What Happens to Our Souls When We Die?
There are many good reasons to believe we, as humans, are more than simply physical bodies. Humans are “soulish” creatures; we are living souls united to physical bodies. Even without the guidance of Scripture, there are good reasons to believe our lives will not end at the point of our physical death. The existence of an afterlife is reasonable, particularly given our dual nature as immaterial souls possessing physical bodies. But what precisely happens to each of us, as living souls, when our physical bodies cease to exist? What will we experience the moment we close our eyes for the last time in this temporal life? The Christian worldview offers an answer to this question, and it can be found by surveying the teaching of the New Testament:
Those Who Accept God’s Offer of Salvation Will Be United with Him Immediately
There is good reason to believe our afterlife experience begins the minute we close our eyes for the last time here on earth. For those of us who are believers, the instant our earthly bodies die our souls will be united with Jesus in the afterlife:
2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Those who have accepted God’s offer of Salvation will be with Jesus in what we commonly refer to as “Heaven”. But our experience in Heaven prior to the earthly return of Jesus (and the resurrection of our bodies), while much better than our life here on earth, will not be complete. It will only be part of the experience we will one day have when Jesus returns to earth and resurrects the bodies of those who are already with Him in spirit. While He’s at it, He’ll bring those of us who are still alive home as well:
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Only then, after the resurrection, will our joy and satisfaction be made complete; only then will we be able to experience the full physical, spiritual and emotional joy we were originally designed for.
Those Who Reject God’s Offer of Salvation Will Be Separated from Him
Unfortunately our experience of the afterlife is instantaneous upon death even for those of us who have rejected God. While believers will be united with God, unbelievers will not. The New Testament describes two different places where the unrighteous go after death. One such place is called “Hades”. This is described as the place where the unrighteous go immediately upon death to await their final destination. Take a look at this story Jesus told in the Gospel of Luke:
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, gaily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.”
While Lazarus, a God fearing and righteous man died and immediately went to be with God, the unbelieving and unrighteous rich man went immediately to Hades. But the Bible also mentions another place for those who have rejected God; it is called “Gehenna”. This was actually a real location (just south of Jerusalem) where, at one low point in the history of the Jews, disobedient Israelites offered their children as human sacrifices to the pagan God, Molech. Later, this infamous valley became a place where waste from the city was dumped and burned in fires stoked day and night. Jesus chose this place as a metaphor to describe another real place, the eternal resting place of those in Hades who finally receive their resurrection bodies and are judged forever. While believers receive their resurrection bodies and stay in heaven with God, unbelievers receive their resurrection bodies and are moved from Hades to Gehenna.
“And if your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out, and throw it from you; for it is better for you that one of the parts of your body perish, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (the word used for ‘hell’ here is ‘Gehenna’).”
Gehenna is the final resting place of all those who have rejected God in this life and in their unrighteousness have been judged at the return of Jesus.
I’ve written a lot about the reality of Hell and the nature of Heaven here at ColdCaseChristianity.com, and while that’s not the purpose of this particular post, this is a good pace to trace the path each of us will take after we die:
At the Point of Death
Each of us will leave our earthly bodies in the grave and our disembodied souls will go immediately into the presence of God or into Hades. Our destination is determined purely by our acceptance or rejection of God through our faith in Jesus Christ.
Prior to Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
We will remain in Heaven or Hades until Jesus returns to earth and gives us all our resurrection Bodies. While our experience after death will be tangible, it will not be complete. A complete afterlife can only be experienced with both our body and our soul.
After Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection and the Judgment
If we are saved believers, we will experience the fullness of the afterlife in our resurrected bodies. If we have rejected Jesus, we will move from Hades to Gehenna and experience the fullness of judgment.
The afterlife is the focus of much popular media. Books and movies describing Heaven or Hell are plentiful, but few of them are consistent with the teaching of the Bible. As Christians, it’s important for us to understand and defend the nature of the afterlife so people will understand the importance of the Gospel message. If we can articulate the existence and character of the afterlife accurately, God’s offer of Salvation will be all the more relevant and meaningful.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.