As a follower of Christ, I think the greatest evidence for life after death is Jesus. He is the ultimate authority on the subject because He is the only person who came from heaven, died, and came back to life. On our journey through the evidence of the resurrection, we learned that Jesus appeared to people for forty days in His resurrected body, with over five hundred eyewitnesses in twelve different locations. Thousands of people witnessed the resurrected Christ and His miracles.
So what did Jesus teach about what happens to us after we die? Is there a literal heaven? Is there a literal hell? One minute after we die, what will happen? And what will be the basis of our eternal existence? Does the Bible address these issues clearly and in a way that ordinary people like ourselves can understand?
The Scripture has much to say about what happens after we die. There are specific details that concern believers, unbelievers, nations, judgments, and even events that lead to Christ’s return. For our purposes, however, I want to pull back the lens of perspective and look at the bigger picture. So let’s dive into this critical question by summarizing the teaching of the Bible into four overarching truths that the Scripture clearly teaches.
Truth #1: At death, every person’s soul or spirit enters immediately and consciously into the relational aspects of eternal existence.
You might want to read that sentence above one more time. The words are chosen carefully and they have very significant meaning. What I mean to say is that the immaterial part of us—the real you, not your physical body but your soul or spirit—will upon death be immediately conscious of your new existence. You will not have some protracted sleep in the grave. You will not be in some ethereal limbo and wondering where you are or what’s going on. You will not be alone but will be able to recognize and relate to others who have died.
JESUS’ PARADIGM OF THE AFTERLIFE
These are the very points Jesus makes when He gives us a sneak peek into the afterlife in the parable He taught in Luke 16:19–29:
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”
But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.”
He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.”
Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
In other words, they’ve got the Word of God.
“‘No, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent’” (v. 30). Jesus then gives them another peek into the future when He says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (v. 31). Can you imagine the response? And yet He knew exactly what would happen and how people would respond.
The paradigm is simply this: Hades is the place where the spirits of the wicked are prior to resurrection. Paradise is a place in the presence of God, for those who have not yet been resurrected. Later we will learn that one day everyone will be resurrected. Jesus gives a clear picture that both men have a conscious awareness. There is a fixed chasm, and once a person dies, there is no second chance.
PAUL’S PARADIGM OF THE AFTERLIFE
The apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, would use a different metaphor. He talks about our bodies being a tent. Paul tells us with assurance that there is a place for us after we die. I encourage you to read the following passage slowly for yourself:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (vv. 1–8)
Paul makes the same point concerning what happens immediately after we die. He says to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. In Philippians 1, the apostle is between the rock and the hard place. He thinks he is going to be executed as he writes to the Philippian church, “I don’t know what to do. To be with Christ is very much better but maybe I should stay because I am required to do more ministry.” But Paul’s expectation and view were clear. He understood that the moment he died, his spirit would be in the presence of God.
I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. (Phil. 1:23–26)
Ingram, Chip. 2017. Why I Believe: Straight Answers to Honest Questions about God, the Bible, and Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.
We have just completed a 6-Week Bible Study Lesson Series on Chip Ingram’s book, Why I Believe. It is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription plan. The idea is to invite each participant to purchase their own book and discuss it each week.
Why I Believe, Lesson #1
Chapters 1, 2
Why I Believe in the Resurrection
Did Jesus Really Die?
Why I Believe, Lesson #2
Chapters 3, 4
Why I Believe the Bible
Don’t Take My Word for It
Why I Believe, Lesson #3
Why I Believe in Life After Death
Why I Believe, Lesson #4
Chapters 6, 7
Why I Believe in Life Creation
Science or God?
Why I Believe, Lesson #5
Why I Believe in the God of the Bible
Why I Believe, Lesson #6
How is that Working for You?