When a person dies, it is clear to everyone that a vital aspect of the deceased’s life has ended. But is it possible for a life to truly be over at death? And if not, what will happen to the “me” that outlives death?
The Bible gives us answers—not the kind of answers meant to indulge all our curiosities, but answers sufficient to warn against living aimlessly and adopting the shortsighted worldview of the materialist: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1 Cor. 15:32).
Death Cannot Destroy Souls
Not surprisingly, people of almost every worldview expect some kind of life after death. Few people can look at a dead body and conclude that the person’s life has been completely extinguished. We sense that life so real, so precious, and interconnected cannot simply cease when the body fails. This very expectation of life after death seems to testify to the continued existence of the soul. In Solomon’s words, God “has put eternity in [our] hearts” (Eccl. 3:11). We sense eternity. We yearn for it. Our lives are terribly abridged without it.
In Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Jesus confirms that the soul will outlive the body of the dead. The death of the body does not kill the soul; the value of a human is not spent simply because their body decays (Matt. 10:28–31). A person’s soul does not depend on this body; it was Adam’s soul, his spirit, that made him a living being (1 Cor. 15:45). You have a never-dying soul. As Mark writes, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” (Mark 8:36–37 MSG).
Death Ends a Time of Decision
Dying is like casting a completed ballot into a locked box. Even before the vote is counted, the choice is irretrievable. Death seals our eternal destiny. Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things donein the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). This life in the body is a probation for the life to come. Here and now we decide whether we desire to spend eternity in God’s restored kingdom, or if we would cast our lot with the kingdoms of this earth that will one day be put under the feet of King Jesus (1 Cor. 15:24–25). Jesus’s parable of the talents ends with this dreadful judgment against the one who failed to invest in eternity: “Cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). Our undying souls confirm our accountability to the One who has given them to us (Matt. 10:28).
Scripture mentions no post-mortem opportunity for an unconverted person to be made right with God. The medieval Roman Catholic Church developed a theory of purgatory, suggesting that those who were not sufficiently prepared to go straight to God after death could be further refined by fire. But Jesus could not have been clearer: after death, the souls of the deceased are either in a place of torment or of blessedness, between the two of which a great gulf is fixed to prevent passage from one place to another (Luke 16:26).
Life sometimes offers “second chances.” But at death, second chances expire without warning.
Death Begins an Eternity of Dread for Unbelievers
Even before they die, because of their persistent unbelief, unbelievers are already condemned (John 3:18, 36). At death condemned, unbelieving spirits are locked in prison where they await the final judgment (1 Peter 3:19).
Those who live in unbelief can often chase off thoughts of judgment, but those who have died in unbelief cannot escape “a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:27). When the deceased unbeliever realizes he has lost his opportunity for repentance and awaits dreadful judgment, he can only cry “to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 6:16). For those who die without Christ as their mediator, the prospect of torment is no longer an uncertain “if” but a terrifying “when” (Matt. 8:29). For the rich man in Jesus’s parable and all unbelievers, the place of the dead is the narthex of hell (Luke 16:23). To die as an unbeliever is to lose the best of this life and to enter a worse state while awaiting even worse things to come.
Death Begins an Eternity of Delight for Believers
By contrast, the righteous dead happily anticipate the judgment (Rev. 6:10). They await the ingathering of all the saints, and they long for full bodily communion with their Savior. But even the anticipation of the saints in glory does not issue from a dominating lack but a wholesome desire to be more fully clothed, a joyful desire to experience God more deeply (2 Cor. 5:1–5). The yearning of the blessed in paradise is a good yearning, like the way a group of friends eagerly awaits the arrival of other guests to a party.
Death doesn’t kill souls, but it does seal their destinies. Both the rich man and Lazarus in Jesus’ parable speak to us. The rich man warns the living not to undervalue their souls; Lazarus encourages God’s people not to overvalue their temporary suffering.
Adapted from William Boekestein, The Future of Everything: Essential Truths about the End Times. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2019. Used by permission.