What Happens After Death?

Pat Zukeran

Differing Perspectives on Death

For the entire existence of mankind, he has struggled with the question, What happens after death? There are competing answers to this question.

Those who hold to the world view of atheism believe that, at death, one ceases to exist. There is no afterlife or eternal soul that continues to exist. All there is to look forward to is our inevitable death. Scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, growing farther and farther apart. As it does, its energy is being used up, and eventually the stars will burn out and all matter will collapse into dead stars and black holes. It is in the face of this future that the atheist must seek to find meaning and purpose for his own existence in this vast universe.

If this is the future of mankind, then we must come to the same conclusion as atheist philosophers of the past. Life is absurd and meaningless without God or immortality. Solomon first wrote of this in the book of Ecclesiastes. Written after he had turned away from God and was seeking fulfillment in pleasures, work, sex, fame, money, and power, he comes to this conclusion: “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return” (Eccl. 3:19-20). In a similar fashion, atheist philosophers such as Voltaire, Russell, Sarte, and Eliot have come to the same conclusion.

To those who hold the world view of pantheism, one goes through the endless cycle of reincarnation until the cycle is broken and the person becomes one with the divine. What form a person becomes in the next life depends on the quality of life lived or on the knowledge attained in the previous life. When one unites with the divine, he ceases to exist as an individual, but exists as part of the divine life force, like a drop of water returning to the ocean.

Those who hold to the animistic religions believe that after death the human soul travels to the land of the underworld, also called the realm of the shadows. For eternity they wander in darkness, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow. Some of the spirits of the deceased may be called upon to aid or torment those on earth.

However, the Bible gives us a unique, contrasting view of death. Scripture makes it clear in Hebrews 9:27, “[M]an is destined to die once and after that to face judgment. . . .” The Bible makes it clear that once our life here on earth is done, we will stand before God to receive our destiny: either eternal life with Him, or the second death in separation from Him.

Upon death the soul separates from the body. 2 Corinthians 5:8 states, “We are confident, I say and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Luke 16:19-31 gives proof that one’s being exists in full consciousness in heaven or hell. Our personality, memories, and feelings will continue to exist.

In human history, only Jesus has conquered sin and death through His resurrection. For Christians, death is not something we fear. Instead, at death we arrive home in heaven. To live means we exist in a foreign country. Death has lost its sting and now has become a victory through Jesus our Lord.

In order to more properly grasp this truth, we will examine popular misconceptions of what lies beyond the grave, particularly regarding near death experiences, and take an extended look at the biblical evidence of the reality of judgment and the joy of heaven.

Near Death Experiences

For the past thirty years, thousands of people have reported experiencing what are called near death experiences (NDEs). NDEs are encounters where a person, being in full awareness, leaves the body and enters another world. Such experiences have resulted in life transformation in many individuals. What are we to make of these accounts?

Let us understand that NDEs come from those who have been clinically dead, not biologically dead. In clinical death, external life signs such as consciousness, pulse, and breathing cease. In such cases, biological death results if no steps are taken to reverse the process. Biological death, on the other hand, is not affected by any amount of attention, for it is physically irreversible.{1}

The NDE accounts occur at various stages of clinical death. Some occur when the patient is comatose, very close to death, or pronounced clinically dead. Other accounts occur when the patient’s heart stops beating. Others occur while the patient’s brain ceases to register any activity on the EEG monitor. There have not been any cases of biological or irreversible death for a significant amount of time followed by a resurrection.

What has intrigued scientists and theologians in their study of NDEs is that many of the patients have similar experiences. These include leaving the body and watching from above as doctors work on it, entering a dark tunnel, seeing light, seeing others, meeting a spirit being, experiencing peace, and then returning to the body.

Scientists and doctors from various world views have sought to explain this phenomenon. Those from an atheistic world view have sought to give naturalistic explanations. Their explanations range from hallucination induced by medication, chemical reactions the brain experiences in near death crises, previous encounters long forgotten, and others. These fall short of explaining NDE events.

Many NDEs have occurred without medication. Drowning victims are one example. Also, thousands of NDE victims were able to clearly describe places and people with exact detail while they were clinically dead. One girl, while near dead, was able to describe what her family did that night at home, what was made for dinner, where everyone sat and even what was said. Others were able to describe in detail objects in rooms nearby and far away from them. One patient described a shoe on the rooftop of a hospital. When the nurses looked, they found the shoe exactly as described. A boy in an accident involving his brother and mother told those around him moments before he died, “They are waiting for me now.” The doctor discovered that at exact time in another hospital the boy’s mother and brother had just died. Dr. Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland provide a comprehensive discussion of NDEs in their book Beyond Death, arguing that naturalistic explanations cannot satisfactorily explain the events that occur in NDEs.

NDEs may not conclusively prove there is a heaven or hell, but they do indicate that at death the soul separates from the body, and that a person's spirit is conscious and coherent at death.

However, NDEs do not accurately reflect what lies beyond the grave. NDEs deal with accounts that give a short glimpse behind the curtain of death and therefore they give us an incomplete picture. Colossians 1:18 tells us that Jesus “. . . is the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Christ overcame biological death and lives forevermore as ruler over all creation. His supremacy over everything was established through His resurrection. Also, we know that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and can produce counterfeit appearances. It is imperative that we evaluate all experiences in light of Scripture.

The Judgments

Many assume that after receiving Christ, a joyful entrance into heaven is all that remains. Scripture teaches that Jesus will reward us according to how we lived our life on earth. He taught this principle in the parable of the talents in Luke 19. Each servant was entrusted to administer the talents the master gave him. Upon the return of the master, each servant had to give an account for his stewardship. The wise servants were rewarded doubly while the wicked servant was removed.

The lesson for the Christian is that each of us will give an account for our time here on earth. This is not the same as being judged on our salvation status. Christ’s death on the cross allows all who believe to enter God’s kingdom. We will be judged on our works done since the time of our salvation. This judgment of believers is called the Bema Seat judgment. This event is described in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay or straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work, which he has built upon it, remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.

Paul states that Christ is our foundation. Our works are the building on this foundation. The materials of gold, silver, and precious stones refer to works done with pure motives for the glory of God. The works of wood, hay, and straw are works done with the wrong motives to glorify self.

At the Bema Seat, our works will be tested with divine fire. Those works which were done for the glory of God will endure the flames and will be our reward. Some will regretfully see all their works on earth burned up before their eyes and enter heaven with little or no reward.

The unbeliever will be judged and sentenced to hell. At the end of the age, he faces the Great White Throne judgment. Here, all the unrighteous dead from the beginning of time are judged based on their rejection of the Savior. They are then thrown into the lake of fire for eternity. Revelation 20:11-15 says:

And I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and the books were opened; . . . and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. . . . And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Knowing that as Christians we will one day give an account for our lives, we should live as wise stewards over what God has given us. Knowing the fate of the unsaved should fill us with boldness to share Christ unashamedly, with urgency to all. Knowing what lies beyond the grave should motivate us to live life on earth with a mission.

What Will We Be Like in Heaven?

Upon our physical death, the soul is separated from the body and enters immediately into the presence of the Lord. 2 Corinthians 5:8 states, “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” The soul in heaven is made perfect in holiness and our old sin nature is eradicated. Hebrews 12:23 mentions, “the spirits of righteous men made perfect.” The spirits of the saints are in heaven and they have been made perfect. The struggle that Paul and all Christians fight with sin comes to an end forever when we, after death, enter our glorified state.

We will not remain in heaven as a soul without a body. At God’s appointed time, there will be a final resurrection where the spirit will be unified with the resurrected body. Although Christians have various views on when this resurrection will take place, we all agree on the resurrection of the body. What will the resurrected body look like?

Philippians 3:20-21 says, “And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” 1 John 3:2 promises, “But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

From these two passages we know that our glorified bodies will be like that of Christ. We will not be deity like He is, but we will have the same qualities of His resurrection body. First, our heavenly bodies will be our glorified earthly bodies. Christ’s body that died on the cross was the same one that was resurrected. His glorified body was able to travel through walls, appear suddenly, and ascend to heaven.

2 Corinthians 5:1 reads, “. . . we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.” The hands of God will make the resurrected body. 1 Corinthians 15:39-40, 42b-43 tells us:

All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. . . . The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

In answering the mockers of the resurrection, Paul explains that our heavenly bodies will possess flesh that is of a different variety than our earthly ones. They will be bodies of flesh, but as different from our earthly bodies as humans are from animals.

We further conclude that, like a seed, the body will be sown or buried and then one day be raised to life. It is buried in death, decay, weakness, and dishonor. When it is resurrected, it will be changed in every way. It is raised imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual. We will then have eternal, permanent, and perfected bodies.

We will also maintain our identities. In Luke 16:23, Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham all retained their identity. Imagine, one day we will no longer struggle with the weakness of sin, sickness, and aging. A great future is in store for those in Christ.

What Will We Do in Heaven?

What will we do in heaven for all eternity? Some envision playing golf for eternity, while others envision saints floating on clouds strumming harps of gold. Although great thoughts, they fall short of the glorious future that actually awaits those in Christ. We are told relatively little about what activities will occur in heaven. We are only given a brief glimpse of our life to come.

One of the great moments that saints of all the ages anticipate is seeing the Lord they served face to face. This will be the first and greatest moment after physical death. From then on we will have fellowship in His presence for all eternity.

One aspect of our life in heaven involves worship. A vivid picture is found in Revelation 19:1-5:

After this I heard what seemed to be the mighty voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments. . . .” And again they shouted, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.” And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshipped God who was seated on the throne, saying, “Amen. Hallelujah.” Then a voice came from the throne saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him both small and great.”

Like the sound of roaring waters comes the praise from the saints of all ages. Recently the men from our church described the experience of singing the hymn How Great Thou Art at the Promise Keepers conference. Nothing they said could accurately describe that majestic experience. The closest they could come to putting it into words was, “Awesome! Just awesome!” Can you imagine what it will be like when we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” along with the saints of all ages in the presence of God? Our worship here is preparation for our future, grand worship in heaven.

Another aspect is that of rest. Heavenly rest here does not mean a cessation from activity, but the experience of reaching a goal of crucial importance. In Hebrews 4:9-11 the writer, addressing the people of God states, “There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.” Heaven is the final goal reached after our pilgrimage here on earth. We will rest from our sufferings and struggles against sickness, the flesh, the world, and the devil.

Finally, we will serve the Lord. Luke 19:11-27 teaches a parable about stewardship. The wise servants who multiplied their master’s talents were given rule over ten and five cities. Revelation 22:3 tells us, “The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city and his servants will serve him.” In 1 Corinthians 6:3 Paul rebukes the carnal Christians who cannot settle their own disputes and asks them, “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” In Revelation 3:21 the Lord Jesus promises, “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with Me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on His throne.” Apparently we will be given authority over a sphere in God’s eternal kingdom. How much we are given depends on our faithfulness to Him on this earth.

What awaits the believer after death is a glorious future that cannot truly be imagined!

© 1999 Probe Ministries International


1. Gary Habermas & J.P. Moreland, Beyond Death (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1998), p. 156