What Happens When We Die?
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Sooner or later all of us must face up to death. Energetic adolescents ignore it, and their middle-aged parents often pursue illusions of perpetual youth. But the elderly and terminally ill know better. Nothing in life is as certain as death. And we all wonder what happens when our friends and loved ones die.
Most Christians believe that our souls are taken immediately to be with Christ until we are reunited with our bodies at his second coming (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q and A 58). This view of life after death has two phases—being with Christ until the resurrection, and then everlasting life in his kingdom. It also involves two modes of existing. Body and soul are unified during this life and after the resurrection. But we exist without earthly bodies between death and resurrection. Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and most Protestant churches teach this two-phase doctrine.
However, some Christians wonder whether the traditional teaching is true, or at least whether it is the only possibility. Several sources stir their questions. Some are intrigued by the beliefs of other religions, such as reincarnation or mystical union with God, and try to imagine Christian versions of these scenarios. Near-death experiences are another source of wonder—vivid reports of euphoric journeys toward heaven, sometimes meeting deceased loved ones and occasionally even Jesus. Don't these visions reveal what death is like?
Other Christians have scientific questions. They wonder whether our souls can survive death because neuroscience demonstrates how extensively consciousness and personality depend on functions of the brain. When our bodies die, how can our minds and spirits still exist?
Perhaps the most troubling challenge comes from Bible scholars and theologians who reject belief in the soul. They claim that the idea of a soul existing separate from the body is not taught in Scripture but comes from the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato's opposition of body and soul reflects an unbiblical dualistic worldview that desires to escape the body and life in the world. These scholars allege that this unbiblical dualism began to distort Christian teaching when church fathers, such as Augustine, mistakenly read the Bible in terms of Greek philosophy. The biblical view, they claim, affirms the unity of body and soul and the importance of life in this world. In order to engage this world with the gospel, they conclude that we must reject the belief that we have separable souls. But then we cannot exist with Christ between death and bodily resurrection. Instead, either we are resurrected immediately at death, or we do not exist at all between death and the future resurrection. Most mainline and some evangelical theologians challenge the traditional doctrine in this way.
Mixing and matching these reasons, many Christians lack clarity and confidence about what happens when we die. Because Scripture is our ultimate authority, let's meet the last challenge first and then consider the others.
The Biblical View
It is true that great theologians, such as Augustine and Calvin, borrowed from Greek ideas about the soul. But they reformed them to fit with Scripture. They did not distort the Bible's teaching about life after death nor downplay our responsibility to seek God's kingdom in every aspect of life in this world.
Modern critics pose a false dilemma about body and soul that leads them to misread the Bible. They assume that either we are unified beings, or else we come apart at death; that either the soul is immortal, or the body is important; that biblical monism or Greek dualism are the only options. This assumption is a false dilemma because the Scripture teaches both that we are body-soul unities and that we exist without earthly bodies between death and resurrection.
The whole Bible emphasizes that humans are personal bodily beings made for life in God's world. God created us as integral "living beings" by breathing spirit into the dust (Gen. 2:7). We fell into sin and death, both spiritually and physically, by our own fault. Christ took on our human nature, body and soul—the Word be-came flesh (John 1:14). Salvation includes our whole existence: the Holy Spirit regenerates us spiritually so that we are new creations in Christ—heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our bodies too are "living sacrifices" (Rom. 12:1) and temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Every square inch of creation belongs to Christ, as Abraham Kuyper reminded us. Although our earthly bodies "waste away" (2 Cor. 4:16), the Spirit will complete our salvation by raising us from the dead with imperishable and glorious bodies (1 Cor. 15) fit for life in God's everlasting kingdom (Rev. 20-22).
But Scripture also teaches that we can "be away from the body and present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Isaiah 26:19 already hints at the two-stage view of the afterlife taught in the Heidelberg Catechism: On the Day of the Lord "your dead [rephaim in Sheol, the Underworld] will live; their bodies will rise." The Pharisees taught the existence of (human) spirits and future bodily resurrection. Paul explicitly endorses this doctrine in Acts 23:6-8. In 2 Corinthians 5:6-9 and Philippians 2:21-24, he anticipates being with the Lord without his body because the resurrection will not occur until the trumpet sounds at Christ's return (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52). Jesus himself was in Paradise without his body between his death on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday morning (Luke 23:43).
Modern theological rejection of the separation of body and soul is mistaken. Scripture clearly teaches that we are with the Lord between death and future resurrection. It also teaches that God created and redeemed us as bodily beings for everlasting life in his good creation. We are not forced to choose one or the other.
Science and the Soul
Scientific discoveries about the brain, consciousness, and personality are fascinating. Scans of people's brains while they pray, imagine a favorite tune, or remember an embarrassing event can identify the places and processes in the brain that are active when they are thinking and feeling. We know that chemicals affect our moods and personalities, and that brain injuries can impair our mental-spiritual functioning. There is no doubt that body, brain, mind, personality, soul, and spirit are integrated.
But science cannot answer philosophical and theological questions about the nature of body and soul. Science only yields biological and psychological data that must be correlated within a model of human nature. Science certainly does not validate the idea that the soul or personality is merely generated by brain functions. In fact, there are world-class biologists and neuroscientists, including Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, who believe that we have souls that survive biological death. Science does not undermine what Scripture teaches about life after death. The challenge comes from world-view perspectives, such as naturalism and materialism, that have no place for souls.
Many people, including Christians, report the unusual phenomena of near-death experiences in extreme life-threatening circumstances, such as heart attack or drowning. They are in a euphoric state, drawn toward a place of light and peace, encounter a barrier, and then are sent back to their bodies. These experiences occur with high levels of endorphins in the brain. They can be artificially induced, and also happen under anesthesia. But some near-death experiences include elements that cannot be explained naturally—for example, encounters with persons who were not known to be dead, or learning things unknowable by earthly means.
We should evaluate these experiences cautiously. They may be an aspect of God's providence—a natural anesthetic in life-threatening situations. The Lord might sometimes use them to comfort and motivate people who have encounters with death. But we should not draw conclusions about life after death, because we do not know whether really dying is like almost dying. When we really die, we don't come back to tell about it. Maybe really dying is totally different. So we ought not to base our beliefs about the afterlife on near-death experiences. We ought to rely on what Scripture teaches.
Other religions may have fascinating views of the afterlife, but they pale in comparison with the promises of the gospel. Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation until union with ultimate reality is achieved. Reincarnation is quite different than Christian resurrection. One does not retain his or her personality or body. Bad karma might even turn a human into an animal. Final escape means moving beyond life and individual selfhood and realizing unity with ultimate reality. Popular Western notions of reincarnation and union with God are usually quite different than actual Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.
The gospel is so much more attractive. God affirms and saves our humanity by taking it on in Jesus Christ. A community of individual, bodily, earthly persons are redeemed, renewed, and fulfilled by God for everlasting life with him in his kingdom. Christians have nothing to learn from other religions about life after death, and everything to gain from relying on God's promises in Scripture.
The Bible does not reveal what dying is like, or what the blessed dead experience in heaven with Christ, or details about resurrection bodies and life on the new earth. But it tells us all we need to know. It assures us that we have nothing to fear and everything to anticipate with joy. Jesus Christ has been through death and resurrection already. He has prepared the way for us. He will lead us through it (Ps. 23:4). Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38-39). That is enough comfort for life and death.