When a Christian dies, what happens next?

by Pastor Jim Feeney, Ph.D.

Summary: My wife’s recent death prompted me to take comfort from the Scriptures that speak of the immediate and glorious entrance into heaven of those who die in faith in Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastes 12:6-7  Remember him — before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, [7] and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

•• At death, the body returns to the dust and the spirit returns to God who gave it, for allocation to the appropriate destination.
• Various Scriptures make it clear that God, in His infinite wisdom and His perfect balance of justice and mercy, determines the destination for the spirit of the deceased person — that is, heaven or hell (for example: Luke 16:19-31; 2 Corinthians 5:1; Acts 7:55-59; Colossians 1:5; Revelation 1:18; Matthew 10:28; 23:33; 2 Peter 2:4-6, 9).

2 Corinthians 5:1, 6-8  Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.... [6] Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.... [8] We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.

Vs. 8, KJV  We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.

•• When the “earthly tent we live in [our body] is destroyed, we [believers, vs. 7] have...an eternal house in heaven.”

•• Note, too, that to be “away from the body [is for the deceased believer to be...] at home with the Lord.”
• I like the King James way of translating that verse. It tells us that, for the believer who dies, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

• When Christians die, we go to be “with the Lord”.

• Then we are “at home”. Heaven, in the Lord’s presence, is our real home! Not this earth.

• [Edit: On March 13, 2010, my beloved wife of 38 years died and experienced the fulfillment of these verses. Having served the Lord all of her adult life, she is now “present with the Lord” in heaven. It is that thought that sustains my family and me in our time of grieving.]

Philippians 1:22-24  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! [23] I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; [24] but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

•• For a believer, it is “better by far” to die. Why? —
“To depart [this life is to...] be with Christ in heaven.

• Remember, heaven is better by far than this world.

Acts 7:55-59; 8:2  But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. [56] “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” [57] At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, [58] dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. [59] While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” ... [8:2] Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him.

•• “Seeing” our heavenly home from earth nullifies the fear of death, even violent death.

•• Note: Stephen correctly expected his spirit to go immediately to the Lord’s presence in heaven, and his body was buried [8:2]. This confirms the main point of this study — that is, when a Christian dies, although the deceased’s body is buried, his or her spirit returns to God in heaven. I take great comfort from that fact. Although my late wife’s bodily remains are buried in Centralia, Washington, she (her soul and spirit) is consciously living and present with the Lord in heaven.

Revelation 6:9-11  When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar [in heaven] the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. [10] They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” [11] Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.

•• This is a heavenly scene — the souls of the martyrs are seen in God’s direct presence, alive and well, alert and communicating.
• They were not, as some erroneously believe, in some type of “soul sleep”.

• They were conscious. They were aware. They experienced thoughts and emotions. They were in the Lord’s presence and able therefore to ask Him a question (“How long...?”).

Luke 23:39-43  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” [40] But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? [41] We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” [42] Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [43] Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, Today you will be with me in paradise.”

•• That very day of his death (“Today,” Jesus said), the repentant thief would be “with [Jesus] in paradise.”
• Remember, [Ecclesiastes 12:7] “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

• It was even so with Jesus Himself. At the moment of death He cried out (vs. 46), “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Then He died, and His body was buried. But He expected His spirit to go to the “hands”, to the presence, of God the Father that very day (Today ... with me in paradise”).

• When a Christian dies, he or she goes directly, that very day, into the presence of God in heaven.

• Take note that it was the repentant thief, not the unrepentant one, who was promised that he would be with Jesus in paradise.

Hebrews 12:22-24  But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, [23] to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, [24] to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

•• In “the heavenly Jerusalem” all our incompleteness and imperfections are left behind as “the spirits of righteous men [are] made perfect.”
• We are made righteous in God’s sight while still on earth through our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His saving sacrifice on the cross for us. Our spirits are perfected upon our entrance into heaven and into the presence of God.

Summary of what happens when a Christian dies:

1) The body returns to the dust of the earth it came from.

2) The soul and spirit return to God in heaven.

3) Now absent from the body, we are present with the Lord.

4) We join the company of the “spirits of righteous men made perfect”.

5) And our being with the Lord in heaven is, as Paul said, better by far. And there the faithful who have died await the eventual, glorious day of the Second Coming of Jesus to the earth and the resurrection of and impartation of life to our then-to-be-glorified bodies.

“...And so shall we ever be with the Lord”
(1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, KJV)

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©2002, James H. Feeney. Copyright statement.