What Happens When We Die?

As a hospital chaplain I'm often asked by Christians and others......what do you believe happens when we die. My answer is something along the lines of.....well, I believe that there is 'life after death' and then there is 'life after life after death'. The second part is what I believe Jesus meant by 'resurrection'...new life in a new heaven and a new earth. What I think is more difficult to explain is the
first part because it is my understanding that Christianity does not believe in disembodied souls and so what are we, where are we in that stage of 'life after death'? Is it good enough to simply say something like 'we are hidden with Christ in God'?

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A Different Dimension of Time

Good question.  There appears to be a conflict which the NT has not worked out.  I think that the previous answers in this Ask-a-Prof have done a good job of showing the diversity on this question in the Bible. 

Some passages indicate direct passage to heaven upon death.  As has been noted, Jesus told one of the thieves on the cross, “This day you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23.43).  This could be considered a special case.  Paul, however, states that if we die, we won’t be found naked but will be swallowed up by life.  Being away from the body is to be at home with the Lord (2 Cor. 5.1-8).  Death is gain because to depart is to be with Christ, which is far better than this life (Phil. 1.20-24).

Elsewhere, however, as is also noted in the other responses, there is a linking of our resurrection with the future coming of Christ (1 Cor. 15.23, 51-52; 1 Thess. 4.14-17).

I wonder if in thinking about life after death, we are entering a different dimension of time in which the time after our own deaths is merged with the future coming of Christ.  As a result, there is no apparent time distinction.  “A day with the Lord is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day” (2 Peter 3.8).  We can fully claim the comfort from our trust in Christ that at death we will be with Christ in heaven.

Author: Stephen Charles Mott
The Power of Death is Destroyed

By means of objective reason no one knows what happens after we die biologically.  Those who have experienced "after death experiences" and returned to ordinary life have reported visions of an all-loving luminosity or luminous figure and on that basis we can extrapolate and say something similar must occur in cases of permanent physical death.  Different religious traditions may provide different answers to the question. 

For classic Christianity with deep roots in the New Testament, we may affirm with St. Paul that upon physical death Christian believers are united with the risen and glorifies Christ even more closely (Phil. 1:22) presumably in greater and full consciousness.  This conviction goes along with the traditional teaching that upon his death Christ entered the realm of Hades to preach the gospel and to release from death's captivity the Old Testament righteous and all the souls who believed in Him.  The significance of Jesus' resurrection as victory over the power of death signals the hope that upon our physical death we are no long captive under the power of death but go directly to "be with Christ" as Paul says in Philippians.

Every Context Conditions Our Answers

Resurrection is the Christian answer to humanity’s perennial quest for immortality.  Resurrection language is religious language and as such symbolic and metaphorical, not scientific and concrete. Therefore, to determine precisely, as you said, “where are we in that stage of ‘life after death’” is impossible because the “where” is not a place but rather a spiritual state, an existence that evades rational definition. One may say, as Paul does in Philippians 1:23, that we are with Christ. And where is Christ? He is sitting at the right hand of God, another metaphor for talking about God’s presence.  At the same time Paul acknowledges that at the last day the dead will be raised and will receive new life (1Thessalonians 4:16). So Paul envisions a time when prior to the final resurrection the souls of the dead are with God but that the resurrection will reunite the souls with the bodies. It is the way the Judeo-Christian tradition found to honor the goodness of the physical body as something that, because created by God, cannot and will not perish.

Does Christianity believe in disembodied souls? No, as a permanent condition it does not, but as a provisional condition before the end it does. For example, Rev 6:9-10 says that John is able to see under the altar in heaven the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had been given. They complain to God that God’s judgment on those who killed them is delayed. They are told to rest a little longer until the remaining martyrs join them.  After that God’s judgment will be executed and the New Jerusalem will come down from heaven ushering in the final day. Here it is assumed that the resurrection takes place and at that moment the souls will receive their bodies in order to live again on earth,  something similar to what happens in 1 Thessalonians 4.

I believe every context conditions the answers we give to theological questions. An academic context will elicit a rational, scientific answer. An ecclesial context will elicit a praxis oriented, practical answer. In the same way a hospital context will influence the way we answer this question. The assumption here is that of life being threatened by physical or psychological danger. Because of that people are expecting to hear certain kinds of answers. An academic or scientific answer to the question of life after death will not cut it. They need practical, existential, comforting answers. 

I believe that your answers are very good: ‘life after life after death’ sounds encouraging and comforting for someone facing the possibility of death. ‘We are hidden with Christ in God’ is also appropriate.  When approached in this way, exploiting its metaphorical and life-giving power, the biblical text becomes an indispensable resource for Christians for coping with the uncertainties of human life.

Author: Osvaldo D. Vena, Th.D.
Lots of Different Biblical Views

Even though all the persons and writers of the New Testament live in “sure and certain hope of the resurrection,” nevertheless they seem to have slightly varying conceptions of “life after death.”  Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels says various things about it, including his answer—when backed into a corner by the Sadducees who did not believe in resurrection—that “when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor give in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25//Matt. 22:30//Luke 20:35-36).  Stephen in Acts 7:55-56 has another conception.  The Apostle Paul has both an earlier conception in I Thess. 4:13-17 and a later one in I Cor. 15:35-54. The various endings of the Synoptic Gospels, and Acts 1:1-11, have various conceptions of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.  The Revelation to John on Patmos presents a detailed and dramatic scenario of what will happen at the End of Days.  And in the late Gospel of John we have both the Johannine Jesus’ various descriptions of what will happen to him, and not one but three resurrection appearances of Jesus in John 20:11-31 plus a fourth one in John 21.

Of all these writers (Jesus was not a “writer”), the one who was earliest—and thus presumably closest to his own original lived experience of the risen Jesus—is the Apostle Paul; and his apparently most reliable detailed description is in I Cor. 15.  Here, like the other New Testament writers, on the one side he avoids any mention of a Platonic “immortality of the soul.”  But on the other side, he rejects any notion of the raising again of our physical flesh: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (I Cor. 15:42,50).  Rather, in I Cor. 15:44, he twice affirms that we will be raised a “spiritual body”: “It [our body in death] is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.  If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”  Such a personal lived experience of the risen Jesus would seem to be at the base of Paul’s own description of the General Resurrection in I Cor. 15, of the later depictions of Jesus’ resurrection appearances by the authors of the Synoptic Gospels, and thus of the best way for ourselves to conceive of our own resurrected life after death.

No Single Voice in Scripture

The scriptures do not speak with a single voice on the issue of what happens at the point when we die. As evidence for an immediate transfer from an earthly existence to a heavenly one, people sometimes quote Jesus saying to the thief on the cross, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). I'm pretty sure it is pastorally irresponsible to tell people for whom this text is meaningful that the verse is not in the earliest and best manuscripts of Luke, but in fact, the text tradition here argues against its inclusion in the gospel. It stays in all the translations because it was in the text early (though probably not originally) and it is such a beloved part of the tradition.

Otherwise, Jesus does indeed say very hopeful, comforting things that apparently pertain to life after death, e.g., "I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2) and "Where I am, there will my servant be also" (John 12:26), but he does not speak to the timing of all this.

Paul has more to say than Jesus about the matter. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, he comforts people who are wondering what will happen to those who have died before Christ's return by telling them that both the dead and the living will be reunited with Christ. In 1 Corinthians as well, Paul speaks of both those who have died and those who are still alive at Christ's coming, saying, "We shall not all sleep [a euphemism for dying], but we shall all be changed.... The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised..." (1 Cor 15:51, RSV).

Overall, I would say that the New Testament favors a general resurrection of the dead, rather than any body-by-body resurrection. I do not find support in the Scripture for the idea that "Grandma is looking down from heaven," as someone in the family graduates from college, or gets married, etc. At the same time, I do not argue with the statement in the moment since what it means is something like, "We miss Grandma; we remember how much she loved you, and we know if she were here, she would be so happy and proud." Any statement that speaks such a message is OK with me.

In other kinds of conversations, when people actually want to know what we can know about this topic from Scripture, I tell people that the New Testament writers (especially Paul) envision a general resurrection of the dead, so that all of us who have died rise at the same time, when Christ returns. What happens in the meantime? I imagine that time to be something like the time that passes when you are under anesthetic. You fall asleep, and in what seems the next moment, you wake up. Hours have passed but you have no sense of that. You just close your eyes, and then you open them to a new reality. This is admittedly a metaphor from modern times, yet it strikes me as a pretty good image for how that time between death and resurrection will be experienced.

Author: Mary Hinkle Shore

You're correct that the hope held out in the New Testament and in classical Christian faith is God's promise of personal resurrrection, Jesus' resurrection serving as the guarantee and model for what is awaited.

The basis for personal resurrection lies in the faithfulness and power of God, however, not particularly in the intrinsic properties of human beings.  So, e.g., an "immortal soul" is never imputed to humans in the Bible.  "Immortality" in the Bible is purely God's attribute and God's gift.  People may have "souls" (or be souls in death), but whatever a "soul" is it is pictured as incomplete without resurrection.  For example, in Revelation 6:9-11, the author portrays "the souls of those slain for the word of God and the testimony they had given" resting "under the altar" in heaven.  But these souls seem as impatient as the earthly elect for God to consummate redemption and judgement.  They're told to "rest a little longer" until that consummation.

Perhaps we should imagine the dead as "resting" in God's plan and provision.  In our time, we can digitize a picture or a song and store it on a CD/DVD, and then print it out again or bring music to "life" converting the digital form back into sound.  Maybe that gives us some imaginative scope for allowing that God would be able to hold his own in abeyance safely until the time for full redemption, which includes a resurrection body.

Author: Larry W. Hurtado
Blog Posts

I just posted a couple of related themes in two blogs I contribute to.  The first follows Romans:
He Is Risen

The second is a bit more theological:
Why Did Jesus Have To Rise?

Maybe these will help.

Your Answer Is Already Good

I think the questioner's own answer to the question is a good one.  Whether or not there is any aspect of us that 'survives' after physical death (which I think Christians differ about), Christians believe that God can remake us in a new order, so that we do not just 'survive' but enjoy a wholly new life.  Problem then arises, How can this new state still be 'us'?  New Testament ideas about what Paul calls the 'spiritual body' (a deliberate paradox or contradiction in terms) seem to emphasize that we don't know. 

The resurrection appearances of Jesus in the Gospels are compatible with Paul's idea - he is in some sense physical but in some sense non-physical; the same Jesus yet utterly transformed.  Very hard to know exactly what this means in practice, but the Christian assurance is that God will somehow contrive to reaffirm us eternally.

Eternal Life and Life After Death are Different

The question of "eternal life" and "life after death" are not, at least in terms of the New Testament sources, necessarily the same question.  In John's gospel, Jesus' promise of "eternal life" seems to point to life before death, a fullness of life, incarnating a deep experience of God's Spirit.  And, with apologies for disappointing our good questioner, Paul does suggest that there is some "in between" state between death and the final resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15. 12 - 58). 

And, again, with (Paul's) apologies to the certainties of the questioner, Paul does affirm that at the final resurrection, we--meaning, for the apostle, those whom God has chosen--will assume a "spiritual body."  Does this mean we are "disembodied souls" after our death and until Christ's coming?  Hard to say, since "soul" is not a category Paul introduces here.  There are other images of what happens to us after death in the New Testament, not one formulation.

I would suggest that a consolation that moves to the heart of the matter, and does so without invoking the complicated language of "spiritual bodies" or "disembodied souls" is the apostle's claim in Romans 8:  "Nothing. . .will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus."  Nothing, at any time--in this life or beyond it.  What exactly this means, in conceptual terms, seems far less significant than the claim of an unswerving, abiding confidence that we will "abide" in God's love.  Sooner or later, we will all come to know exactly which of the claims or conjectures in the scriptures is true, and at that point such knowledge will be irrelevant.  "For then we shall see. . .face to face" (1 Cor. 13. 12).





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