What Really Happens When You Die?

references from the New American Standard Bible unless noted.

Why is it Important?
Before embarking on an exploration of the state of the dead, it is important to understand why the issue needs to be explored. After all, it is easy to say that once you are dead, there is no opportunity to accept Christ as your Savior, so what difference does the state of the dead make?

Many denominations believe that the righteous dead immediately go to Christ as disembodied spirits. While this may seem to be a benign idea, it destroys the need for resurrection so strongly preached in the NT. Others, such as Roman Catholics, insist that the dead go to a place of purging (Purgatory), where their sins are burned out of them by terrible fires, the pain of which is beyond all imagination, and, when this cleansing is complete, they then go to the “beatific vision” where they live forever with Christ. In addition to this, the RCC teaches that various “saints” are alive and in heaven where they can be prayed to to gain intercessory “advantage”.

Clearly, if the dead have not gone on to a spirit existence, these ideas are incorrect. And if prayers are being offered to non-existent heavenly saints, they are worse than useless, they are idolatry. Idolatry is such a direct offense to God that it gets more mention in the Bible than almost any other sin. Certainly, it is something to be avoided. Therefore, we must be careful to examine the Biblical understanding of the state of the dead if we are to avoid committing such a sin unwittingly.

Basic Principles
In studying any Biblical subject, we must be aware that if there are many references to that topic, they will not all necessarily be presented clearly. Some statements may be metaphorical. Others may be direct. Some will be poetic, and others parabolic. Thus, we must seek out the clearest statements on the subject, and evaluate them first. If there are direct statements which do not have confounding contexts, then we may rightly expect that those statements represent the basic truth of the matter. We may then proceed to less clear material, using the more clear to illuminate the less clear. We must never reverse this process, because to do so is to deny the truth of clear statements of scripture. The only time when it is proper to reverse an understanding based on a clear statement is when we discover that there is a confounding context which was not earlier appreciated.

First Statements
Our first clear statement on the state of the dead comes from God’s pronouncement of the curse on Adam.

19 By the sweat of your face You shall eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return. ” Gen 3:19

Notice that God tells Adam that he is dust. God doesn’t say that Adam’s body is dust, but that Adam is dust. Similarly, God tells him that he will return to dust. There is no hint that part of Adam will go anywhere else. All of Adam will go to the ground. This ultimate destiny of man is revisited by Solomon.

19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.
20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.
21 Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?
22 And I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him? Eccl 3:19-22

Solomon points out that both men and animals have exactly the same fate. They will return to dust. Then he rhetorically asks if anyone knows that the “breath” of man goes upward, while the “breath” of animals goes downward. He uses the Hebrew word “ruach” for the “breath” of both man and animals implying that there is no difference between them. This makes it impossible to say that he is speaking of a “soul” or “spirit” (as in the disembodied essence of a man) which goes to God. This becomes more clear in verse 22 when Solomon uses the same rhetorical form to state that it is not possible for the dead man to see anything that happens after his death.

Solomon expands on this idea later in the book.

4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.
5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.
6 Indeed their love, their hate, and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. Eccl 9:4-6

Here Solomon tells us that you have hopes as long as you are alive. Once you die, all your hopes die. This does not say that there is no hope of resurrection, but rather, your awareness of your hopes and dreams ceases, because the dead are unaware (v. 5). He then emphasizes the point by saying that all involvement of the dead with the affairs of the living has “perished” (v. 6). The Hebrew word “abad“, here translated “perish”, describes a complete and total destruction, so that nothing whatever is left. As in our previous texts, there is no hint here of a disembodied “soul” which survives the death of the body.

Explicit references to death in the OT continue with the Psalms.

17 The dead do not praise the LORD,… Psalm 115:17a

4 His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish. Psalm 146:4 (KJV)

Many suggest that the souls of the dearly departed are taken up into heaven to be with Jesus. If they were in heaven they would be continually praising God (Rev 4:8-11; 15:2-3; 19:1-7). Yet here we are explicitly told that they cannot be in heaven, because the dead do not praise the Lord. The Psalmist makes it even more explicit.

5 For there is no mention of Thee in death; In Sheol who will give Thee thanks? Psalm 6:5

This quick survey has not been exhaustive, but it shows that in explicit passages regarding the state of the dead, there is no hint of a separation of man into parts, where one dies and the other goes to heaven (or some other place). This latest passage introduces a name for the place of the dead: Sheol.

Figurative Descriptions of Death
Sheol is sometimes referred to as the “pit”. This is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead (Is 28:15, 18). Throughout the sixty-five uses of the term in the OT, there runs a steady thread. Death is to be feared. Going down to Sheol is not a pleasant thought. There is no hint of a beautiful heavenly place where the “essence of a man” goes while his body goes to the grave. If that were the case, there would be no fear of death. Paul, a Jew brought up with a thorough education in the OT would not have written of the sting of death or the victory of the grave (1 Cor 15:55, quoting Hosea 13:14) if death was something to look forward to. The Psalmist refers to the “terrors of Sheol” in Psalm 116:3. And just as the explicit statements about death say that there is no consciousness in death, so do the explicit statements about Sheol, the place of the dead.

10 Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. Eccl 9:10

Solomon was not content to simply say that the dead do not know anything (Eccl 9:5), he says it four different ways here! Not only are the dead without brain function, there is no brain function of any type by any person or spirit in the place of the dead. It is tough to be more emphatic about this.

As we study the less direct or figurative statements, we must keep in mind that those statements cannot contradict what we have already discovered. If there are contradictions between statements on the same subject, one of two things must be true: 1) we do not understand the statements because there is some element of them which we have misunderstood, or 2) the Bible is not the word of God. Since we all agree that the Bible is the word of God, we have to reassess our understanding if there are apparent contradictions. And, as we have noted before, when clear didactic statements are present, they are the standard against which all other statements must be understood.

It is common in the OT to refer to death figuratively as a “sleep”. We see thirty-six statements (not counting variants) where someone is referred to by the form “so and so slept with his fathers” (1 Ki 2:10, etc.) In every case, the reference is to the death of the individual. The verb commonly used is “shachav“, which means to lie down to rest. This is seen in God’s statement to Moses that he will not enter the promised land.

16 And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; Deut 31:16a

It is important to note that the Lord Himself is using this metaphor. Another Hebrew word used is “yashen“. It directly refers to sleep in the common sense. This is a natural nightly phenomenon from which the individual awakes in the morning.

3 Consider and answer me, O LORD, my God; Enlighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, Psalm 13:3

We should note that the literal translation is “lest I sleep the death”. The words “sleep of” are added. It is impossible not to note that death is regarded as a form of sleep. However, it is a sleep from which man could not awaken from on his own. The prospect of resurrection, while not as obvious as in NT discussions, is intrinsic to the metaphor.

This leads to two aspects of death for which the sleep metaphor which is highly important. First, it is a natural state of unconsciousness. During this period there is no purposeful activity. Second, it leads to an expected arousal, implying the assurance of a later awakening. This is the prophecy and the promise given to Daniel.

2 “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

13 “But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age.” Daniel 12:2, 13

We first note the combination of Gen 3:19 with the metaphor of “sleep”. Gabriel is clearly telling Daniel that the location of the sleep is the “dust” from which man came, not some heavenly realm. Then Daniel is to go to his own rest, secure in the knowledge of his ultimate awakening to eternal life. But we must be most emphatic in noting that Daniel’s reward comes at the end of time, not at his death. There is no hint of any reward prior to the resurrection.

Examples of the Awakening
In the NT, we find this same metaphor in use. At Christ’s death, a number of saints were resurrected.

52 and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised;
53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. Matt 27:52-3

The “bodies” of the sleeping saints were raised. Since they walked around Jerusalem, it is clear that the whole person was raised. We have no indication that there was a “joining” of disembodied souls with the bodies, so this nicely fits the metaphor. A similar form is used in the familiar story of Lazarus.

11 This He said, and after that He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.”
12 The disciples therefore said to Him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”
13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep.
14 Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, John 11:11-14

At first, Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is sleeping. They make the natural conclusion that he will wake up. Jesus then clears up their confusion by saying that Lazarus is dead. In the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, we find this metaphor again.

14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” Luke 7:14

The verb translated “arise” is “egiero“, which literally means “to wake up”. This verb is also used in the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:41). This repetitive use of the sleep metaphor for death is no accident. Jesus properly understood sleep as a time when the dead were utterly unaware, but could awaken to the voice of God. These three examples bring us to our next point.

Advocates of the idea that the disembodied essence of a man goes to heaven at the death of the body have a problem. If these persons died, went to heaven, and returned to their bodies, they should have a tale to tell. Yet not one of the three had such a story. In fact, they had no story whatever. They give no evidence of having had any awareness whatever while dead. When we look at the stories of resurrected individuals in the Bible (1 Ki 17:17-24, 2 Ki 4:25-37, Luke 7:11-15, Luke 8:41-56, Acts 9:36-41; 20:9-11), not one of these people has any story of heaven. In order to believe that the “soul” goes to heaven at the death of the body, we must believe that all these people saw the most unimaginably beautiful place in the universe, met the most glorious person (God), and had nothing whatever to say on their return. This proposition boggles the mind. After all, the leper who was healed (Mark 1:40-45) told everyone who would hear of the miracle, after Jesus instructed him not to! To not tell of infinitely greater wonders that would have been seen is simply impossible.

One more resurrection must be examined here. In this case, we have direct testimony as to whether the dead person’s soul went to heaven. On Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene went to Christ’s tomb to anoint His body. This was about thirty-six hours after He died on the cross.

17 Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” John 20:17

Jesus had laid in the tomb dead. He tells Mary that He had not been to heaven. If the “soul” of a dead person immediately goes to heaven, why didn’t Jesus’ “soul”? Could it be that there is no separate “essence of a man” to go to heaven? Could it be that the texts we reviewed which plainly say that death is a sleep are true? Jesus used the metaphor, and He meant it. The scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35). But what about Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross?

42 And he was saying, “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!”
43 And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:42-43

Jesus promised salvation to the thief. Our question here is: Just when would he receive the reward? If we believe the translation, the thief should have received it that very day. But notice the key phrase. The thief was to be “with Me” that day in Paradise. Jesus told Mary that he had not gone to paradise. Therefore, if the reward was to be that day, Jesus lied.

The solution to this problem lies in the fact that the Greek text contains no punctuation marks. When this passage was translated into English in the seventeenth century, it was translated consistent with the theology of the day. The issue of the state of the dead was a topic the reformers had not given any systematic study to. They still held to the view handed down by the RCC, and believed in the immortality of the soul. Therefore it was natural for them to put the comma where they did. But if the comma is placed after the word “today”, a totally different understanding comes out. Then we see Jesus emphatically promising that the thief will be resurrected at the second coming, just like Daniel. And when we back up one verse, we see that that is exactly when the thief expected his reward.

An Excursus on Skeptics
Certain apologists for the immortality of the soul argue that this is not correct, since the Jews of the century before Christ believed in the dual view of humanity: body and soul which separate at death. There are two basic answers for this objection. First, Jesus spent his entire ministry correcting false ideas. In this case, he dealt with the state of the dead repeatedly. After all, the Pharisees and the Sadducees had a major argument over whether there would be a resurrection. So Jesus invested a great deal of effort in teaching the truth.

Second, the concept of dualism was not Jewish. Throughout the OT (the last books of which were written about 400 years before Christ), there is a consistent understanding of death. We have explored the outline of it above. The first century BC Jews imported pagan ideas into their thinking. In particular, they brought in the Platonic dualism of “body and soul”. Plato believed that the flesh was evil, but that the spiritual part of man was good. Therefore, when man died, the evil body was destroyed, but the good “spirit” would return to its origin in the spirit world. This belief system grew into what we know as gnosticism. Much of the thinking was adopted from those who surrounded the Jews.

It is of note that when the gospel went to the Gentiles, large numbers of them were former gnostics. It is impossible for a new convert to lose all of his old ideas immediately. Also, when the apostles died, their writings became the primary source of teaching for new converts. Thus, many gnostic ideas crept into Christianity. The dualism promoted by Plato found its way into the interpretive literature. Since the ancients did not have the easy study tools we have today, it was far more difficult to root out such heresy, particularly when there seemed to be more pressing issues such as the human and divine natures of Christ to be understood. The pagan Platonic dualism view of the nature of man crept in, and has hung on for millennia.

The Testimony of Peter
We now visit the sermon Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, immediately after the anointing with the Holy Spirit. In it, Peter explicitly talks about the state of the dead. (I quote the KJV because it properly translates the Greek of this passage.)

29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.

34 For David is not ascended into the heavens:… Acts 2:29, 34a KJV

Notice what Peter says about David. He is (present tense) dead and buried. He is not (present tense) ascended into the heavens. In other words, when the writer of 1 Kings says that “David slept with his fathers” (1 Ki 2:10), he meant it! By the time Peter preached this sermon, David had had a few hundred years to make the journey to heaven, if that was the nature of death. But Peter flatly says that David is still in his grave. In other words, David did not have an immortal soul which went to heaven on his death. Just to cover all the bases, we should note that this sermon was ten days after Jesus ascended the final time to heaven. Those who would have us believe that all the saints were held in Limbo until the cross have a problem. David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), and fifty days after the cross, ten days after the ascension, he is still in his grave. Either Peter is wrong and the statements about David (prophet, type of Christ, man after God’s own heart, etc.) are wrong, or David did not have an immortal soul. Since either of the first two choices requires that the Bible be false, it is obvious that the only true choice is that David remains asleep in the grave.

The Testimony of Paul
Paul gives us two passages where he refers to the state of the dead at length: 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor 15.

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first.
17 Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. 1 Thess 4:13-17

In this passage, Paul makes several statements. First, he is using “sleep” to describe a condition where others grieve. This cannot be natural sleep. Then he tells us that the living will be second in line to the “sleepers” when Christ comes. After he introduces the second coming, he revisits what he just said, and says that the first in line are “the dead”. He makes it clear by this exposition that he regards death as a sleep, just as we have explored earlier. In 1 Cor 15, Paul uses “egiero” nineteen times to describe the resurrection. As we studied earlier, this verb means to wake up from sleep. There can be no doubt that Paul regarded death as a sleep.

A couple of other points are worth noting. If Paul believed in the blissful condition of the dead with Christ, here was a perfect chance to tell the living why they should not grieve over their dead. The fact that he does not do so adds strength to our conclusion that the dead are sleeping, not in heaven. Also, the fact that the living saints meet Christ at the same time as the resurrected saints strongly indicates that the dead have not yet met Christ.

A Second Excursus on Skeptics
There are three major passages which skeptics point to to try to turn the scriptures to their favor. As we examine them, we must remember that if a passage seems to contradict a plain statement, we must use the plain statement to explain the less plain. In other words, we cannot overrule the explicit statements which deny the existence of a disembodied “soul” just to suit a desired conclusion. With this in mind, let us consider two statements by Paul and one by Christ.

The first is the text we just quoted from 1 Thessalonians. In it, the English says that “God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” By “bring with Him”, many say that it means that they come from heaven. However, this cannot be true, because since the dead awake to the shout, then rise to meet God in the air. There is no hint of “souls” joining bodies in this passage. Also, the Greek verb “ago” translated “bring” is better translated “lead”. This paints a picture of all the saints being led up into heaven, and is consistent with what we have found already. Paul’s emphasis here is that those who have died will not be left behind.

6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord–
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight–
8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. 2 Cor 5:6-8

In this passage, Paul seems to be saying that if you are absent from the body (i.e. dead) then you are with God. Many Christians, Protestant and Catholic alike, interpret this text this way. Unfortunately, to take it this way, it is necessary to deny everything we have studied so far. Since a number of the texts we have explored have been explicit about the fact that there is no “soul” which goes to heaven at death (remember Peter’s sermon?) this understanding must be wrong.

The answer to the dilemma is to accept the plain meaning of plain scripture, and apply it to this text. Logically, from what Paul says, it is impossible to be with God while in this body (Remember 1 Cor 15, and Paul’s discussion of spiritual and fleshly bodies). Therefore, if one is with Christ, he is not in this body; and if one is in this body, he is not with Christ. Since the final objective of all Christians is to be with Christ, it is obviously more desirable to leave this body behind and be with Christ. But what this text does not do is say that at the moment of death, your “soul” leaves the body to be with Christ. This would have Paul contradicting himself. What he is stating is a final objective. He is not making any statement as to the time course of the events.

Our final classic problem text is Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus. (Please excuse the length of the quotation.)

19 “Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day.
20 “And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores,
21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.
22 “Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.
23 “And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.’
25 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.
26 ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’
27 “And he said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father’s house–
28 for I have five brothers– that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment. ‘
29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
30 “But he said, ‘No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’
31 “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'” Luke 16:19-31

Apologists for the immortality of the soul insist that this proves a state of conscious awareness after death. They say that this story is not a parable because it lacks the typical features of a parable. In particular, they say that no parable ever uses a specific name for one of its characters, so it cannot be a parable.

If this story reflects reality, then every Biblical statement which directly addresses the state of the dead is false. Since that would make God a liar, that cannot be true. On the other hand, if this is a parable, then it fits the form of an illustration designed to make a point. In this case, we find it in the last verse. ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’ How can we be sure that this is in fact a parable?

When we examine the story closely, we find that for it to be true, there are several impossible things to be believed. (Like the Mad Hatter, who believed three impossible things before breakfast?) First, heaven and hell (or Purgatory) must be literally within arm’s reach. How else would Lazarus be able to reach with his wet finger to touch the rich man? It is impossible to imagine that the saints in heaven would be comfortable watching their neighbors being tortured by flames. Next, while the two places must be within such close proximity, there is a great chasm between the two which prevents contact. In other words, it is both within arm’s reach and not within arm’s reach. Finally, we should remember that in the proposed afterlife, the rich man and Lazarus are both spirits. How can a spirit with no body have eyes, a tongue, or a finger?

This story is a parable, with its concluding line being the reason for the story. No other option is available. Jesus made it clear to the Pharisees that if they did not listen to His teaching, there would be no more hope for them. Their hearts would be too hard.

Conclusion
The explicit statements of scripture make it very clear that when man dies, he enters a sleep-like state where there is no consciousness. He will awake from that state when God calls him at the resurrection. The saints will rise to meet Him in the air, and the wicked will call for the rocks to fall on them. Later the wicked will all be raised to judgment and condemnation.

The beauty of this hope is all-surpassing. We have an opportunity to follow in Christ’s footsteps, through the grave into glory. But this message is dimmed down to nothing if we accept the un-biblical doctrine of the immortal soul. This makes the resurrection a meaningless game of Legos where God simply assembles the pieces at the end of time. The fact is that the resurrection is a miracle of marvelous proportions, and we should never diminish it by human inventions.

13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised;
14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 1 Cor 15:13-14

We will rise in that day. Those who sleep will awake. What a wonderful hope! Let us not demean it with cunningly devised fables (2 Pet 1:16) or doctrines of devils (1 Tim 4:1).