What happens when you die?
What a great question… and, let’s be honest, not one of us will escape its relevance!
Pastors hear a lot of strange things at funerals where claims are made about where the recently deceased loved one is – “my darling is now an angel… or rainbow, or a star”. I’ve learned that funerals are times when sentimentality can masquerade as spirituality… and people don’t know what to believe.
The early Christians knew what to believe. They were a people of hope. The hope they had enabled them to face incredible hardship and unspeakable persecution. The question is, of course: Do you know this hope? What do you think happens when you die? Are you immediately resurrected to be with Jesus?
The Bible makes it clear that the resurrection won’t happen until Jesus returns (John 5:28-29; Acts 10:42). Jesus, incidentally, was the first one resurrected. He is called, rather delightfully, the “firstfruit” (1 Corinthians 15:20). In this sense, Jesus is the pathfinder, the one who shows that resurrection life is possible.
Here’s another question: When Jesus turned to the penitent rebel being crucified next to him, assuring him with the words, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’ (Luke 23:43); where is paradise? It can’t be God’s eternal kingdom that will be created when God combines a renewed earth and heaven together (Matthew 19:28; Revelation 21:1-3). The Bible makes it clear that this new kingdom won’t be inaugurated until after Jesus returns and God’s final judgement has been pronounced (Revelation 20:12-13).
So let’s talk about what happens to those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. When they die, God anticipates their final judgement by taking them to heaven (or paradise). This is a glorious place where they wait for Jesus to come again to judge the living and the dead (Hebrews 9:27). In other words, it is the “waiting room” for God’s new kingdom. Hints of this waiting period are given in Revelation 6:9-11 where the faithful who had been martyred ask how long they will need to wait until God brings his final judgement on evil.
When the godly are finally judged, God will reward his people according to the good things they have done on earth (Matthew 5:11-12; 6:19-20; 16:27, Mark 9:41: 1 Corinthians 3:11-15). This judgement is not to determine who is “saved” as Godly people are already saved and made right for God’s kingdom. The judgement of Christians is to determine ‘special’ rewards. And after judgement, the adventures of a resurrected life in God’s kingdom begin.
Note: When the word ‘heaven’ is used in the New Testament in reference to the afterlife, it was not necessarily referring specifically to God’s kingdom, or “paradise”. It could refer to either. Heaven often meant ‘up there with God’ – in a general sense.
We, whom God created, are not going to have a better idea of justice and love than the God who created us.
Now let’s look at what will happen to the ungodly. It will be of no surprise that their pathway is a mirror image of that of the godly – one that has a very different outcome. When an ungodly person dies, their final judgement is anticipated, and they are sent to wait in Hades (hell). This is a place of punishment and regret (Luke 16:19-24) where they wait for Jesus’ second coming and God’s final judgement (Jn 5:28-29). When this happens, they will be judged and confirmed to be ineligible for eternal life in God’s kingdom. For them, only eternal death awaits (Matthew 10:28; 2 Peter 3:7). This is referred to as the ‘second death’ in Revelation (Revelation 20:6).
The big question (about which theologians are divided) is: What happens to the ungodly eternally? Are they annihilated as if they never existed, or are they punished eternally as Matthew 25:46; Revelation 14:12 and 20:10-15 suggest? What do you think? There is a sense, of course, that not living with the love, adventure and creativity of God in eternity is an eternal punishment.
Whatever is understood, two things must be remembered. The first is that God is perfectly loving and just. We, whom God created, are not going to have a better idea of justice and love than the God who created us. The second is that gratuitous evil should receive no mercy from any God who is good.
We also need to remember that God’s agenda is that we be saved, not sent to hell. God did not intend anyone to go to hell (1 Thessalonians 5:9). It was to save us from hell that Jesus came. Hell was designed primarily for the Devil and his evil spirits (Matthew 25:41). In order for a person to go to hell, he or she will need to reject God’s purpose for their lives (2 Peter 3:9). Sadly, this is something many people choose (Matthew 7:13-14). We need to understand that God will respect anyone’s decision to have nothing to do with him, both now and eternally.
But in the meantime… all those who rejoice in God’s love and lordship have hope.
Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.
He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net
Nick told his life story to Eternity https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/deadly-storms-heroin-addicts-cancer-and-my-faith/