Where do we go when we die? What is the Christian teaching on life after death? I think many of people would respond with something like the lyrics of a song from one of my favourite bands, The Who:
On top of the sky is a place where you go if you’ve done nothing wrong
If you’ve done nothing wrong
And down in the ground is a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy
If you’ve been a bad boy
Why can’t we have eternal life And never die, Never die?
In the place up above you grow feather wings and you fly round and round
With a harp singing hymns
And down in the ground you grow horns and a tail and you carry a fork
And burn away
Why can’t we have eternal life, And never die, Never die?
The idea is commonly held that Christians believe that a soul goes straight to heaven or to hell upon death, but is that accurate? Furthermore, you will often hear people speaking of their loved ones watching over them from heaven and while I can see how that thought might be comforting, I can also see how it can be quite creepy too! In fact the idea of a soul being released from our bodies to go somewhere after death owes more to a pagan Greek way of thinking than Biblical Jewish and Christian ones. We should note well that the early Christians were not going around saying things like “good news, we have discovered that our souls are immortal,” but rather “good news, Jesus is risen from the dead, and he is the first, we will be raised from the dead also.”
So what happens to the Christian upon death? Where do we wait for the resurrection and what will we be doing during that time? There are certain Biblical teachings that are like anchors for our theology, they are very clear, easy to get, hard to get wrong, and they are doctrines that will typically show up across denominations. However, if you have ever been in a boat at anchor you will know that it is possible to do a 360 degree circle about the anchor, and if you were to sit looking straight ahead you will end up with a different view depending on where you are pointing. Some teachings are like that there being different ways of looking at things, and indeed some churches are born out of making too much of them. The important thing for the Christian is to set the anchors deep within our hearts and minds while being open to taking a swing around to see things from different viewpoints.
For the future of the Christian upon death, the resurrection is the anchor. Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we. This is not the same as teaching that the soul is immortal, as the Greeks did, but is the belief that one must be ‘clothed’ with immortality and life (see 1 Corinthians 15:53; 2nd Corinthians 5:1-3).
With that anchor in mind, here are some viewpoints that have been put forward:
- Some put forward the concept of purgatory, a place, or better a state of “getting better” for want of a more technical description. Most people who take this view are looking through pretty thick lenses of tradition, and there really is not much in the Bible itself to commend it.
- Some put forward the idea of “soul sleep,” that is we will exist though we may not be conscious of anything. So upon death you will not know or experience anything until the resurrection. Some will point to the Biblical passages that speak of death as “falling asleep” such as in 1st Thessalonians 4:13-15. But this may just be a euphemism.
- Some put forward the idea of “soul death,” that is when you die, you really just are dead until the resurrection. Commending this view are passages such as we find in Psalm 6: “Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” (Psalm 6:4-5 NRSV) Here the Psalmist clearly believes that dead people are dead. So in this view also you will not experience anything between death and resurrection.
- Some might suggest that in death we take a “step out of time” so that while right now we can only think of the resurrection as happening at some point in the future, as disembodied souls with no experience of time we will experience the resurrection as immediate. Some will point to how God Himself is the creator of time and not subject to it as is alluded to in verses like 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (NRSV).
- The last view, and perhaps the most popular that we might look at is that at death we step into the full presence of God. We can point to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: “even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (NRSV). Or we can think of the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43 (NRSV).
Perhaps you will begin to wonder if I have the answer to this week’s question about what we will experience at death. To be honest I don’t! But I have two anchors to which I can hold onto, the first being the hope of resurrection, the second is this: The Lord is my shepherd. Whatever our experience between death and resurrection may turn out to be I know that the good shepherd will be with those who follow Him and will guide them each step of the way, “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:17 (NRSV)