Death is one of the few things that all human beings share in common regardless of race, regardless of income, regardless of intellect, regardless of culture or period of history or accomplishment. We all will die. The reason for death is that in sinning, we turned our back on God. The result is that we are born spiritually dead separated from God and we will all die. Had sin not entered the world, there would be no death. (Genesis 2:16; Romans 6:23).
1. Death is no friend
What I find perhaps most curious in all of this discussion of death is that "death is for us an enemy " (1 Corinthians 15). We can’t accept death. We don’t embrace death. Something in us as the image bearers of God longs for life.
Ecclesiastes says that God has set eternity in the hearts of men – that eternity is anchored in the very death of our being, and death seems like an absolute foe and not a friend.
The result is that various philosophies and religions rise up to answer the questions of what awaits us on the other side of the grave – the great, great question of human destiny.
a) We all win. This is called universalism, it is a horrendous lie. It says that everyone dies and goes to heaven, regardless of religion – regardless of relationship with Jesus. It’s lie, but it’s a lie that we are prone to tell when we don’t know what else to say and someone dies, and so to comfort ourselves, rather than to communicate the truth, we say such things as, "Well they’re in a better place now," and that’s not true for everyone.
b) We all vanish. This is called annihilationism. It says that upon death, we cease to exist and we simply come to an end and our soul is extinguished and we are no more.
c) We all come back. This is called reincarnation. It’s a false teaching that Bible knows nothing of – that you die and then you get a second chance, like coming back to pay for your sin. Sort of a variation of that is the doctrine of purgatory, which is you die, you go to a place that is not heaven or hell, but there you suffer, pay God back for your sins. It’s a second chance so that eventually you might experience heaven.
There are other teachings like soul sleep, which is an offshoot of Christianity and something called Adventism, which says upon death, the Christian doesn’t go to heaven or hell, into blessing or destruction. They simply go into an unconscious state. Essentially they pass out – go into a permanent soul sleep until the resurrection state.
Yet Daniel 12:2 says in that there is eternal life and eternal death – that those who are cursed will live forever in torment, as those who are blessed will live together forever with Jesus. Daniel 12:2 says that we will arise, some to everlasting destruction, others to everlasting joy.
The question is not, "Will we live forever?" The question is, "Where?" Hebrews 9:28 says we are appointed once for death and then for judgment. We die once. Not karma and reincarnation and then we’re judged. Not purgatory and second chance.
2. Where does the soul go on death
Jesus explains this in Luke 16. He explains a holding place that has two sections with a chasm between the two so that there can be no movement of souls between these two holding places. One is called paradise. The other is called Hades.
a) Paradise was for those saints who were waiting the coming of the Lord Jesus.
These would include the Old Testament’s Saints like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Noah and Moses and David and Joshua and Nehemiah. There were godly women like Sarah and Rahab and Ruth and Esther. They died waiting for Jesus. Upon death, their body went into the grave and their soul went to this place called paradise. It was a place of blessing. It was a place of joy.
b) To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord
Jesus’ resurrection is the pattern of our resurrection – that though our soul and our body are disconnected at death, they are reconnected at resurrection. Jesus rises because he was not a sinner. Death could not hold him. Jesus then, according to 1 Corinthians 15, walked around for 40 days so that everyone would have ample evidence that would affirm his bodily resurrection, and then he ascended back into heaven where he had come from as God.
In Ephesians 4:8-9, says about Jesus: "when he ascended on high, he took captives with him in his train" – meaning once Jesus had died and risen to take away sin, he ascended back into heaven, thereby opening heaven to sinners by paying the penalty of death for their sin. And so then with him, all those who were in paradise went to be with Jesus in heaven.
So today, there is no one in that holding place of paradise. If you today to die as a Christian – Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8, "To be absent from the body" – your body goes into the grave – "is to be present with the Lord" – that your soul goes to heaven to be with Jesus.
c) Hades is a place for those who die apart from Jesus
Hades is where their soul goes as a holding place. It is still occupied to this day. The picture that Jesus gives in Luke 16 is emphatic on this point – it uses words like wailing and grinding or gnashing of teeth in pain, and torment and suffering and justice for unrepented sinners.
Eleven times, Jesus refers to Hell as Gehenna. Gehenna was an illustration of hell. It was a place outside of Jerusalem where people had performed human sacrifices, some even sacrificed their own children to demonic false Gods. It had become to God’s people such a deplorable and disgusting and despicable place that they would not go there and would not have anything to do with it. In fact, they turned it into the town dump. Refuse, as well as human bodies, would be thrown there, and the fire of Gehenna continually burned the rubbish. The smoke rose continuously. The fire burned continuously, and the worms feasted continuously.
Jesus takes this same language and he says that, "Hell is an ever burning fire. The flame does not go out. The smoke does not cease burning, and the worms do not cease feasting upon the flesh of the unrepentant."
On the Day of Judgment, Revelation 20:13-14, talks about the day when their bodies and souls will be rejoined – that they will rise and resurrect to stand before Jesus Christ, King of Kings, Lord of Lords – this is just a final judgment and the meeting out of perfect punishment. It says that on that day, "Death and Hades" – that holding place – "will be cast into the lake of fire" – that is Hell – "and that will be your eternal fate."
3. How to rejoice in the face of death
Paul had no fear of hell because he has full faith in Jesus. The only way to rejoice in the face of death is to know that Jesus’ death was your death, and that Jesus’ life is your assurance of eternal life. Therefore, Paul can say, "Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance”.
This next verse is in every way our theme – "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.."
When he says that "to live is Christ", what he means is that in this life, we can have a relationship with the living God, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. That we can have a life with Jesus. We can have a life like Jesus. We can have a life for Jesus. We can have a life by Jesus. We can have a life through Jesus. We can have a life that ends with Jesus.
And to die is gain. That though there is a separation of our soul and our body upon death, there is not a separation between our soul and our Saviour upon our death. That the relationship that we have with Jesus in this life is perfected on the other side of death, because that is ultimately where our Saviour has gone through his own death, his own burial, his own resurrection, his own ascension, to prepare a place for his people.
Richard Baxter, a 17th century Puritan preacher and pastor and author:
1. We gain perfection.
Nothing in this world, and no one in this world, is perfect. Perfect health. Perfect unceasing intimacy with the living God. Perfect reconciled relationships with fellow believers. Perfect understanding so that we know in full. Perfect harmony and peace. A perfect world that is free of disaster and chaos and sin and war and injustice and tyranny and atrocity and sickness and death. Perfection.
2. We gain Rest
He takes that theme from Hebrews where it is a continual theme about eternity for God’s people. Heaven is described as that place of perfect rest. There is no sin. There is no curse. There is no death. Work is no longer toil and there is rest.
3. We gain Happiness
a place of unending, unceasing, unparallelled joy. Joy. With no sin, no sickness, no death, no curse, no suffering, no torment, no toil, no shame, no tears and no atrocity. It’s a place of happiness and joy. And deep down, we each long for that place.
There are two absolutely facts which bind us all together.
1. Every one of us will die.
2. Every one of us will stand before Jesus.
Like Paul, we can say, "I rejoice in the day of my death. And whenever God should feel that my work on this earth has come to its end, I rejoice because I have lived with Christ and now I gain nothing less than the gift of God himself forever with me and for me, and his death is my life and his resurrection is my eternal state."