Keep Your Eye on the Prize
What happens when we die?
The graphic below from the New Testament, American Standard Version, by Star Bible Publications of Burlington, Vermont in 1900 says it well:
Man comes into the world by birth. His days are described as being few and full of trouble (Job 14: 1). After mankind sinned in the garden, he was not allowed to live forever (Genesis 3: 19). Even before the time of the flood, God decided to begin limiting the time of man upon the earth to 120 years on the average (Genesis 6: 3; see the shorter lifespans commencing in Genesis 11). Later, God limited the average life span to seventy years (Psalms 90:10 "The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away"). Throughout all of history, only two people have managed to leave this earth without passing through the portal called death, those being Enoch (Genesis 5: 24) and Elijah (2 Kings 12: 1-13). Death is something we all face and we might as well get ready for it.
There are three states of man while in this world: safe, saved, and lost. Infants are nowhere given instructions about what they should do for their salvation. Rather they are depicted as innocent (Matthew 18: 3; Matthew 19: 4; Mark 10: 14). They have no way to "work out [their] own salvation in fear and trembling" as adults have been commanded to (Philippians 2: 12). They have no way to hear (Romans 10: 17), believe (Mark 16: 16), repent (Acts 2: 38), confess Jesus as Lord (Acts 8: 37), or be baptized in order to receive remission from their sins (Acts 2: 38; Matthew 28: 19; Mark 16: 16; Acts 16: 30-34; Acts 22: 16). They are not old enough yet to know right from wrong or old enough yet to know the guilt and sting of sin. Infants are safe. They are taken directly to Paradise if they die young.
It is difficult to generalize about when young people become accountable for their sins. But the above commands about the personal responsibility of each of us when we are old enough to be pricked in our hearts (Acts 2: 37) by the preaching of the Gospel must be heeded. At some point the young person is living in the world and has become "of the world." He or she has taken on a carnal or earthy nature (see the discussion at 1 Corinthians 2: 14- 3: 3). The untaught of the world and those that have been taught but have not obeyed the Gospel are lost (Mark 16: 15, 16; 2 Thesssalonians 1: 6-10). If a lost person dies in that state, he will go (see the graphic) from a world of sin, ignorance, and the kingdom of Satan through death and to the place of torments that is described in Luke 16: 19-31. The place of torment will be where the lost person will remain until time to appear before the judgement seat of God (2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20: 12-15). There, the lost person will receive the final sentence of eternal life to be spent away from God. God is love (1 John 4:8 "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.") From the earlier reading of 2 Thessalonians 1: 9 ("They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might") it can be seen that God won't be in Hell. How miserable will be the fate of those who chose to live in Hell forever so as to be with a loving parent, mate, grandparent, or friend! Hell won't be a place for a friendly family reunion! Since God will be gone from there, love will be gone from there! It's like the rich man of Luke 16 said: "Tell my brothers not to come to this place!" The backsliders (see all of 2 Peter chapter 2) and hypocrites will be in this group also, so we musn't let them get between us and God. And lest anyone think that he might "slip off" from Tartarus to Paradise while no one was looking, there is a "great gulf fixed" between the two to prevent that. Where the person "lifts up his eyes" (Luke 16: 23) immediately after death will tell the story of his fate for the rest of eternity. It is as if the jury has already met and now all that remains is the judge's assessment of the total reward or penalty. Those vary (Luke 12: 47, 48).
The saved are those who have heard God's word and have done what it said to do. "And why call ye me 'Lord, Lord' and do not the things which I say?" Jesus said in Luke 6: 46. Already they were separated from the way the world lived while they were upon the earth (1 John 4: 4-7). Their interests were not primarily in worldly things, but rather spiritual ones (1 John 2: 15-17). They let their way of living be transformed by their walk with Christ (Romans 12: 1,2; Hebrews 12: 1,2). When they died, they were translated into the place called Paradise, the waiting place of the righteous dead. It is a place described as being in Abraham's bosom. It is a place near or in Heaven (Revelation 6: 9-11) where saints are comforted until the earth has run its course and judgement occurs. Paradise is a place where God is (same passage).
Tartarus or the place of torments is a place of remembrance--sad remembrance for the missed and forfeited opportunities to do what was right while on Earth. (Luke 16: 25ff). From this passage it appears that Tartarus is much more a place of remembrance (of the wicked and for their wickedness) than Paradise. This is consistent with the teaching of Revelation 21: 4 that "God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." It is true that Revelation 6 speaks of the martyers under the altar who knew that judgement had not yet come and they had not been avenged, but there is little evidence that the righteous dead have much awareness of the problems going on back on Earth. To do so might take away from the richness of the Paradise experience. Jesus mentioned Paradise to the thief on the cross (Luke 23: 43).
Back to the original question: What happens at death? Despite quite a number of reports about people in near-death experiences, people truly die only once (Hebrews 9: 27). The effect is that of closing each individual's book. No more can be written in our books once death occurs. One cannot do a better job of being a good steward of his talents once that book is closed (Matthew chapter 25). THAT's why each of us needs to be getting ready for the day we leave Earth.
Postscript: The question sometimes arises about whether the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is a parable or whether it is literal. If the story is a parable, there may be no Hadean world, the unseen place of the dead. Evidence that points in the direction of it being literal includes:
The prescription for how to live is identical whether we believe in the existence of Paradise and Tartarus or not: Live in Christ Jesus, and one day die in Christ Jesus. Keep your eye on the prize.