What Happens to Man After Death?
“He surely has gone to heaven; he was such a good man!” We hear such talk at funeral wakes. We hear it as people pay tribute to a loved one who had done a lot of good and is now lying cold in a casket. “He must be looking from up there over us his surviving loved ones, pleased with the honor we are giving him right now.”
Does a dead person still somehow see and hear and feel or otherwise sense what’s going on in the world he has left behind at death? What about stories about the “ghost” of a dead person visiting the living who survive him? Are these stories for real? When a “bad” man dies, does he — or his soul — go down at once to some fiery place called “hell?”
These are questions people have asked from time immemorial. It is indeed an intriguing matter, because it is natural for most people to want to understand what happens after death: is there some kind of “after life” in some “better place” (for good people) — or some worse place (for bad people)? Most people hanker for some kind of continuity to their existence after they are gone from this earth.
People have all sorts of theories, or doctrines, to explain what happens after a man dies. But who is to say with absolute certainty what really and truly happens after a man dies?
If we believe in a God who created mankind, who gives life to each person, and who also alone, ultimately, takes away that life, wouldn’t His Word which He has left us with reveal what the truth of the matter really is? What does the Bible teach, really, about what happens to a man after death?
But then, again, many have read the Bible and have come up with different, often conflicting, ideas and beliefs about what happens to man after death. Whom are we to believe as telling the truth? How would we know? And how could we know?
A Bible challenge
The Bible has some rather plain statements about what man is composed of, what happens to those parts of man when he dies. The challenge is: will we accept those plain statements at face value — or will we read into those statements something or other that would make the Bible contradict itself? Jesus assures us: “… the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) — by any alleged contradiction.
Quoting Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus said: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). In his parallel gospel account, Mark adds “…with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). In Matthew 10: 28 Jesus commands: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…” Under inspiration by Christ, the apostle Paul asked: “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him” (1 Corinthians 2:11)? Paul’s statement agrees with Proverbs 20:27, which speaks of “The spirit of a man…” as do several other Old Testament scriptures. People in the patriarch Job’s time understood that “…there is a spirit in man…” (Job 32:8).
Without going into the technicalities of the original languages in which both the Old and the New Testaments were written, we see plainly that the Bible speaks of man being composed of:
- Body. Who does not know what one’s “body” is? It is that physical, material part of us that we and others can see, feel, smell — whatever other senses we can use.
- Soul. This is that part of man that gives him “life” — the human moves, the “animation” that gives life to an otherwise simply inert physical body. When God breathed the breath of life [air -- something physical or material] into Adam’s nostrils, Adam became a “living soul” (Genesis 2:7, KJV) or a “living being” (NKJV). True, man was created in the image or likeness of God, but man was made from the earth and was merely a living physical being or creature.
- Heart. We talk about the human “heart” in terms of its passions, its appetites, its inclinations, its desires, its emotions, etc.
- Mind. Who does not understand what the “mind” of man is? The mind has everything to do with what a man thinks. Every individual human being has a mind of his or her own.
- Strength. This has to do with the power both physical and mental that man is uniquely capable of among God’s creatures.
- Spirit. Paul says that through “the spirit of the man which is in him” a man is able to know “the things of a man” (1 Corinthians 2:11). As “spirit,” this “spirit” in man seems to be a non-physical “force” or “power” (some call it “essence”) that enables a man — through his brain and mind — to think of all kinds of things unique to mankind as contrasted, for instance, to what animals and other creatures know.
What happens to the physical components of man at death?
Everybody understands that at death a man’s body rots or decomposes completely, unless it is embalmed or refrigerated. Without these interventions, a man’s body goes the way of all flesh (including animals): back to the soil or earth. After Adam had sinned, God told him: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). ["Human" and "humus" apparently come from the same root word!]
The wise King Solomon observed: “I said in my heart, ‘Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals.’ For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20).
Man’s breath, which God gave all men, makes man a “living soul” or “living being.” At death, a man stops breathing — and so does his “soul” or “being” stop! He ceases to exist! Like any physical energy, that “soul” simply dissipates — as we say, it “goes to thin air.” Without that “soul” or being, man’s mind no longer works — and with it man’s “heart” (passions, desires, etc.) and physical and mental strength are gone.
Again, as King Solomon observed: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing….Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). The Bible nowhere talks about the human soul being “immortal!”
Thus, contrary to what several theologians believe and teach, the Bible plainly and indisputably compares death to sleep. Job observed: “But man dies and is laid away; indeed he breathes his last and where is he? As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down [in the grave] and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep” (Job 14:10-12).
Other Bible scriptures describe death as “rest” or “sleep” (2 Samuel 7:12; 1 Kings 1:21; Psalm 13:3; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-13; 1 Corinthians 11:30; 15:20, 51; 1 Thessalonians 4:1).
Who among us truly sleep soundly and, upon waking, remember anything about what happened inside and around us all the time that we were sound asleep? A “dreamless” sleep renders us unconscious and completely oblivious to what happens inside and around us.
No bodily ascent to heaven
Like the situation mentioned at the beginning of this article, most people believe that, at death, a “good” or “righteous” person somehow ascends to heaven in some unearthly “bodily” form to join or be present with God there. But if we are to truly believe the testimony of Jesus Christ, we would think differently!
Jesus said: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man [Jesus] who is in heaven” (John 3:13). Even the righteous King David, a “man after God’s own heart,” is dead and has not ascended to heaven! Notice the apostle Peter’s testimony to the Jews, in Acts 2:29, 34:
Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day…. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself:
“The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”
Are other righteous people any better than David?
If, then, no human being — whether righteous or wicked — has ever bodily ascended to heaven, what is meant by Ecclesiastes 3:2 which declares that “the spirit of the [dead] sons of men goes upward,” or by Ecclesiastes 12:7 — “…the dust [of the dead] will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it“?
Does the spirit of a man, which at death “goes upward” and “returns to God who gave it,” somehow have a kind of “after life?” Does that spirit have a conscious existence or life apart from the man’s body that goes back to dust, and from his breath that goes to thin air when a man dies? The age-old debate on a supposed “immortal soul” in man has proponents that think man has such a deathless soul or spirit that lives on in some kind of conscious after-life or existence somewhere in the universe – in heaven or in “hell.”
What does the Bible say about the dead? Psalm 115:17 declares: “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence.” There is no immortality, much less life, in silence! Death, like deep [and shall we say, snore-less?] sleep, brings a person to the world of silence! No activity, no consciousness whatsoever there (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6), where “…nevermore will they [dead persons] have a share in anything done under the sun.”
So, what happens to the dead man’s spirit which goes up to heaven — over the sun? What happens to that spirit which Jesus Himself and Stephen committed to God as they were dying (Luke 24:46; Acts 7:59)?
Spirit in man a mere record
With the advent of electronic gadgets like the wax phonograph records of long ago, followed by the old bulky tape records and then the cassette tape records, then compact discs, and now MP3s and USB and memory sticks [who knows what's next?], it is easier to understand how the spirit in man works.
By themselves, these records have no “life” of their own. They are useful and functional only when they are played by or inserted into a phonograph turn-table, a tape or cassette player, a CD/DVD player or an MP3 player or a computer/laptop/i-phone.
The spirit in man may be compared to these records — it contains all the data about the person: his attitude, his bodily features, his memory of his life’s experiences, his talents and passions, his personality, his character, etc. that make him unique and distinct from any other human being. At death, this spirit goes back to God for “safekeeping,” as it were, until the time of the resurrection — whenever God has appointed for each person. While in God’s keeping, that spirit has no life of its own, no consciousness, without some kind of body to activate it.
James 3:26 could not have put the obverse side of this truth more plainly: “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” Man’s body and spirit have to go together in order for man to have life!
God the Father kept the Spirit of Jesus when He died, and after three days and three nights Jesus’ body (which did not and could not decompose, as Scripture had prophesied — see Acts 2:31 and Psalm 89:3, 4), reunited with Jesus’ Spirit into a glorious, immortal life as our resurrected Savior. Thus, Paul says, “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [died]” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Paul then continues: “For since by man came death, by Man [Jesus] also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming ” (Verses 21-23). It will be at the return of Jesus Christ when those who are truly Christ’s — true Christians — will be resurrected or changed, as the case may be, from mortal to immortal. They will be given a “spiritual body” — no longer subject to death and “corruption” (Verses 42-57). [See: "I Never Knew You!"]
Meanwhile, the spirits of all dead Christians — those “spirits made perfect” through God’s Spirit — are “assembled” in heaven, not as a living congregation but as a compilation of spirits whose names are written or “registered” in God’s “Book of Life” in heaven (Hebrews 12:22-23). There these spirits await their time of judgment by God and Christ, the “Judge of all.”
Jesus said: “For as the Father raises the dead and gives life to them, even so the Son gives life to whom He will. For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the father who sent Him.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment [or condemnation], but has passed from death into life [see Ephesians 2:1-2]. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live [Jesus is speaking here about, 1) those actually dead people whom He raised back to life during His earthly ministry (John 4:46-53; 11:1-44; Luke 7:11-17; 8:41-42, 49-56; Matthew 9:18, 23-26) and, 2) those spiritually dead in sin during their earthly life but have heard -- and obeyed -- Jesus' words of life, to whom God has promised eternal life at Christ's return].
“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming [it has not come yet -- it is yet in the future!] in which all who are in the graves [all the dead whose spirits are now kept in store in heaven, whether as those spirits made perfect, or as spirits that are yet to be perfected at God's appointed time -- see: Predestination] will hear His voice and come forth — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life [at Christ's return, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22], and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:25-29).
As for those “who have done evil” in this life, on this side of the resurrection at Christ’s return, their spirits — like the spirits of everyone else who dies — go back to God or ascend to heaven at death. It would appear that the names of these wicked people are written in a different “registry” in God’s Book of Life from those whose spirits have been “made perfect” in Christ. The spirits of these evil people will be put “on hold,” as it were, by God until their resurrection for judgment at the end of the 1,000 years of the reign of Christ on earth with His saints (Revelation 20:5, 12). God will use their spirits as some kind of template or blue-print to “reconstruct” the dead in a resurrection, such as that pictured in Ezekiel 37. [See: The Book of Life.]
Why resurrection is needed
If, as many believe, that good or righteous people now have a conscious everlasting existence in heaven, why is there a need for a resurrection? If indeed these “saints” are there already beholding God face to face, ever praising Him with their harps, why would God bother to resurrect them to immortality at Christ’s return? If this were the case, resurrection would not make any sense at all! To paraphrase an adage, why fix something if it isn’t broken in the first place?
Precisely because the dead saints merely have their spirits in God’s heavenly keeping, awaiting the resurrection at Christ’s return to earth — when, and not till then, they will receive “a spiritual body”: a heavenly body, an incorruptible, immortal body (1 Corinthians 15:42-54) — we ought to understand that the spirits of these righteous dead do not have, at this present time, some heavenly immortal “existence” or consciousness.
Since the Bible clearly shows that the dead “know nothing” and “nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6) — that is, on the earth — how do we explain supposed “apparitions” or other “manifestations” or the “ghosts” of people long or newly dead?
An ancient lie
The first lie which the arch-liar Satan (John 8:44), in the guise of a serpent, told our “Mother Eve” was that she would not “surely die” even though she would eat of the fruit God had forbidden her and her husband Adam (Genesis 2:17; 3:1-4). As Genesis 5:5 shows, Adam did die — as Eve presumably did, too — because of their disobedience to God’s command. Is it any wonder that Satan would perpetuate that lie to all mankind, whom he has deceived (Revelation 12:9)? [See: "Your Eyes Will Be Opened!"]
As spirits, Satan and his demons can manifest all kinds of “mysterious” — even “miraculous” or “supernatural” — phenomena. Speaking about Satan’s human tool, Paul said that there is a future “man of sin,” “the lawless one,” whose coming “…is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12).
“Seances,” which “spiritists” or “mediums” engage in to contact the supposed “spirits” of dead persons, are condemned, by God in His Word, as the work of the evil one — the devil. “And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 20:6).
In Deuteronomy 18:9-14 God warns us not to follow the abominations of heathen nations. Among those who commit these abominations is “one who conjures spells, or [is] a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead” (Verse 11).
Isaiah 8:19 also says, “And when they say to you, ‘Seek those who are mediums and wizards, who whisper and mutter,’ should not a people seek their God? Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living?”
If we believe Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 at face value, we would understand that the supposed manifestations of the “ghosts” of dead persons are not those of the dead but of Satan and his demons who want to perpetuate that lie about sinful mankind not really dying — that mankind somehow continues in some kind of immortal existence when man dies.
What did Paul mean by wanting to “be present with the Lord?”
In 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 Paul said: “So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
In Philippians 1:22-24 Paul also said: “But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless [for Paul] to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”
If we understand what we have discussed so far, we will know what Paul meant by his “being present with the Lord” or to “be with Christ.” Paul [as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews; see: Who Wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?] knew that at death his “spirit” would be received by God in heaven, to join the “assembly” there of “spirits made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23). That’s where his “presence” is!
Paul understood, believed, and taught that his spirit which is now with God and Jesus Christ in heaven does not mean that, though already dead, Paul has some kind of heavenly or spiritual body and is now somehow conscious and alive in God’s presence.
In 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 42-49 Paul speaks about the resurrection of those who are the “firstfruits” of God’s salvation. Here he talks about a yet future time when he — along with other faithful servants of Christ — “shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man.” Paul and all true Christians “eagerly wait for the [appearing or return of the] Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body [for those who will remain physically alive then, see 1 Thessalonians 4:17] that it may be conformed to His glorious [resurrected] body, according to the working by which He is able to subdue all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:20).
Believe the truth!
The Bible plainly teaches that, at death, man does not pass on to some “after life” in some conscious existence — whether as “saved” and enjoying God’s presence forevermore, or as “condemned” and forever burning and tormented in some “hell fire” but never being consumed. Mankind’s salvation — mankind’s receiving everlasting life — does not happen when a righteous man dies. Nor does eternal judgment in some “hell fire” take place at the death of a wicked person. These wicked will have their fair day in court which God has appointed for them — after the 1,000 years of Christ’s reign on earth.
“And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:27-28). God has allotted different judgment periods for every person, as He has chosen and willed. [See: Predestination and This Is Not the Only Day of Salvation.]
Only after each individual human being has had his or her fair chance to be judged for salvation will the incorrigibly wicked — those who will refuse to repent of their sins after God has shown them His goodness and mercy (Romans 2:4-11) — be condemned to the “second death” in the “lake of fire” (Revelation 20:13-15; 21:8; 22:15; Malachi 4:1-3), from which there is no hope, ever, of any kind of further life or existence. It will be total oblivion for the unrepentant wicked! [See: Why Is the "Unpardonable Sin" Unpardonable?]
For more of the Bible’s teachings on the state of the dead, The Good News (published by the United Church of God) issue of May-June 2014 has excellent articles. You may request a hard copy of this issue by contacting this link: www.ucg.org. You may also get the electronic version of this issue by following that website’s instructions. You may also read their booklet on the subject through this link: http://www.ucg.org/booklet/what-happens-after-death/.
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.