I want you to imagine that you have received a phone call informing you that you have won a free trip to Paris! That’s great news! So you rush out to tell everyone about it. Then you get to thinking. “When is this trip going to happen? What flight must I board at the airport? What should I pack? What kind of weather will they have? What are the styles in Paris, so I don’t stick out like a funny-looking foreigner? How much money should I convert to euros?” Your heart races as you realize that you don’t speak French! Then you ask yourself, “Who will translate for me? Who will meet me at the airport? How will I find a hotel? Are hotel accommodations even included? Are meals included, and if they aren’t, how will I order from a menu I can’t read? How will I know how to get back to the airport?”
Then someone sees you and says, “I heard you won a trip to Paris, congratulations!”
And you respond, “I don’t want to think about it. It gives me a headache.”
This is why the information that you are going to heaven when you die doesn’t give you any particular joy or confidence outside of Sunday morning worship. If a mugger approaches you in an alley—just what are you doing in that alley anyway?—you don’t greet them with a swagger and say, “Go ahead and stab me, I don’t care, because I’m going to heaven.” No! You are afraid, and you do everything you can to resist.
The information that you are going to heaven isn’t specific enough, just like the information that you won a trip to Paris wasn’t specific enough. So I am going to try to give you a little more detail about what happens when you die and what happens to you at the end of the universe. This information comes from many sources, including my own experiences with dying people. This is Christian lore, not Christian doctrine. It is not an infallible or dogmatic guide; please treat it as just a departure point for your own study. My main guides are Bishop Timothy Ware and Father Seraphim Rose, both eastern Orthodox.
Why the West Has No Coherent Theology of Death
In the western church, we have been preoccupied with the issues that arose through scholasticism, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. The main struggle, which continues to this day, is with the Enlightenment. Western theologians have bent over backwards to systematize modern science in their theologies—it is only in the west, for instance, that theologians have agonized over the existence of God, or have found it necessary to factor gynecology into the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The result is that western theology is unbalanced. It has excellent tools for dealing with here-and-now issues, such as just-war theology and bio-ethics, but it has almost completely neglected major doctrines that don’t fit a scientific worldview. For example, the Ascension is such an important doctrine that almost every book of the New Testament deals with it, but western theology scarcely has anything to say about it.
Death and dying are also areas in which western theology has yielded to secular wisdom. The Reformation had other fish to fry, and the Enlightenment made the topic—to use a technical term—uncool.
While the western Church has yielded the topic of death and dying to secular researchers, who have only begun their work; the eastern Church, which never experienced scholasticism, the Reformation, or the Enlightenment, has systematized over 2,000 years of observations, personal experiences, and most importantly biblical contemplation into a coherent theology of death.
Why the Bible Teaches a Resurrection
In the ancient world, pagans taught that the physical universe was evil and had been created as a prank by a minor god. Our bodies, according to this belief system, are prisons for our spirits. They believed that death freed the spirit of its prison, and if the spirit had been properly prepared, it would enjoy an eternal bodiless existence. Many modern Christians mistakenly think this is the Christian view, but historically it is not only heretical, it isn’t even Christian.
In Genesis, it says that God created the material universe and pronounced it good. Paul says in Romans 8:18-23 that the material universe is going to be transformed when we are transformed. In Genesis, God breathed the spirit of life into Adam to make him into a living soul. Therefore, we are not really complete without our bodies. Our bodies are just as much “us” as our spirits are. Since the New Heavens and the New Earth are a physical place, closely united with heaven, we need to be physical beings to go there. Hence the necessity for the Resurrection. When Jesus rose from the grave, He was really the first one to participate in the Resurrection on the Last Day; He did it early to show us that He can raise us up (1 Corinthians 15:20 and following). The bodies we receive are continuous with the ones we have now, but they are transformed. They are what they were supposed to have been all along. (1 Corinthians 15:35-38). As Job 19:26 says, in our bodies we shall see God.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews considers the Resurrection and the Judgment to be elementary teachings of the faith:
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
—Hebrews 6:1-2, NIV
He can leave these things and go on to maturity, but we need to review them.
Untangling the Words
Before we can discuss this topic at all, we have to untangle the vocabulary. In popular usage, we use “heaven” to refer to five completely different things and we use the word “hell” to refer to two different things.
The Five Meanings of the Word Heaven
- In this discussion, I use “heaven” only to mean the place where God dwells in His glory with the angelic host, and the place to which Jesus ascended, as in Matthew 5:34 and Acts 1:11. Those who wonder if we can call a place outside our physical universe a “place” raise an interesting but unanswerable question, which is beside the point for the current discussion anyway.
- The New Heavens and the New Earth
The New Heavens and the New Earth is the eternal destination of righteous people. In Scripture it is called “The New Heavens and the New Earth” in Revelation 21:1, or “The New Jerusalem” in Revelation 21:2. Since it is a physical place, we can’t go there until we have been resurrected in our bodies. At the moment we can’t go there anyway because it doesn’t exist yet. It is the present physical universe, in a redeemed state, and its redemption is a consequence of our final redemption on the Last Day.
In the New Testament, Jesus is the first one to participate in the General Resurrection; He did it early to prove His identity, His authority, and His ability to raise us up from the dead. His resurrection is like the first fruits in spring that foreshadow a great harvest in the fall, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:23. Our resurrection is the occasion for the resurrection of the entire universe, as in Romans 8:18-23.
- Paradise is the place where the spirits of the faithful departed await the Resurrection and the Judgment. Jesus calls it Paradise in Luke 23:43 or the Bosom of Abraham in some translations of Luke 16:22-23. It is a part of the realm of the dead.
- Outer Space, the Sky
These two meanings are not relevant to our discussion here, but I’m covering them for the sake of completeness. When we speak of “the heavens,” we mean either the nighttime sky, where we can see the stars and planets, or the daytime sky, where we can see the clouds. At nighttime, when we speak of the constellations in “the heavens,” we are referring to outer space, in the daytime, if we describe an approaching thunderstorm by saying “the heavens are angry,” we are referring to the sky.
The Greek word that corresponds to our terms “heaven” or “heavens” sometimes just means the sky. For instance, when Peter preaches about signs in the heavens above and in the earth below in Acts 2:19, he is obviously referring to the sky.
The Two Meanings of the Word Hell
- There is an undifferentiated realm of the dead, where Jesus descended to preach to the spirits of those who had died before He came. (1 Peter 3:18-22.) It happened during the time He was dead, between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. In Greek it is called Hades; in Hebrew it is called Sheol.
- The Lake of Fire
There is a place that is intended for the devil and his angels, but humans who opt out of salvation are in danger of going there too. No one goes to the Lake of Fire just yet; the demons called Legion asked Jesus in Matthew 8:29, “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?”
The Lake of Fire is presently empty, because the Last Judgment hasn’t happened yet. The Lake of Fire is also called Gehenna, which is the name of the Jerusalem city dump in biblical times. It had become the city dump because it had been the location of pagan temples where infant sacrifice was practiced. The trash caught on fire at some point, the fire became self-sustaining, and no one saw the need put it out. It was therefore a good picture for the Lake of Fire.
The Universe before the Last Judgment
At present, the Last Judgment has not occurred. The following exist:
- Heaven, the dwelling place of God, to which Jesus ascended.
- The physical universe, where we live, which is separate from heaven.
- The realm of the dead, divided into Hades and Paradise.
The spirits of the dead are waiting there for the Last Judgment. Their primary activity is prayer, both for the people they left behind (Luke 16:19-31), and for the hastening of the end (Revelation 6:9-11).
The Universe after the Last Judgment
After the Last Judgment, the following exist:
- Heaven, the dwelling place of God.
- The New Heavens and the New Earth, also called the New Jerusalem.
This is where the righteous have an unending adventure of serving and worshiping God. There are lots of activities, because in Jesus’ parables of the Last Judgment, such as in Matthew 25:1-30, the righteous are rewarded with responsibilities and duties. In Revelation 22:1-5, we find that the New Heavens and the New Earth are intimately connected with Heaven. Perhaps they are even merged.
- The Lake of Fire described in Matthew 25:41, which is only supposed to contain the devil and his angels, but it may also end up containing people who reject God.
What Happens at the Last Judgment
On the Last Day, Jesus comes, resurrects all human beings, and judges us all. For Christians, this Judgment is an awards ceremony, in which we are given responsibilities in line with our stewardship during our lives (Matthew 25:1-30). The physical universe is redeemed. The righteous live in the New Heavens and the New Earth. The devil, the demons, and wicked people, if there are any, go to the Lake of Fire. I say “if there are any” because the Last Judgment has not yet occurred, so I can’t know the results.
Some people have very detailed theories about the precise protocol for these events. I don’t see the point of it. No one is going to perish because they make a procedural error on the Last Day. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by our knowledge of the timetable of events.
Now we get to the really interesting part…
What Happens to You When You Die
According to popular belief, as soon as good people die, they zip right off into heaven, and as soon as bad people die, they zip right off into hell. That isn’t a Christian belief, because it denies Jesus’ teachings that there is a Resurrection and a Judgment at the end of time. If the popular belief were true, Jesus would not even need to return, because there would be nothing for Him to do! Everyone would already be in heaven or hell!
The popular belief that we become bodiless spirits in an incorporeal heaven does not come from Christianity; it comes from Gnosticism or Neo-Platonism. Some people even believe that people become angels when they die. This is also not true, for the same reason that ostriches do not become ocelots when they die.
If you enter a contest, you don’t win the prize until after the judges decide. Since Jesus told us that there is a Resurrection and then a Last Judgment at the end of time, it is obvious that there is more to it than what current folklore teaches us.
Ancient Christian Teaching
What really happens to you when you die is this:
Immediately upon death, two angels are assigned to guard you as you get used to the fact that you are dead. For about three days, you are allowed to wander to places and people who are significant to you.
It is during this period that people have strange experiences where they see or hear a recently deceased person. These experiences follow an interesting pattern. In general, the person who has the experience is not the person who loved the deceased the most, but the person whom the deceased loved the most. These phenomena are extremely common, but we don’t talk about them. If you have had an experience like this, rest assured that you are completely normal.
When I was in seminary, one of my classmates reported that during her psychological screening for ordination, the psychologist asked her if she had ever received a communication from someone who had recently died. She hesitated, but she decided to be brutally honest, so she said yes. The psychologist continued along the list of questions, but he observed that she was apprehensive. He paused and said, “Oh, by the way, your answer about communications from the dead is perfectly normal.”
After you have gotten your bearings, the two angels take you on a tour of Paradise and Hades, and then assist you as you undergo a provisional individual judgment, which is historically called a “particular judgment,” to determine whether you wait for the Resurrection and the Last Judgment in Hades or in Paradise. This process takes some time and generally ends on the fortieth day after death.
Among Orthodox Christians it is customary to pray for the recently deceased on the third, ninth, and fortieth days after the death. They pray on the third day, because that is about when the spirit begins its particular judgment; on the ninth day, because that is approximately when the spirit begins its guided tour; and the fortieth day, because that is usually when the spirit finally enters Hades or Paradise. How did they come up with that scheme? By digesting 2,000 years of observations and experiences.
During the first three days after someone’s death, it is a good idea to work out bereavement issues in prayer, which usually consists of giving and requesting forgiveness. Bishop Timothy Ware asks, “Why do we pray for the dead?” and he answers his own question, “Because we love them.” Do the dead benefit from our prayers? We don’t know. Perhaps it would put their minds at ease about the issues you resolve. In any event, such prayers are acts of love, and acts of love are more important to Jesus than correct theology. It is also cheaper and more effective than a secular bereavement counselor. The dead in Christ are still alive: if you never told your father that you loved him before he died, it isn’t too late to do it now. If after your mother’s death, you have forgiven her or need her forgiveness, why not ask Jesus to handle it? You can resolve the issues now, or you can pay a secular bereavement counselor to help you cope with not resolving them.
What Happens to You between Death and the Last Judgment
After you have entered either Hades or Paradise, your main activity is prayer. Since you don’t have a body, you don’t get tired or bored of praying. Among other things, you pray for the loved ones you left behind. Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 turns on this very point. People continue to grow and develop spiritually after death, but they can’t change their eternal fate, as in Luke 16. Wicked spirits keep decaying, while righteous spirits continue to be transformed.
What Happens to You at the Last Judgment
When Jesus returns, everyone is resurrected, and the Judgment occurs. As Job says, in our bodies we shall see our God. The righteous go to the New Heavens and the New Earth; the wicked, if there are any, go to the Lake of Fire along with Satan and the demons. It is evident from the second half of Matthew 25 that some of the people in Hades will go to the New Heavens and the New Earth, and that they will be surprised to find out that they were Christians all along.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
—Matthew 25:34-40, NIV
That reassures you and me about the eternal fate of people who never heard the gospel, or of people who never professed the gospel, but live it out in their lives anyway. God is just; they still have a fair chance.
Most of us have heard and profess the gospel. So what about us?
Those of us who think that “believing Jesus” means saying “Jesus is Lord” with conviction are wrong, because Jesus’ definition of “believing” is not strictly mental:
Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do
—John 14:12a, NIV
Those of us who think that that “loving Jesus” means thinking lovely thoughts about Him are wrong, because Jesus’ definition of “loving” has nothing to do with the tears streaming down your face as you sing hymns:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments
If we just profess faith and feel love, but do not do what He does and do not obey His commandments, we could be in for rude surprise:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
—Matthew 7:21-23, NIV
Now that you know what will happen when you die, you can truly begin to live.