What Happens When We Die?
What Happens When We Die?
A few months ago, Google made this announcement:
Not many of us like thinking about death—especially our own. But making plans for what happens after you're gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So today, we're launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account. The feature is called Inactive Account Manager—not a great name, we know—and you'll find it on your Google Account settings page. … We hope that this new feature will enable you to plan your digital afterlife—in a way that protects your privacy and security—and make life easier for your loved ones after you're gone.
That may be the answer to the question "What happens when I die?" as far as your Google accounts are concerned. But the question I want to address this morning is what happens to us. Or the person we love when the phone call comes in the middle of the night, or when the doctor says "We did all we could," or when the last, struggling breath is taken at hospice.
Paul gives us the answer in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul is writing to believers living in the Greek city of Thessalonica. They are living within the Roman Empire. It is a world of persecution. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is dangerous. It could cost you your life. It did for many of the first followers of Jesus. It still does today in many parts of the world.
Regardless of whether death comes through illness, or through a body that's worn out with age, or through an act of violence—this is what happens when we die. Verse 13 introduces this section. Paul begins with two negative statements. There are two things he does not want for us.
The reality of death
Paul wants his readers to know spiritual truth. We need truth. Knowing the truth is essential. It establishes trust in relationships, motivates us to live different lives, and allows us to serve effectively. Here it answers our fears regarding death.
This passage gives us the truth regarding death. This passage—as well as the New Testament—makes a distinction between the body and the soul. When we ask what happens when we die, we're asking two questions: What happens to my soul? What happens to my body? The "soul" is the non-physical "me" that lives in this body. It is my personality, my identity. It is that unique person God has made me.
Several passages make it clear that at death the souls of believers enter heaven. They enter into the presence of God. If you are a believer, you will close your eyes on earth and find yourself in the presence of Christ. Our identity is not lost. You will still be you, but without sin.
In Revelation, there is a description of believers in heaven who had been martyred for their faith. They know what happened; they know how they died.
We retain our memories. We will know each other.
The second question though, refers to our bodies. That question is the focus of this passage. Verse 13 describes death for the body as sleep. That same language is used in verses 14 and 15. The soul doesn't sleep; the soul of the believer is in heaven—very much awake; it is the body that sleeps. Sleep is a common metaphor for death in the Bible. Sleep is temporary; death for our bodies is temporary. Sleep is followed by waking up; death will be followed by a resurrection.
Daniel 12:2 says, "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt."
But at death the body sleeps. Our word "cemetery" comes from the Greek word for sleep. A cemetery is "a place of sleep." When you bury someone you love you're putting that person to bed. For believers it is the ultimate beauty sleep. But Paul doesn't want his readers to not know the truth regarding death.
The hope beyond our grief
There is a second thing Paul does not want for his readers—regarding grief. We do grieve. Mourning is natural; it is emotionally necessary. It is appropriate. Jesus wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus. But we don't grieve as those without hope.
Garrison Keillor wrote this as he reviewed someone else's book regarding death. I am unclear whether this is Keillor's perspective, or simply the perspective of the author. But Keillor said this:
A man can fear his own death but what is he anyway? Simply a mass of neurons. The brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely "a story the brain tells itself." Individuality is an illusion. Scientists find no physical evidence of "self" [although not physical, many do find evidence of "self"]—it is something we've talked ourselves into. We do not produce thoughts; thoughts produce us. "The I of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar." Stripped of the Christian narrative, we gaze out on a landscape that, while fascinating, offers nothing that one could call hope.
But that is not us. We have hope. We have a confidence regarding the future. And we have this hope (v. 14) because of the gospel. The gospel changes everything.
The gospel consists of two statements:
- Jesus died for our sins.
- He was raised from the dead.
In the NT the resurrection is both a proof and a promise. It is the proof that the Father accepts Jesus' death for our sins. It is also a promise to us that we will be resurrected. Jesus' resurrection is the first of its kind. But it's not the last. But because of his resurrection we will also be resurrected.
What follows in this section is how that will take place. John Stott suggests we understand this in terms of 4 R's.
The model of Christ's return and resurrection
To understand what happens when we die we have to go to the second coming. Jesus Christ is going to return to this planet (suggested in v. 14; v. 16: it is the Lord himself who will come down from heaven). But notice that Jesus is not coming alone. Verse 14b: Jesus is going to return with those who have died. Verse 15: The dead will be full participants in the future kingdom. Those who are alive when Jesus returns will not have priority over those who have died. Verse 16: As he comes there will be a universal, authoritative announcement. It will involve three things:
- A loud command. The term is used for a charioteer calling out to his horses, or a commander calling out to his soldiers; I take it as the voice of Jesus himself.
- The voice of (literally) an archangel. Daniel refers to multiple archangels; the only one we know by name is Michael. But one of the archangels is calling out—perhaps relaying instructions to the angels under him.
- The trumpet call of God. Trumpets were commonly used to call out people for an assembly. They were also used in celebration.
One version says this: "One word of command, one shout from an archangel, one blast from the trumpet of God and God in Person will come down from heaven!" Jesus Christ will return—physically, visibly, dramatically. He will come with those who have died. Our souls are with Jesus in heaven, but they will come with Jesus when he returns. Our bodies will be raised. And our souls and bodies will be reunited at that point.
This is a difficult concept. The Greeks believed the soul lived on. Socrates drank his hemlock and (they say) talked about going to Strawberry Fields Forever; supposedly that's where the Beatles got that line. But they rejected the idea of a physical resurrection. So does our culture. The soul may live on, but the body dies; it's buried or cremated. And the body is gone.
But again, the New Testament gives a very different answer. Our bodies will be raised. Further, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 that our bodies will be like Jesus' body after his resurrection.
Jesus is raised from the dead in the same body that dies. His resurrected body has the scars from the crucifixion. In Luke we're told that it's a body of flesh and bone.
The body we currently have will be raised. There is so much confusion regarding this—even among believers. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, multiple times writes that the body that dies and is buried will be raised. The God who created this universe from nothing can certainly reassemble the molecules of our bodies. But it will also be different. Again, it will be like Jesus' body after his resurrection.
After Jesus is raised, there are times when Jesus is not recognized; he may have looked somewhat different. Twice Jesus just appears in a locked room. We don't have all the details, but our bodies will be different. The resurrection will transform us. It will make us fully alive.
I've mentioned this before, but Walt Disney's Pinocchio has a fascinating theological insight. In the movie, Pinocchio is a living wooden puppet. And he drowns. Geppetto who carved him is brokenhearted; he kneels over the boy sobbing. The Blue Fairy comes and she speaks to Pinocchio: "Awake, Pinocchio, awake." And when Pinocchio wakes up, he is no longer wood, but now warm flesh.
What appears to be death is just the opposite. It's death that transforms Pinocchio into one who is fully alive. That is what the resurrection will do for us. It will take us from our natural body to the resurrected body. It will make us fully alive.
Gary Habermas is a theologian who has spent his career studying and debating the resurrection of Jesus. When his wife, Debbie, was 43 she died from stomach cancer—only four months after she received a diagnosis. She thought she had the flu. He writes that during those long four months he found himself asking God: Why is my best friend dying?
And he felt like God was asking him: "Did I raise my Son from the dead?"
"Of course you did, but why is Debbie dying?"
"Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?"
"Yes, Lord, but … "
"Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?"
We don't have all the answers. Gary Habermas doesn't have all the answers. But he writes that what he knows is this: If Jesus has been raised [and he has], then I can trust that Debbie will be raised someday, too. That's what the NT promises.
The mystery of rapture and reunion
Verse 17: Those believers who are alive when Jesus returns will be "caught up." The original Greek verb means to snatch, seize, extract. It conveys the idea of suddenness and with force. The Latin translation uses the verb rapere, which gives us our English word "rapture." When Jesus Christ returns—along with those who've died—we will be extracted from this planet. We will be caught up with the Savior in the clouds.
Further, those who are alive will experience this same transformation of their bodies. Paul says this in a parallel passage: "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
Verse 17: Both the living and the formerly dead will be together. More important: We will be with the Savior forever. From other passages, Jesus will return and establish his rule over this planet.
- That may happen with the return described in this passage.
- That may happen after a seven-year period of devastating world war and upheaval.
I think it will be the latter, but believers are divided on this. What we do know is that he will establish his rule over this planet. And again, we will be with him as he does this.
What am I to do with this? Verse 18 gives us our application: We are to encourage each other with this reality. Let me suggest that we take hold of at least three truths.
Our future hope
We live in a world that is afraid of death. We hide death away in hospitals, nursing homes, funeral homes. The writer of Hebrews says, "Outside of Jesus Christ Satan held us in bondage out of our fear of death."
But in Jesus Christ we have nothing to be afraid of. Life today is only the introduction to the life we will experience following death. It will be incredible.
C. S. Lewis describes our current experience as only the cover and the title page of the book. Death takes us to the first chapter of the real story. He referred to our current world as the Shadow-lands. Since we live in a world damaged by sin, the world to come is the greater reality.
With death our souls enter heaven. With the return of Jesus our bodies will be resurrected. There will finally be a new heaven and a new earth. We will live on this new earth in resurrected bodies. It will be incredible—the ultimate adventure.
The New Testament emphasizes that our future should shape our lives today in two ways. We should be characterized by:
- Self-control: 1 John 3:3 says, "Everyone who has this hope in him purifies themselves, just as he is pure."
- Service: We should invest ourselves in that which is eternal—God, his Word, people.
This passage is for those who are "in him" (v. 14). Paul is writing to believers. This passage is only describing the future for those who know the Savior. Only in Jesus Christ is there forgiveness and healing. Carolyn Arends writes about a missionary speaker who came to her church when she was a child. What she remembers is his story regarding a snake. The snake—much longer than a grown-up—slithered its way right through their front door and into the kitchen of their simple home. Terrified, the missionaries ran outside while a neighbor ran into the house with his machete and decapitated the snake with a clean chop. But the missionaries couldn't go back in their home. Not yet. The snake had a good bit of life left in him. For some time—she thinks several hours—the snake thrashed about, smashing furniture, flailing against walls, wreaking havoc until its body finally stopped moving.
And Arends sees in that a picture of our world. She says that for the present we live in the thrashing time—a time of death, terror, disease, heartbreak, deep sadness. Satan has been defeated by the cross and the resurrection, but he won't be finally judged until after Jesus Christ returns. In the meantime, he continues to thrash around and will destroy whatever he can.
One day Jesus Christ will return. We will be resurrected—transformed, fully alive. The thrashing will stop. Death will come to an end.
Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.