The debate about what happens when we die essentially comes down to two opposing views: non-existence vs. a new form and/or place of existence. Either death is the cessation of life (and therefore existence), or death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Which is it? How can we know?
How Do We Know What’s True?
We can consult three sources as we seek to understand what happens when we die: scripture, experience, and observation. Let’s take a look at each.
The best source of information about what happens when we die is the Bible. That’s because it’s the Creator’s word that has been well-validated over the millennia. No other scripture passes the tests that the Bible passes when it comes to trustworthiness.
Experience and observation are helpful sources of information about what happens when we die only in this sense: They provide nothing substantive. Althought it records a few resurrections from the dead, the Bible records zero accounts of experiences people had while they were dead. Lazarus had no stories to tell (John 11-12). Jesus said only that He had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).
(By the way, you might wonder about the Lazarus who features in the story Jesus told in Luke 16. Rather than a literal account, it’s a parable that Jesus told to teach the concept that your economic status doesn’t determine your salvation. Learn more about that story.)
To follow is a bit more on what the Bible says about the two schools of thought about what happens when we die.
What Happens When We Die: View #1
View #1 is non-existence—that death is the cessation of life. Here are just a couple of representative Bible texts that support this position:
- “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
- “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).
According to the Bible, death is non-existence. Just as a body infused with God’s spirit (breath) comes into existence (Genesis 2:7), a person ceases to exist when God’s spirit (breath) leaves the body (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
The Bible uses the term “soul” to denote a living person (Genesis 2:7, 1 Peter 3:20, etc.). The concept of “soul” is completely distinct from “spirit,” which is the immortal breath of God or the life force (Genesis 2:7, Job 33:4, etc.). A person does not have a soul; a person is a soul. A soul is a combination of body and spirit; it depends on both to exist.
What Happens When We Die: View #2
View #2 about what happens when we die is a new form and/or place of existence—that death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Here’s what the Bible has to say on the matter:
“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’“ (Genesis 3:4-5).
God had told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). In direct opposition to God’s word, the devil told Eve that she wouldn’t die. Instead, she would be elevated to a higher plane of existence.
View #2 is a lie perpetrated by the devil. In the third and fourth centuries, the lie entered mainstream Christian theology by way of Greek philosophers who adopted the idea from Egyptian pagans. Here’s what a few historians have to say on the matter:
- “The notion of the soul going to heaven when you die and the body being left behind on earth: That’s a notion that is widespread in the Christian tradition nowadays. It comes from Plato, and I worry that there’s a spirituality attached to that, which is specifically Platonic and not Christian” (Phillip Cary, Philosophy and Religion in the West).
- “Many early Christians had a deep respect for Pythagoras. … Jerome (c. 347 – 420) praises Pythagoras … and credits Pythagoras for his belief in the immortality of the soul, which he suggests Christians inherited from him. … Pythagoras studied with the Egyptian priests at Thebes” (”Pythagoras,” Wikipedia).
- Some ancient writers claimed that Pythagoras learned the doctrine of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) from the Egyptians (see Pythagoras: His Life, Teachings, and Influence by Christoph Riedweg and Life of Pythagoras by Porphyry).
Historians know that the concept of an immortal soul (life after life) isn’t biblical; many theologians do not. Most Christians aren’t aware of the concept’s origin and geneology.
Good News for the Redeemed
On the surface, without its origin revealed, it might seem that View #2 about what happens when we die is preferable. Life on a higher plane or in a better place certainly sounds better than non-existence. But, as always, God knows what He’s doing. Just as He created human beings to begin with, He can revive people who died.
The Bible tells about a few of these instances and promises mass resurrections in the future. The dead will live again. When the redeemed are resurrected, they will be raised to eternal life. Eternal life for the saved will begin, not one at a time, but all together (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Hebrews 11:39-40, etc.).
We don’t have to worry about our deceased loved ones building new lives in eternity without us. Those who have lost a child will get to pick up right where they left off and raise that child themselves. Eternity will begin when we all can experience it together. We can content ourselves about our loved ones who rest in peace—those who are asleep in Jesus (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:51, etc.). The next thing they know, they will join the Lord in the air with all of the redeemed (1 Thessalonians 4:17). We will put on God’s immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53), and we all will gather together for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).
Good News for the Lost (and the Universe)
After God resurrects the lost and reveals His judgments, the lost will experience the second death (Revelation 20:11-15, etc.). The second death is like the first death in this way: it is non-existence. The second death is unlike the first death in this way: it’s not followed by a resurrection. The lost, along with the devil, will cease to exist forever (Ezekiel 28:19, Malachi 4:1,3, etc.).
After the second death, “‘There shall be no more death.’ Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away ” (Revelation 21:4). This promise isn’t just for the redeemed; it’s for the universe. The lost will not suffer forever; they will cease to exist forever. The loving God will mercifully put them out of their misery. The redeemed will not be enjoying eternity while the lost suffer in torment in some corner of the world. The lost will be ashes under our feet (Malachi 4:3).
Non-existence is preferable to eternal suffering. This concept is biblical, reasonable, and fair. And, it’s consistent with a loving God.
What I’ve shared here is what the Bible has to say in a teeny-tiny nutshell. It says much, much more about what happens when we die. Be sure to subscribe to the blog and YouTube channel to learn more. Also, check out my course on Death & Hell: What Does the Bible Say? If you have questions or comments, please drop me a line or use the comments below.