Just recently I have had a few people asking me: “What happens when you die?” This is an interesting question and I guess we can never be really 100% sure of the answer. Well I know that I can’t. I do know that we will all die. I know that death is a great mystery. So I thought that we should have a look at what the bible says and what the great New Testament scholar, author and Anglican Bishop N.T.Wright has to say.
What Happens When you Die? Lisa Hunt-Wotton
In the Begining.
The creation story talks about us being made from the dust of the ground and that God breathed life into man. The bible says that when we die, the spirit returns to God from where it came, and the body returns to the dust of the ground. Other scriptures talk about death as like being asleep.
The Old Testament says that:
“His breath departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Psalm 146:5.
“The dead do not know anything.” Ecclesiastes 9:5.
“There is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave] where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10
“Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the breath will return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:7.
The bible also refers to death as sleep.
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, some to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.” Daniel 12:2
“But as for you, go your way to the end; then you will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age.“” Daniel 12:13. Daniel, did not go to heaven when he died, but is asleep in death, resting until he is resurrected from the dead at the end of the age.
In the story of Lazarus Jesus also likens death to sleep.
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go that I may awaken him out of sleep”…now, Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that He was speaking of literal sleep. Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” John 11:11-14.
Luke also records the death of Stephen as having fallen asleep.
- “Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60).
In his letter to the Thessalonians (I Thessalonians 4 ) Paul says:
- “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep [dead], that you may not grieve, as do the rest you have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring forth [from the grave] with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the plan of the Kingdom of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself [Jesus] will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first.
The book of Revelation in chapter 14 says that ‘they will rest from their labours’.
The Bible presents death as separation: physical death is the separation of the soul from the body, and spiritual death is the separation of the soul from God.
N.T. Wright says this:
“Heaven is important but it’s not our final destination,” he explained. “If you want to say that when someone dies they go to heaven, fine. But that’s only a temporary holding pattern that is life after death. And what I’m much more interested in, or the New Testament is much more interested in, is what I’ve called life after life after death.”
“I’ve often put it like this, if somebody you know has been very ill, you say, ‘Poor old so and so, he’s just a shadow of his former self.’ And the extraordinary truth in the New Testament is that if you are in Christ and dwell by the spirit you are just a shadow of your future self,” Wright said. “There is a real you to which the present you corresponds as a photocopy corresponds to the glorious original. You know, there is a real you, which God is going to make and it will be more physical — more real, not less.”
I absolutely love this quote by Wright from ‘Surprised by Hope’ which infers that nothing that we do is lost. Everything is building for our final life.
“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it…
What you do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether … They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
“Basically, Wright believes that when those who are in Christ die, they do not “go to heaven” as most people imagine. According to Wright, those who die in Christ merely “sleep” in perfect peace in the presence of Christ, if you will, awaiting the “Day of the Lord” when the “dead in Christ” will rise, and the kingdom of God will be fully realized” (N.T.Wright, Saints For All The Saints)
So from all of this I would suggest that when we die:
1: Our body returns to dust.
2: Our spirits return to God.
3: The dead appear to be sleeping and resting from their labour (S.Grenz).
4: Heaven is not our ultimate destination. It is a holding-place, until the final resurrection. At the final resurrection God will re-make our physical bodies.
When Christ returns there will be a resurrection and transformation of our bodies. When Christ returns there will be a ‘new heaven’ and a ‘new earth’ and we receive ‘new bodies’, ‘we are resurrected and heaven comes down to earth'(N.T.Wright). A seed falls into the ground and dies. When it comes alive its form as a plant or flower or tree is different to the form that it had as a seed.
Similar to the metamorphosis of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. It is the same organism but through transformation it becomes so much more than it could have ever been in its first form.
If you enjoyed this you may be interested in my article What is Hell?
Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, top-selling author and Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright tackles the biblical question of what happens after we die and shows how most Christians get it wrong. We do not “go to” heaven; we are resurrected and heaven comes down to earth–a difference that makes all of the difference to how we live on earth.
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