What Happens When You Die?
Soul Sleep or Conscious Existence?
by Dr. David R. Reagan
If several years ago you had asked me what
happens when you die, I would have given you a pathetic answer.
I would have told you that when you die your soul goes to sleep
until the Lord returns. At the return of the Lord, your soul is
resurrected and judged, and you are either consigned to Hell or
allowed to enter Heaven.
My conception of Heaven was that of a spirit
world where the saved spend eternity as disembodied spirits, floating
around on clouds, playing harps.
A Mistaken View
Needless to say, I couldn't get very excited
about all that. I sure didn't like the idea of being unconscious
in the grave for eons of time. Nor could I develop any enthusiasm
for the prospect of being a disembodied spirit with no particular
identity or personality. And the idea of playing a harp for all
eternity was downright scandalous, for I had been taught that
instrumental music in worship was an abomination!
You can imagine, therefore, the sense of
shock I felt when I started studying Bible prophecy and discovered
that all these ideas of mine about life after death were foreign
to God's Word. But my shock quickly gave way to exhilaration when
I discovered what the Lord really has in store for me.
The Biblical View
I learned from God's Word that when those
of us who are Christians die, our spirits never lose their consciousness
(Phils. 1:23). Instead, our fully conscious spirits are immediately
ushered into the presence of Jesus by His holy angels (2 Cor.
Our spirits remain in the Lord's presence
until He appears for His Church. At that time, He brings our spirits
with Him, resurrects our bodies, reunites our spirits with our
bodies, and then glorifies our bodies, perfecting them and rendering
them eternal (1 Thess 4:13-18).
We return with Him to Heaven in our glorified
bodies where we are judged for our works to determine our degrees
of rewards (2 Cor. 5:10). When this judgment is completed, we
participate in a glorious wedding feast to celebrate the union
of Jesus and His Bride, the Church (Rev. 19:7-9).
Witnesses of Glory
At the conclusion of the feast, we burst
from the heavens with Jesus, returning with Him to the earth in
glory (Rev. 19:14). We witness His victory at Armageddon, we shout
"Hallelujah!" as He is crowned King of kings and Lord
of lords, and we revel in His glory as He begins to reign over
all the earth from Mt. Zion in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:1-9; Rev. 19:17-21).
For a thousand years we participate in that
reign, assisting Him with the instruction, administration, and
enforcement of His perfect laws (Rev. 20:1-6). We see the earth
regenerated and nature reconciled (Isa. 11:6-9). We see holiness
abound and the earth flooded with peace, righteousness and justice
At the end of the Millennium we witness
the release of Satan to deceive the nations. We see the truly
despicable nature of the heart of Man as millions rally to Satan
in his attempt to overthrow the throne of Jesus. But we will shout
"Hallelujah!" again when we witness God's supernatural
destruction of Satan's armies and see Satan himself cast into
Hell where he will be tormented forever (Rev. 20:7-10).
We will next witness the Great White Throne
Judgment when the unrighteous are resurrected to stand before
God. We will see perfect holiness and justice in action as God
pronounces His terrible judgment upon this congregation of the
damned who have rejected His gift of love and mercy in Jesus Christ
Jesus will be fully vindicated as every
knee shall bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord. Then
the unrighteous will receive their just reward as they are cast
into Hell (Rev. 20:14-15).
Witnesses of a New Creation
We will then witness the most spectacular
fireworks display in all of history. We will be taken to the New
Jerusalem, the eternal mansion prepared by Jesus for His Bride,
and from there we will watch as God renovates this earth with
fire, burning away all the filth and pollution left by Satan's
last battle (2 Peter 3:12-13).
Just as the angels rejoiced when God created
the universe, we will rejoice as we watch God superheat this earth
and reshape it like a hot ball of wax into the New Earth, the
eternal earth, the paradise where we will live forever in the
presence of God (Rev. 21:1).
What a glorious moment it will be when we
are lowered to the New Earth inside the fabulous New Jerusalem
(Rev. 21:2). God will come down from Heaven to dwell with us (Rev.
21:3). He will proclaim: "Behold, I make all things new"
(Rev. 21:5) We will see God face to face (Rev. 22:4). He will
wipe away all our tears (Rev. 21:4). Death will be no more (Rev.
21:4). We will be given new names (Rev. 2:17), and we will exist
as individual personalities encased in perfect bodies (Phils.
3:21). And we will grow eternally in knowledge and love of our
infinite Creator, honoring Him with our talents and gifts.
Now, I can get excited about that!
The Word vs. Tradition
Isn't it amazing how far we can drift away
from the Word of God when we stop reading His Word and start mouthing
the traditions of men?
As I kept making one discovery after another
in God's Prophetic Word that ran contrary to what I had been taught,
I began to wonder about the origin of the doctrines I had learned.
It didn't take me long to discover that the source was Greek philosophy.
The first attempt to mix the concepts of
Greek philosophy with the teachings of God's Word came very early
in the history of the Church. The attempt was called Gnosticism.
The Gnostic heresy arose among the first Gentile converts because
they tried to Hellenize the Scriptures; that is, they tried to
make the Scriptures conform to the basic tenets of Greek philosophy.
The Greeks believed that the material universe,
including the human body, was evil. This negative view of the
creation was diametrically opposed to Hebrew thought, as revealed
in the Bible. To the Hebrew mind, the world was created good (Genesis
1:31). And even though the goodness of the creation was corrupted
by the sin of Man (Isaiah 24:5-6), the creation still reflects
to some degree the glory of God (Psalms 19:1). Most important,
the creation will someday be redeemed by God (Romans 8:18-23).
The Gnostic Heresy
When the first Gentiles were converted to
the Gospel, their Greek-mind set immediately collided with some
of the fundamental teachings of Christianity. For example, they
wondered, "How could Jesus have come in the flesh if He was
God? God is holy. How can He who is holy be encased in a body
which is evil?"
In short, because they viewed the material
universe as evil, they could not accept the Bible's teaching that
God became incarnate in the flesh. Their response was to develop
the Gnostic heresy that Jesus was a spirit being or phantom who
never took on the flesh and therefore never experienced physical
This heresy is denounced strongly in Scripture.
In 1 John 4:1-2 we are told to test those who seek our spiritual
fellowship by asking them to confess "that Jesus Christ has
come in the flesh."
The Augustinian Corruption
About 400 A.D. a remarkable theologian by
the name of St. Augustine attempted to Hellenize what the Scriptures
taught about end time events and life after death. Augustine was
very successful in his attempt. His views were adopted by the
Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. and have remained Catholic dogma
to this day.
The influence of Greek philosophy would
not allow Augustine to accept what the Bible taught about life
For example, the Bible says the saints will
spend eternity in glorified bodies on a New Earth (Revelation
21:1-7). Such a concept was anathema to the Greek mind of Augustine.
If the material world is evil, then he reasoned that the material
world must cease to exist when the Lord returns. Augustine solved
the problem by spiritualizing what the Bible said. He did this
by arguing that the "new earth" of Revelation 21 is
just symbolic language for Heaven.
Augustine's views are held by most professing
Christians today, both Catholic and Protestant. That means that
most of Christianity today teaches Greek philosophy rather than
the Word of God when it comes to the realm of end time prophecy
and life after death.
The Intermediate State
Some of the greatest confusion about life
after death relates to the intermediate state between death and
eternity. Some people advocate a concept called "soul sleep."
They argue that both the saved and unsaved are unconscious after
death until the return of Jesus.
But the Bible makes it crystal clear that
our spirit does not lose its consciousness at death. The only
thing that "falls asleep" is our body in a symbolic
sense. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that he would prefer to
be "absent from the body and at home with the Lord."
In Philippians 1:21 he observes, "For me to live is Christ
and to die is gain." He then adds in verse 23 that his desire
is "to depart and be with Christ." Paul certainly did
not expect to be in a coma after he died!
If then our spirits retain their consciousness
after death, where do they go? The Bible teaches that prior to
the resurrection of Jesus, the spirits of the dead went to a place
called Hades ("Sheol" in the Old Testament). The spirits
existed there consciously in one of two compartments, either Paradise
or Torments. This concept is pictured graphically in Jesus' story
of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).
The Bible indicates that after the death
of Jesus on the Cross, He descended into Hades and declared to
all the spirits there His triumph over Satan (1 Peter 3:18-19;
4:6). The Bible also indicates that after His resurrection, when
He ascended into Heaven, Jesus took Paradise with Him, transferring
the spirits of dead saints from Hades to Heaven (Ephesians 4:8-9
and 2 Corinthians 12:1-4). The spirits of dead saints are thereafter
pictured as being in Heaven before the throne of God (See Revelation
6:9 and 7:9).
The spirits of the righteous dead could
not go directly to Heaven before the Cross because their sins
were not forgiven. Instead, their sins were merely covered by
their faith. The forgiveness of their sins had to await the shedding
of the blood of Christ (Leviticus 17:11; Romans 5:8-9; Hebrews
Events at Death
So, what happens when you die? If you are
a child of God, your spirit is immediately ushered into the bosom
of Jesus by His holy angels. Your spirit remains in Heaven, in
the presence of God, until the time of the Rapture. When Jesus
comes for His Church, He brings your spirit with Him, resurrects
and glorifies your body, making it eternal in nature (1 Corinthians
15 and 1 Thessalonians 4). You reign with Christ for a thousand
years and then live eternally with Him on the new earth (Revelation
If you are not a child of God, then your
spirit goes to Hades at your death. This is a place of torments
where your spirit is held until the resurrection of the unrighteous
which takes place at the end of the millennial reign of Jesus.
At that resurrection you are taken before the Great White Throne
of God where you are judged by your works and then condemned to
the "second death," which is the "lake of fire"
or Hell (Revelation 20:11-15).
Preparing for Eternity
One thing is certain: "Every knee shall
bow and every tongue confess that 'Jesus is Lord!'" (Isaiah
45:23; Romans 14:11). Your eternal destiny will be determined
by when you make this confession.
If it is made before you die, then you will
spend eternity with God. If not, then you will make the confession
at the Great White Throne judgment before you are cast into Hell.
To spend eternity with God, your confession of Jesus as Lord must
be made now.
"If you confess
with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that
God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved"