The Scriptures have very clear, definitive declarations about what happens to the believer in Jesus at the death of that believer. It is a comforting truth that God has given us about our immediate arrival in the presence of Jesus at death.
I do readily admit that death is not the most pleasant of subjects, and people generally prefer not to think a lot about it because deep inside it brings uneasiness or just plain fear. The biblical truth that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27) pointedly reinforces what man intuitively seems to sense—that there is life after death. The concern is, therefore, what will life be like after life here is over?
It is not surprising, therefore, that many are quite ready to listen to ideas and philosophies that teach tranquility and peace for all after death and the absence of punishment of any kind. This may take the form of a television special that gives the testimonials of those who claim to have had near death experiences that are warm and wonderful, or philosophies that teach such things as reincarnation. Even some within the church suggest that since God is a God of love, people do not need to be unduly concerned about what lies beyond death.
But of all the truths found in biblical prophecy, none is as important or personal as “what happens to me when I die?” The Bible does speak clearly and confidently on the matter. This article will be a reminder of what happens to the believer in Jesus Christ at death, and the next article will focus on what happens to the unbeliever at death. As we shall observe, the future of the believer and the unbeliever are not at all the same. First, it is important that we define what is meant by “death.”
The Biblical View of Death. Though death is both real and inevitable, it is unnatural. When God created His “very good” creation, death was not part of it. It is the sin of Adam and Eve that brought death into the world, according to the Apostle Paul in Romans 5:12. But death should not be, and that is why, eventually, death will be finally conquered and completely banished from the new creation (1 Cor. 15:26).
In the Bible, there are three kinds of death. (Eph. 2:1; Rev. 20:14; Gen. 35:18-19). There is spiritual death (the separation of a person from God); the second death (the eternal separation of a person from God; and then there is physical death (the separation of the material part of man from the immaterial part). Death basically means separation. Death does not mean non-existence, nor does it mean annihilation.
So, when a believer in Jesus Christ (one who is no longer spiritually dead; that is “separated from God”) dies physically, his body (material) ceases to exist and his soul/spirit (immaterial) continues to exist. The issue is where and how does the immaterial exist. The Scriptures do tell us a number of things about what transpires after physical death
The Intermediate State. The “intermediate state” is that time between physical death and final resurrection. It is that condition that Uncle Fred is presently in. There are some truths about this state that are quite certain. First, believers are guaranteed that nothing, including death, will ever separate us from the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:38-39). Second, believers never need to fear what happens at the moment of death. Death is not some long, dark, foreboding tunnel we travel through. Rather death for the believer is put in very non-frightening terms; such as “sleep” (1 Thess. 4:13-15). Third, believers are assured that death brings them immediately into the glorious presence of Jesus Himself. In two passages that are grammatically and theologically powerful (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:21-23), the Apostle Paul declares without any reservation that believers can only be in one of two places. They are either here on earth or they are in heaven with Christ. Here or there. There is no third option. There is no “soul sleep” (Seventh-day Adventism) nor is there any “purgatory” (Roman Catholicism). The strong grammar of these passages not only presents two options only, but also tells us that there is no time lapse between death and being with Jesus the Lord. Death brings a believer instantly into the glorious presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.
One matter that is not clear but rather might be suggested has to do with the conscious state that the believer is in. In other words, does the believer have a temporary body, something to house the immaterial part prior to resurrection? Jesus’ transfiguration holds an interesting possibility. And it has to do with the presence of the Old Testament hero Moses. Moses, whose body was buried at his death in the plains of Moab, appears on the Mount of Transfiguration in bodily form. This appearance was, of course, chronologically prior to Jesus’ resurrection, and thus the resurrection of anyone else. No one received a resurrection body before Jesus, the “first fruits of the resurrection”, was resurrected. (People, like Lazarus, were returned to life but in their earthly physical bodies, not their resurrection bodies). So perhaps we do not exist in spirit form but have some sort of clothing for our immaterial parts. It would not, of course, be a problem for the Creator to call such bodies into existence.
The Eternal Future of the Believer in Jesus. It was the prayer of Jesus in John 17 that His followers would be with Him and see His glory. That prayer will be answered. We possess “eternal life”, but “eternal life” is not simply endless existence, but speaks of a quality of life; that is, the life of God Himself being possessed by regenerate men. In eternity we will have a quality of life which is simply beyond our present experience or understanding. There will be some differences between believers based on the Judgment Seat of Christ, but all will enjoy the wonders of eternity. What will it be like to live without the incessant pull and power of the flesh? What will it be like to be holy and forever righteous? What will it be like to have absolute peace with God and be in complete harmony with all the rest of mankind and all creation? What will it be like to live without sin, crying, pain and death?
From what we can discern in Revelation 20-22, the focus of our lives after the resurrection will be on the earth, not heaven itself. The Lord apparently will be returning to His original plan of establishing something similar to the Garden of Eden. When church age believers are resurrection they will join with the recently resurrected Old Testament and Tribulation believers at the Second Coming. As King Jesus comes to earth to establish His marvelous kingdom of righteousness, joy and peace, all believers will be with Him. For a thousand years, believers will revel in the righteous reign of the King. Then, after the thousand years are completed, the new earth and new heavens are created and the indication of Revelation 21 is that we believers will reside on the new earth. There will be full, unhindered fellowship with God as He comes and takes up residence among us. Our imaginations cannot conceive of the glorious days that await the follower of Jesus Christ. By His grace, not our goodness, we have an incredible future to look forward. For sure, the best is yet to come for the believer in Jesus.