What happens when we die?

What happens when we die?

Speculation

“There are only two things that are certain in life: death and taxes.”

Whilst many people use this phrase light-heartedly, it is indeed an unavoidable truth that death is something we cannot escape, whatever our background or circumstances. Countless philosophers throughout history have sought to answer the age-old question of “What happens when we die?” with popular speculation largely revolving around the idea of an ‘immortal soul’, whether this be reincarnated as another creature or sent to heaven or hell.

But is this really one of life’s great mysteries, or is there a source of truth where we can find the answer?

The Bible’s truth

The authority of the Bible as the word of God makes it the one place we can go to find the divine answer which is both consistent and credible. Because God made man, He knows what man is, and because He controls the future, He knows what man will become.

 

The creation account tells us that:

“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the word soul in the above verse should be more accurately translated  as ‘creature’, referring to a living, breathing being. Unfortunate translations such as this have led many to believe that humans have an immortal soul, however, Bible teaching is quite different as the following verses show:

“For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts...as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they all have one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast…” Ecclesiastes 3:19
“Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Ezekiel 18:4

It is true that the Bible does refer to both heaven and hell, but it is important to study scripture in order to understand what is really meant by these concepts. We learn that heaven is the dwelling place of God through quotes such as Solomon’s prayer in which he says:

“...hear thou from heaven thy dwelling place...” 2 Chronicles 6:30)

But God himself states plainly that,

“...no man hath ascended up to heaven [except]...the Son of man which is in heaven” John 3:13

It is obvious then that the Son of man (Jesus Christ) is the only person to dwell in heaven alongside God, and we therefore cannot hope to ascend there at death. This principle is illustrated in The New Testament by Paul the apostle, who said:

“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… For David is not ascended into the heavens…” Acts 2:29, 34

The related idea of hell as a place of eternal fiery torment for the unrighteous is another concept invented by man. Both the original Hebrew word ‘sheol’ and the equivalent Greek word (from which the New Testament is translated), ‘hades’ literally mean ‘the grave’.

Dust to dust

“The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground…” Genesis 2:7

This scriptural statement teaches us unmistakably of about the origins of man and later, after his sinful fall in the Garden of Eden, God cursed the whole of humankind by saying,

“...for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Genesis 3:19

The message is simple: at death the creation process is reversed. Man’s ultimate fate is described in this way throughout scripture, for example in Ecclesiastes:

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit [the Hebrew for ‘spirit’ here simply means ‘breath’] shall return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7

It is unreasonable to argue that an inanimate substance like dust can think or know, so man in death must therefore have absolutely no awareness or consciousness. Our reasoning is supported by the Bible:

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

This complete loss of mental activity is reiterated throughout scripture, and perfectly summed up once more in the book of Ecclesiastes:

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” Ecclesiastes 9:5

Life, the apostle James says, is a

“…vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” James 4:14

Even faithful men, such as King David already mentioned, are shown to meet this same end:

“For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption.” Acts 13:36

Both of these quotes show that the New Testament is of course in complete harmony with the Old Testament.

Is there any hope?

Despite advances in science, it is still impossible for mankind to bring a decayed body to life again. However, God has revealed that there is hope for those that believe in Him. This hope is offered to us through Jesus, His son, as we read in the gospel of John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” John 3:16

We find then that God has offered us an escape from eternity in the grave - but only if we do His will. To understand what He requires of us we must read His word - all of it. We will discover that Jesus has promised to return to the earth to set up a kingdom for God, and that he will raise from the dead to eternal life those who have been faithful to him, as we read:

“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life…” Daniel 12:2

However, for the ‘wicked’ and those that do not believe, the Psalmist writes that,

“…the wicked shall perish...” Psalm 37:20

Our source of hope, therefore, is to follow God’s word in the Bible, for,

“...the salvation of the righteous is of the Lord…” Psalm 37:39