Death and the Intermediate State—What Happens After We Die?

Death and the Intermediate State—What Happens After We Die?

Life after death is not one that begins only after the great resurrection of the dead or with the second coming of Christ. Even after the body and soul have been separated in death, there is an ongoing existence of the soul even after the body has decayed.  

One of the more common questions I’ve been asked since 2020 relates to death. Covid-19 has brought a sense of urgency to many. That urgency has led some to search the scriptures to find the answers to their deepest questions: What happens after we die?

Many people have been taught a generic “afterlife” concept. There is a generalized cartoony afterlife in mind among some of my friends who are unbelievers (some quite staunch atheists). This cartoon takes on either a “darkened red glow” or a “blue shining glow”. The red place is a place of torment, torture, and pain. The red place in many Americans’ minds is a place of a general deprivation of all things entertaining, lovely, and delightful. The blue place is a place of happiness, light, relief, rest, music, and peace. The blue place in many Americans’ minds is a place of general presence of all things pleasing, akin to an eternally open theme park or beach.

There are other generalizations that accompany these two cartoonish pictures of eternity. Some have vague notions that the afterlife spells an eternity spent floating on clouds. Others speak of disembodied souls. Some have hope of reunification with lost loved ones, though they know not how this is possible when the bodies once inhabited are long since decayed. Some have an ascension in mind, that this life is dirty and less than the life to come, and that in that life to come a loss of the physical state is a new promise of freedom.

These questions are partially what has led me to preach on this topic in August of 2021, and the two audio read-aloud series we are doing currently on YouTube. The Saint’s Everlasting Rest by Richard Baxter is a beautiful book of devotional delights as Baxter contemplated and exposited what God’s Word has to say about the believer’s eternal life after death (you can click here to access that playlist and join along listening to the book). Andrew MacLaren preached a set of sermons on the book of Philippians, a letter from the Apostle Paul to a church without a hint of rebuke, but instead an abounding measure of praise and joy. Often this praise and joy Paul speaks of in Philippians come from reminders of the eternal joy Christians have awaiting them after death.

So as I’ve been pondering these things, studying these things, and preaching on these things, we come again to the question at hand.

What Does God’s Word Have to Say About What Happens After We Die?

It is good to expose whatever we may believe, think, or imagine to the truth of God’s Word (Psalm 139:1). Like a patient in need of life-saving surgery, we risk much by coming to the Word of God. In searching God’s Word, are we open to what God has to say? Are we willing to listen and follow where Jesus speaks and leads (Or will we come away sad like the rich man before Jesus in Mark 10:21-22)? If God’s Word says something very different from what we’ve been taught, will we lay aside our own notions and cling to the revealed truth of God? It is a dangerous thing to submit to the sword of the Spirit (Hebrews 4:12). We may lose face, our friends may think our faith strange, and our relatives may betray us (As they did to Jesus, thinking him crazy in Mark 3:21)! Yet for all that we lose by seeking God’s revealed truth, we gain much more (Mark 10:29-31).

‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus replied, ’no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30 will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.’—Mark 10:29-31

When we come to God’s Word we do not enter into a conversation with a friend over coffee, offering speculations. When we come to the Word of God we are on holy ground. We are in the presence of Truth revealed. What a blessing God has given to us in His Word! It pushes the darkness of doubt away and lays open the treasures of reality.

So recall your cartoony thoughts. Remember what you’ve been taught about what happens after we die. Bring to mind what you’ve considered while mourning for lost loved ones in the Lord. Bring these thoughts and beliefs captive before the Lord of glory and face the exposure of the truth of God’s Word.

Passages from God’s Word

1. God’s Word makes clear that death itself is a consequence of sin. Death is not natural to God’s created order for mankind. In other words, without sin, there would be no death. Death first came to humanity as a result of Adam’s sin. Death is not a glory in itself, death is a consequence.

By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food until you return to the ground since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust, you will return. (NIV Genesis 3:19)

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. (NIV Romans 5:12)

2. God’s Word makes clear that mankind has been given a physical body inhabited with a living soul. At death, the body ceases its activity, while the spirit or soul continues. There are at the foundations of who and what we are as humans these two components; a body and a soul. We ought to guard that we do not overemphasize either of these two components which can lead to new-age paganism, agnosticism, or materialism. The sacred scriptures speak of both the body and the soul as being impacted at death.

Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

…and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

…because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. (Psalm 16:10)

You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit. (Psalm 30:3)”

3. God’s Word makes clear that in death our body and soul are separated. Our bodies return to the ground (to dust is the often-used expression), while our spirits depart from our bodies. The speech of Jesus to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 is particularly telling as it indicates that the bodies of the thief and Jesus would be dead yet, Jesus spoke of the thief being with him in paradise. It is this separation of body and soul which occurs at death. The material body after death to experience decay (or corruption is often the term biblically), and the immortal soul to dwell outside the body in another place.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (Revelation 6:9)

4. God’s Word makes clear that there are multiple destinations or locations for those who have died. There is after death awaiting God’s people eternal rest, and awaiting the enemies of God an absence of rest. These destinations are spoken of biblically in many word pictures throughout various passages.

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:41-46)

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire. (Mark 9:42-49)

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