05 / 06

What Happens When We Die?

William Lane Craig


In this sermon Dr. Craig uses reports of near- or after-death experiences to explain the Christian perspective of the intermediate state of the soul after death and the implications for the veridicality of such experiences.

Recently there have been a number of books written by or about people who have died, or been very near death, and who claim to have gone to heaven and then returned--for example, books like 90 Minutes in Heaven or Heaven is Real. These books have become runaway bestsellers among the Christian community. In these books these people claim not only to have gone to heaven but even to have seen and conversed with loved ones and friends, family members who have departed and gone on before. In fact, some of them claim to have met and actually conversed with Jesus while they were in heaven. Unfortunately from their point of view, they were sent back to earth; and so very reluctantly they returned to this life from heaven.

Well, obviously, books of this nature have aroused a great deal of interest in the Christian church. We look forward to heaven, and naturally we’re curious about what it’s going to be like there. These books have become very popular. At the same time, however, I am afraid that they could also be a source of misunderstanding. I’m afraid that people may begin to base their views of the afterlife and heaven on these near-death experiences rather than on what the Bible teaches about the afterlife.

I think that this would be dangerous for two reasons. First of all, these experiences are often inconsistent with one another. They’re contradictory, and so we know they can’t all be genuine in every respect. That means that some of these experiences are inauthentic, and the difficulty is: how do you know which ones are real and which ones are false? One person’s experience is just as real as the next person’s, so how do you judge whose experience of heaven is really authentic?

Secondly, and even more fundamentally, the Bible is our authoritative, God-given resource for Christian doctrine, including doctrine about the afterlife and about heaven. For God’s authoritative teaching on what the afterlife is like, we need to turn to the Bible, not simply to near-death experiences. This morning I want to open the Scriptures with you, so you’ll need to have your New Testament at hand because we’ll be looking at a number of different passages as we explore this topic.

The first and most fundamental truth that we must hold on to is that the biblical hope of immortality is physical, bodily resurrection. I repeat: The biblical hope for immortality is physical, bodily resurrection. The biblical hope is not that the soul will someday be separated from the body and fly off to heaven and be forever with God in heaven in this disembodied existence. That’s actually a very Greek understanding of the afterlife, from the Greek philosophers like Plato, and it’s very different from the Jewish-Hebrew way of thinking of the afterlife. For Jews and for the early Christians alike, the hope of immortality was not the immortality of the soul alone but rather the resurrection of the body. This physical body will be raised from the dead and transformed to immortal life.

Christ’s resurrection is our model here. Turn to 1 Corinthians 15:20. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul explains that our resurrection will be based upon or modeled after the resurrection of Jesus Himself. In 1 Corinthians 15:20 Paul says, “But now Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” The idea of “the first fruits” means a representative sample of the harvest that would come. The Jewish worshipers would offer the first fruits of their harvest to God as a sacrifice in the temple. Here Christ is said to be the first fruits of the general resurrection of the dead that will eventually take place; but His resurrection has already taken place in advance as a forerunner and a harbinger of our eventual resurrection, so that our resurrection bodies will be modeled on, or patterned on, Christ’s.

Paul says something similar in Philippians 3. Turn over to Philippians 3:20-21. There Paul says, “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we eagerly await the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body so that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself.” Paul says this humble, lowly body will be transformed and conformed to the image of Christ’s glorious resurrection body that He had when He left the tomb empty and emerged victorious over death. The biblical hope of immortality takes the form of physical, bodily resurrection from the dead.

Now that raises the next question: When do we receive our resurrection bodies? When do we get our resurrection body? Is it immediately upon death? When we die, do we immediately receive our resurrection body? Well, the answer to that is, no. That idea fails to take seriously the physical nature of the resurrection. The resurrection body is not some different body. It is this body transformed into a glorious, immortal, Spirit-filled, incorruptible form. So if we received our resurrection body immediately upon death, the graves of all the Christians would be empty! There would be no corpses left in the tombs because our resurrection bodies are the transformation of this earthly body. Therefore, the resurrection doesn’t take place immediately upon death. Rather the Scriptures are fairly clear that this takes place at the second coming of Christ, when Christ returns to earth.

Look at 1 Corinthians 15:21-23 and 51-52. In verse 21 Paul says, “For since by a man came death, by a man also has come the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order, Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” Christ’s resurrection has taken place first, as the first fruits; our resurrection will take place when He comes again. Then in verses 51-52 Paul says, “Behold, I tell you a mystery! We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

Paul’s fullest description of this transformation that will take place at the second coming of Christ is in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Look at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. Paul says,

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 if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the Word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the 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.

Paul says that at the second coming of Christ the dead in Christ will be raised first, then those who are still alive at that time will be transformed into their resurrection bodies, and we shall go to be always with the Lord. We do not receive our resurrection bodies until the second coming of Christ.

Now that occasions another question: What happens to us in between our death and our resurrection? In between the time that you die and the time that Christ comes again, what happens to you then? Do you simply go extinct? Do you cease to exist when you die, and then at the resurrection God recreates you anew? He brings you back to life after you have been non-existent for a period of time? Or do you continue to exist after death, but perhaps in an unconscious state, so that, as it were, you die and go to sleep, and then when you wake up, you’re in heaven with your resurrection body, and you’re not even aware that all that time has lapsed in between?

Well, I don’t think either of those is the correct answer. Rather what the Bible indicates is that the soul does survive the death of the body. Human death does not mean extinction. Human death is simply the separation of the soul from the body. While the body dies biologically and decays away, the soul continues to exist and continues to live in a disembodied state. In between your death and your resurrection you will exist as a disembodied soul, a soul without a body, in a conscious state.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 Paul discusses this at some length. Paul says, “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent”--referring to our present body; this body is temporary; it’s like a tent that’s easily struck down and collapsed--“If this earthly house is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” That would be the resurrection body that will be the permanent house of the soul. “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if, indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed but rather further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life.”

Paul is saying here, it’s not that we want our body to be stripped away, so that our soul exists in what he calls a state of nakedness, without any house--this intermediate state of the soul without a body is like a state of nakedness, where the soul exists in an unembodied condition. Paul says, it’s not that we want that. But, he says, it’s that we want to be further clothed, with our house, our resurrection body. He says, “We want to be further clothed.” The word in the Greek here has the connotation of pulling on top clothing, like pulling on a sweater over your shirt, so that you don’t need to undress first. You don’t need to go through the state of nakedness. What he’s saying here is that if he had his preference, he would rather live until the second coming of Christ, so that he wouldn’t have to go through that intermediate state of nakedness of being disembodied. He’d rather be immediately clothed with the resurrection body, like those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return, without going through the state of nakedness.

He says then in verse 5, “Now He who has prepared for this very thing is God, who has given us His Spirit as a guarantee. We are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” Paul still sounds a note of cheer here, even though he doesn’t want to go through that disembodied state of nakedness. He recognizes that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. He says we are of good cheer, and even though we’d rather not go through that disembodied state, still it’s going to bring me closer to Christ, and I would rather be present with the Lord and absent from the body, if that’s what it must be.

In fact in Philippians 1:21-24, Paul explains that when you die, this will involve a closer, more intimate relationship with Christ. Paul – contemplating here his possible martyrdom – says, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” It’s actually gain to die! “For if I live on the flesh this will mean fruit for my labor. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless, to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.” Paul doesn’t know whether he wants to be martyred or not. He says to stay in the flesh, in the body, is more needful for the Philippians. He wants to minister to them. It means fruitful ministry. But, he says, to depart, to be absent from the body and present with the Lord, is far better, and that’s his heart’s desire: to depart and be with Christ. For the believer, what awaits us when we die is this intermediate state of disembodied existence, which will bring us into a closer, more intimate fellowship with Christ, and we await in that state our eventual resurrection, which will occur when Christ returns.

Now, you might ask, “What about unbelievers, people who don’t know Christ? What happens to them?” Well, Paul doesn’t address this anywhere in his letters. He’s writing letters to Christian churches, and so he’s talking to them about what will happen to Christians. Interestingly enough, Jesus did address this issue Himself. In John 5 there’s a very interesting passage where Jesus speaks about the resurrection, and He says that there will be a resurrection, not only of the righteous dead, but even also of the unrighteous dead. John 5:28-29. Look at this saying by Jesus: “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.” Jesus envisions that all people will be raised from the dead. Those who are believers, the righteous dead, will be raised to the resurrection of life; but the unrighteous dead, those who have rejected God’s grace and His love, will be raised to the resurrection of condemnation. They will appear before the judgment seat of God, and then God will pronounce judgment upon them. Having received judgment, it is only then that we go to heaven or to hell.

We pass through this intermediate state until the resurrection. Then we appear before the judgment seat of God. The believers then go into heaven, and the unbelievers are cast into hell. In the intermediate state, unbelievers are already in a conscious state of torment called Hades. Look at Luke 16:19-26. This is Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Jesus said,

There was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day; but there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried, and being in torment in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus, that he may dip his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am tormented in this flame!’ Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things. But now he is comforted, and you are tormented. Besides all these, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot nor can those from there pass to us.’

Here Jesus envisions Lazarus in paradise, in Abraham’s bosom, where he will await the final resurrection, and the rich man in Hades. Now Hades is the Greek word for the Hebrew word Sheol. In the Old Testament Sheol is the realm of the departed dead. It’s the underworld of departed spirits. The Greek word for this is Hades. This is a different word than hell. This rich man is not in hell; he’s in Hades, which is the intermediate state that precedes the final resurrection.

When people die, the righteous go to be with Christ, where they will await their resurrection from the dead. The damned go to Hades, where they are in a disembodied state where they await their resurrection to final judgment. Only then are people ushered in to their final state, which is heaven or hell.

Now this has some really interesting implications! What this means is that these people who report these near-death experiences, in which they see loved ones and family members who are deceased, aren’t really seeing these people in heaven. They’re not literally seeing these people. Why? Because these departed dead are not yet risen from the dead. They’re in the intermediate state. They’re in the state of disembodied existence. They can’t be seeing these people in heaven in their resurrection bodies. It hasn’t happened yet!

This seems to imply, in the worst case, that what these people are experiencing is either hallucinations or else, perhaps, dreamlike states. You can have a dream, for example, of going to heaven and seeing Jesus and departed loved ones. These really wouldn’t be genuine, authentic experiences. That’s the worst case.

On the other hand, I think there is a more sympathetic construal of these experiences. It could be that what these experiences are is visions of their departed loved ones and of Jesus. A vision is a sort of mental projection of something that the mind puts out there. In the Old Testament we have many cases where people are caused to have visions of God or visions of other people and things. They’re not literally seeing them. There aren’t photons bouncing off these objects and entering their eyes and impinging on their optic nerve. They’re not really seeing these things literally, but rather their minds project a sort of mental image of these things. Even though God has no body--God is a spirit--sometimes in the Old Testament people have visions of God in a sort of bodily form. Maybe God has constituted the soul during this intermediate, disembodied state to project bodily images of other disembodied persons, as well as of oneself, so that it looks to these disembodied souls as though they are in a world populated by other people with bodies. These persons in this disembodied existence may live in a sort of virtual reality, in which it appears to them as if they are consorting with other physical persons, when in fact they’re just disembodied souls. But they’re projecting bodily images of themselves and others, so that they can recognize one another and have interaction with one another.

In this case what these people are experiencing is visions, as it were, of persons who are really disembodied. This would explain quite nicely, I think, some of the oddities of these near-death experiences. For example, in the book Heaven is Real, the little boy Colton sees his younger sister, who is deceased, as a 2-year-old child. Now his sister wasn’t two years old when she died. His mother miscarried, and this little sister was never born. He sees her in his near-death experience as a 2-year-old. Well now, why would he see her as two years old? It’s not as though she’s had two years in this disembodied state to grow up. Why isn’t she 8 years old or a full adult? Why two years old? Well, I think it’s plausible that this is the way he projects an image of her, namely, as a 2-year-old, when in fact she’s a disembodied soul.

He also sees people in heaven as having wings! They have wings like angels in his experience. Well, there’s nothing in the Bible that says people have wings in heaven. Our resurrection bodies will be like Christ’s, and He didn’t have wings. I think it’s hard to resist the temptation to think that this is just a projection of his mind based on popular images of people in heaven, where you go and you get your wings – that’s a sort of cultural image of heaven. It’s not to say that his experiences are inauthentic, but rather that these are visions that he has of other persons in the intermediate state and perhaps even of Christ Himself.

Well, let me summarize what we’ve seen before drawing some applications. When a person dies, his body lies in the grave until the return of Christ. The souls of those who belong to Christ are drawn into a closer, more intimate fellowship with Him in this disembodied state. We really don’t know what this disembodied existence is like. It’s possible that souls in this disembodied condition project mental images of each other and themselves as bodily, so that they can relate to one another. The souls of unbelievers, by contrast, enter into a state of conscious torment and separation from God which is called Hades. When Christ returns, He will bring with Him the souls of the departed believers, and their remains will then be raised from the dead and transformed into glorious, powerful, resurrection bodies, and their souls will be reunited with their bodies. After appearing before the judgment seat of Christ for rewards, they will then be ushered into the new heavens and the new earth. Unbelievers will also be raised from the dead and reunited with their bodies, and then after being judged by God, they will be cast into hell.

Well, what application does this have for us today? Let me just mention briefly three things.

First, it means that death is not the end. Death is not extinction. Your soul will separate from its body, but you will not cease to exist. You will live forever, either with Christ or apart from Him. What that means is that the lives that we live now are infused with eternal significance. We have the awesome privilege of determining where we will spend eternity. Therefore, the things that we do now in this life are of enormous, eternal significance because we will live forever, and those consequences will never end.

Second, it also means that this intermediate state will bring us closer to the Lord Jesus Christ. In this intermediate state, we will experience a more intimate and personal fellowship with Christ, and therefore this is something that we can look forward to. Whatever you think of these near-death experiences, I think we can say that they do teach us one thing, and that is that dying is a very pleasant experience! Everyone reports that dying is almost rapturous, and they’re reluctant to come back. Therefore, we don’t need to fear death. Dying is apparently something we’ll really enjoy, and then we’ll be brought into closer fellowship with Christ. We don’t need to be afraid.

Finally, third, the resurrection will bring complete physical and emotional healing. In the resurrection we will be freed from every disability, every infirmity, every disease, from your bad back to paraplegia or multiple sclerosis. All of this will be done away with, and we will have glorious, immortal, powerful, resurrection bodies. It will bring not simply physical healing, but complete emotional healing as well. Our souls are dysfunctional. They’re fractured. All of us bear emotional scars from our past. In the resurrection we will be completely freed from all of these neuroses and complexes and emotional scars to become transformed, transparent, loving people, living in harmony with one another and with the Lord Jesus Christ. Complete physical and emotional healing will be ours! What a hope and a prospect!

Death is not the end. Our lives are tremendously and eternally significant. This intermediate state will bring us closer to Christ. We don’t need to fear it. And finally the resurrection is our hope for complete physical and emotional healing. Praise be to God!