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:

  1. The requests of the rich man. Would he have asked father Abraham to send someone to Earth to preach to his five brothers if there was no intermediate place for the dead (Hades also called Sheol)? In that case, the rich man would have been in Hell and Earth would have already been burned up in fervent heat (2 Peter:10), and his delinquent brothers would have already been in Hell with him.
  2. The activities of the rich man and Lazarus are depicted as going on concurrently at the time of events on Earth. This wouldn't be true if the only thing following death was judgement and then eternity. Both the rich man and Lazarus were already dead. Judgement has not yet occurred. Heaven and Hell have not yet begun for mankind.
  3. Abraham and the rich man had consciousness and awareness of what is going on around them in Hades and on Earth. This is not the same thing as a long-term, unconscious, dreamless sleep.
  4. This story in Luke 16: 19-31 is not called a parable, either at the beginning or at the end. It begins simply "There was..."
  5. The format of the teaching in Luke 16: 19-31 does not follow the format of the easily-identifiable parables of Luke 15 and the one at the beginning of Luke 16. In every case, the parable begins with a simple story about ordinary things and then is followed by an explanation of the hidden underlying meaning. The story of the rich man and Lazarus has its moral principle in the middle (the rich should be generous towards the poor) and the principle is not hidden at all.
  6. If Luke 16: 19-31 is a parable, it is the only parable that has one of its participants' names in it, Lazarus. The parables speak of "an unrighteous judge," "a certain widow," "a farmer," "a woman," etc.
  7. If Luke 16: 19-31 is a parable and there is no Hadean waiting place, Jesus lied to the thief on the cross in Luke 23: 43 "Today thou shalt be with me in Paradise, " assuming that Paradise was the pleasant waiting place that Luke described in chapter 16. There would have been no Paradise. The only place of pleasant reward would otherwise be Heaven, and that would be on the other side of Judgement Day, which has not yet occurred. Jesus did not lie to the thief on the cross or to anyone else. The thief on the cross would not have been in Heaven on that day or any day since.
  8. The interpretation that Luke 16: 19-31 is literal enables other passages about the afterlife to be interpreted without difficulty. When King Saul had the witch of Endor call up Samuel (i Samuel 28:11), the place from which Samuel came could easily be interpreted as Paradise. Hence, Samuel's complaint, "Why have you bothered me?" If Samuel was in Tartarus, he wouldn't have minded the interruption. If he was in a state of long silent sleep until after the Judgement, how would anyone have called him up? How would he have had any awareness of what was going on in Saul's world, as Samuel did?
  9. The existence of the Hadean world readily enables the explanation of the resurrection of the other Lazarus in the Gospel of John, chapter 11.
  10. The existence of the Hadean world more easily explains the resurrections of many after Christ's death in Matthew 27. They were called from the Hadean world as a sign to people at the time of Jesus' death, and eventually faced death again.
  11. The existence of the Hadean world simplifies the account of the raising of the ruler's dead daughter in Matthew 9: 23-26. Jesus did not reach across an eventual Judgement Day to reach the daughter, but "only" into the waiting place of the dead.
  12. The existence of the Hadean world is lastly verified at the time of the Judgement (Revelation 20: 11-15). Death and Hades will be cast into Hell at that time. If Hades did not exist, it couldn't be cast into the Lake of Fire.

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.