So what, exactly, happens when we die? Heaven? Hell? Reincarnation? Nothing?
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me,” and also, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 14:6; John 11:25). Because of these bold claims, followers of Jesus’ teachings have often claimed to know the “truth about death,” claiming the Bible as their authority on the matter.
Yet how can this approach be foolproof when the “truth about death” varies even between Christian churches? How can we be confident in our Bible study technique so that we are also confident in the result it yields?
The answer lies in the Bible itself, offering a prescription for finding God’s truth:“Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little” (Isaiah 28:9, 10).
In other words, a mature study of God’s message (one that contains more than just the “milk” of the Scriptures) demands that each passage about a subject must be compared to every other passage on the subject in the Bible. If we fail to do this, we might look at only part of the message and declare it to be the entire truth. Worse yet, we might misunderstand the message and declare blatant falsehood as truth.
So let’s begin at the beginning and see if the message we find there remains consistent as the rest of the Bible unfolds.
The first chapter of Genesis says that the heavens and the Earth were all created by God as He spoke them into existence.“Then God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear’; and it was so” (Genesis 1:9).
God’s words create matter and energy. He is so powerful that He must merely say something for it to become reality.
Yet the Bible tells us that God did not speak mankind into existence. Rather, He molded the first man with His own hands. “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). God cares for mankind so much that He used His own hands to make man perfect. Then, because the body must be animated to become alive, God breathed the “breath of life” into the body, and the man lived.
It is important to recognize this formula for life. The body without the breath is not alive; neither is the breath alive without a body. Only when the two elements are joined together does life occur. When we look at the same passage in the King James translation, it says, “Man became a living soul.” The word “soul” has been used to describe an intangible part of the human that is separate from the body and lives on after death, but the Bible defines a “soul” as the combination of a body and the breath, or spirit, from God. A person does not HAVE a soul; a person IS a soul, according to the Word of God.
Life, then, comes from God as a gift. The Old Testament patriarch Job understood this when he said, “As long as my breath is in me, And the breath of God in my nostrils,” he would not commit sin (Job 27:3). He knew that the breath inside of him was truly the breath from God.
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes, most likely King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, demonstrated this equation in reverse. He wrote, describing death, “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
Therefore, we acknowledge that there is an invisible, intangible part of human life that exists apart from the body. However, the Bible tells us that it is not an immortal human soul, but rather a spirit from God. God lends us a part of Himself while we are alive, but that part returns to God when we die because it was always on loan from God to begin with.
The Bible records this same truth in the Christian era. The apostle James declares that “the body without the spirit is dead,” and thus recognizes that life is a combination of those two elements and ceases to exist when they are separated.
This concept is easy to understand when we consider the elements of artificial light. We create light by starting with a light bulb and adding an electric current to it. The product of those two elements is light. When we break the bulb or stop the electricity, the light ceases to exist. The light, like our lives, cannot exist in the absence of either of the two components that make it up.
This teaching obviously differs from what most Christian churches teach. While we respect their views and their faith, we encourage every person to take an honest look at what the Scriptures say about the subject of death. Not only is its formula for life clear, as we’ve demonstrated, but it has an abundance to say about the human experience after death as well. Consider these few thoughts on the matter:“The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
This tells us that death brings silence, and not praise, for God. Wouldn’t you praise God if you were in His presence in heaven?“[A man’s] spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish” (Psalm 146:4).
Our plans do not continue beyond the grave because death means the cessation of life. Life stops at death.“For in death there is no remembrance of [God]; In the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).
How can we not remember God if we are with Him each day?“For Sheol cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth” (Isaiah 38:18).
Death holds no thanks, praise, or hope for God.“Yet he shall be brought to the grave, And a vigil kept over the tomb” (Job 21:32).
The dead go to the grave and stay there.“For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing, And they have no more reward, For the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share In anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).
This speaks for itself, doesn’t it?“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
The Bible is overwhelmingly clear that death means death. When we die, we return to the same state of consciousness we had before we were born: none.
It is understandable why pagan religions and cultures often immortalize their dead and why this doctrine crept into both the Jewish and, eventually, Christian religions over time. The grief that survivors must endure after a loved one dies can be unbearable, and the thought of this loved one in a perfect paradise looking down upon the survivors can bring a sense of relief and comfort. If this were the story the Bible gave us, we would believe it. However, the Bible tells us plainly that death means a loss of consciousness and a loss of life.
Though this understanding highlights how horrible death really is, it also should alleviate our fears about it. No matter how painful a method of death is, no matter how many unresolved issues you leave behind, no matter how scared of the dark you are, at the moment of death you will cease to be aware of anything, even your own death. Just as you can never tell the moment you fall asleep, so too is death. There is nothing to fear, because there is nothing at all.
Consider the alternative for a moment. If you could actually look down upon the remaining earthlings from your divine heavenly paradise, you would see that the people you love continue to struggle, get sick, and die. You would witness their lies and their hurts. You would see the secret things they never wanted you to see when you were alive. If they rebel against God, you would know ahead of time that they would not join you in heaven. It is hard to imagine paradise including those things.
Also consider that the idea that death brings an immediate reward that includes greater knowledge and abilities than you had before is the same lie that Satan told the first woman to get her to rebel against God in the garden of Eden! He told her, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4, 5). The devil made sin, which leads to death, seem like an attractive thing; death seemed like a reward. The devil has been telling this lie since the beginning. He has told the same story all throughout time.
Another Bible text confirms that the dead go to sleep when they die, but it also gives a hint as to how God will eventually correct this problem. Consider Job 14:10–12:“But man dies and is laid away; Indeed he breathes his last And where is he? As water disappears from the sea, And a river becomes parched and dries up, So man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, They will not awake Nor be roused from their sleep.”
This text tells us that a man’s death is like a river drying up and promises that the sleep of death will not be disturbed until “the heavens are no more.” Did you know that the Bible talks about a time when the heavens will, indeed, be no more?
At that time, the dead will be roused from their sleep. God loves His children too much to allow them to die forever. Jesus Christ makes a promise to everyone who will believe it and accept it regarding the time when the dead will wake up. He says:“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1–3).
So Christ tells us that when He returns to Earth, He will raise the dead and bring them to heaven with Him, so everyone can be together in a land with no more death. The Bible describes Christ’s return by saying, “The stars of heaven fell to the earth, and the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up” (Revelation 6:13, 14). The heavens, as we know them, will be no more, and life will never be the same again.
Death might be a sleep of unconsciousness, but it is only temporary. For those who trust in God to keep His promises, eternal life without death awaits.