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What Happens to Our Soul When We Die?

What Happens to the Body and the Soul?
In our series on dualism, we’ve been looking at the philosophical and Biblical evidence for the existence of the unseen spiritual world. We’ve been doing this because, as Christians, we believe that there are two realities: the visible, material world in which we live, and the unseen, immaterial, spiritual reality that is an integral part of who we are. We believe that there are bodies and there are souls; there are brains and there are minds, there is a material world and a spiritual realm. And as part of this system of belief, we also accept the reality of a life after this one; an eternal spiritual life that surpasses the temporal material existence we now understand so well. Part of why we believe in this can be found in our examination of the philosophical evidence for souls (found HERE). But of course, our simple human reasoning will only bring us so far, and we eventually trust God’s Word for the truth about the eternal and immortal nature of the soul (found HERE).

As Christians, we believe that at the point of death, our bodies die, but our souls are immortal and live on beyond the grave. The separation of the body and the soul is a tragic reality for us as humans, because God did not design us to be divided in this way. We were designed as LIVING SOULS; bodies animated by souls and designed to experience life fully in a united manner. It’s important to remember here that our bodies are not the substance of who we are. Our personal identity resides in our soul and our souls survive the death of our bodies. Given this reality, it’s natural for us to think about what happens to our souls after death. What happens to ‘us’ when our bodies are left behind in the grave?

Is the Idea of an Afterlife Reasonable?
Men and women have been thinking about the idea of an afterlife from the earliest of times. It’s important that we examine God’s Word to see what it tells us about the experience we will have when we die. But before we do that, let’s think hard for a minute about the good reasons we have to believe that an afterlife exists in the first place. If we accept the idea that God exists (something we examined HERE), then it seems to me that we will inevitably conclude that there is a life that awaits us after our material existence ends. Here is one line of reasoning we might make in this regard:

The Evidence Persuades Us That There is a Good God Who Has Created Our World
There are good reasonable arguments for the existence of a creator God (seen HERE), and the fact that LOVE is possible at all, is an indication that this God is good (more on that HERE).

We Know That a Good God Would Not Create a World in Which Complete Justice, Satisfaction and Joy Are Unattainable
If God is good, he would NOT create a world where injustice exists. He would also not create beings who desire and pursue complete satisfaction and joy, and place them in a world where these things are impossible to attain.

We Know That Complete Justice, Satisfaction and Joy Are NOT Attainable in This Temporal Earthly Life
Yet we know that justice is not always served here on Earth (bad people often get away with their crimes) and while we continually pursue satisfaction and joy, we find that it is fleeting and elusive.

Therefore, If There is a Good God, It Is Reasonable to Believe That He Has an Eternal, Heavenly Life Waiting for Us in Which Complete Justice, Satisfaction and Joy Will Be Found
So where is it the elusive and unattainable justice, satisfaction and joy to be found? If God has designed our lives to be lived in BOTH this life and the life to come, and is offering complete justice, satisfaction and joy in the NEXT chapter of our existence, He has accomplished all that we would expect from Him and all that His nature demands.

We can start reasoning in this direction even before we see what God has revealed to us in the scripture. I don’t have to be a Christian in order to take this kind of reasonable approach to the issue. Maybe that’s why all kinds of non-Christians have developed similar views on the nature of the next life. Long before Christianity, ancient Egyptians believed that the after life was a place of final satisfaction and joy for those who were able to obtain a life with the gods in the “Sekhet-Aaru of the Tuat”, and followers of Zoroastrianism believed that those who die would eventually be brought back to life and judged so that final justice could be served. So, even those who knew nothing of the truth of God’s Word, held an intuitive understanding of what the next life might be like. And to be honest, this is still true today. Your non-believing friends and family have an intuitive sense that there is more to this life; a sense that there must be a place where justice is finally served and where joy and satisfaction will finally be found. They have an intuitive, innate expectation of Heaven, and they are simply waiting for God to reveal the truth about the next life to them, maybe through your own words and testimony.

That’s why it is important for us to understand what the Bible says about the world that is waiting for of us. At some point in your life, someone is going to ask you the important question, “What happens when I die?” Are you ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within you? Let’s get ready together.

Destined for a Resurrection
The FIRST thing we need to remember about our life after death, is what actually happens to us in the LAST stage of our eternal development. It’s important to remember that the life that awaits us after death EVENTUALLY includes a resurrected body. That’s right. Sometimes the culture we live in sees the next life as some sort of purely spiritual and non-physical existence, kind of like the character “Sam” in the movie “Ghost”. You know, he’s able to see everything and walk through walls, but he can’t be seen by anyone and he had no physical body. But that is not how the Bible describes us in the next life. Both the Old and New Testaments tell us that our souls will be reunited with our bodies in the afterlife. The Old Testament predicted this would be the case:

Isaiah 26:19
Your dead will live; their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, for your dew is as the dew of the dawn, and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.

Now interestingly, our resurrection has nothing to do with how ‘good’ we are as a person, or our status with Jesus. Both those who are going to be with God and those who are going to be separated from God will be resurrected:

Daniel 12:2
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.

These Old Testament scriptures seem pretty clear on the issue, but there were some Jews, even in Jesus’ time, who did not believe that we will be resurrected in the next life. The Gospels describe an encounter between Jesus and some Sadducees who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:29-32, Mark 12:24-27 and Luke 20:34-38). The Scriptures say that “the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question” (Mark 12:18). Jesus told them that they were mistaken about their understanding of the resurrection, and that they were “in error because (they) do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Mark 12:24).

Jesus was trying to remind them that God had the power to do anything that He likes, including the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said a lot about this resurrection when He was here with us:

John 5:25, 28-29
“I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out-those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

It appears that this information was somewhat startling to the people who first heard it (“Do not be amazed at this”), and for many of us it is still surprising because we seldom think of the afterlife as being in some way physical. But that is the clear teaching of our Lord (see also John 6:39-40, 44, 54). But even beyond Jesus, other writers in the Bible affirmed the bodily resurrection of the dead. Early on, Paul declared that his belief in the resurrection separated him from other Jews of his day:

Acts 23:6
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

Paul later wrote that a day is coming, sometime after we are long dead, when each of us will receive a resurrected body, a new body that will never again die the way our first bodies did:

1 Corinthians 15:51-52
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.

When Will It Happen?
Paul raises another issue here in his letter to the Corinthians. WHEN will we be given a resurrection Body? The Bible tells us that we will be given resurrection bodies when Jesus returns to Earth. That’s right; there is a connection between the return of Jesus and our final bodily form in the afterlife. It appears that God desires for us to have a body in the next life, and Jesus too will live with us in bodily form. As He was ascending, the angels told the first believers that Jesus would return with a body:

Acts 1:10-11
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus ascended with a body, and He will return “in the same way”, with a body. He also told his disciples that we would raise them to life once he returned. Let’s take one more look at John 5:

John 5:25, 28-29
“I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live… Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out-those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

Jesus told us that a time is coming when the dead will hear His voice and be resurrected. That means that many of us may die before Jesus returns, but when He does return He will raise us from the dead. Jesus clearly told us that He is going to return and gather those who have placed their faith in Him:

Matthew 24:30-31
“At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.”

OK, so it is clear that we get resurrection bodies when Jesus returns, and it is clear that Jesus will return. But the question then remains, WHEN WILL JESUS RETURN? That’s a good question, but not one that Jesus wants us to dwell on:

Mark 13:32-37
“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back-whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

I think God is wise enough to know that a posted return date for Jesus would cause a lot of people to get their act together for the wrong reason. Those who REALLY love Jesus don’t really need to know when. We just need to know that it could be at ANY time and live our lives in that reality.

Why Is Jesus Delaying?
Now, every day we wake up and many of us wonder if today will be the day that Jesus returns. And many of us wonder why He hasn’t already come. What is He waiting for? Perhaps God is simply, in His mercy, waiting for everyone to hear the Good News:

Matthew 24:14
“And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.”

God wants EVERYONE to hear the Gospel before Jesus returns, because Jesus will be doing more than just giving us bodies when He comes back. He will also be making a final judgment about the future life of everyone who has ever lived. Remember what Jesus said in the Gospel of John and keep it in the proper context:

John 5:26-29
“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out-those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

The return of Jesus will be a time of Joy for those who have given their lives to Him and a time of mourning for those who have rejected Him. Perhaps He is delaying His return until everyone has had the chance to hear and understand the truth about Salvation and the afterlife.

So, Why Do We Need Resurrected Bodies At All?
Now, you might also be wondering WHY we need a body at all in the next life. I know I have often pondered this. It seems like other faith systems see the afterlife very differently in this regard. They often describe the next life as a completely spiritual existence beyond the body. So WHY would God give us a resurrection body when it seems reasonable that He could just as easily exist with us in a purely spiritual form? Well, let’s look at our first line of reasoning for a minute. We reasoned that people yearn for a place where COMPLETE justice, satisfaction and joy are possible. Maybe this is the clue to it all. Is it possible for us to have ANY kind of complete experience without a body? Can souls experience ANYTHING completely without bodies with which to input sensory stimuli?

Let me give you an example. Have you ever had someone who loves you give you a backrub? If you have, you know that the experience is multi-facetted. You know that there is an emotional dimension involved when someone you love cares enough about you to rub your sore back. It FEELS good, but when I say this I am referring to the way it makes you feel emotionally or intellectually. The action causes you to bond to the person who is giving you the back rub in a tangible way that is MORE than physical. Yes, it also feels good from the physical standpoint. In fact, in order to have the complete experience, both the physical and non-physical aspects of the backrub are required. Unless BOTH the physical and no-physical dimensions of the backrub are present, your experience will NOT be complete. Your joy will NOT be complete.

That’s kind of interesting. It leads me to believe that we just may need a resurrected body if we are going to be able to have COMPLETE justice, joy or satisfaction in the next life. And that appears to be the case from the Biblical evidence as well. The Bible tells us that we will be able to have the fullest of experiences in the next life with God, and many of these experiences would NOT be complete unless we also had a body reunited to our soul:

Psalm 17:15
And I — in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

Philippians 2:10-11
…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Revelation 11:15
The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

Luke 22:29-30
And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

It is clear that our afterlife experiences will be COMPLETE because they WILL involve a bodily experience in addition to a ‘soul experience’. We will use our resurrection bodies to move and eat and see and speak as part of our life with God. The experience will be complete.

OK, So Back to the Point: What Happens When We Die?
OK, we’ve already determined that our final condition in the afterlife requires a resurrected body. And we’ve already determined that this resurrected body will be given to us when Jesus returns. But we know that many of us have already died and many of those of us who are living may also die before Jesus returns. So, what is going to happen to them? What happens to us after we die, but before the Return of Jesus, the Final Judgment and the Resurrection of the Dead? This is the big question that most of us want answered, particularly when we lose someone we love. Where are these loved ones NOW? What are they experiencing?

Well we have good reason to believe that our afterlife experience begins the very minute that we close our eyes for the last time here on earth. For those of us who are believers, we know that the minute we die and are away from the body, we are WITH Jesus in the afterlife:

2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Luke 23:39-43
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Those who are saved will be with Jesus in what we commonly refer to as HEAVEN. But our experience there prior to the resurrection, while much better than our life here on earth, will NOT be complete. It will only be PART of the experience we will one day have when Jesus returns to earth and resurrects the bodies of those who are already with him in spirit. While he’s at it, he’ll bring those of us who are still alive home with him as well:

1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Only then, AFTER the resurrection, will our joy and satisfaction be made complete; only then will we be able to experience the full physical, spiritual and emotional joy we were originally designed for.

What About Those Who DON’T Accept Jesus?
Unfortunately our experience of the afterlife is instantaneous upon death even for those who have rejected God. While believers will be with God, unbelievers will not. The New Testament describes two different places where the unrighteous go after death. One such place is called “Hades”. This is described as the place where the unrighteous go upon death and await their final destination. Take a look at this story that Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke:

Luke 16:19-24
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.”

While Lazarus, a God fearing and righteous man died and immediately went to God, the unbelieving and unrighteous rich man went immediately to Hades. It’s also clear from this passage that Hades is not a fun place to be, but it is also not as BAD as it could be because those who are waiting here are still disembodied. They no longer have their earthly bodies and they haven’t yet received their resurrection bodies. So the degree of pain they can experience is just as limited as the degree of joy and satisfaction that can be experienced by disembodied souls in heaven (who are also awaiting their resurrection bodies).

But the Bible also mentions another place for those who have rejected God; it is called “Gehenna”. This was actually a real place, just south of Jerusalem where, at one low point in the history of the Jews, Israelites offered their children as human sacrifices to the pagan God, Molech! Later, this infamous valley became a place where all kinds of putrid waste from the city was dumped and burned in fires that stayed lit day and night. So it’s a good metaphor to use to describe ANOTHER real place, the eternal resting place of those in Hades who finally receive their resurrection bodies and are judged forever. While believers receive their resurrection bodies and stay in heaven with God, unbelievers receive their resurrection bodies and are moved from Hades to Gehenna.

Matthew 5:29
“And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (the word used for ‘hell’ here is “Gehenna”).”

Gehenna is the final resting place of all those who have rejected God in this life and in their unrighteousness have been judged at the return of Jesus. They are given resurrected bodies and sent to Gehenna. Justice then, is complete as their suffering is both spiritual and physical.

Is It Clear?
OK, we are NOT going to examine the NATURE of Heaven and Hell in this article, that is something that we will do later, but this IS a good pace to trace the path that each of us will take after we die:

At the Point of Death
Each of us will leave our earthly bodies in the grave and our disembodied souls will go immediately into the presence of God or into Hades. Our destination is determined purely by our acceptance or rejection of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.

Prior to Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
We will remain here in heaven or Hades until Jesus returns to earth and gives us all our Resurrection Bodies. While our experience after death will be tangible, it will not be complete. A complete afterlife can only be experienced with BOTH our body and our soul. So we’ll have to wait for either complete joy and satisfaction or complete judgment and justice.

After Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
If we are saved believers, we will remain in Heaven but experience the fullness of the afterlife in our resurrected bodies. If we have rejected Jesus, we will move from Hades to Gehenna and experience the fullness of judgment.

We’re doing this now (looking at what happens when we die) so that our examination of Heaven and Hell will have the greatest meaning and impact for us as believers. Descriptions of Heaven and Hell are important to us because we all have to come to grips with what we believe about our eternal destiny. But these issues have even MORE meaning to us, once we see how they relate to our own individual lives and spiritual journeys. The nature of Heaven and Hell becomes important to us once we understand what happens when we die.

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