What do Christians believe about death? What happens next? Let’s explore these questions together by taking the whole experience, step by step.
First of all, death itself. Christianity teaches that death is not natural to the human race—that God did not originally intend for people to be mortal and die. Nor did he intend for people to get sick, to be injured, or to have their bodies simply wear out. All of that is the result of evil intruding into God’s good creation (which you can read more about here). But what it means to us now is that something has gone very wrong with our world and with the universe as a whole, and one of the ways it shows itself is in death. This experience is now universal (bar a couple of very strange miraculous cases mentioned in the Old Testament—see Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2). Even God himself died, when he took on human nature as the man Jesus Christ.
This means that all Christians must expect to die and prepare for that experience. One of the ways we do that (besides the ordinary things like making a will, talking to family, and so forth) is by being in a trusting relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the one who died on our behalf; he is also the one who rose from the dead and will never die again. For both those reasons, he is the one we want to stick to as closely as possible, especially when it comes to experiencing our own death. What better guide or protector could we have?
We are not guaranteed an easy or painless death; nowhere in the Bible does God say that he will protect us from these kinds of suffering the rest of the human race has to undergo. And so you may hear of Christians dying protracted or terribly painful deaths. This doesn’t invalidate our faith at all, because we have been warned to expect suffering in life. If we avoid it at the time of death, that is reason to be glad and give thanks; if we don’t, well, that’s no fun, but we still trust that God will be with us and uphold us.
Once we are dead, several things happen. Our bodies remain behind, cooling and shutting down over a period of hours, just as all human bodies do. Our families will probably arrange for a funeral or cremation of sorts, depending on circumstances and what we had planned before we died. Some may donate organs so that others may live. Other people may donate their entire bodies to science or to a teaching hospital where doctors are trained. While different groups within Christianity have different opinions about certain issues (such as cremation vs. burial), all of us agree that our deaths, like our lives, ought to honor God and serve our fellow human beings. We are also all agreed that there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to our bodies that will in any way stop God from doing what he wants with us as people at any time—so it doesn’t finally matter if someone insults or mistreats our bodies, if we are eaten by sharks or burned up with fire, or if we are given a funeral service from another religion or no funeral at all. Ultimately, none of these things can do us permanent harm. God has us in his keeping, and he will do what he wants with us going forward.
What about the rest of us, the non-physical part of us? For the rest of this article, I’m going to use the term “spirit” to describe this. At the time of death, a Christian’s spirit goes to be with Christ. Some people describe this as being “in paradise” or “in heaven” (though it’s not the cartoony idea of turning into angels with halos and sitting on clouds! That isn’t in the Bible at all.) There is some disagreement about what exactly this means, except that we know it is a good place to be (How could it be otherwise, if we are with Jesus?) and it is also temporary—only meant to last until the general resurrection at the end of the world. More on that later.
During this temporary period, we are able to think, talk, and be with other people. We do not have our bodies, so this is sort of a halfway house for us—God intends us to get those bodies back some day—but it is still a very good existence, because we are with Christ. What’s more, we are finally free from the problem of sin—that is, the infection of evil that torments every human being to some extent while living. There is no more temptation or guilt for us, no more urge to do wrong, no more frustration like we had while living, when we wanted to do right but often couldn’t force ourselves to do it—or at least, not as perfectly as we wanted. All of that mess is gone now. It passed when we died.
Anyway, this temporary situation lasts until the time Christians refer to as “Jesus’ second coming,” “the end of the world,” “the general resurrection,” or “judgement day.” This is the time when God concludes human history and begins a new chapter in the history of everything. This time has so many names because there are several events that happen together. We’ll take these one at a time.
“Jesus’ second coming” refers to a promise Jesus made just before his death, and again, after his resurrection. He indicated that he was going to be going away, and that he would return. Since his return to heaven, Christians around the world have been waiting for his return. The catch is, we don’t know the time or date for this to happen. Jesus was very clear that nobody was going to be able to figure it out, and we should not waste our time guessing. When he really DOES return, it will not be a secret. Nobody will be confused or unsure. Everyone everywhere will know it.
This is Act One of what we sometimes call “the end of the world.” “The end of the world” pretty much means exactly what it says, except it applies not only to this world (planet Earth) but to all of creation as we know it. This universe isn’t going to last forever. At some unknown date, God is going to recreate it—perhaps we could call it Creation 2.0. The new creation will resemble the old in many ways, but it will differ in others—and the biggest difference from our point of view is that there will be no more evil, sin, guilt, or death. All of that will be gone.
But before humanity can enter that new creation, there’s some clean-up work to do. First comes “the general resurrection,” when Jesus raises everybody, good and bad, from the dead. All of humanity will wake on that day—even the ones who have been dead for thousands of years, even those whose bodies have been utterly and completely destroyed, even those whose molecules and atoms have been recycled into other plants and animals and people. God can deal with it. It is no problem to him. (And this, incidentally, is the reason why Christians don’t need to be paranoid about what happens to their bodies after death. Nothing can prevent God from resurrecting us, so we can relax.)
How exactly will we rise as Christians? What will our bodies be like? The Bible gives us hints and promises, but no straight-out, absolutely clear description. We do know that we will still be human—we don’t morph into angels or anything. We stay the species God made us to be. We also know that there will be no more evil or suffering or pain, because these bodies are meant for God’s new creation. So things like cancer and heart disease? Gone. Nor will there be any more death.
For the rest, we mostly make our guesses on the basis of Jesus’ own resurrected body and what people saw him do. He was capable of eating, and people could touch him and he was clearly solid. But he was also capable of walking into a room without bothering to open the door. He appears to have been able to appear and disappear as he chose, and could be somewhere miles away without having to walk the distance. There was also something odd going on with people’s ability to recognize him—sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t at first, and we don’t know if that’s just because they weren’t expecting a dead man to turn up alive again, or if it means there’s something unusual about the resurrected body. Never mind. We’ll find out.
But getting back to the “general resurrection” (which has that name so we don’t mix it up with Jesus’ own resurrection, which came first and is a foretaste of ours). The general resurrection is followed by God’s judgement. The Bible pictures this as every human being appearing before God to receive his verdict: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10). Frankly, this is scary. There is no human being who can hope to survive that inspection on our own merits—the standard is perfection, and we just don’t measure up. Christians know this. We believe we’ll survive that examination, not because we’re good people (we’re not), but because Jesus’ death and resurrection have created a change in our standing before God.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. The central teaching of Christianity is that God became a human being, Jesus Christ; and that he lived, suffered, died, and came back to life again as a human being—all of this in order to defeat the powers of evil and rescue the human race. In terms of judgement, this means changing us from guilty, scared defendants in God’s court to people who have been declared “not guilty”—because Jesus has already dealt with all of our evil and wrongdoing. He has taken it away from us through his death on the cross. He has made us a new creation, people of God. And so when God judges us, we are found “not guilty”—not because we are wonderful people, but purely because Jesus has done this for us. And not just for us, but for the whole human race, for anyone who will trust him and take up his offer of forgiveness and new life. It’s open to everybody.
So while judgement day is a big, scary deal, we believe Jesus will bring us through it. And beyond that lies all of eternity in the new heavens and earth God is creating—where there will be no more suffering or death or evil or shame. We will know true freedom and happiness for the first time. And we will enjoy our lives with God and with one another, and with all creation, together.
Will it be boring? No way! Again, the Bible isn’t super-detailed about what it’s going to be like, but we do know that we’re going to be with other people—so there’s a social aspect. We will have pleasure—some of the images Jesus uses to describe this life include banquets and parties. We will apparently have responsibilities and even work of some sort; but the curse that lies on human work now will be removed. Think of the times when you’re really “in the moment” with your work—when you feel “flow”—when you’re at the top of your game, doing something you love to the absolute best of your ability, and it’s working! Now multiply that feeling by a zillion. That’s something like what we have to look forward to. And we will have “glory”—that is, we will hold honorable positions in God’s creation, and will never have to worry about being outsiders or unwanted or put to shame anymore.
In short, it’s going to be great.