What Happens After Death?
Is it: Oblivion, Reincarnation, or Biblical Resurrection?
Beliefs about Death and Beyond
The central theme of this text is the biblical concept of “resurrection”. But before discussing the mainstream, Protestant view of what happens at death and beyond, let’s summarise some other worldviews on the subject.
Plato (c.427-347 BC) was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. He thought that the rational mind distinguishes a person and that it is this that survives death. The body is temporal but ‘the real me’ or ‘soul’ is eternal and departs from the body at death. For Plato the soul is a ‘spiritual substance’ that can exist on its own. The concept of a separate body and soul is called dualism. The philosopher and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225 – 1274 AD) also held to a form of dualism by maintaining that the soul separated from the body at death. As in ancient Egyptian philosophy, Aquinas argued that the soul survives after death, but only when it is subsequently united with a new and glorious body from God does the living being become fully what it is intended to be. This is close to Christian philosophy of the resurrection of the body.
A competing philosophical view called monism is that the soul and body are a ‘unity’ and so are inseparable. It seems Aristotle generally preferred this view. Some point to records of Jesus rising from the dead in bodily form as support for this concept, especially since it is argued that dualism is difficult to sustain rationally [Gilbert Ryle]. It is argued (perhaps naively) that a soul that did not have a body would not be able to move, think or communicate. For the monist, death cannot separate body and soul and so the person simply reappears somewhere, sometime as the same person i.e. they can be readily identified [John Hicks]. On the other hand, Jesus said “destroy this temple (His body), and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). This implies that either He ceased to exist for three days upon the death of His body (an implication of monism), or that His soul lived through these three days without His body and subsequently raised His body (a concept compatible with dualism). Also, as we shall see, the concept of departed souls both thinking and communicating is a strong theme of scripture.
Postmodernism is the current form of Darwin’s naturalism in that it takes a rather skeptical view of life. For example it holds that truth is culturally based, there is no progress, and that nothing can be proven. It maintains that the physical world is all there is, and that man has no ‘soul’. Consequently, death simply results in physical extinction or annihilation and there can be no such thing as immortality.
The idea of an afterlife where you can be reunited with loved ones can be immensely consoling – though not to me. But to maintain such a belief in the face of all evidence to the contrary is truly bewildering.Richard Dawkins, 2006
Whatever Dawkins sees as ‘evidence to the contrary’ must surely be countered by accounts of near-death experiences or NDEs (see below). He also has to convincingly dismiss a dozen historical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. His fatalistic worldview conflicts with secular evidence, historical evidence, and the general biblical theme of personal consciousness after death.
Hinduism & Buddhism
Hindus and Buddhists believe in ‘Samsara’, or the reincarnation cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth. They believe that what you sow in this life you reap in the next (the concept of ‘karma’) and that salvation is reached when one escapes from Samsara. So for Hindus and Buddhists, death is certainly not extinction. Nirvana (a concept more closely associated with Buddhism) means ‘to extinguish’. It is neither existence nor non-existence but a state where ignorance, hatred and earthly suffering are extinguished. The Buddha describes the state of Nirvana as ‘deathlessness’ and as the highest spiritual attainment. By achieving Nirvana you can escape Samsara.
Pantheism (New Age)
New Agers borrow the reincarnation concept from eastern religions. They believe we are essentially soul rather than body and that this soul travels through endless cycles of birth, death and reincarnation with the objective of working-off our bad karma. So for Pantheists, death is not the end but simply the start of a new cycle for the soul. In contrast, the Bible says there is only one life:
It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgementHebrews 9:27
Muslims believe in the concepts of resurrection and judgement, Paradise and Hell. It is hoped that good works in life, together with Allah’s mercy, will achieve salvation from Hell, but access to Paradise is not assured except for those who partake in ‘jihad’ against infidels. Islam teaches that Muslims who die in jihad will immediately be translated to the highest level of Paradise.
Like Islam, Catholicism believes in the concepts of resurrection and judgement, Paradise and Hell, but it also holds to the doctrine of ‘Purgatory’. Catholicism believes that it is possible for a soul to be purified after death, provided that the person has not died in complete hostility to God. Purgatory is a place, or more precisely a state of ‘purgation’ or cleansing, where a soul is made ready for heaven. Souls in Purgatory do not see God face to face, but are assured of heaven once they have been cleansed by sorrow for the effects of sin. The belief that some souls are in Purgatory justifies the Catholic practice of praying for the dead in order to help them on their way to heaven.
Near Death Experiences (NDEs)
Many people claim to have clinically died (zero brain activity and stopped heart) and then returned to live in the body. See for example Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife. The atheistic response is that any experiences can be explained naturally from physical and chemical properties of the body. They argue that NDEs only occur during the time there is brain activity i.e. just before death or when regaining consciousness. It is maintained that NDEs are the product of the brain and so cannot happen whilst clinically brain dead.
To counter the atheistic view, there are well documented incidents of people describing events, activity and conversations whilst in the state of brain death. They describe specific earthly events such as operating theatre activity that happened during brain death. This strongly suggests the existence of consciousness beyond physical death. Additional support for this concept comes from the fact that people are dramatically changed by NDEs and come back with a different worldview. Raymond Moody [Life after Life] interviewed 150 near-death patients who reported vivid experiences. He found that those who had undergone NDEs became more altruistic, less materialistic, and more loving.
Protestant View of Death and Beyond: Resurrection
The Soul and Spirit of Man
The Bible states that man has both a soul and a spirit. According to the Bible, man is a reflection or image of the triune God (Gen 1.26) and as such he has body, soul and spirit. For example, the triune nature of both God and man is suggested in the following verses:
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thes 5:23)
Generally speaking the Bible uses different words for soul and spirit and treats them as distinct entities (see Heb 4:12). In the OT the Hebrew word nepes or soul occurs 754 times and ruah or spirit occurs 378 times. The primary meaning of nepes is “that which possesses life”, whereas ruah is generally regarded as “the animating principle” or impulse associated with the living being i.e. with the soul. So ‘nepes’ generally refers to the consciousness or personality of a living being, whereas ‘spirit’ refers to the motivation within that being leading to action. We note that God, a living being, acted or moved via His Spirit at creation (Gen 1:2). Whatever happens at death, it is logical to expect the essence of man (his soul and spirit) to remain together, and this is implied by the texts below.
In the NT the corresponding Greek words for soul and spirit are psyche and pneuma respectively. The meanings of both are generally the same as in the OT, but now both psyche and pneuma are also used in the context of life after death. The crucial biblical point is this: if the soul is the ‘real’ part of a person – the part that possesses ‘life’ – then it can also lose life and die!
Behold, all souls are Mine … The soul who sins will dieEzekiel 18:4
Does the Soul Sleep before the Resurrection?
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), Seventh-Day Adventists, and some Christians believe that at death the soul (and by implication the spirit) remain with the body. They believe that the soul ‘falls asleep’ and becomes totally unconscious. But this conflicts with scripture. Consider:
The Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the life (soul – nephesh) of the child returned to him … (1 Kings 17:22)
I saw under the altar the souls (psyche) of those who had been slain … and they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord …’ (Rev 6:9-10)
Similarly, the spirit of man is not his own, and at death it seems to return to God. Consider:
The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit (ruah) will return to God who gave it (Eccl 12:7)
Jesus said: “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Lk 23:46)
(Jesus) took her by the hand … and her spirit returned, and she got up immediately (Luke 8:54-55)
Stephen said: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”… then he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60)
Also note that, although Moses died and God ‘buried him’ (Deut 34:5-6), Moses later talked with Jesus on the mountain (Lk 9:30)!
Where are the Departed Souls?
Taking the biblical view of man rather than the postmodern view, we might ask; “where are the departed beings or souls?”. It appears the vast majority of departed mankind is not visible, yet not annihilated. They are not in bodily form, yet they are in some state of consciousness. The Bible refers to several places for departed souls, and all within the dominion of God (Ps 139.8)(Prov 15:11):
- Sheol: the OT term for the place of the dead. A ‘deep’ place below the earth (Ezek 31:15-17)(Ps 86:13)
- Hades (Gk haides): a NT term for the underworld or realm of the dead. Usually regarded as the NT term for Sheol
- Gehenna (Gk geenna): a place or state of everlasting punishment. It is always translated as ‘hell’ and refers to the ‘lake of fire’ (Rev 19:20)
- Paradise: used in the NT as the place of ‘the saved’
- On a more physical level, it seems that the seas (Ezek 28:8)(Rev 20:13) and the earth beneath us (Phil 2:10)(Rev 5:3) are places of the dead. The concept conveys ‘depth’ and ‘separation’ from those living. Nevertheless, those in such places appear to have consciousness and be aware of earthly events (see Samuel below). At this point we might ask “Why did Jesus spend three days and three nights ‘in the heart of the earth’ (Mat 12:40)?” See later!
Unfortunately, confusion occurs since Sheol and Hades are also sometimes rendered ‘hell’ in Bible translations. The use of Sheol in the OT sometimes implies an underworld or pit (Ezek 28:8)(Prov 9:18), a place to be avoided (Ps 30:3), a place of judgement and destruction (Job 26:6)(Prov 15:11). However, this is not the complete picture and later Jewish literature divides Sheol into two divisions, one for the wicked and one for the righteous (Enoch 22:1-14). Here the soul was thought to experience a foretaste of its final destiny, either good or bad. As discussed below, this concept is implied in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). It is also implied in the OT story of King Saul and the spirit medium. Here, Samuel (God’s servant and Israel’s last judge) is brought up out of the earth by the medium to talk to Saul:
And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth”1 Samuel 28:13,15
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
Clearly, although physically dead, Samuel is aware of earthly events and actually tells Saul that he will die in battle; “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (1 Sam 28:8-19). Evil King Saul was to share Sheol with God’s man Samuel, implying there must have been some segregation within Sheol! [Note: the ‘calling up of the dead’ or spiritism is possible but is expressly forbidden by God (Deut 18:9-14).]
Paradise – a central concept of the Resurrection
As we have just seen, Sheol (or Hades) appears to have been the resting place of departed souls, both good and bad. Jesus seemed to underscore this dual role of Sheol in His story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31):
In Hades he [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosomLuke 16:23
Here, the rich man in Hades appears to be fully conscious and is experiencing a foretaste of his final destiny. In this context, Hades is the underworld, a place where souls ‘descend’ to (Mat 11:23), a place to be shunned by the soul (Acts 2:27), a place of judgement and torment. Jesus repeatedly warned of the dangers of a place like this:
Fear Him [God] who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]Matthew 10:28
On the other hand, Lazarus experiences a pleasant place – Abraham’s bosom – elsewhere called Paradise. This is the place saved souls go to immediately after death. When one of the crucified criminals asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes again in His kingdom, Jesus replied:
Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in ParadiseLuke 23:43
When Jesus said this on the cross, Paradise was part of Hades. It was the place of the blessed dead and was separated from the others in Hades by a ‘great chasm’ or impenetrable barrier (Lk 16:26). But when Jesus died He went into the lower parts of the earth (Eph 4:9-10) and at His ascension He led those in Paradise up to heaven (Ps 68:18):
When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives …Ephesians 4:8
Paradise the place was seen by Paul; a place to be ‘caught up to’, a place to be coveted (2 Cor 12:2-5), a place where we can ‘be with Christ’ (Phil 1:23), a place for those who overcome the trials of this world (Rev 2:7). In short, Paradise is now in heaven. It is also a place of those who suffer and die (fall asleep) for Christ as martyrs. At the end of this age these martyrs appear to observe what is happening on earth and cry to God:
How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?Revelation 6:10
Finally, it is interesting to note that a few never saw physical death but rather were caught up to God whilst still alive (Gen 5:24, Heb 11:5)(2 Kings 2:11). It is assumed these are likewise in Paradise.
Summary of Protestant View
- Hades is now the place of those departed human beings who have rejected God and His Christ. There they await the Great White Throne Judgement (Rev 20.11-15). See below
- After Christ’s ascension, Paradise was taken up from Hades to be in the presence of God in heaven
- Departed souls, be they in Hades or Paradise, are fully conscious and aware of worldly events. The concept of ‘soul sleep’ (as in unconsciousness) seems unbiblical
- Believers in Christ who die in this present age go immediately to be with God in heaven, that is, to rest in Paradise, awaiting resurrection
The First Resurrection
The NT records 12 separate occasions on which the risen Jesus made Himself known to people. On one occasion He appeared to over 500 people (1 Cor 15.6). Although the Bible records others rising from the dead before this (Deut 34:5, Mat 17:3)(Mat 27:52-53), they died again later. Jesus was the first to rise from the dead with an immortal body. Jesus was:
the firstborn of the dead … the first fruits of those who are asleepRevelation 1:5, 1 Corinthians 15:20
With this new body He was recognisable as the Jesus people knew, but He could also walk through walls (John 20:19-20). According to prophecy, the same type of resurrection will happen to many in the future. But until that happens mankind dies and goes either to Hades or Paradise to await the fulfilment of the events prophesied for the earth. For a summary of prophecies currently being fulfilled see Reality. A more detailed discussion of end-time events can be found in End-times: download End-times: The Last Years of this Age.
As just mentioned, when Christ returns He will raise the bodies of very many people from their resting place in the earth. At this point in time it appears that the souls of departed saints are reunited with their now immortal bodies:
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye … the dead will be raised imperishable …1 Corinthians 15:52
Clearly, there will still be some believers in Christ who are alive at His coming, but these too are raised from the earth in some mysterious way without passing through physical death (1 Cor 15:51)(1 Thes 4:16-17). This is a glorious meeting of all saints, past and present, in the air with Christ. This is the time of ‘the redemption of the body’ (Rom 8:23), the time when ‘the perishable body is raised an imperishable body’, the time when ‘the natural body is raised a spiritual body’ (1 Cor 15:42-44).
Special mention is made of those saints who die as martyrs during the brief reign of the end time world ruler, the beast of Rev 13:7 (see The Saints in Revelation 13). These are the ones who refuse to take the mark of the beast and so are killed. They are raised when Christ comes again and reign with Him for 1,000 years (Rev 20.4). The picture is one of all the resurrected saints from all time reigning in some mysterious way with Christ over a millennial earth. They will never be separated from Him and will enter the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21:1-4). For a detailed discussion of this, download End times: The Millennial Reign of Christ.
Records of Life and the Feared Second Resurrection
It is a sad and serious fact that more than 70% of mankind rejects or simply does not follow the gospel of Christ, link. As such they miss the offer of forgiveness for sin against God, the offer of reconciliation with their Maker, and the offer of eternal life. When they die they go to Hades and remain there until the 1,000 year millennial reign of Christ on earth is completed (Rev 20:5). What then?
According to the Bible there is a book of life and only those reconciled to God (the ‘righteous’) will have their names written in it (Ps 69:28)(Phil 4:3)(Rev 3:5). This is the Lamb’s book of life – a book foreseen from the beginning of time that contains the names of all God’s people (Rev 13:8). Revelation 13:8 does not imply predestination; rather, it is just one more illustration of the foreknowledge of God (like all prophecy). So everyone has the opportunity to have their name written in this book. It is our choice. Other books are written to record the things we do in this life (Rev 20:12); they are a permanent record of our earthly activity:
There is nothing covered up that shall not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known … what you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetopsLuke 12:2-3
The consistent message of the Bible is that none of our works (‘deeds’) are sufficient to warrant reconciliation with God. Jesus puts it bluntly:
unless one is born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God .. you must be born againJohn 3:5-6
These books are testimony to our failings and wrong deeds in the sight of God. In contrast, it is interesting to note that the book of life records none of the failings of the righteous since their sins have been erased by Christ’s atonement on the cross. They are born again and the slate is wiped clean!
After the millennial reign of Christ (the seventh and final millennium of mankind upon the earth) the Bible records that the present creation will be burned up. In its place there will be new heavens and a new earth prepared for the righteous (2 Pet 3.10-13)(Rev 20.11).
Herein lies a sobering thought. Those whose names are not in the book of life are now raised from Hades and stand before God under judgement (Rev 20:12-13). This is the ‘second resurrection’ – the resurrection of judgement (John 5:29). Their written deeds are testimony against them and they are found guilty:
And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire [Gehenna]Revelation 20:15
This is not annihilation. Jesus was quite explicit. All those who deliberately reject the offer of reconciliation to God through Christ, all those who deliberately refuse to believe Jesus when He said “You must be born again”, all those who just ignore Christ’s teachings having heard them – these spend eternity in the absence of God:
And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal lifeMatthew 25:46
They join world leaders who have deceived the world under the final world empire (the Revived Roman Empire) and they are tormented day and night for ever (Rev 20:10)(Lk 16:31). Jesus used the OT phrase “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mk 9:47-48)(Isa 66:24) to underscore the eternal nature of punishment for rejecting the offer of life.
A Righteous and Just God
This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end shall comeMatthew 24:14
International radio and TV broadcasts, together with the Internet go a long way to achieving this worldwide testimony. Surely all nations can now hear the gospel. Yet many individuals must still be without the necessary technology – even without a short-wave radio. As of 2020 there were 3.2 billion people still unreached with the gospel. In other words, over 41% of the world’s population still needed to hear the gospel, link.
If Christ were to come tomorrow what would He say to those who had never heard the gospel – the message of salvation and reconciliation to God through His death and resurrection? Would their names be in the book of life? It is interesting to note that both OT and NT refer to the ‘erasing’ of a person’s name from the book of life (Ps 69:28)(Rev 3:5). Does this imply that all names are initially written in the book of life and only those who deliberately reject the gospel are removed from the book?
What we can say with certainty is that God judges righteously, and He will not omit someone’s name if it causes an injustice (Isa 9:7)(Jer 11:20)(Rev 19:11):
For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousnessPsalm 96:13