Ministry Training Paper: What Happens When We Die?
Adapted from the School of Christian Ministry.
13th December 2010
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What happens when we die is not a subject often discussed in the Bible. What is discussed seems paradoxical. So:
1 There are references to awaiting the resurrection of our bodies at the return of the Lord (eg 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ff; Romans 8:17 ff; Philippians 3:20)
2 There are references to being with Christ from the time of our death (eg Luke 23:43; Luke 16:22 - 31; 2 Corinthians 5:6 - 8)
Because these two views seem in conflict Christians have always had difficulty working out precisely what will happen. Some have emphasised the first set of references and spoken of death as a ‘soul sleep’ or something. They try to re-interpret the words of Jesus and Paul to avoid the idea of death leading to the presence of God. (E.g. they say paradise is not heaven or Abraham’s bosom is not heaven). However, none of these alternatives are adequate. On the other hand some people have so emphasised the reality of being with the Lord in death as to ignore or deny the return of Jesus and the resurrection of the body on the last day. So how do we hold to both these truths?
It goes back to understanding the nature of death. Death is fundamentally the wages of sin (i.e. the wages sin pays). It is being cut off from God. The consequence of this spiritual death is our physical dying. So the day Adam ate of the fruit he died - but yet he still went on living physically. And we all died because of him (Romans 5; 15; 1 Corinthians 15:22) even though we are still living now. Yet Jesus died our death for us and thus we have already died (2 Corinthians 5:14 - 15; Colossians 3:3, 2:20). Already we have died and come to new life in Christ. A hidden and spiritual life (Colossians 3:1 - 4; John 5:24; 8:51) is given to the Christian. We still die physically and we still may await the resurrection of our bodies but we can never be separated from Christ - not even by death (Romans 8:38). So when we die, we die “in Christ” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Though our bodies die, and are already dying or dead, yet our spirits are alive and our bodies will be given new life also (Romans 8:10 - 11). So death holds no terror for us as we see that in death we will even more be with the Lord (Philippians 1:19 - 24).
“Heaven” is where Christ is. To be in his presence, in fellowship with him is to be in “Heaven”. Thus already as born again Christians we have been raised up spiritually to be in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). We are not there bodily and will not be until the restoration of all things when there will be a new heaven and a new earth and where we will live with God properly. However, we have already come to the heavenly Jerusalem (Hebrews 12:22) and it is in this heavenly city that we will live eternally (Revelation 21:1 - 4).
The view that this world is eternal, life is immortal and that upon our death we go to heaven without Christ ever returning, raising up His people, and recreating the universe is in error. However, pushing that further to say that in our death we are not in Christ’s presence, better than we are in life, that somehow we are cut off from the Christ and only awaiting the future resurrection does not account for Philippians 1:21; Luke 23:43; 10:22 - 31; 2 Corinthians 5:6 - 8; Romans 8:38; Colossians 3:3; John 8:51.
What does the Bible teach about:
Rewards for Christians?
Judgement for Christians?