What happens when we die? This has been the mystery that all religions have attempted to explain. And essentially all religions have the same basic message: death is not the end.
Billions of people believe that they will be reincarnated to another life— perhaps a better one if they have lived well, but worse if they have not. Many other religions postulate an immortal soul, the real essence of the person that continues to have some sort of existence after the body has died and decomposed.
Many stories have been published of people who had “near death experiences” in which they seemed to be going down a tunnel toward a bright light and into the presence of a loving being. New Age adherents claim that they “channel” (communicate with) people who have died but are still living in the spirit realm.
Most Christian denominations share similar beliefs. After death the soul receives its reward; for those who believe, a blissful existence with God in paradise, but for those who have not been faithful, separation from God or even fiery torment. The resurrection is considered to be a rejoining of the body to the soul in order to enhances either the bliss or the torment.
All of this reminds us of the first lie that the serpent said to Eve in the Garden of Eden. God had told her that if she ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil she would surely die. Satan, in the guise of a serpent, told her, “you will not surely die” Genesis 3:4. The truth is that God has promised eternal life to those who believe, but there is no promise of any kind of continuing existence, not even a bad one, for unbelievers.
The Greek philosopher Plato taught that man has an immortal soul which is freed from the confines of the body at the time of death, and theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries such as Augustine incorporated this view into their theologies. However, the Bible teaches that “God alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16) and that man does not receive immortality until he “puts it on” at the time of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:52,53). Nowhere in the Bible is there any intimation that there is such a thing as an immortal soul. To the contrary, the Bible teaches clearly in both the Old and the New Testament that souls that sin will die (Ezekiel 18:4, James 5:20).
So what happens to the soul when we die? The Bible teaches that it ceases to exist. The soul, according to Genesis 2:7, is the combination of the dust of the earth and the breath of life from God— “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul”.
When we die the opposite happens— the breath of life (not the personality, true person or soul, but simply the divine energy that gives us life) returns to God and the body returns to dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7). For the soul to come back into existence requires a re-creation, which will take place with the resurrection.
When people die their soul no longer exists, so naturally their thoughts perish and they do not know anything (Psalms 146:4, Ecclesiastes 9:5). There is no remembrance of God or praise for Him in death (Psalms 6:5, 115:17). The dead do not go to heaven, nor do they go to hell or to purgatory. The Bible compares the condition of people who are dead with unconscious sleep, and the resurrection is like waking up (Deuteronomy 31:16, 2 Peter 3:4, Daniel 12:2, John 11:11-14, 23, John 5:28, 29, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17).
The Bible teaching is perhaps clearest in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. He begins, saying, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren concerning those how have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Obviously the Thessalonians had not been taught about an immortal soul that would go to paradise at the time of death, otherwise there would be nothing to mourn about. And Paul does not here teach that the immortal souls of their beloved fellow believers are in heaven— he teaches that they “are asleep” (v. 15), that they will “rise first” when Jesus descends from heaven (v. 16) and they will be caught up together with believers who are alive at the second coming “to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). There is no hint of souls being reunited with bodies, because the soul is the whole person, and Jesus will re-create the whole person, body, mind and spirit, at the resurrection.
Paul also taught this clearly in 1 Corinthians 15, referring to “those who have fallen asleep in Christ” (v. 18). At the time of the resurrection both those who sleep and those who are still living will be changed (v. 51) “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (v. 52-53). Again there is no hint of souls getting new bodies, but rather of mortal souls being transformed and putting on immortality.
The Bible clearly distinguishes between the first death, which is like an unconscious sleep, and the second death, which is the destruction of the souls of unrepentant sinners (Revelation 20:6, 21:8). The Bible teaching is clear: all people “sleep in the dust” when they die, awaiting either the “resurrection of life” or the “resurrection of condemnation” (Daniel 12:2, John 5:28,29). The book of Revelation teaches that 1000 years (the millennium) separate these two resurrections.
Hell is described in Revelation as the “lake of fire” which destroys the souls of those who are condemned. “This is the second death” (Revelation 20:4,5,12-15). Jesus referred to the first and second death when he said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). ).
It is the theory of the immortal soul that requires the unbiblical doctrine of eternal punishment in hell or universal salvation, because an eternal soul must have an eternal destination. This teaching has also resulted in other unbiblical doctrines such as prayers for the dead, indulgences, purgatory, and the intercession of the saints.
While correct doctrine is important, it is the practical outworking of this teaching that is most dangerous. If the souls of the dead are still alive, why not communicate with them and get their help? And in fact, this is done frequently, with mediums, New Age practitioners who “channel” the spirits of the dead, and with prayers to the saints. But if the dead are unconscious and do not know anything, who is it that communicates in their name? The Bible clearly teaches that there are evil spirits in the unseen realm who are constantly seeking to deceive us and destroy us.
There have been impressive reports from people who have suffered near-death experiences and have reported what they experienced. But we must keep in mind that these are not the reports of people who have died, but of people who have nearly died. The same experiences of being “out of the body” can be duplicated with drugs or electrical stimulation of the brain.
The Bible, on the other hand, tells the stories of seven people who died and were raised again , including one, Lazarus, who was dead for four days. None of these individuals had anything to say about experiences they had after death, not because these reports would not have been interesting and helpful, but because there was nothing to report. They were asleep, their soul no longer existed and they would have remained that way until the Second Coming of Christ if He had not provided a special resurrection for them.
For more information about this important subject see section 20:11-15 The White Throne Judgment and the sections that follow in The Book.
<![if !supportFootnotes]>  <![endif]> The widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24), the Shunamite’s son (2 Kings 4:25-37), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-15), Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-46), Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41), Eutychus (Acts 20:9-11) and Lazarus (John 11:1-45).