans 8:23 alludes to, groan to await freedom from when our bodies are finally redeemed; 2) an unclothing into nakedness where we go to be at home with the Lord as our bodies rest in the dust of the earth, a home in a spiritual existence without a physical body and a home that is incomplete, but a home that is nonetheless far better than our existence away from the Lord in our present burdened body; and 3) finally, a complete clothing in a heavenly dwelling at the resurrection, and the ultimate, satisfied consummation of our longing to be with the Lord in which our bodies and souls are united once again and we are able to exist eternally on the New Earth, still in the presence of the Lord…as Revelations 21:1-7 tell us:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”
So that is what happens after you die: Your soul is immediately whisked away from your body to be with the Lord in Heaven, you await Jesus's return, upon which you are finally resurrected in a state in which your soul and body are finally united, and that soul and body go on to live for all eternity, soaking up the full joy of a New Heaven and New Earth.
But wait a minute.
There's one glaring issue here: If accepting God's free gift, believing in Jesus, and laying all our burdens and sin at the foot of the cross gives us all the glory and the joy I've described above—a restoration of our new bodies in a New Earth for an exciting afterlife in eternity after our mortal bodies have breathed their last—then what happens if we don't believe?
In short, if we don't believe, then we too will go on to dwell in eternity.
But not with God.
Instead, we will be alone.
Lost and wandering.
Isolated in complete and dark loneliness, staring up at the heavens, painfully gritting our teeth and licking our dry lips as we regret those short decades on this planet during which we decided that all this world's pleasures were far more attractive than a glorious existence with God for all time.
But that topic of what a horrible, hellish existence will be like is one that I'll address at a different time, in a future article. However, I can tell you right now that when you die, and before you are potentially resurrected, there is no second chance. You do not, after your physical death, get another opportunity to be redeemed by believing in Jesus. The Bible is quite clear in Hebrews 9:27 that “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”
The powerful and convicting parable of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 also backs this up:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘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.'”
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'”
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'”
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'”
“‘No, father Abraham,' he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'”
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”
That parable should give you something to seriously think about as you consider your own death. I describe another way to look at your own death in my Marshmallows article, which you can read here.
In the meantime, I challenge you to close your eyes and create your own “near-death experience”. Imagine it. Visualize it in detail. Feel the discomfort. Feel the pain. Feel the separation from your physical body. Put yourself in your own shoes as you die, then, most importantly, dwell upon what will happen afterwards. It's a powerful exercise.
Finally, what about you? What do you think happens after we die? What do you think the Bible tells us about the afterlife? While you're thinking about the entire topic of death, you may also want to consider how you will be remembered, and whether your death will, as the Apostle Paul alluded to be “gain” and truly rock this planet. You can read more about that in my article here. In the meantime, leave your questions, comments, and feedback below. I read them all.