What Happens When We Die?
Many people have spent a lot of energy and thought in trying to answer that question. The simple truth is that the Bible does not speak of death or the nature of death with any precision. It is the lack of clear, concise and explanatory statements that lead people to make up all sorts of things and claim that their vision of death is valid and legitimate and true. Most of them are not.
The physical nature of death is what it is, that is what we witness. The body stops functioning and begins to decay. From dust you were taken and to dust you shall return. Most modern people try to slow or stop that decay by embalming. There are places and religions that do not embalm. Usually they bury the body quickly (or cremate it) to avoid observing the process of decay.
The cause of death is always sin. God may occasion the departure from this life by accident, illness, or "natural causes," but death is built in to us by sin - Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death," and Romans 5:12, Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned-" and Romans 8:10, ". . . though the body is dead because of sin. . .."
Christians speak of death as the separation of body and soul. The body returns to the dust and the soul returns to God who created it, according to Scriptures. Many people believe that the soul continues to inhabit the body in a sleeping state until the resurrection. That idea is not Scriptural. Scripture teaches us that death is the separation of body and soul, although it does not treat it topically, but illustrates it in Luke 12:20, and in connection with Jesus in Matt. 27:50 and John 19:30. The "sleep of the soul" is contradicted by passages such as Phil. 1:23 or Luke 23:43, where Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he would be with Him in paradise "today."
It is important to note that the Bible says that believers who die go to be with God, or in His hands. Unbelievers, false believers, and pagans of all sorts go, in the interim between death and the resurrection, to await the resurrection in prison, mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19-20, which is also apparently a place of suffering.
Pagans and those who do not pay close attention to what the Bible says often imagine that those who die become angels. It is not unusual to hear people answer the question of why someone died by saying, "God needed another angel." But we are ourselves in the presence of God, not angels. Becoming an angel is a step down for a child of God, 1 Cor. 6:3 says we shall judge angels, and Hebrew 2:16 says, For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham.
The Bible also does not say or suggest that the people who have gone to be with the Lord are aware of us, here in time, or watching over us. Isaiah 63:16, For Thou art our Father, though Abraham does not know us, And Israel does not recognize us. Thou, O LORD, art our Father, Our Redeemer from of old is Thy name. Ask yourself, how could it be heaven if our loved ones had to watch us sin and struggle down here below?
We know the believers are with the Lord, and the Apostle Paul reminds us (Phil. 1:23) that being with Christ "is far better." So we can rejoice in their blessedness and comfort ourselves as to their condition and the hope of the reunion with them when it our time to go to be with the Lord. That is part of "the Christian hope."
Other ideas about the dead, such as ghosts and haunting, are also not taught in Scriptures. Seeing things we cannot explain often gives rise to fanciful - or spooky - ideas, but we look to the Word of God for answers and when God provide none, we need to school ourselves to avoid making up stories to "answer" our questions and uncertainties. As the people of God, we follow Him, not our fevered imaginings.
On that day we will be happy to discover that zombies and mummies and the walking dead are silly stories intended to generate a little fear where God has always instructed us to "fear not."
When my mother's mother died many years ago, several of our relatives reported seeing her out and about - but it was always just a passing glimpse at a distance, never a clear sighting and never up close. I have always understood that when someone we love dies, it is natural for us to expect to see them in the old, familiar places. We really want to see them as well, and in our grief we may interpret what we are catching a glimpse of as the person we so badly want to see alive. But our loved ones would surely not tease us and torture us with "I just missed him (or her). If they wanted to comfort us, and could, they would give us a good look, and would speak more than just a passing word.
The sorrow that accompanies the death of the ones we love is part of the reason death is so feared and referred to as "the enemy" in the Bible. It is visceral and ugly. I personally hope God has better things in store in eternal life than making brief, surprise appearances to discomfort my friends when I am gone.
I find the thought that I will go immediately to the presence of our Lord, and enjoy a reunion with those who also have loved Him to be a comfort in the face of the thought of death. I look forward to seeing and speaking with my parents and grandparents, my close friends who have already gone to be with the Lord, and even people like CFW Walther or Martin Luther. Perhaps the Lord will permit us to continue to learn and question one another in everlasting life. We could ask the Apostles what they think about our current theological issues, or sit at the feet of Jesus along with Mary, of Mary and Martha fame, and learn the answers to the why's and the what's we have been puzzled by throughout life.
Then again, when we stand with the Lord all of those questions may just fade into the background to be forgotten in the joy of heaven.
Yours in the Lord,