I was recently reading a fellow Christian blogger’s take on Hell as defined by the Bible. She had a lengthy and well-researched series of posts, citing various Scriptures and deriving conclusions from them.
Since I recently posted against using Scriptures as mere proof-texts, I want to clarify that to know anything for certain – deep down in our spirit with no room for doubt – requires not only a familiarity with Scripture but the confirmation of the Holy Spirit.
Other matters of doctrine we may have strong opinions about based on our best understanding of what the Bible teaches, but no clear confirmation from the Spirit. That’s ok, because to accurately know and understand everything pertaining to God or Heaven or Hell would require us to be walking as Jesus did – perpetually filled to the fullness of God’s Spirit.
So today I’m going to lay out my beliefs on what happens to Christians when they die, based on my best understanding of Scripture.
What happens to Christians when they die? For me it is Paul who speaks most clearly on this subject. In Philippians 1:21-25 Paul spells out his dilemma of choosing whether he would rather die or go on living:
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.”
Paul says that to die is gain and that to depart means to be with Christ, which is better by far than to go on living. To me this expresses an absolute confidence by Paul that he (his spirit) would immediately be in the presence of the risen Christ upon death, and that this is a wonderful place to be. He confirms this notion again in 2 Corinthians 5 by stating that:
“as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” and that “we would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord”
Again, leaving our bodies (via death) places us at home with the Lord, and the implication is that this is an immediate occurrence.
A final support for this belief comes from 1 Thessalonians 4: 14-17
“For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until 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.”
Notice that Jesus will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep (died). This implies that they are with Jesus right now, meaning their spirits are with Jesus (their bodies are in the grave). Paul elsewhere states that, “He (Christ) died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” again affirming that even in death (asleep) we will be with Jesus. (1 Thess. 5: 10)
But what about the phrase fallen asleep? I have never entertained the notion that the dead – righteous or unrighteous – are literally “sleeping” in the earth, or in Hades. Old Testament descriptions of people “asleep in the grave” reveal just how little they understood about the afterlife, not yet having a better revelation in Christ.
In the New Testament, the phrase fallen asleep or fallen asleep in Christ is interchangeable with died or died in Christ. It is akin to us saying politely that a person has “passed away” or “departed” rather than simply saying that they died. It’s a more gentle expression, if you will. Jesus Himself used the phrase fallen asleep to say that Lazarus had died. (John 11: 11-14)
One’s perspective on this may depend on how you define “soul” and / or “spirit.” In my view, the soul of a person is dependent on the body to operate. It is the mind, emotions, and will of the person, operating primarily through the brain. The soul reflects our personality based on human experiences, genetics, and other influences. Our souls get anxious and they can find rest; they may be troubled or at peace.
Our spirits, on the other hand, do not depend on the body to exist or function. They represent our “inner-most being” so to speak, and they come into agreement with God’s Spirit when we are born again. Paul describes the struggle between the desires of his flesh toward sin, and the desires of his spirit to please God, so our spirits have a will and a desire. (Romans 7: 7-25)
It is our spirit that enters the presence of Christ upon our death, and it is the spirits of departed Saints that Jesus will bring with Him at His return. When our bodies are resurrected at the return of Jesus, these spirits will reunite with their (now transformed) bodies in the air. (1 Thess. 4: 14-17; 1 Cor. 15: 51-54)
We were never meant to exist as disembodied spirits. We are a whole being – body, soul, and spirit – and to be separated from any aspect of our being renders us incomplete. This is why Paul stated that we do not desire to be unclothed (without any body) but to be clothed with our permanent, transformed body… our resurrection body, which is no longer subject to death or decay. (2 Corinthians 5: 1-4; see also 1 Thess. 5:23)
That’s my take on what happens to Christians when they die, based on my best understanding of Scripture. Many other passages related to death, the grave, Hades, Hell, and the resurrection fit in with this perspective in one way or another. Maybe I’ll do a post on what happens to non-Christians when they die?
Any opinions that diverge from mine are welcome! What do you think the Bible teaches?