What Happens When We Die?


The question is, what happens when people die?

1. We read that Solomon says ‘the dead know nothing at all’. Ecclesiastes 9:5.

2. The Lord and Paul call it ‘being asleep’. John 11:11 / 1 Corinthians 15:6-20.

3. He, the Lord tells the Sadducees that ‘God is a God of the living’. Mark 12:24-27.

4. The Lord also told the thief on the cross that he would be in Paradise that day. Luke 23:43.

5. Jesus said that the Rich Man could see Lazarus and could talk with Abraham. Luke 16:23. Would Jesus use a fable to prove a truth?

1. Solomon’s Observation

With regards to Solomon’s observation, we should remember that, even if he was the wisest man of his day, Solomon was not omniscient. There were things which even he didn’t know, because God hadn’t yet revealed them. In other words, in the statement to which our questioner draws our attention,

Ecclesiastes 9:5, ‘For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing,’

Solomon was merely expressing the view of death commonly held among his people in his day. But, when we examine the Old Testament Scriptures it becomes clear that, even among God’s ancient chosen people, Israel, there was no clear understanding of, or belief in, life after death.

The Covenant enacted as Sinai related to their manner of life in an earthly ‘Promised Land’

This is quite evident in the Commandment in Exodus 20:12,

‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you’,

this declares that parents were to be honoured, in order, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.

This instruction, with its promise, is also repeated in the Psalms. See Psalm 37, for example, and look particularly at these verses below.

Psalm 37:3 ‘Trust in the LORD and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.’

Psalm 37:9 ‘For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.’

Psalm 37:11 ‘But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy peace and prosperity.’

Psalm 37:22 ‘Those the LORD blesses will inherit the land, but those he curses will be destroyed.’

Psalm 37:28 ‘For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones. Wrongdoers will be completely destroyed; the offspring of the wicked will perish.’

Psalm 37:34 ‘Hope in the LORD and keep his way. He will exalt you to inherit the land; when the wicked are destroyed, you will see it.’

A fact, which we are inclined to overlook, is that, in the Covenant, which God made with His people at Sinai, there is no mention of blessings in a life hereafter and certainly no mention of Heaven. The blessings promised to those who kept the Covenant were related to this present life; namely longevity und posterity. A long life in the earthly ‘homeland’, Palestine, and someone to carry the family name forward.

Consequently, the Old Testament reveals that God’s people of that period had a very simple, one might almost say simplistic, view of life, with a philosophy which declared,

‘Do good, and God will bless you with prosperity and longevity in the Land which He has promised to His people. But do evil, and you will be punished.’

The effect of this belief was that when a person experienced hardship or adversity in his life, people believed that he was being punished by God because of some wickedness in his life. On the other hand, when one prospered, his prosperity was taken as proof of divine approval and blessing.

Well, of course it would be fine if life were that simple. But we know and they also were forced to recognise, that it doesn’t always, work out that way! Often the wicked seem to prosper in this life, even to the extent of seeming to escape punishment for their wickedness, whilst those who try to live good lives often have to face severe hardship. This is what comes out very clearly in Psalm 73, where the writer struggles with this very dilemma.

Therefore, gradually it was revealed to the Hebrews that, because the wicked often escape being called to account for their wickedness in this life, there will be a time and a place where the balance will be redressed and justice will be done. Because God is the Righteous God, the wicked must, and will, be punished, and the righteous will be vindicated, if not in this life but certainly in the after-life.

And yet, as the New Testament Scriptures reveal, even in the days of the Lord Jesus, the puzzling question of death and what lies beyond, hadn’t been completely resolved and was still fiercely debated among the various religious parties.

The Pharisees firmly believed in a both a future life and a Judgment whilst the Sadducees rejected both. It was the Lord Jesus Himself who

‘brought life and immortality to light, through the Gospel’ 2 Timothy 1:10

He brought it to light, He drove away the mists and doubts which had engulfed it for so long. And He did it, both by His teaching and His own resurrection from the dead.

2. Death as Sleep

John 11:11 ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’

1 Corinthians 15:6-20 ‘After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed. But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.’

It’s true that both the Lord and Paul speak of death as sleep, in fact the word ‘cemetery’ comes from the Greek word ‘kormeterion’, from which we also obtain our word ‘dormitory’. Thus, a cemetery is regarded as a sleeping-place. But the words ‘dead’, or ‘death’, are never used in the Scriptures in connection with the ‘soul’, one’s true self.

In fact, nowhere do the Scriptures ever suggest that the soul ‘sleeps’. The word is only ever used with reference to the body, the ‘tent’, or ‘tabernacle’, as Peter calls it in 2 Peter 1:13

‘I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body’.

You will see, in 2 Corinthians 5:1

‘For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.’

Paul uses the same expression, when he refers to death of the body.

Paul says,

‘I have a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better’, Philippians 1:23

And, again,

‘Absent from the body, at home with the Lord’, 2 Corinthians 5:8

This means that when a believer ‘dies’, the worn-out tent, his body goes to ‘sleep’ in the earth, to await the resurrection and the change which will occur when Christ returns but the soul, the real person, goes to be with the Lord. Our loved ones do not lie in graveyards. They are simply not there!

In Romans 8:23

‘Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.’

Paul says that we have, as believers, already received the firstfruits of the spirit, and we now await, the redemption of our body, Furthermore, he says that we have been given the Holy Spirit as the ‘arrabon’.

The word describes a ‘pledge’, or a ‘deposit’, as a guarantee that He will complete the ‘purchase’! By His gift of the Spirit, God assures the believer that He who raised Jesus from the dead will raise him also.

This means that when the Lord Jesus returns, the body which was committed to the earth to, ‘sleep’, and to ‘wait’, will be raised incorruptible, a new body, like His glorious body, to be re-united with the soul, which has been at home, with the Lord who has made redemption possible.

3. God, the God of the living

Mark 12:24-27 ‘Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!’

You will recall that it was the Lord Himself who used this phrase during a discussion with the Sadducee’s, who foolishly imagined they had driven Him into a corner with an implausible story of a woman who had been married an unlikely seven times. They gleefully wanted to know whose wife she would be in the resurrection, since she had had seven husbands.

The response of Jesus was devastating! He said, you are in error, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God! He then pointed out, first, that, in Heaven there would be no need for marriage, the primary purpose of which is to make possible, by means of procreation, the replenishing of Earth’s population which is constantly being depleted by death. In Heaven, there will be neither death nor birth.

Furthermore, as religious teachers the Sadducees should have understood the Scripture, Exodus 3:15, where God says, ‘I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’. The significance of this verse, used by the Lord in His reply to the Sadducees, is that when God made this statement, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had already been dead for centuries, and therefore, according to Sadduceean doctrine, no longer existed! Yet God didn’t say,

‘I WAS the God of Abraham’,

as He surely would have done, had these patriarchs ceased to exist. He used the present tense,

‘I AM the God of Abraham,’

implying that they still existed. This was driven home by the Lord with the words,

‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living’.

4. The Lord and the thief on the Cross

Luke 23:39-43 ‘One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? 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, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

The fact that the Lord said to the penitent thief, as he is popularly called,

‘TODAY you will be with Me in paradise’,

is further proof that conscious existence doesn’t end when the body dies. After His body, had been taken down from the cross, for the rest of the day of His crucifixion and for several more days, the body of Jesus lay in Joseph’s new tomb. The penitent thief wasn’t there with Him!

After their deaths at Calvary, the Lord and the thief were never again seen together in this world. In fact, I believe we may be absolutely sure that, after they had been removed from the cross, the bodies of both thieves would have been consigned to the fires which constantly burned in the ‘Valley of Hinnom’, because that was where the corpses of criminals and beggars were destroyed.

Matthew 27:57-60 ‘As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.’

Joseph of Arithmetic prevented this from happening to the body of Jesus by securing permission from Pontius Pilate to take away the body for burial. We must therefore conclude that the Lord kept His promise, and that before the end of the day of their crucifixion, He and the thief were together in another world.

Where were they?

Well, the word ‘paradise’ is of Persian origin, and it describes the King’s enclosed, private garden in which he walked with privileged and favoured subjects. Where-ever the ‘Paradise’ to which the Lord referred, is located, it was a place or condition, of the greatest blessedness and it was experienced after death.

5. The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. ‘The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So, he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ ‘But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ ‘He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ ‘Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ ‘He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’

We have to understand that the Lord would never use a fable in order to prove a truth.

In the first place, the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the beggar, isn’t introduced as either a parable or a fable. It opens with the words

‘There was a certain rich man, and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus’.

The language suggests that this is a story concerning two men who actually existed. And, even it’s insisted that what we have here is, indeed, a parable, let’s remember that a parable is a likeness. The story told must mirror the truth that it is intended to illustrate. The Lord would never teach error in any form.

Of course, there is a great deal that one could say about the about the rich man and Lazarus but what we may learn from what Jesus says is crystal clear.

1. Death is not the end.

It is a junction, not a terminus.

2. After death, memory is retained. We shall remember.

3. We shall also recognise those we have known on Earth.

4. No change of state is then possible.

5. It will not be a time for mercy, but for justice.

The Lord Jesus could doubtlessly have told us all there is to know about what lies beyond the experience we call Death. As it is, He brought life and immortally to light, through the Gospel. He told us sufficient to make us realize that this life is a time for preparation. And what He has told us should not make us afraid, but should us with hope and

How wonderful it will be, to be ‘at home with the Lord’

2 Corinthians 5:5-8 ‘Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore, we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For 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.’



"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

John 16:33