This is blog #2 in the “Death Swallowed Up in Victory!” series that covers frequently asked questions about what happens at the death of a believer.
In the first blog, we looked at why death is part of our world and what God did to free us from its bondage.
God makes the gospel easy for us to understand, but we stumble over its simplicity. The same thing is true about life after death. People won't accept it as being that easy to understand.
We want to know what happens to the soul after death. Sometimes it helps to ask the opposite question. What doesn’t happen to it? In this blog, we’ll look at various views and eliminate those that are not biblical.
The soul is not annihilated—the atheistic view.
The annihilation or atheistic view says there is no consciousness beyond this life. The soul ceases to exist the moment the body dies. Evolution supports this because it views life with no purpose in itself other than perpetuating changes in the species. There are too many verses that speak of eternal life to hold to this view. We’ll just look at a few.
Sheol, paradise, and heaven
Jesus told a parable in Luke 16:19-31 about a rich man who died and went to the place of the unrighteous dead. From there, he could see a man named Lazarus in the place of the righteous dead. He could speak to him. But, there was a gap between them that neither of them could cross. Though not specifically doctrinal, Jesus always taught truth. In this parable, Jesus taught that there is consciousness beyond this life.
Before Christ, all spirits went into a place called sheol (Hebrew term; hades in the Greek), which is sometimes translated “hell” in our modern translations but should not be so. Sheol is just the place of the dead. It was thought to be under the earth somewhere and was divided into two compartments with a great chasm fixed between them that could be crossed.
Faithful believers in God went to one side—the place of the righteous dead (also called “paradise” or “Abraham's bosom”). It was a place of comfort, not torment. Unbelievers went to the other side—a waiting place for the final judgment. In that waiting place, the rich man had memory and visual recognition. He felt pain and torment. In “paradise,” Abraham talked.
Some theologians hold the position that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He descended into the paradise side and emptied it, taking all those believers who were there with Him to heaven. In essence, Christ moved paradise to heaven. Whether paradise was in sheol or heaven is debatable. But, we do know that when Paul wrote of being taken up to the third heaven or paradise (2 Corinthians 12:2-8), paradise and heaven were in the same place by that time.
Immediate access to God’s presence.
As soon as the payment for sin was made by Jesus Christ on the cross, access to God was possible. That is the meaning of having the veil of the temple torn (Matthew 27:51). This curtain hid the Holy of Holies where God dwelled in the Temple. Only the high priest could enter that place once a year. The curtain was torn from top to bottom. It was 1 inch thick, 50 feet wide and could not have been torn by humans. God Himself tore the veil to let us know that access to His presence was now possible.
So, today when a believer dies, she goes immediately to be with Christ. Sadly, when unbelievers die, they go to a place of torment to await the final judgment. There is no second chance.
The soul doesn’t just sleep after death.
Another view is that the soul sleeps and is insensitive after death until the day of the resurrection. This view tends to come from a misunderstanding of the biblical phrase "fallen asleep."
As we saw in Luke 16:19-31 above, the souls of the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham were conscious after death. Each could remember, talk, and experience pain or pleasure. Neither were in a state of soul sleep or forgetting.
Paul was confident that he would know the joy and awareness of being present with the Lord in heaven.
“I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;" (Philippians 1:23)
“We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
How could he know he was with Christ if his soul was asleep? How could he be at home with the Lord if he was insensitive to the Lord’s presence?
In John 11:12-15, Jesus defined "fallen asleep" for us. He said that their friend Lazarus was dead. The phrase “fallen asleep” is used throughout the New Testament for death of believers only. Only the body "sleeps" in the earth until Jesus calls it forth at the Rapture. The soul is very active in heaven.
The soul is not reincarnated.
Reincarnation is an old view of life as a continual cycle of death and rebirth, broken only through self-effort so that a soul will reach the blissful state of “Nirvana.” Sadly, there is no presence of God in Nirvana, only an impersonal, featureless unity of being. Sadly still, much of this teaching has infiltrated the church through the anti-biblical concept of karma.
The answer can be found in many places, but especially in Hebrews,
“Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)
For believers, we receive salvation and then get a new body but remain the same person. No reincarnation.
The soul does not turn into an angel.
Blame this popular idea that people become angels when they die on the classic 1946 American movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which a guardian angel named Clarence occasionally refers to events of his life (and death) as a human being on earth. Actually, it goes further back than that—to an 18th century Swedish mystic and philosopher named Emanuel Swedenborg who taught that all angels and demons were once humans.
What is the truth? The Bible is adamantly clear in the distinction between angels and humans. Never will you find any verse saying that good humans become angels when they get to heaven. Angels are beings created by God in the beginning (Colossians 1:15-17) and are entirely different from humans in form and purpose. They are God’s special agents to carry out His plan and to minister to the followers of Christ (Hebrews 1:13-14). There is no indication that angels were formerly humans or anything else. They were created as angels.
Our greatest confirmation of this is Jesus Himself. When Jesus was raised from the dead, He did not appear to His followers (all 500 of them who saw Him at once in 1 Corinthians 15:6) as an angel. He appeared in His glorified human body—the same kind we will receive after we die. After we die, we go to be with Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8). God’s future plan for us is that we get a new human body like Christ’s body, not an angel’s body.
“…we also eagerly await a savior from there [heaven], the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform these humble bodies of ours into the likeness of his glorious body by means of that power by which he is able to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:20-21)
“…we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.” (1 John 3:2)
We will be like Him, not like an angel.
One more strong evidence: Elijah and Moses were recognizable on the Mount of Transfiguration as themselves to Peter, James, and John (Mark 9:2-8). They had not transformed into angels. And, if anyone would have, it certainly would have been Moses, right?
Here’s the truth we can know: people become like Christ when they die, not like angels.
There is one more erroneous view of what happens to the soul when we die. That view is called purgatory. We’ll cover that in the next blog.