Death is an obvious and regular reminder that our world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Whether it’s the simple death of a beautiful bouquet of flowers, the souring of a cup of milk, or the loss of a great friend – death is a constant intrusion into our worlds. As the saying goes, the only two certainties in this life are death and taxes. God made this promise to Adam when he fell in sin, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19 ESV) The promise to Adam and thereafter to all of mankind was that death comes for us all.
The natural follow-up question though whenever the topic of death arises (even from children) is “What happens when we die?” Many answers have come forward from various traditions and religions. But the aim of our study is to carefully consider what God has said about His topic from the Bible. If God has shed light on the situation, we ought to utilize it so that we might see what awaits all of us.
It comes as no surprise, but the words of the Lord Jesus are our best guide. At the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, He delivered these words to one of the criminals who hung beside him who was near death as well. The Lord Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)
What do we learn from the Lord Jesus? We learn that at death, though the body remains the soul departs. The soul itself has a separate existence apart from the body, but the body itself is subject to decay just as God promised Adam in the Garden of Eden. But we also learn from this passage that not every soul departs to the same destination. Jesus and this thief departed to Paradise. The thief was granted this gift by Christ’s grace alone.
The Westminster Confession of Faith (written in 1646 AD) explains the destination of souls after death in this way, “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them” (WCF Ch. 32.1) In other words, we find in this Confession a carefully summary of the New Testament teaching on the body, the soul, and the destination of righteous men, women, boys, and girls. Ecclesiastes teaches us, “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Eccl. 12:7 ESV)
Now no one would be upset if this was the outcome of every human life. But we have to consider all of Scripture. The next question naturally arises, “What happens to people who are not righteous?” or to ask the same question considering Golgotha, “What happened to the other man who died without Christ’s pardon?” or “What happens to people who die in their sin?”
The Lord Himself gives us this warning of what awaits those who reject Him and His teaching. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels …” (Matt. 25:41 ESV)
Here we come to some of the most frightening imagery in all of Scripture. The wicked are not allowed to escape the wrath of God. Contrary to the false opinions of some, people do not simply cease to exist after death, nor is there judgment to be annihilated by God, but there is a constant, and abiding punishment which is so agonizing no image or word can capture the horror. The images which come forward from Christ include fire, darkness, and a devouring worm.
Some questions come to mind: How can there be darkness and fire at the same time? What are we to make of this? Whatever awaits the wicked is far worse than our imaginations can ever muster. So it is our goal to not only avoid the wrath of God which is coming, but to warn others that they might be saved from the just judgment of God which everyone one of us deserves. For God in His mercy has not given us a hopeless situation, but the promise that death has been conquered in Christ. “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:14 ESV)