Earlier this month, we began exploring questions you wanted answered. One of the topics several people asked about involved death and heaven; summarized simply as “What happens when I die?” This is an important question particularly considering the results of a recent study on mortality in the United States showed that the mortality rate is still 100%. Eventually, and for a variety of reasons, all of us face the inevitable situation that our body ceases to function and we enter a state called death. This is nothing new to the human condition or unique to any culture. It is universal to all living things. So, what does happen when we die?
Today’s Old Testament reading, written thousands of years ago, gives us some important insight into our understanding of this question. That passage of wisdom lays out 14 coupled seasons of alternating human activities: “A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak.” And point with question today, it began with these words, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die.”
Now if we stopped with reading just those verses of from the Bible, life would seems like a series of repetitive cycles of alternating extremes destine to simply end with our death. But after this list of alternating extremes, the writer added these all-important words, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart.” There are two very important points in these words. First, with the presence of God in our life, even the alternating cycles and season can be made beautiful. I know that can be hard to accept when we experience the difficult or sad parts of those cycles such as weeping and mourning, but absent God those circumstances would be unbearable. Absent God our life would be governed by chance, randomness, and the will of the most violent and strongest among us. Absent God, we would have no concept of peace and love which are beautiful. The second point is this; God has set eternity in the human heart. Our life is not temporary. It goes on forever.
How then does our Old Testament Scripture help us answer the question, “What happens when I die?” The Scripture let’s us know that even death can have beauty and that the end of our bodily function does not mean life has ended. Life continues beyond the body. Jesus made this point as well when he said that we should not fear the one who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. This means our life is comprised of a perishable physical body that gives form and residence to an impermissible soul. So when our body dies, our soul, the essence of who we are, leaves the body and is our form for eternity.
How do we know such a thing for sure? The New Testament recorded for us an interesting account of death and eternal life. One day, a man named Jairus came to see Jesus. Jairus explained that his young daughter was dying. The man begged Jesus to come to his house and heal her. Unfortunately, before Jesus could arrive to Jairus’ house a messenger came to say the girl was dead. “Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed’” (Luke 8:50). Jesus arrived with Jairus at his home and found the girl dead as the messenger had said. “But he [Jesus] took her [the girl] by the hand and said, “My child, get up!” Her [the girl’s] spirit [her soul] returned [to her body], and at once she stood up” (Luke 8;54, 55). This scene confirms to us that we are made up of a body and a corresponding soul. There is a unique relationship between the body and the soul. When that girl’s body died, her soul left her body. When Jesus healed the girl’s body, the same soul returned to the same body. There are many eastern religions, such as Hinduism, that believe in the transmigration of the soul from one body to another. In that view, the soul leaves the body upon death and searches for a new body to inhabit. The moral conduct of that life, karma, determines the quality of the new body that recently released soul. The better the behavior in one’s life, the better the body in the next life. Christians do not believe in karma and the movement of the soul from one body to another when we die. We believe in a unique relationship between of one body and one soul. And that when we die, our soul leaves our body but will not seek out a new body.
Where then does our soul go when we die? Jesus illustrated the movement of the soul using a parable, a story. Jesus said, “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he [the rich man] was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16:19-23). Jesus story informs us that upon our death, our soul moves from the body to one of two destinations. One is to the place of angels and comfort. The other is to a place of distress and discomfort. There is no alternative place. Roman Catholic tradition holds that there is an alternative place. It is called purgatory. In purgatory, the soul of those who die in the grace of God are purified. This purification period is not specified and depends upon the number of venal sins one committed and the punishment that must be experienced for the sins already forgiven. Jesus was clear. There is no third place for the soul to go when the body dies. The destination is either the place of discomfort called Hades or a place of comfort.
What is that place of comfort called? Jesus had something to say about that as well. As Jesus was dying on the cross, Jesus heard a voice from the man next to him. It was a thief who also hung on a cross. The thief testified to the onlookers that Jesus was an innocent man. “Then he [the thief} said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him [the thief], ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (Luke 23:42, 43). The place of comfort where Jesus will be found is called paradise. Later in the New Testament paradise is called the place of God (Rev. 2:7). Elsewhere, in numerous places of the Bible, the place of God is called heaven. So the place of comfort is called paradise or heaven. What happens when we die? Our unique soul separates from our unique body and moves either to the place of comfort called heaven or the place of discomfort called Hades.
The existence of two places raises the natural question. Can a soul later move from one place to another? Can our soul move between heaven and Hades or Hades and heaven? Jesus had something to say about that as well. In that story of Lazarus and the rich man, we will recall that angels carried Lazarus to heaven and the rich man went to Hades. From his position in Hades, the rich man could see Lazarus seated comfortably with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Jesus said, “So he [the rich man] called to him [Abraham], ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” “But Abraham replied, ‘Between us [heaven] and you [Hades] a great chasm [think Grand Canyon] has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here [heaven] to you [in Hades] cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there [Hades] to us [in heaven].’” (Luke 16:24, 26) Jesus was clear. When we die, our body goes to the ground and our soul goes to either heaven or to Hades. There is no third place. Once in heaven or Hades, there is no movement from heaven to Hades or from Hades to heaven. We cannot visit from one place to the other.
Now, I am going out on the limb here and assume that given the choice between Hades and heaven, everyone would prefer heaven. The Apostle Paul thought that was the case and he wrote:
We know that our body—the tent we live in here on earth—will be destroyed (we will die). But when that happens (when we die), God will have a home for us to live in. It will not be the kind of home people build here. It will be a home in heaven that will continue forever. 2 But now we are tired of this body. We want God to give us our heavenly home. 3 It will clothe us and we will not be naked. 4 While we live in this [earthly] tent, we have burdens and so we complain. I don’t mean that we want to remove this tent, but we want to be clothed with our heavenly home. [Paul was saying, “Everyone wants to get to heaven, it is just no one wants to die to get there.”] Then [in heaven] this body that dies will be covered with life. [God will make all things beautiful.] 5 This is what God himself made us for. And he has given us the Spirit as the first payment to guarantee the life to come. 6 So we always have confidence. We know that while we live in this body, we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by what we believe will happen, not by what we can see. 8 So I say that we have confidence. And we really want to be away [absent] from this body and be at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:1-8 ERV).
What happens when we die? Our body is buried. Our spirit is absent the body and now present with the Lord in heaven. Now is that the end of the story? No. Not quite.
In many places in the Bible, it speak of a later resurrection of the body. That means the soul is re-embodied. Not in another body but in the same body in which it once resided. The body that died will be transformed back into life. But what is the purpose of that eventuality. The Book of Revelation said it is for this purpose. “I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Rev. 21:1-4). What happens when we die? Our bodies are buried and are souls go either to heaven or Hades. If we are in heaven, we are present with the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a beautiful sight. Then, at a time of God’s choosing, those in his grace are restored into body and soul, only this time the body is imperishable. That resurrected body will become part of the new kingdom of God where God will live among the people. The people will be his people and he will make it all beautiful for their will be no tears, no death, no mourning, no crying, or pain.
That just leaves two questions. How can I be sure this is true? How can I be sure my soul will go to heaven? We know this is true because Jesus told us. To prove the truth of his words, Jesus was raised from the dead. We can be sure this blessing is for us if we follow the words from today’s New Testament reading. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). What happens when we die is not a matter of chance or karma. It is by choice. A choice that Jesus made to die for us to make our life now abundant and beautiful and to make heaven our eternal destiny. What happens when we die is a choice. It is our choice to believe in Jesus and accept his grace for this abundant life now and eternal life with God. No one else can make that choice for us. So I will close with this question. Do you know what will happen to you when you die? Let us pray.