What Happens to Us When We Die?
Paul said: absent from the body…present with the Lord. (2Co 5:8) At the death of our loved one, we very much understand that death is not imaginary. It is oh so real! The life that we loved is obviously no longer in its body. Yet that mystical thing that we call life has not ceased to exist. It has just changed locations. Our loved one is now in the presence of the Lord. Solomon said: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Ecc 12:7) The body came from dust, and it goes to dust. Yet as this happens, the spirit is not in the body. It has already gone back to God. Jesus told the dying thief: To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luk 23:43) Jesus said, Today. What a transition! From hanging on a cross, to instantaneous being with Jesus in paradise! The thief’s body has long since returned to dust, but the thief himself has been with Jesus in paradise for the last two thousand years. Jesus told the unbelieving Sadducees that God is not a God of the dead but of the living. (Luk 20:38) Jesus’ statement was in reference to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His point was that these men were not dead, but alive with God. This is true of the thief, and of Paul, and of thousands upon thousands of God’s children from Adam to now. The scriptures teach that at the passing we call death, the spirit, even the very life, of the child of God is immediately whisked from this world to the next. Wow!! If that be the case, then as the songwriter said, ‘Death Ain’t No Big Deal’.
Let us consider what happens to our spirits when we die. Some are confused and mistakenly believe in what they call ‘soul sleep’. They picture unconscious souls, which ‘rest in peace’ from the moment of death, waiting for a future resurrection. In one way, it is not such a bad idea to imagine the weary traveler, sleeping away the centuries until Christ returns. Yet, to say that sleeping away the centuries is just as good as being awake in paradise would be perhaps the greatest understatement of all those centuries.
The Bible does not teach the idea of ‘soul sleep’. Paul said: For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. (Php 1:23-24) So what does this have to do with ‘soul sleep’? Paul was in a strait betwixt two, that is, he was perplexed as to which of two possible outcomes would be the better. On the one hand, he was ready to die and go be with Christ. On the other hand, he wanted to live longer and continue to serve Christ. Paul somewhat acknowledged that the option of being with Christ was the better of the two, but he must not have been fully convinced, since he was still perplexed about it. From his stated quandary, it is apparent that Paul did not believe in ‘soul sleep’. If he had believed that several hundred years of ‘soul sleep’ was what awaited him after death, he would have had no dilemma. His predicament was not whether he wanted either fifteen more years of service, or fifteen extra years of sleep. Paul was torn between either fifteen years of serving Christ down here, or fifteen years of being with Christ in paradise up there. He knew that fifteen years with Christ would have been far better, but he sensed that his work here was not done. If ‘soul sleep’ is all there is, Paul would want to be alive still today, serving Jesus.
Jesus believed in consciousness after death. In Luke 16, Jesus told of the deaths of the rich man and Lazarus. Then He spoke of each man, so as to leave no doubt that each was fully aware of his situation. Jesus said of Lazarus, He is comforted. Jesus described the rich man as being in torments. The rich man said of himself, I am tormented in this flame. He begged for water. There is no doubt that these two men knew all about their surroundings. Now here is the key point concerning ‘soul sleep’. The rich man desired that Lazarus would go warn his five brothers, lest they also come into this place of torment. As this scene unfolded, the brothers were still alive on the earth. The setting is not eternity future, after the age of ‘soul sleep’ has passed. This all took place while the world was still here. There is no such thing as ‘soul sleep’. When we leave this world, we immediately awake to experience the next.
Let us look at another record of a conversation that occurred in heaven, while men were still living on the earth. The souls of them that were slain…cried…How long, O Lord…dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? …it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season, until their fellowservants also and their brethren, that should be killed as they were, should be fulfilled. (Rev 6:9-11) These souls in heaven were not asleep, but were talking with the Lord, even talking about how long things were going to continue on the earth. So this conversation took place sometime between these men’s deaths and the end of time. Our state of existence between death and resurrection is not a state of unconscious sleep, but a state of conscious awareness.
Next, consider these verses that speak of the body and the soul after death: The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come. He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness. (Isa 57:1-2) These words describe God taking one of His children on to heaven, in order to spare him from experiencing further evil in this world. At the time of his parting, this man is said to enter into peace. Then a more detailed statement explains what happens to the body and the soul at this time of death. While their bodies rest in their beds (perhaps laid out awaiting their burials), each of them is walking in his uprightness. While the body is laid to rest, the soul is walking in paradise. Jesus said to the thief: Today thou shalt be with me in paradise. And so he is. And so it is.
Thus we can see from God’s word that we go straight to heaven when we die, and that we are conscious when we get there, but what will we remember of this world? Men’s opinions vary on this one. Some reason, “We won’t be able to remember anything from this world. Heaven would not be heaven, if we could remember the sin and misery of this world.” Others rationalize, “What will be the point of singing praises to the Jesus who saved us from our sins, if we cannot remember that we were sinners?” Each believes he can defend his position with earthly logic, but worldly reasoning is probably of little use, when we ponder about heaven. When this world’s logic goes to its logical end, reasonable men conclude that there is no such thing as heaven.
The Sadducees came to Jesus (who had come from heaven), in order to prove to Him that there could be no such thing as heaven. They presented to Jesus a story of a woman, whose first husband had died. According to their account, this woman then married her first husband’s brother. This second husband also died, so she married another brother. The sequence continued through seven different brothers, and after the death of the seventh husband, the woman finally died. They had set their stage. They thought they had Jesus backed into a corner. So their spokesman popped the impossible-to-answer question: Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. (Mat 22:28) Jesus answered: Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. (Mat 22:29-30)
Jesus stopped the Sadducees’ mouths, but I admit that His answer troubles me. I am married to my high school sweetheart, and have been for forty plus years. She was my first date, and my only love. How can heaven be heaven, if she is not my wife? So I do not claim to be able to answer all the questions about heaven, in that I have my own questions. Yet I am very sure of one thing about heaven. When we get there, we will be perfectly happy. I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness. (Psa 17:15)
Jesus’ statements about marriage prove that at least some relationships will be different in heaven. The former relationships of marriage will not exist in heaven (or at least will not exist in the same way that they existed in the earth). Yet, will all former relationships cease to be? Will all memories of earthly relationships be wiped out forever? What about the age old question, ‘Will we know each other in heaven?’ Paul’s patent answer is: Then shall I know even as also I am known. (1Co 13:12)
Yet there is much more in God’s word about this than Paul’s one statement. David’s proclamation at the death of his son leaves little doubt that he thought we would know each other in heaven. He said of his deceased son, I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. (2Sa 12:23) David faced his situation knowing two things. First of all, he knew the dreadful reality: he shall not return to me. Yet he also knew the glorious truth: I shall go to him. David had great anticipation of seeing his son again in heaven. Surely he was not disappointed when he got to heaven. Surely David did not find that he could not figure out which one was his son. I believe that David saw his son again, and I believe that he knew his son when he saw him.
Moses and Elijah had been dead for centuries. Yet when they appeared from heaven, Peter, James and John recognized them. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. (Mat 17:3-4) With eyes that could only see through a glass darkly, Peter, James and John recognized strangers who had come from heaven. If men on earth knew strangers from heaven, then it is only reasonable that men in heaven will know friends and family in heaven. If those, who only knew in part, knew enough to know somebody, then surely those, who shall know as they are known, will know enough to know everybody.
Moreover, from hell, the rich man recognized men in heaven. And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. (Luk 16:23) If the rich man in hell could look up to heaven and call Lazarus by name, then a man in heaven would surely be able to look around and recognize those who are in heaven. I look forward to seeing old friends that I have not seen for a while. I anticipate seeing new friends (even friends that I am yet to meet, but which I believe that I will already know), like a man named Paul. I look forward to talking to my Dad, and to holding my little Ellierose. Most of all I look forward to seeing my Jesus. I believe that I will know Him at first sight. Wow! To be able to put a face with that Name!! I do believe that we will know each other in heaven.
We now come to the question: Is there dying grace for the moment of death? Though we look forward to eternal bliss, we dread the path that leads to it. We do not so much mind the being dead part, but the dying part seems dreadful. Our fear of dying is natural, but I do not believe it is scriptural. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me. (Psa 23:4) What a promise! When my time comes to go through death’s valley, I will not be alone. My Shepherd will be there with me. As I think about dying, I imagine that I will be scared. Yet here I am told that I will fear no evil.
Along the same line, Jesus said: I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (Joh 14:2-3) In anticipation of having us with Him, Jesus promised to prepare a place. Yet we need to look closely at the logistics of how we get there. When our time comes for us to go be with Jesus, He does not just call us home. He comes and gets us. I will come again, and receive you unto myself. I will not make that journey alone: for thou art with me. At my moment of death: I will fear no evil. I believe in dying grace.
As we think about dying grace, let me tell you my story of Norma McIntyre. Late one afternoon, Norma’s son called me while I was at work. They had just brought Norma back to the nursing home from the hospital. The doctors could do no more. They had sent her back to die. Her son told me that she wanted me to come see her. I left work, and headed that way.
The hundred-mile drive was long, and I confess that I dreaded the visit. You see, Norma had been sick and in pain for a long time. I had visited her often, and prayed with her many times. Yet her anguish continued, and she had become very discouraged. After previous visits with her, I had often left her bedside feeling very helpless. Sometimes I had cried. It seemed that I had never been able to encourage her. Now she was dying, and asking for me.
Upon my arrival, Norma’s son and daughter-in-law left the room, saying that they would give the two of us some time to be together. Norma had a death rattle in her breathing. She asked the nurse for a pain shot, and the nurse explained that the doctor had not yet sent the orders. (I tell you this, so that you will know that Norma was not under the influence of narcotics.) Norma asked me to pray. I prayed. Norma continued to writhe in agony.
Not knowing what to do, I began to softly sing Amazing Grace. I know what the Bible says about singing songs to those with heavy hearts: As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart. (Pro 25:20) Yet I did not know what else to do, so I just sang, and prayed within myself while singing. As I made my way through the verses, her writhing seemed to ease. She became still. I even thought that she might be asleep.
Yet as I finished the last verse, she opened her eyes, and said she wanted to go home. I knew that she spoke of her heavenly home. I told her that that was in God’s hands. I told her that I did not know His times, but that Jesus knows those times, and that Jesus knows all about us. It was as if the Spirit gave me a song to sing. I began to sing:
Come what may of joy or sorrow, be my portion pain or rest.
Jesus guides me and directs me, and His way is always best.
Jesus knows—Jesus knows—All the way my feet must go.
Jesus knows—Jesus knows—Him I trust who loves me so.
When I got to the words, Jesus knows, a weak, trembling, alto voice echoed my words: Jesus knows (Jesus knows). Jesus knows (Jesus knows). Norma McIntyre was singing with me.
We sang Blessed Assurance together. When we finished that song, she opened her eyes and told me that she had felt the Spirit so strongly while we were singing, that she had thought she was gone. I told her that she had not yet heard singing, like she was going to soon hear. We then sang It Is Well with My Soul. After that, it seemed right just to sit and think of the Lord. She seemed to be so at peace. I know that I was.
Our reveries were interrupted, when her son, daughter-in-law, and two friends eased into the room. Norma was lying there with her eyes closed. One of them whispered, “How’s she doing?” I said, “I think she feels a little better. She’s been singing.” They looked at me, as if I was a fool. At that point, Norma came to my rescue, as she began to sing: I am safe in His love, for a wonderful Savior is He. I am safe in His love. In His mercy, He saved even me. When she finished, she said, “That’s my favorite. They sang that when I was baptized.”
The six of us sang Rock of Ages together. While I draw this fleeting breath—When I close my eyes in death—When I rise to worlds unknown, and behold Thee on Thy throne—Rock of ages cleft for me—Let me hid myself in thee. That was the last time I saw my friend, Norma McIntyre. She died two days later, hopefully still with a sense of peace. Soon thereafter, I preached her funeral. I look forward to singing with her again.
After this story, some would call me a naïve old preacher. They might say that it does not happen that way every time. I will be the first to agree. I know that everybody does not die in peace. I realize that some die horrible deaths in pain and agony. I understand that death is a curse, and that we are not to glorify it, as if it is some kind of wonderful blessing to get to die. Yet I still believe that the God of grace, whose grace has kept us thus far, will show us dying grace when we need it. None of us knows how it actually feels to die. We may have watched what seemed to be an agonizing death. Yet, what appears from the outside is not always the same as what is happening on the inside. If we had watched Stephen die, we would certainly not have declared, “Now there was a man who died in peace.” From all observation, it would have appeared that Stephen died a terrible death. Yet look what Stephen was seeing, while the boulders were crushing away his life. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. (Act 7:55) That is a picture of dying grace. While his bones were being broken, his spirit was looking into the throne room of God. He saw Jesus standing, as if to greet a friend who was about to arrive. Being filled with the Spirit, Stephen prayed for forgiveness for those who were literally bashing out his brains. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Act 7:60) Stephen fell asleep (that is he died), while talking to Jesus. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. What a way to die!
Christian history affords many such accounts. From Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, we find where Thomas Haukes (or Hauker in some versions) had been condemned to burn at the stake. A little before his death, several of his friends desired that he should show them some token, while in the midst of the flames, as to whether a man might be able to endure such pains of burning. This he promised to do. It was agreed that if the rage of the pain might be suffered, then he should lift up his hands above his head towards heaven before he gave up the ghost. Not long after, Mr. Haukes was led away to the place appointed for his slaughter. Being come to the stake, he mildly and patiently prepared himself for the fire. He poured out his soul unto God, and the fire was kindled. When he had continued long in it, and his speech was taken away by violence of the flame, his skin drawn together, and his fingers consumed with the fire, so that it was thought that he was gone, suddenly, and contrary to all expectation, this good man, being mindful of his promise, reached up his hands, burning in flames over his head to the living God, and with great rejoicings as it seemed, clapped them three times together. A great shout followed this wonderful circumstance, and then this blessed martyr of Christ, sinking down in the fire, gave up his spirit. Now that is dying grace.
I hold in high regard a preacher from our era, David Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I have read a great number of his books. I have studied in detail his many volume series on the Book of Romans. I do not agree with all that he said, but his writings have taught me much. I recently read his biography, written by his friend, Iian Murray. Murray gave an account of visiting Lloyd-Jones, as he lay on his death bed. His friend was in much pain. As Murray looked at him, he was grieved in his own heart, and said, “It hurts me to see you so weak, so tired, and so sad.” It had been a while since Lloyd-Jones had spoken a word, but from somewhere he mustered the strength to say two words, “Not sad.” That is dying grace! He wanted to reassure his friend that he was not sad. He was perhaps even then seeing the Jesus whom he had so long preached. It was not a sad time. He feared no evil. There is something wonderful beyond death. There is eternal life. There is a hope for tomorrow.
A blind man from our church, Harvey Purdy, had been in the hospital for a while, and had finally passed away. When I walked into the funeral home to express my sympathies, his widow said to me, “Brother Jeff, Brother Jeff, I have to tell you something.” Considering the circumstances, her tone of excitement seemed most unusual. I said, “What is it, Ruby?” She said, “We were at the hospital. The doctor was in the room. Harvey was lying back in the bed, and all of a sudden he sat up and said, ‘Look, Ruby, look’.” (That old blind man had probably not said that too many times in his life. He had no eyes, but he had said, “Look, Ruby, look.”) Ruby said to me, “I didn’t know what to say, Brother Jeff. I looked at the doctor, and he nodded his head, like I should just agree with Harvey. So I just said, ‘Yes Harvey’. About that time, Harvey said again, ‘Oh! Look, Ruby! Look!’. Then he said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful!’ After that, he just laid back in the bed.” That is dying grace.
Ponder the excitement that the old man felt. He literally had no eyes, and had never seen anything. Yet now he was seeing. Was blind, but now I see! Yet it was not just that he could see. It was more what he was seeing. Listen to his words, “Isn’t that beautiful!” I do not know what he saw. Maybe it was Whom he saw? Maybe he was seeing the Jesus, Whom Stephen saw. Whatever, or Whomever, Harvey used the word ‘beautiful’. There is really something out there, and it is much more wonderful than what is around us right now. At this point, the best we can do with eyes of faith is to see our hope through a glass darkly. Yet some day, we will say with Harvey (either as we are dying, or immediately thereafter), “Look! Oh, look! Isn’t that beautiful!” What a day that will be!