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What Happens When You Die?

The other week my mother died and we have just had the funeral yesterday. Things like this make you ponder our mortality and my mind turned to this question. As a follower of Jesus I don’t fear death but events like this do make you wonder. My mother never professed faith in Jesus so I don’t feel I can I rejoice that she’s gone to a better place in the way that I would when celebrating the death of someone who shared my faith. But is it as simple as Christians go to heaven and non-Christians go to hell? That’s the question I’m wrestling with here.

Some who claim near death experiences believe that they have received a glimpse of the afterlife. A recent popular book Heaven Is For Real tells one little boy’s account of his near death experience. You can read Scott Lencke’s review of this book here. The BBC documentary The Day I Died gives the best case I have seen for these being more than just physiological phenomena of the brain where someone recounts conversations in an operating room that they could not possibly have heard as they were clinically dead. Could it really be that when we die we become a disembodied spirit and journey to a place of light and meet our departed relatives? Does the Bible agree with this?

Do Christians go to heaven?

Unfortunately I don’t think the Bible is as clear about this as people think. A lot of what people think about heaven and hell come from the book of Revelation which is a very symbolic book. I tend to view it as a prophecy mainly about the experiences of the early Christians on the earth. For example I would take the image of New Jerusalem with its streets paved with gold and gates made of pearls to be a symbolic picture of the church rather than a literal picture of heaven.

The Bible refers to death as going to sleep. There is also the phrase that Paul used about death: ‘to go to be with the Lord which is far better’. This has led others to think that we become disembodied spirits with believers in some form of bliss with God awaiting the resurrection of our bodies. This is probably what people mean when they talk about going to heaven.

God is gracious so doesn’t everyone go to a better place?

Jesus’ message of grace exposes the myth that it is good people who get there and the bad will be punished in hell. Jesus makes the point that being religious is certainly not a guarantee of eternal life and in fact reading the gospels it would appear that the sinners have a better chance. Eternal life is given to those who believe in and follow Jesus.

But what of those who never professed any belief in Jesus or the gospel? One traditional understanding is that they will burn for ever in hell as they continue under God’s wrath and judgment. But there is a minority view that everyone is eventually accepted be God and welcomed into his presence.

Jesus claimed to be the only way to God. In The Evangelical Universalist the author sees people coming to God through the Christian gospel. But he argues that they are given a second chance after death and so make it through the fires of hell out the other side. This book makes an excellent case for this from the scriptures and so I would not say that this is an unchristian view, however I am not quite convinced by it.

So do unbelievers go to hell then?

In one chapter of the book Essentials the leading evangelical author John Stott pointed out that the idea of the immortal soul is really from Greek philosophy rather than from the Bible. He said that God gives immortality to believers. He saw hell as real, but he argued for it being the final destruction of the unbelievers not their everlasting torment. Personally I would tend to agree with this. The book on this that I am yet to read is the Fire that Consumes by Edward Fudge.

What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?

The best answer to this that I have heard is that God judges people on the revelation that they have received. There are some who may have reached out to God but not known of Jesus, the Bible or the gospel of grace as we would understand it. I am inclined to agree that if someone has reached out to God in this way and not rejected God’s grace in Jesus then they receive eternal life with God.

But what of those who reject the gospel?

I must say that there is a real danger of dying without God and going to a lost eternity. But I would add that there is always the possibly of someone accepting the gospel right up to their last conscious moment. They may not get the opportunity to verbalise this but I am convinced that God still forgives.

Ultimately we cannot know in this life exactly what it will be like in the next. All I can say is that I do believe that there is an eternal reward for those who do follow Jesus. For those, like my mum, who have never made such a decision I wouldn’t be so quick to pronounce their fate either way.

October 26, 2011 at 6:00 pm
2 comments »
  • December 1, 2011 at 7:35 amGordon Hazelton

    Hi David
    Just read a really good book ‘Surprised by Hope’ by Tom Wright.

    • December 2, 2011 at 12:07 pmDavid Derbyshire

      I have read some of Tom Wright and I am very impressed with what he says.

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