What happens when we die?

This morning we are going to think about a very important question. What happens when we die? It’s a question many people spend a lot of time thinking about and many other people try hard to avoid thinking about. What happens when we die? Three score years, and then – what?
The only way we can really know the answer to that question would be if somebody comes back from the dead to tell us. So the only person in history we can trust for the answer is Jesus Christ. Jesus died on the cross but three days later God raised Him from the dead. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And Jesus has revealed to us the truth about life after death and we can discover that truth for ourselves in the Bible. So we will think about the truth of our glorious Christian hope this morning. But then we will also talk about some wrong ideas which some people have, ideas which are as confusing and dangerous as they are mistaken.
Let’s start with what the Bible tells us about what happens when we die. As Christians we HAVE BEEN saved – our sins have been forgiven, we have been born again to eternal life. We ARE being saved – we enjoy that life in all its fullness which comes from our relationship with God as our heavenly Father. But the best is yet to come. We WILL BE saved!! One day Christ WILL transform our lowly bodies so they will become like His heavenly body. Now we see as in a glass darkly, then we will see face to face. Now we know in part, then we shall know even as we ourselves are known. This is our Christian hope!
Philippians 3:20-21 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
D. Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote: “We have a new citizenship, we are in Christ, and because we are in Christ, we are seated in the heavenly places with him. Certain things will happen to us before we finally arrive in heaven, but our citizenship is as definite now as it will be then. There will be a physical translation when we die, but spiritually we are there already, we belong there.”
Our reading from 1 Corinthians 15 tells us more about this wonderful hope we have as Christians.
36-38 What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. …
42-44 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
So God has promised to give us a new kind of body which is appropriate for heaven. Heaven will be so different and so wonderful that our human minds cannot even imagine it but the Bible does give us different pictures of heaven. It will be like a city, a place of community. It will be like a party, a celebration. It will be a place of continual glorious worship. Most of all we will be in the very presence of God. Jim Packer wrote, “We know very little about heaven, but a theologian once described it as “an unknown region with a well-known inhabitant,”.
To believers who have learned to love and trust Jesus, the prospect of meeting him face to face and being with him forever is the hope that keeps us going, no matter what life may throw at us. Puritan pastor Richard Baxter expressed our Christian hope like this.
My knowledge of that life is small, The eye of faith is dim,
But it’s enough that Christ knows all, And I shall be with him.
One question which Christians sometimes ask is this. Do believers go straight to heaven when they die? Or must we wait for the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns We need to remember that what we call life “after” death is not simply some chronological continuation of this life. Heaven is life in the presence of God and in His eternal Kingdom. Like God Himself, “eternal” life is not only everlasting but also more importantly outside all time as we know it. From the perspective of people who are still alive, it might appear that the body of a dead person is “asleep” and awaiting Christ’s Return. But Jesus promised the repentant thief on the next cross “Today you will be with me in Paradise”. So the believer can be said to enter the presence of Christ immediately when we die. We will not be waiting around in some kind of “limbo”. Christians who have died are already with Christ in glory.
So this is what the Bible teaches about life after death. This is the Christian hope! But at the same time there are some wrong ideas around about what happens when we die. They are popular ideas but they are sadly mistaken.
The first wrong idea is that people in this life can make contact with those who have died. People try all kinds of ways to do this. Some turn to mediums and séances and spiritualism or spiritism. Others look to Ouija boards or other “mechanical” ways to reach beyond the grave. Often people are motivated by deep grief to try to stay in touch with loved ones who have died. Others are driven by fear of their own death, or fear of the future, or simply by curiosity. Whatever the motives, attempts to make contact with dead people are tragic, futile and potentially very dangerous.
I have a friend called Ben Alexander. Ben was once one of Britain’s leading spiritualist mediums. Then he became a Christian and has spent his life warning people of the great dangers of spiritualism, séances, mediums, Ouija boards, clairvoyance and all attempts to contact the dead. Ben’s book, “Out of darkness,” is full of examples of truly dreadful things that have happened to people who have dabbled in spiritualism and similar doorways to danger. People can’t contact the dead – they only come into contact with forces of evil!
For that reason all attempts to communicate with the dead are explicitly forbidden and condemned by God in the Bible.
Deuteronomy 18:9-12; When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no-one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practises divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you.
Attempting to contact the dead carried the death penalty in Israel, and cost King Saul his life. All attempts involve a real danger of contact with the forces of evil. Anyone who has dabbled in spiritualism or any such form of the occult is strongly advised to seek the help of a Minister. Spiritualism, mediums and séances are cruel lies and only mislead people with false hopes.
But what about “them up there”? Are our late lamented loved ones looking down on us cheering us on? Does the communion of the saints mean that the saints in heaven can see and hear us and occasionally slip us words of encouragement and comfort?
Some people understand Hebrews 12:1 that way. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
But the word “witnesses” here does not mean the saints watching from on high witnessing what we are doing. It means those believers throughout history whose lives of faith are a witness to us of God’s faithfulness. The Bible tells us there contact between this world and the next is impossible, in either direction. Jesus made this clear in His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Luke 16 25 “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. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
There can be NO contact between this world and the next, in either direction. That’s the way God has said it should be. And God knows best!
There is another very popular but equally mistaken idea about life after death. It concerns “ghosts” and other expressions of what is termed “the paranormal.” The idea is that when some people die, instead of “passing over to the other side” or on to the afterlife, they get trapped in this world and appear as “ghosts”. The idea is very popular in films and television programmes, from Casper the Friendly Ghost and Ghostbusters to my personal favourite, the comedy Randall and Hopkirk Deceased, about a private detective who was aided and abetted by his former partner who was a ghost.
The Bruce Willis film “The Sixth Sense” was repeated on television yet again on Friday night. In that story an eight year old boy called Cole has terrifying experiences. “I see dead people,” he says. “Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” (I see them) “All the time. They’re everywhere.”
The same plot device is at the heart of the film Ghost, with Patrick Swayze haunting Demi Moore. In that story, fake psychic Oda Mae Brown played by Whoopi Goldberg : explains it like this. “He’s stuck, that’s what it is. He’s in between worlds. You know it happens sometimes that the spirit gets yanked out so fast that the essence still feels it has work to do here.” Popular entertainment spreads this idea that when some people die they don’t go to heaven but they stick around on earth haunting people as “ghosts” or “restless spirits”, especially if they have some unfinished business left on earth or if they really, really loved somebody.
Many people waste their time and money looking for ghosts and chasing what they call paranormal experiences. Some go to psychics, others turn to different forms of fortune telling or magic. Again the Bible make clear that this search is both pointless and potentially very dangerous. Ghosts do not exist!
I have no doubt that some people have some very strange experiences. A number of people I know and trust have told me about very strange things they have seen and heard and felt. Those experiences can be psychological but they can also be encounters with the supernatural. The fatal mistake is to think that these ghosts and poltergeists and apparitions have anything to do with people who have died. When people do have these kinds of experiences of the supernatural, the Bible is clear that it is not the ghosts of dead people they meet. Instead it is those very real supernatural beings which the Bible calls evil spirits or demons. Over the years we have helped a number of folk whose lives had been damaged by encounters with demons, sometimes leaving them in desperate situations. The power of the name of Jesus Christ can set anyone free!
The Bible is very clear. Living people cannot communicate with dead people and we should never try. And there is no such thing as the ghosts of dead people wandering restlessly among the living. There is only the reality of evil spirits, also called demons, seeking to distract people away from God.
But for Christians, we have the wonderful hope of eternal life, life in all its fullness here and now which not even death can take away. And that life comes to all who put their trust in Him from Jesus who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” This is the Christian hope. I pray it is the hope shared by every one of us here today.

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