What happens when a person dies? This question has plagued mankind since its inception. It’s a pretty good bet that almost everyone capable of rational thought has pondered this question at some point in his/her lifetime. To some people, death is scary – while to others, death is a peaceful state to be embraced.
Numerous cultures and civilizations have given birth to myths and speculations concerning the afterlife, but few people ever discover the true answer. And among those who do, only a small minority openly exhibit signs of preparing for what’s ahead.
As a result, physical death is a rather odd thing – everyone knows it’s coming, but very few prepare for it.
In all likelihood, a much larger number of people would make preparations for life after death if they had greater knowledge of their ultimate destination. So where does a person go following physical death? The most reliable explanation comes from the Bible, a work which has stood the test of time, weathered a barrage of critics, and demonstrated its divine nature through the fulfillment of hundreds of prophecies. Some of these prophetic statements pertain to events following physical death, and they reveal two staggeringly different destinations for mankind.
The bible has much to say about the afterlife, and we can have complete confidence in its accuracy. In it, the prophets, as well as Jesus Christ Himself, reveal in vivid detail what happens when a human being dies. Unfortunately, a great number of people have and will continue to pass away without first preparing for their future destination, and this lack of preparation will be lamented by both Christians and non-Christians alike.
A Deceased Human Being Travels To One of Two Places
According to the bible, when a person dies, they go to one of two places:
These destinations are commonly referred to as heaven and hell. Jesus verified the reality of these places in His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
“Finally, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham.” Luke 16:22 (NLT)
“The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went to the place of the dead. There, in torment, he saw Abraham in the far distance with Lazarus at his side.” Luke 16:22-23 (NLT)
In addition, these two places are divided by a great chasm that can not be crossed:
“And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.” Luke 16:26 (NLT)
By definition, these destinations are permanent.
Paradise is the final destination of those who place their faith in God and His Son, Jesus Christ. During the crucifixion, one of the criminals crucified alongside Jesus expressed His belief in the Son of the Living God. Jesus responded by assuring the man He would enter paradise that day:
“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” Luke 23:42-43 (NLT)
In paradise, God will dwell among His people, and death, sorrow, crying, and pain will be gone forever:
“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’” Revelation 21:3-4 (NLT)
“No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads.” Revelation 22:3-4 (NLT)
Paul spoke in reverence of this place, which he had the distinct honor of visiting:
“I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know – only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” 2 Corinthians 12:2-4 (NLT)
“For “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 (NLT)
Paradise is a place of indescribable joy and beauty, where men and women will experience fellowship with their Creator.
Torment, or hell, is also a very real place often referenced by Jesus:
“So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet.” Matthew 18:8 (NLT)
According to Jesus, torment is such an awful place that a person should do anything to avoid it. In fact, a person should go so far as to cut off their own hands and feet if doing so will mean avoiding the pain of torment. Jesus described torment as a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth:
“But many Israelites – those for whom the Kingdom was prepared – will be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 8:12 (NLT)
The number of verses testifying to the reality of torment and the reality of people being cast into hell are too numerous for a short article such as this one, but a diligent search will reveal many scriptural references. Below are just a few passages which shed light on the truth about this place:
“They are doomed to blackest darkness.” 2 Peter 2:17 (NLT)
“And I remind you of the angels who did not stay within the limits of authority God gave them but left the place where they belonged. God has kept them securely chained in prisons of darkness, waiting for the great day of judgment. And don’t forget Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring towns, which were filled with immorality and every kind of sexual perversion. Those cities were destroyed by fire and serve as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment.” Jude 1:6-7 (NLT)
“Then the Devil, who betrayed them, was thrown into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Revelation 20:10 (NLT)
Jesus described torment as “eternal punishment,” but in doing so, He offered a message of hope:
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” Matthew 25:46 (NLT)
The message Jesus preached is that torment can be avoided and paradise can be obtained. But where a person spends eternity is completely dependent on that person’s individual relationship with Jesus Christ.
If You Accept Christ
Let’s return to the scene of the crucifixion, where one of the criminals asked for Jesus to remember him:
“Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” Luke 23:42-43 (NLT)
Jesus didn’t promise to see both crucified criminals in paradise, but only the one who acknowledged his own sin, while recognizing the blameless life of Jesus. This is because the criminal’s belief in Christ opened the door for him to enter into paradise.
Jesus Christ is the way and the truth and the life. Those who accept the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as atonement for their sins will enjoy everlasting life and avoid the torment of hell.
Why This Happens
So why does this happen? Why is Jesus Christ the only gateway through which human beings can enter into paradise?
Because all of us are born into sin, we are all condemned – banished from the presence of God who, in His infinite justice, can not tolerate the presence of the unholy. In order to make us holy, blameless in the eyes of God, Jesus Christ paid the price of humanity’s sin through His blood on the cross:
“For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.” Romans 3:25 (NLT)
The above statement by Paul is in complete agreement with the Law of Moses:
“In fact, according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified with blood. For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.” Hebrews 9:22 (NLT)
“For the life of the body is in its blood. I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the Lord. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.” Leviticus 17:11 (NLT)
Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness. Therefore, Christ shed His blood in order that we might be forgiven:
“Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.” 1 Peter 3:18 (NLT)
Christ even paid the penalty for the sins of those who died prior to His First Coming – prior to His ministry, His death, and His resurrection:
“That is why the Good News was preached to those who are now dead – so although they were destined to die like all people, they now live forever with God in the Spirit.” 1 Peter 4:6 (NLT)
“That is why the Scriptures say, ‘When he ascended to the heights, he led a crowd of captives and gave gifts to his people.’ Notice that it says ‘he ascended.’ This clearly means that Christ also descended to our lowly world. And the same one who descended is the one who ascended higher than all the heavens, so that he might fill the entire universe with himself.” Ephesians 4:8-10 (NLT)
Because of the wonderful sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the door is open for anyone to establish a personal relationship with the Alpha and the Omega – the very Lord of the Universe!
“But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” Romans 5:8-11 (NLT)
Unfortunately, many people will inexplicably reject the free gift offered by Jesus. For such people, torment is their only future.
If You Reject Christ
Those who reject the sacrifice of Christ on the cross will die in their own sins, because they will have no one to intervene and pay the penalty for them. As a result, they can not enter paradise, because God dwells in paradise and God can not tolerate the presence of sin and still be just.
All those who reject Christ will have their names stricken from the Book of Life, a heavenly book which records the name of every human being ever born. Anyone who wants to live in paradise, must have their name written in the Book of Life:
“Then death and the grave were thrown into the lake of fire. This lake of fire is the second death. And anyone whose name was not found recorded in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14-15 (NLT)
It’s a monumental tragedy that even one person in all of history would reject Christ’s offer of reconciliation with God. Yet sadly, entire multitudes of people will do so. The gift of Christ is free of charge – He already paid the price for us! Why then, do people turn Him away?
For many, pride will be their ultimate downfall. In their refusal to acknowledge Jesus Christ as King of kings, they will condemn themselves. Yet, in the end, they will still bow to Him and confess His name:
“I have sworn by my own name; I have spoken the truth, and I will never go back on my word: Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess allegiance to me.” Isaiah 45:23 (NLT)
“For the Scriptures say, ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’” Romans 14:11 (NLT)
Why This Happens
Why does this happen? Why must God condemn people in everlasting torment?
If it weren’t for Christ, all would be condemned:
“When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.” Romans 5:12 (NLT)
However, because of Christ, it’s not necessary that a single person be condemned. Unfortunately, many people reject Christ and attempt to enter paradise on their own terms:
“I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. For Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the law was given. As a result, all who believe in him are made right with God. For Moses writes that the law’s way of making a person right with God requires obedience to all of its commands.” Romans 10:2-5 (NLT)
Only one person ever lived a life in complete obedience to all of God’s commands. As a result, only one pathway leads into paradise – the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” John 14:6 (NLT)
Those who refuse to acknowledge the truth and continue in their reckless living are condemned in the eyes of God, and they will judged accordingly:
“Dear friends, if we deliberately continue sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice that will cover these sins. There is only the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies. For anyone who refused to obey the law of Moses was put to death without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Just think how much worse the punishment will be for those who have trampled on the Son of God, and have treated the blood of the covenant, which made us holy, as if it were common and unholy, and have insulted and disdained the Holy Spirit who brings God’s mercy to us.” Hebrews 10:26-29 (NLT)
“Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment.” John 3:36 (NLT)
“But all who reject me and my message will be judged on the day of judgment by the truth I have spoken.” John 12:48 (NLT)
Whether a person believes in Him or not, a day of judgment is in the future. God has made this promise.
Every Person Will Be Judged According To His Works
In addition to entering either torment or paradise, every person who has ever lived must stand before Christ to be judged:
“For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body.” 2 Corinthians 5:10 (NLT)
“But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve.” Jeremiah 17:10 (NLT)
“So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For the Scriptures say, ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.’ Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.” Romans 14:10-12 (NLT)
Even those who are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ, must face judgment for their works:
“For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News? And also, ‘If the righteous are barely saved, what will happen to godless sinners?’” 1 Peter 4:17-18 (NLT)
Each believer will receive a reward for what he or she has done for Christ. Therefore, Christians should not judge each other in this life, because only God knows the secret motives behind each person’s works.
“So don’t make judgments about anyone ahead of time – before the Lord returns. For he will bring our darkest secrets to light and will reveal our private motives. Then God will give to each one whatever praise is due.” 1 Corinthians 4:5 (NLT)
Unfortunately, some Christians will experience great regret on their day of judgment because they will have few or no works to present to Christ. However, those who trust in Jesus need not be afraid on the day of judgment:
“And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.” 1 John 4:17 (NLT)
Such will not be the case for those who have rejected Him. They will be judged by the One they have denied:
”Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28 (NLT)
“If anyone acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will openly acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. But if anyone denies me here on earth, I will deny that person before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:32-33 (NLT)
This Life Matters… It Has Eternal Consequences!
If you don’t think this life matters, think again! Each person’s life here on earth has eternal consequences. A spiritual war is being waged in the heavenly realms, and the human race is a battlefront in that war. A clear line has been drawn. A person is either for or against Jesus Christ. One cannot be both, but one can always switch to the side of Christ and be forgiven. For it is God’s will that not one soul be lost:
“If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish.” Matthew 18:12-14 (NLT)
That is why God gave His only Son as a sacrifice for mankind:
“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 (NLT)
To all who are thirsty, Christ offers living water. Those who drink it will never be thirsty again:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who desires drink freely from the water of life.” Revelation 22:17 (NLT)
They will never be disappointed for trusting in Him:
“And anyone who believes in Him will never be disappointed.” 1 Peter 2:6 (NLT)
But time is short. The end of this age is fast coming to a close. Do you know what will happen when you die? If not, then now is the time to prepare for that day, for Christ is coming soon:
“Look, I am coming soon, bringing my reward with me to repay all people according to their deeds. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” Revelation 22:12-13 (NLT)