Last updated on October 31st, 2019
What happens when a Christian dies? If you grew up sitting in the pews of a church, I’m guessing you grew up believing when a Christian dies they either go straight to heaven or straight to hell. That was something I believed growing up too. But have you ever looked to see what the Bible says on life after death? If we look for the answers there, we might be surprised to find that it’s not as obvious as we’ve always been taught.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-16
1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 states “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. 15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13-16 Context
Now in the beginning, it seems Paul is trying to comfort Christians who are grieving those who’ve died. He appears to be reminding they have hope, unlike those who aren’t Christians who have no hope. And the basis of that hope is Jesus. if Christians believe Jesus died and rose again, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. We can perhaps reasonably conclude that fallen asleep in this verse is referencing death. It was mentioned in relation with Jesus having died and risen. And the verses later in this passage confirm this.
Then Paul expresses to the Christian Thessalonians that those alive in Christ will not precede those who have fallen asleep. The next verse is very important to think about in relation to what happens when a Christian dies. Paul writes the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God. Then the dead in Christ will rise first.
The first thing I’d like you to notice is that it says the Lord Himself will descend from heaven. What is the location Jesus came from when he descended? Heaven. Then after discussing the sounds that will be heard, the verse mentions the dead in Christ will rise first. So if Jesus is coming down from heaven, and the dead in Christ are going to rise, where were the dead in Christ located? We’ll discuss more on that later, but let me ask you a different question. Where were the dead in Christ not located? If Jesus is coming down from heaven, and the dead in Christ are going to rise, that would suggest they’re not heaven in already. If so, this debunks one of the biggest assumptions in church teaching. That Christians don’t go straight to heaven when they die.
This begins what I’m going to lay out as a challenge to your beliefs on what happens when a Christian dies. Let’s move on to the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.
Luke 16:22-23 states “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.
Luke 16:22-23 Meaning
Prior to these verses, Jesus spoke to the disciples about a rich man who joyously lived in splendor. Lazarus, a poor man, was longing to be fed crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table. Jesus gives a vivid description detailing the dogs were licking the sores on Lazarus. So all of that leads up to this section of the passage. Lazarus died and went to Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man died, was buried, and went to Hades.
Some argue that Abraham’s Bosom is a metaphor for heaven. If Abraham is in heaven, then obviously that would be where Lazarus went after he died. Though I don’t see that as a definitive conclusion where Christians are, given that Lazarus was not a Christian. This passage is prior to when the first people became Christians. Acts 2:41 states, “41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand [an]souls.”
Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:8
Some people point out these verses as proof that what happens when a Christian dies is they go to straight to heaven. Philippians 1:23 states, “But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;” 2 Corinthians 5:8 states, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” At first glance this looks like strong evidence that we as Christians will be with Christ in heaven as soon as we die. But I suggest to you that the context tells a different story.
Philippians 1:23 Context
Philippians 1:21-23 states, “21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 [s]But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know [t]which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;”
Notice in verse 21 and 22, Paul refers to himself with the words “me” and “I”. And in verse 23, he speaks of himself departing to be with Christ. He never mentions that Christians will depart to be with Christ after death.
2 Corinthians 5:8 Context
2 Corinthians 5 is a little bit more challenging to point out who the pronouns are referring to. But there is a section of this chapter after verse 8 that helps us.
2 Corinthians 5:6-12 states “6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— 7 for we walk by faith, not by [c]sight— 8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for [d]his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences. 12 We are not again commending ourselves to you but are giving you an occasion to be proud of us, so that you will have an answer for those who take pride in appearance and not in heart.”
In verse 11, it’s clear that Paul refers to himself and Timothy (read 2 Corinthians 1:1). Paul hopes for himself and Timothy to be made manifest in the consciences of the Corinthians Christians. Verse 12, “we” refers to them again as Paul writes that they’re not commending themselves to them. They’re hoping for the Corinthian Christians to be proud of them (Paul and Timothy) to answer those who take pride in appearance.
So with this understanding, it must be at least considered whether verse 8 is Paul and Timothy referring to themselves as well. The only place where you could reasonably conclude “we” is referring to Christians is verse 10. Verse 10 states, “10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for [d]his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Notice that Paul wrote “all”. He went out of his way to be clear that he was stating something specific to Christians as a whole. So you have to question if it’s the case verse 8 refers to Christians in general, would Paul not have gone out of his way to make sure that distinction was clear. In addition, one has to ponder on the word “I” that is in verse 8.
Reading verse 8 again, Paul wrote, “we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord”. The placement of the word “I” to indicate he’s speaking for himself would seem to further suggest he’s speaking for himself and Timothy about him preferring to be absent from the body and present with the Lord, and not Christians as a whole. And it should be kept in mind that we’ve already seen in Philippians how Paul was referring to himself on that point.
This understanding of both verses in Philippians and 2 Corinthians would seem to fit with what we read in 1 Thessalonians 4:16.
So what actually happens when a Christian dies?
I’ve been giving you reasons to question whether heaven is the answer to what happens when a Christian dies. But I haven’t given you an alternative conclusion yet. I can only tell you what the text already tells us. Beyond that, everything else I could tell you would just be speculation. What we know is what 1 Thessalonians 4:16 told us. Jesus will come down from heaven with a shout, the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Some argue the dead is just referring to the bodies of those who have passed, and the souls are already in heaven. My response to that would be if that’s the case, wouldn’t Paul have specifically detailed that. I see that conclusion as taking an extra step of speculation beyond what the text specifically states.
I think the answer to what immediately happens when a Christian dies is we don’t know. There’s a timeline between death and dead in Christ rising that isn’t specifically detailed in the text. And what has happened over time is people inserted the story of Lazarus, or the words of Paul, to fill in the hole of that timeline. But as we read through the different verses on those subjects, the context seems to suggest that those verses about Lazarus being with Abraham, and Paul talking about longing to be present with the Lord aren’t specifically referring to Christians as a whole.
The only question I think we have the answer to is this question. What will eventually happen after a Christian dies? And the answer to that is they will rise from the dead when Christ descends from heaven. And for us who are alive, 1 Thessalonians 4:17-18 states, “17 Then we who are alive [n]and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
Any thoughts, questions, or comments are welcome. If this post really made you think, I’d appreciate if you would share this across your social media. Click one of the “Share:” buttons below. Peace to all those who are in Christ.