What Happens When We Die?
Over the last 31 years of ordained ministry I have probably officiated at over 300 funerals. When I meet with families to plan a funeral service, very few ask the question, “What happens when we die?” For some the grief of the moment is the presenting issue. They don’t know how they are going to live without their mother, spouse, or friend? For some their mortality is too overwhelming to ponder, and they just don’t want to go there. Very often I feel as though the conversation about the deceased is dancing around the main issue: “Is my mom just dead and gone…Will I see her again…Is she in heaven?”
Sometimes in these settings someone will say something like, “I know dad is in heaven now and really happy to see mom.” I don’t want to minimize the sincerity of such comments, or the fact that there is some truth in them, but they often sound a bit prepackaged. I often have a sense that the person is saying what they think they should say at a time like this rather than being fully convinced.
So what happens when we die? To be perfectly honest, the Bible provides very little information about the specifics of what happens. I think that is why some of the answers, “Dad must certainly be happy to be reunited with mom,” sound a little bit thin. It is not that such a belief is inaccurate, but we simply need to acknowledge that the Bible is short on specific details.
So what does the Bible tell us? The New Testament affirms that because God raised Jesus from the dead, we too shall be raised. Paul goes on at some length about the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15. In his argument, he affirms that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15.22). He then goes on to try to describe what the resurrection of our bodies will be like. The inscrutability of his argument may have less to do with our ability to understand it than Paul’s struggle to describe the indescribable. Nevertheless, Paul affirms that death does not have the last word and that one day our “perishable body puts on imperishability” and that “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (cf. 15.54). Still, the specifics of our resurrected existence are not addressed.
When it gets right down to it, I find Jesus’ words in John 14.2-3 the most helpful. Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” According to this passage, the Christian hope is that the Jesus who loved us in this life will also be with us in the next life even if we are not given a lot of details.
In my experience, the people who are the most unafraid of death are those who have discovered how much God loves them while they are alive. Based on their experience of God’s steadfast love in this life, they simply trust that God’s love is stronger than death and will surround them forever. And if that is true, knowing the specifics of what life is like after death are unimportant because we can trust what God has in store for us.