What Happens When a Person Dies?


Our family enjoyed Christmas vacation 2011 in Cordova Alaska with my mother in law, Susan.  She serves in the Cordova Community Baptist Church, the place where her late husband Richard pastored for 25 years and her son John pastored for 10 years.  She is deeply loved and respected and provides Bible knowledge and compassion to the Christians there.  Many people recently have asked her “what happens when a person dies?” and she posed the question to me.  Operating from the Christian context and under the assumption of the reliability of the Bible as the word of God, I will address it.

The evidence of what happens after death is sparse in the Old Testament and more complete in the New Testament.  The first question is what is the nature of man?  Biologically it is clear that the body deteriorates after death and its elements are taken up to be used by other living organisms.  If humans are merely physical it is hard to deny the fact that after death we simply cease to exist.  There is no other option.  Some may argue that we are reincarnated, but reincarnation presupposes that there is something in us besides the matter and energy that forms our bodies.  If we are nothing more than the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements that are our building blocks, there is nothing to reincarnate.

If humans are a combination of physical and spiritual (material and immaterial) elements then while the body recycles to be used by another, the spiritual part either dies with the body or remains somewhere.

The Nature of Man – a hybrid of Material and Immaterial

Passage Notes
Genesis 2:7 God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him and he became a living soul (נפש nephesh – life, person, mind, living being).  This “breath of God” suggests that man has a non-material element
Job 32:8 There is a spirit (רוח ruwach – breath, wind, spirit) in man
Matthew 10:28 Do not fear him who can only kill the body but fear Him who can cast the soul into hell
Luke 1:46-47 In Mary’s Magnificat, she mentioned her soul (ψυχή psychē) and spirit (πνεῦμα pneuma)
Romans 8:16 The Spirit of God bears witness with our spirit
1 Thessalonians 5:23 Spirit (πνεῦμα pneuma), soul (ψυχή psychē) and body (σῶμα sōma) be preserved blameless
Hebrews 4:12 Word of God separates body and soul

The Old Testament passages suggest that the Hebrews seemed to have a vague concept of man having material and immaterial parts but saw man as essentially inseparable, with the body residing in Sheol (the grave) after death until it finally deteriorated into nothing.  Until late in the OT there is little concept of a bodily resurrection.  The fate of the immaterial part of man is not clear in the OT.  The New Testament Scriptures clearly describe the material and immaterial aspects of the man. Even the words of Jesus Himself teach that man has a body and a soul.

What Happens After Death

Passage Notes
Job 19:25-26 After my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh (בשר basar) I will see God
Psalm 16:9-11 God will not let His Holy One rot in the grave
Psalm 49:13-15 God will redeem His people from the realm of the dead
Isaiah 26:19 Your people have died but they will live again
Ezekiel 37:1-14 God took Ezekiel to the valley of dry bones and made the men live again.  This directly referred to the restoration of Israel but also implied the resurrection of the body.
Daniel 12:2 Many people who have already died will live again
Hosea 6:1-2 The people will be raised after two days.  This was also a prophecy of Christ.
Matthew 25:31-46 At the final judgment both the sheep and the goats will stand before God.
Mark 9:2-9 The Transfiguration
Luke 16:19-31 A rich man and a poor man (Lazarus) both die.  The rich man went to hell (ᾅδης hadēs) and saw Lazarus in heaven.
Luke 23:32-43 Jesus told the thief on the cross “Today you will be with Me in paradise.”
John 20, 21
1 Corinthians 15:12-58 One of the longest Bible passages on resurrection
2 Corinthians 5:8 To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord
Philippians 1:23 I desire to depart and be with Christ
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 The resurrection of the dead in rapture
Hebrews 9:27 It is appointed for a man once to die and then comes judgment

Both the Old and New Testament teach that the dead will be raised again, both the righteous and the unrighteous, but the NT teaching is much clearer.  The clearest proof that our bodies will be raised again is that Jesus’ body was raised again.  Therefore we may conclude that man is composed of both material and immaterial parts (body and spirit/soul).  He may have body, spirit and soul (three parts) but that question is not the focus of this work.  After the body dies it will eventually be reconstituted and raised again to eternal life, either with the Lord (which is Paradise) or without Him.  According to the Scriptures, reincarnation is not an option.

But what of the immaterial part of man?  Based on the Scriptures above we can be confident that the immaterial part of man is not destroyed with the body; it is immortal.  After physical death the immaterial part of each follower of Jesus goes immediately to be with the Lord and await the reunification with its body at the resurrection.  The immaterial part of those who do not know the Lord will be separated from the Lord and await the reunification with its body at the resurrection.  When the material and immaterial parts are reunited, each man will stand complete (body and spirit) before God to undergo judgment.  Those who accepted the Lord in this life will get their wish.  They will go into eternity with God. Those who rejected the Lord in this life will also get their wish.  They will go into eternity without Him.

One other note.  There seems to be a rumor circulating that people will be unrecognizable in heaven; therefore family members and spouses will not even know each other.  This is not biblical.  Peter recognized Moses and Elijah at the mount of the Transfiguration, the rich man recognized Lazarus and the disciples recognized Jesus after His resurrection.

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