What Happens When You Die?

I had a seminary assignment recently that I thought might be a benefit to our readers. I’m posting it in its entirety below.

The Question

You learn that a dear older lady in your church is dying of colon cancer, so you promptly begin visiting her in the hospital. She is delighted to see you, but by your third visit it is clear that her mind and heart are deeply troubled.  As you are getting ready to say your goodbyes, she reaches for your hand and says, “Tell me, what is going to happen to me when I die?”  What do you say?

The Response

Mrs. Edith, death is a great troubler, is it not? One theologian, Wilhelmus A. Brakel, puts it this way: “[The believer’s] translation from time to eternity, from this sinful life to perfect holiness, from sorrow to joy, and from strife to the crown, takes place by way of the dark valley of the king of terrors, which is death.”

Death is a dark valley and the king of terrors. I know that you are troubled, so let me try to give you some hope in the Scriptures.

Let me read to you a little Berkhof which I just so happen to have with me because I’ve been taking a class that required his reading this semester in seminary. He says, “Death is not the end for believers, but the beginning of a perfect life. They enter death with the assurance that its sting has been removed, I Cor. 15:55, and that it is for them the gateway of heaven. They fall asleep in Jesus, II Thess. 1:7, and know that even their bodies will, at last, be snatched out of the power of death, to be forever with the Lord, Rom. 8:11; I Thess. 4:16,17. Jesus said, “He that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live.” And Paul had the blessed consciousness that for him to live was Christ, and to die was gain. Hence he could also speak in jubilant notes at the end of his career: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give to me at that day; and not to me only, but also to all them that have loved His appearing,” II Tim. 4:7,8.”

Mrs. Edith, you are a person, like all other humans, that has a body and a soul. When your body finally gives way to death, your immaterial soul will continue. It is immortal. It will depart from the body, we see this for example with Rachel in Genesis 35:18. But you can be assured that the souls of believers depart from the body and go to be with the Lord as Paul insinuates in 2 Corinthians 5:8 and Philippians 1:21–23. And Jesus explicitly tells the believing thief on the cross that he will be with Him in paradise, today.

What I mean is that when you pass from this earthly life you will not merely be “asleep”. Your soul will be very much awake and alive. God, your God, is God of the living (Mt. 22:32).

What Does it Look Like?

Now, what does all this look like? I’m not completely sure. But let me read to you a little from another theologian, Herman Bavinck. And yes, I know you are concerned about my back and having to carry around all these books. That’s very kind of you, but I assure you I’m okay!

Bavinck writes, “The history of the doctrine of the intermediate state shows that it is hard for theologians and people in general to stay within the limits of Scripture and not attempt to be wiser than they can be. The scriptural data about the intermediate state are sufficient for our needs in this life but leave unanswered many questions that may arise in the inquisitive mind. If one nevertheless insists on solving them, one can only take the course of conjecture and run the risk of negating the divine witness by the inventions of human wisdom.”

So, your soul departing to be with the Lord is an intermediate state because you will await the resurrection of your glorified body. Your going to heaven, as wonderful as this will be, isn’t even the best that is to come! Just know that Paul says that to depart and be with Christ is far better.

Now, here are some questions you might have and we will try to tread lightly and not go beyond what the Scriptures say. But let us consider:

Will you remember this life?

Yes, I believe so. Two passages to consider. First, in Luke 16:19 and following the rich man remembers his life and his family still on earth. And if the reprobate remember, why shouldn’t the saints all the more? Another passage is in Matthew 7:22. The dead remembered their works on earth.

I think it is a bit silly the idea that people say we won’t know each other in heaven. Now frankly, I do not know what our souls will look like. They are, after all, immaterial. So, in this intermediate state, I do not know what things will look like. But these passages do show that we remember.

Will your soul communicate with the living?

Now, I want to tread lightly here because this can kind of be an emotional sort of thing I know. But, at the end of the day, the answer is no. Those alive in the body are in one realm, and the departed souls of believers are in another realm. Now, we have that strange passage in 1 Samuel 28 with the witch of Endor and Saul calling up Samuel. But, we know two things about this incident: (1) it is sinful, and (2) it is exceptional.

Will you look down upon us from heaven?

Again, I want to be careful here. And to answer we will consider Hebrews 12 where it says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  Now, some say this passage means that we are surrounded by witnesses of us, but that’s not the point. Bavinck notes that they are not “eyewitnesses of our struggle but witnesses of faith who serve to encourage us.”

So the point of Hebrews 12 isn’t that souls watch us but that we should look to their past endurance and let that encourage us. So, Bavinck says they do not look down on us at all. John Piper says maybe they do see us. He writes, “If they see you at all, they are cheering you on to endure every hardship by encouraging you to focus on Christ.”

What is the answer then? Well, I don’t know for sure. But, we can’t miss what Paul has already said in Phil 1:21 — “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (22) If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. (23) I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

So, can we imagine Paul being with Christ and then being overly concerned about life on earth? I don’t think so. I think to be in the presence of Christ is such felicity, such joy, such jubilation, such pleasure as Psalm 16:11 says, that I don’t think they will be so concerned about life on earth. Regardless, I think it’s important to say that we do not pray to the dead. We do not venerate the dead. We honor their memory and we thank God for them and as we are able we continue on their legacy in whatever capacity that is appropriate.

A Final Appeal

One more thing to mention here, Mrs. Edith, and then I’d like to pray with you again. There is no second chance after death. Death is final. One either dies in Christ and goes to heaven or dies outside of Christ and goes to hell. There is no in-between. This is why the Scriptures say do not delay. Today is the day of salvation. Now, I am confident in your walk with the Lord. But I would be remiss if I did not encourage you again to look to Christ. Even in this final hour, make your calling and election sure in Him. Rest in Him. Trust Him. Rejoice in Him. And cast all your cares upon Him for He cares for you.


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