What Does the Bible Say About What Happens After Death?
Have you ever wondered about life after death, or what some refer to as the afterlife?
The Bible has answers, so we’re going to dive into the Word of God together and learn what we can about what happens once a person has died.
We’ll tackle specific questions like:
- Is there life after death?
- What does the Bible say about what happens when you die?
- What is the soul, and what happens to it when we die?
- Is there hope in Jesus Christ for life after death?
Let’s start with the question that brought you here.
Is there life after death?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes, there is life after death, but not immediately. Through hope in Jesus Christ, we can have faith that He will return for all His believers and we will be raised from the dead.
But let’s clarify some details.
Is there life immediately after death? The answer to this question is no.
When God created humanity, He breathed the breath of life into Adam. That life force, God’s breath, made Adam alive.
In other words, Adam became a living soul.
The Bible says, “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7, NKJV). When we die, the breath of life, like that which God breathed into Adam, returns to God.
So, when we die, we are dead.
However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope after a person died. We can have hope of eternal life with God.
Even though the breath of life returns to God when we or our loved ones die, we can be confident that it will be returned when we are resurrected at the Second Coming of Jesus.
In fact, the Bible is full of instructions not to fear death because it is simply like sleep.
To human beings, death feels so final and scary. But to God, the death that His believers experience during our time on this earth is merely a time of rest before we are raised up again, given new, perfect bodies, and taken to heaven to live with God eternally (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).
Unbelievers will also experience a brief resurrection to be judged before dying the eternal death, but more on that a bit later.
So, is there an afterlife? The answer is both yes and no.
Now, let’s look at some more specific questions about life after death by turning to the Bible as our guide.
What does the Bible say about life after death?
In a nutshell, the Bible is clear that without the breath of God in us, we are not alive. Once the breath of God leaves us, we are asleep in death.
We don’t go to heaven directly or spend time in an in-between-space. We are simply dead. The breath of God is what gives us life, and without that breath we have no life.
With that in mind, here’s how the Bible answers these common questions people have:
- Do good and bad people go straight to heaven and hell when they die?
- What do people know after they die?
- Can the dead communicate with the living?
Do good or bad people go straight to heaven or hell when they die?
No, good people do not go straight to heaven when they die, and bad people do not go straight to hell. No one goes anywhere until our world’s history concludes at Jesus’ second coming.
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29, NKJV).
Jesus Christ is telling those around Him that both believers and unbelievers will be in their graves when He returns.
Those who have chosen Jesus as their Savior will be raised up when Jesus returns, and this is referred to as the first resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Those who chose against Him, on the other hand, will be raised at the second resurrection (Revelation 20:12-15), after the millennium.
So what happens after a person dies depends on that individual’s free will. Based on their life circumstances, did they choose to follow Jesus? Would they truly be happy in heaven? God alone knows everyone’s hearts.
Unbelievers, or those whose names are not in the book of life after the final judgment, will eventually die the second death. From this death, there is no resurrection.
Aside from a small few exceptions (Enoch, Elijah, and possibly Moses), no humans that have died on earth are currently in heaven.
Even many of the heroes of the Bible, David for example, are not in Heaven.
In the New Testament in Acts 2:29, 34 we read, “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. For David did not ascend into the heavens” (NKJV).
If there is anyone who we expect to be in heaven, it’s David. While he certainly wasn’t perfect, he is referred to as a man who constantly pursued God, and his Psalms are filled with yearning and praise for the Lord (1 Sam 13:14). However, we are told that David is not yet in heaven.
And just in case you’re wondering, there isn’t an “in-between” place that people go after they die either. There is no purgatory or intermediate state between life and death. When someone dies, they simply sleep in the ground until Jesus returns.
That way we can enjoy entrance into heaven all together, collectively praising God as we’re transformed in the air (1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Jesus Himself is clear about this throughout His ministry on earth. He refers to dead people as asleep when He resurrects Lazurus and the centurion’s daughter (Matthew 9:24, John 11:11-14).
What about the instances where the Bible tells us that someone was taken to Heaven?
The only time this doesn’t apply is under certain circumstances, when God, Himself, takes a person to Heaven.
For example, the Bible tells us that Enoch and Elijah are in Heaven (Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:11), and Moses appears at the transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-9. While we don’t know God’s specific purpose for these select few being taken to heaven right away, we do know that we can trust God’s plan, timing, and actions.
What do people know after they die?
Those who have died know nothing. As nice as it may sound, they aren’t watching over their loved ones and they aren’t feeling anything. But when Jesus comes again, He will call them from the grave and they will be given new bodies and eternal life.
The Bible says, “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, NKJV).
Can the dead communicate with the living?
Following the logic of the last two answers, people who have died cannot communicate with us. As a matter of fact, the Bible condemns the practice of speaking with the dead—because these are apparitions that are not of God (1 Chronicles 10:13). When a person dies, they do not return to speak with the living.
Now that we know some of what the Bible says about what happens when you die, let’s explore the concept of the soul.
What is a soul and what happens to it when we die?
As we previously discussed, the soul is what a human is: humans are living souls. Souls are not separate from the physical body.
Let’s consider an illustration to make it a bit clearer.
With a pile of lumber and a pile of nails, one can make a box. Take the nails out and the box falls apart.
Where did the box go?
It no longer exists. That is, until it’s rebuilt.
It’s the same way with the body and breath. Put them together and you have a living person—a living soul.
When the body and breath are separated in death, it’s like the box. The person ceases to exist. The breath returns to God and the body returns to dust.
So, the idea that the soul leaves the body at the moment of death and lives forever isn’t actually supported by Scripture.
Rather, once you die, the soul merely ceases to exist.
You might be wondering, then, about the idea of the immortal soul.
Firstly, the Bible is clear that only God is immortal (1 Timothy 6:16).
Furthermore, God says in the Bible, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20, NKJV).
This means that the person who deliberately continues in sin and does not repent will die.
If we accept that humans live forever, this would mean that God was not truthful when He spoke to Adam and Eve in the Garden:
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16,17, NKJV).
This means that the soul is not immortal. The soul dies when we die because the breath of life makes us human souls. Our bodies are part of our souls, not just soul-containers.
This also means that the common belief of unbelievers eternally burning in a lake of fire or hell isn’t true, either. Because the soul is not immortal, it will come to a point when it will die and the suffering will end.
We believe that God is love, and a soul that lives forever in torment is not reflective of the character of our loving God.
With Jesus, we can have hope for life after death
The best part of all this is that when we accept Jesus as our Savior, we don’t have to fear the time of death. Though we will certainly have natural emotional reactions to death and dying, we can also have peace as we hope for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ:
“But I do not want you to be ignorant brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope… For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus, we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:14,16-17, NKJV).
And those of us who have lost loved ones during our time on this earth can find comfort in the possibility that we may meet them again someday, and that, according to the book of Revelation, “God will wipe every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying” (Revelation 21:4, NKJV).
We’ve lived among sin, pain, and death, knowing both good and evil—just as our human nature chose through Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. But God never intended that to be the end of humanity’s story. He will set all things right when He returns to take us home, and those who have died will wake up to this most beautiful scene.
Want to know more? Learn what it really means to have a relationship with Jesus by starting your own Bible study, or check out this page about the experience of salvation.
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