What happens when we die?

 Death defined

Death is an experience that is relevant to all human beings. It is the most baffling experience of humans. It raises many questions and answers none. Philosophers to common man have been trying to solve the riddle, but it remains a mystery. The time and method of death are unpredictable. Science has not been successful to explain it fully. Medical science still remain a failure before it. It is the unavoidable, certain, expected and sure end of every individual.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, death is the irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity. It is the end of life. Death is the cessation of the biological life. All the functions of the body will cease. At death, the body immediately begins to decay, with a subsequent disintegration back to the dust of the earth whence it came originally.

But the concept of death in the Bible is different from the scientific view. Death is mentioned for the first time in the Bible is in Genesis. God said to Adam, "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 2:17). But Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the sinned and the punishment for it as death came upon them. Still they lived for some more years after that. Adam lived for 930 years (Genesis 5:5).the Bible is silent about the life span of Eve.

The punishment upon Adam and Eve was both physical and spiritual. But Bible teaches that death which happens to a human while he lives on this earth, is not the end of life. There will be a life after death. In John 5: 24, Jesus said: “he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” Jesus has life in him (John 5:26) and so He gives everlasting life to all who believes in God. They shall pass from death into life.

What is death?

Bible presents a different perspectives about death. Bible teaches that all humans consist of three components: body, soul and spirit. (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Our physical bodies are visible and tangible, but our soul and spirit are not. The Greek word for soul, used in 1 Thessalonians 5: 23, is psuche. This word implies our mind, will and desires expressed through our personal preferences, choices, and emotional responses. All these composes our personality. The Greek word for spirit, used in the same verse, is pneuma. It refers to the third component of humans that connects and communicates with God. While our soul is self-centered, our spirit is God-centered. True joy, comfort and peace of God's presence can only be experienced through our spirit.

Some biblical scholars have a different opinion about the constituents of humans. They believe in a dichotomy of body and soul-spirit. For them the soul and spirit are one and the same. Both these two viewpoints are respected. They affirm that all human beings have two parts - physical and spiritual.

Death is the separation of the spirit from the body. At the point of death, the spirit leaves the body and enters the appointed place for rest. (Genesis 35:18; James 2:26). The state of the spirit after death depends upon the relationship of the deceased with God. But the spirit does not disappear or merge into a lifeless nothingness. The scripture classifies death into two – the physical death and the spiritual death. One is temporary and the other is eternal. Physical body will be resurrected and spiritual death ends up in eternal punishment.

Christian perspectives about death

Human beings believing different dogmas have different perspectives about life and death. Their attitude to death differs according to their perspectives. For a Christian, life in this world is temporary and fleeting. King David admits in Psalm 39:4-7 that humans are frail, vapor and a walking shadow. His days in this world is only a handbreadth. Still a true Christian has a consolation in the hope that, by death, he is being transferred into the heavenly presence of our Lord.

In a theological perspective Bible defines death in different terms. Let us try to understand some of them.

Death Is an Enemy

Bible calls, death an enemy to man. Death is not the natural state that God planned for humans. Humans were created by God to live forever with God in fellowship with Him. But, as I said before, sin thwarted this original plan. But the original plan of God is not abandoned. To fulfil it, we are offered hope and promise of the resurrection and eternal life. Death came to human life as an enemy to God’s intend for humans. So Bible calls death as the last enemy to be conquered. Since death is the result of a cause, the cause itself has to be defeated. Death is brought into this world by satan by deceiving humans to disobey God. So satan and death must be defeated. Apostle Paul gives us the hope that, "For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death." (1 Corinthians 15:25, 26).

Back to the Dust

Bible is realistic about death and what happens to our physical body after it. It teaches that our physical body will be decomposed into the dust of the earth. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were deprived of the tree of life and physical immortality (Genesis 3:22; Romans 5:12). So humans have to return to the dust of the ground, from where he is created. God commanded in Genesis 3:19: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return." Apostle Paul also speaks of our body as an earthly house, a tent that will be destroyed. The Greek term for “dissolved” in 2 Corinthians 5:1 is kataluo, literally mean to “loose down”. It is a vivid expression for fleshly decomposition.

Death is a departure

In II Timothy 4:6, Paul wrote to Timothy "for I am now ready to be offered and the time of my departure is at hand." The Greek word here for departure is analusis. It has three distinct meanings. It is as a nautical term to denote a ship which pulls up its anchor and sets sail. It is also used as a military term to denote an army breaking the camp to move on. And the third meaning of the word is to set free someone from his chains. That means, for Apostle Paul and all Christians, death is setting sail, breaking the camp and freedom the chains that attach them to this world. Death is a departure to their eternal home. Actually, it is a going from the land of the dead to the land of living.

Luke 9:31 narrates the incident that happened on the mount of transfiguration. There Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus and spoke to Him about, “His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek word used for “decease” is exodus. Again the same word is used by Peter when he said to his brethren, “have a reminder of these things after my decease.” It is the same word used as the title of the second book in the bible to denote the departure of the Israelites from Egypt. So death is an exodus from a foreign land of slavery and persecution to a promised heavenly and eternal home.

Death is sleep

A frequent and meaningful description of death in the Bible is sleep. This metaphorical use of “sleep,” is ancient. It is also found in classical Greek literature of Homer and Sophocles. The details of this concept may differ in the Bible and non-biblical writings.

The term “sleep” is used in the Scriptures to describe the state of the body in death. Only the physical body of a human sleeps in death. In Daniel 12:2 the dead are described as “those who sleep in the dust of the earth”. The dead body is placed in the earth and it is this body that sleeps in death. The Spirit of a dead person does not enter into a condition of sleep. And Daniel says that the body will be resurrected. When Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the state of death, Luke says that “her spirit returned, and she arose immediately”. (Luke 8:55). Jesus spoke thus about the death of Lazarus: "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." (John 11:11).

1 Thessalonians 4:14 calls the dead people as “those who sleep in Jesus.” The verse says: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” Here you have both sides of the condition of the dead. Christians who die are said to be “with Jesus”. They are in the conscious presence of the Lord. At the same time, their physical body “have fallen asleep in him”. It means that the body of the dead sleeps in the grave.

To understand this better, let us learn some Greek words that is used in the New Testament for sleep. The Greek word koimao (koimaw ,  koy-mah'-o) is used in Matthew 28:13; Luke 22:45. This word is derived from another root word, keimai (ki'-mahee). Keimai literally means “to lie down”. In the Greek language the word koimeterion denotes a place where traveling strangers could stop for sleep. Or the word is used to mean an inn. Another Greek word used to denote sleep is katheudo (katheudo,  kath-yoo'-do - Luke 22: 46; Mark 5:39; Matthew 13:25). The early Christians called their burial grounds koimeteria, meaning “sleeping places”. The English word “cemetery” is derived from this Greek word. Cemetery is a place where the bodies of the dead lie sleeping.

Apostle Paul says, “that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:10). In 2 Corinthians 5:8, he says again, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” All these Bible verses shows that sleep is applied only to the body and not to the spirit.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1, Apostle Paul says, “that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” The Greek word used here for “dissolved” is kataluo (kataluw - kat-al-oo'-o). This word means, to loosen down, disintegrate, to demolish, destroy, dissolve, come to nought, overthrow, throw down etc. Paul uses this word in relation to the image of tent. The tent is a temporary dwelling place which will be loosen down to move from one place to another. He is speaking about the loosing of our body by death. It is a vivid expression for fleshly decomposition.

As a person does not cease to exist while he sleeps, a dead person does not cease to exist while his body sleeps in the dust. A person in sleep does not listen, communicate or actively participate in what happens around him, so does a dead person. But the person continues to exist. Sleep is temporary and the person will wake up after a while, with fresh energy and enthusiasm. So the dead will wake up one day fresh and powerful. Sleep is rest from hard work and cares of the world. Death is also a rest from the world and worries. 

The dead ones are conscious

Since the spirit of the dead people are not sleeping, they are not in an unconscious sate. The notion that the spirits of the dead are sleeping unconsciously until the resurrection is wrong. There are many evidence in the Bible to prove that the spirits of the dead are not sleeping. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, both of them are conscious in the afterlife. On the mountain of transfiguration Moses and Elijah appeared to Christ and spoke regarding his impending death in Jerusalem (Luke 9:30, 31). That means, the spirits of these Old Testament saints were not in sleep. On the cross, Jesus promised the penitent thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Jesus is promising a conscious association with Him later that day in the realm of the righteous dead.

The spirits are conscious and can remember their earthly life. They experience the condition of their dwelling place, whether good or bad. The spirit of the righteous enjoys a state of comfort and peace but spirits of the unsaved will have to suffer torment and anguish. Apostle Paul, in Philippians 1:22 says that the dwelling place of the saved one is “far better” than the earthly life. The spirit of the rich man in the parable is also conscious and remembers his earthly life. He also has a desire to save his family members from the sufferings that he goes through. The dead are conscious and has desires which they may express to God.

The souls we see in Revelation 6: 9, 10 are also fully conscious and remembers their earthly life. They too have a desire to avenge for their blood. Apostle John saw “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” He continued to say that, “they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

No communication possible

Though the spirits of the dead are not sleeping and have conscience, they cannot communicate or involve in any earthly affairs. They cannot do anything to fulfil their desires. They are not aware of what is going on in this world after their death. They can remember their relatives and friends and how they lived before their death, but their knowledge is not updated to the current situation.

Ecclesiastes 9: 5, 6

5    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.

6    Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; Never more will they have a share In anything done under the sun.

It is because the dead cannot communicate to the living on the earth, the rich man in Luke 16, requests Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers. He hopes that his brothers would listen to a person who has come back from the dead. But as the rich man cannot communicate to his brothers, Lazarus also could not go back to the world. Abraham answers that the living on the earth have “Moses and the prophets” and they may hear them. What he means is that, there are preachers and prophets in world who teach the mosaic covenants and the prophecies. His brothers can listen to them for repentance and salvation.

Moreover the scripture strictly forbid any kind of communication with the dead spirits.


Deuteronomy 18: 10, 11

10 There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer,

11 or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.


There is another danger of trying to communicate with the spirit of the dead. The demons can masquerade as the dead. They can even mimic the voices of our loved ones and give information that only the dead person would have known. So Bible strictly prohibits it.


Leviticus 19:31 'Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.”

So we should not attempt to contact the dead through any means at all. We should not use anything like, séances, parlor games, crystal balls, psychic readers, channelers, or mediums.

Appearances of Moses and Elijah are exceptional cases with godly purposes. That is not an example for conjuring up dead spirits or demons in the guise of spirits.

Blissful Reunion

Death is a blissful reunion with our righteous loved ones, who have left us before. In Genesis 25:8, we read: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died …. and was gathered to his people.” This verse is not about the burial of his physical body. His body was not buried with his ancestors. Abraham was buried near an oak garden in the Promised Land. But none of his physical or spiritual fore fathers were buried there. We do not know exactly how and where Moses’s body was buried. So the expression, “gathered to his people” is about the reunion of his spirit with the spirits of the righteous people died before him. Abraham had a blissful reunion with his spiritual fore fathers.

When David's child died, he said "Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me." (2 Sam. 12:23). David knew that, someday, he would be reunited with his child and he would have eternal fellowship with him. Jesus said in Matthew 8:11, “And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” He was surely speaking about the blissful reunion of our souls with the forefathers.

This reunion is meaningful only if there is a recognition of people. Abraham should recognize his fore fathers like Adam and Noah. David should recognize his son. And we too shall recognize our fore fathers like, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven”. The relationship between our loved ones will be not be physical, but spiritual. Once we die, we will never regain our physical in the present manner.

Where are the dead now?

We are sure about the geographical abode of the Christians who died after the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament, they believed in a place called Sheol. Sheol is translated as Hades in Greek. They thought that Sheol was in the lower part of earth, while heaven was above the earth. In Psalms 139:8, David said: “If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.” Sheol was divided into two parts with a great chasm in between that separate them. The righteous will go to the compartment known as Abraham’s bosom and the unrighteous will go to the second compartment where they will suffer torture. The Parable of the rich man and Lazarus says that there is a permanent impassible chasm between the place of dead spirits of the righteous and unrighteous.

But the story is different for a Christian who die in Christ. Bible tells us that after death believers’ spirits will immediately go into the presence of our Lord. Their sins are already forgiven when they received Jesus Christ as their savior. There is no more sin in them that need to be purified. That is why Paul said: “For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.” (Philippians 1:23). He affirms this truth in 2 Corinthians 5:8 “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. There is nothing intermediate. Ecclesiastes 12:7 says: “Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, And the spirit will return to God who gave it.”

So there is no intermediate state, place or time after death before meeting our Lord. The scripture never mention about the spirit sleeping or purgatory. No human living on this earth or the spirit of a dead person can do anything to purify us unto righteousness. Those who lived a righteous life on this earth will be with our Lord. Hebrews 9: 27 says, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment”.

In 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul spoke about a special spiritual experience he had before 14 years. He says that he was caught up to the third heaven which he also calls paradise. He is not sure whether it happened in the body or out of the body. For paradise he uses the Greek word, paradeisos (par-ad'-i-sos). This same Greek word is again found in the Book of Revelation 2:7. It is a biblical proof it is a palace where the spirits of humans can enter. The paradise in Revelation 2:7 has a “tree of life”. And again in Revelation 22:2, in the New Jerusalem, we again find “the tree of life”. This avouch that the paradise is a heavenly realm. The spirits of the dead believers may be in this paradise at present.

In Acts 7:59, we read the last prayer of Stephen. After witnessing Jesus Christ as Messiah, Stephen looked up to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand side of God (7:55). Afterwards, as the angry Jews were stoning Stephen, he said: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. And he died (7:59). Stephen anticipated that his spirit would be with Jesus Christ. 

From these scripture verses and some more, we believe that those who die in Christ will have a union with the Lord. That is what Jesus offered to the penitent thief on the cross: “And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43).

But the state of the spirits of the unsaved humans are different. For them death is the beginning of the everlasting punishment. The place of torment where rich man in the parable went after his death may exist till today. Because the sacrifice of Christ has made no difference in them and their sins are not forgiven. This may be a temporary state where they await the final judgment and punishment. Revelation 20:11-15 describes all the unbelieving dead being resurrected, judged at the great white throne, and then being cast into the lake of fire. However, even though unbelievers are not instantly sent to the lake of fire, their immediate fate after death is torment. The rich man cried out, “I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). The doctrine of hell is a vital part of the Bible. At death, all who have lived in rebellion to God will enter into a spirit state of pain, trouble and sorrow (Psalms 116:3). In Mark 9: 44, Jesus spoke about the place of the spirits of the wicked: "where 'Their worm does not die, And the fire is not quenched.”

In Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus narrates a parable about the judgment of the spirits after death. Jesus says that the He will separate them one from another as shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. "Then the King will say to those on His right hand, 'Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (34). 41 "Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (41). Jesus concludes the parable saying: "And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (46)

What will happen to the dead?

As we have understood, death is a temporary phenomenon for the body. At death the spirit of a person goes to the appointed abode and the physical body is dissolved into dust. But the spirit and the physical body has a reunion or resurrection. This concept of the bodily resurrection is found in both the Old and New Testaments. Daniel also spoke about the resurrection of all dead humans in 12:2. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, Some to everlasting life, Some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However, it is more prominent in the New Testament. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:10, Jesus Christ “has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”. Jesus also affirmed this truth in John 5:28.


John 5:28

28  Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice

29  and come forth--those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.


Bible affirms a resurrection of the dead by two stages. In the first stage, those who are dead in Christ will be resurrected at the second coming of Jesus. Paul speaks about the first stage of resurrection in I Thessalonians 4: 16: “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.” Again Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:52 “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.” In the second stage, all human beings will be resurrected to stand before the Judgment seat of God. Apostle John describes this incident in Revelation 20: 12, 13. In a vision he saw, “the dead, small and great, standing before God”. “And the dead were judged according to their works”.

In Greek, the word for “to judge” is used in two senses. One sense is giving rewards and another sense is condemnation. The Bible says that Christian believers will be rewarded and the unbelievers will be condemned. Both are judged according to their belief and works. (2 Corinthians 5:10). Our works in this world will not be forgotten. It will follow us into eternity. The Book of Revelation 14: 13 says, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'" "Yes," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them." Apostle Paul also says the same thing: “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.” “Each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.” (1 Corinthians 15:58; 3:8).

There is no second chance for salvation after death. 2 Corinthians 6:2 says explicitly that, “… Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” Hebrews 9: 27 says, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment”. What comes after is the judgment.

However, passages such as 1 Corinthians 15:50-54 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 describe believers being resurrected and given glorified bodies. If believers go to be with Christ immediately after death, what is the purpose of this resurrection? It is true that, at death, the spirits of believers go to be with Christ immediately after death while the physical body remains in the grave “sleeping.” At the resurrection of believers, the physical body is resurrected, glorified, and then reunited with the spirit. This reunited and glorified body will be the possession of believers for eternity. Our resurrected body will be analogous to the Lord’s bodily resurrection. (Philippians 3:21).

Prepare for Your Death

Death is certain for Christian believers as well as non-believers. And a life after death is also certain. Only the place and condition of the afterlife will be different. It depends on our earthly life. if we are saved by faith through the grace of God, we shall be with Christ and if we deny the salvation offered by Christ, we will be in a place of suffering. That means, one cannot live wrong and die right. After death there is no opportunity for repentance or salvation. Such concepts as “a second chance after death,” “baptism for the dead,” and “purgatory,” are totally without basis in the Scriptures.

Though there are many things about death that we do not know, the inspired word of God does afford enough information that we may take courage at the prospect of dying.

(All Bible verses are quoted from New King James Version, if not mentioned otherwise)

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