The Bible doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this subject, but there’s enough information in Scripture on the one hand to comfort and encourage believers, and on the other to terrify unbelievers.
There is also enough information to dispel a number of common misconceptions about what happens at death. For instance, people who are secular in their thinking believe that when you die…that’s it. When you’re dead, you’re dead. There is no soul or spirit in man that survives the death of the body and has an ongoing, continuous, conscious existence; nor will there ever be any resurrection. Man is simply a physical being, and when his body dies that’s the end of him. When you’re dead, you’re gone…forever.
A view common among pagan peoples is that after death the soul or spirit of man roams the earth. It doesn’t go to heaven or hell, but leads a kind of shadowy, spooky existence, just hanging out, as it were, near the place where the person died, or where he was buried, or perhaps visiting the places he used to live. This is some people get the idea of ghosts. But this is a pagan notion, not a Christian view of things.
A misconception which is commonly found among Christians is that when a believer dies, he becomes an angel. But there’s absolutely no warrant in Scripture for this belief. The belief seems to have arisen from something Jesus said in answer to a question posed to him by the Sadducees about marriage after the resurrection. He said, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). But notice that he says they are like angels in heaven, not they become angels. Big difference! They are like angels. Like them how? Like them in the point in which Jesus is making the comparison. Like them in the point of marriage. The angels neither marry nor are given in marriage because there is no need for them to procreate. And the same will be true of human beings in the resurrection. God’s purpose for human procreation will have ended and so there will be no more purpose for marriage.
So what does happen to you when you die? This depends upon whether or not you’re a Christian. In the 16th chapter of Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells a story of two men. One is a poor, but faithful and humble believer. The other is rich; but he is a sinner. And Jesus says, “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” That is, he was taken to paradise, a place of comfort and peace. And Jesus says, “The rich man also died and was buried” and went to Hades and was in torment in flames (Luke 16:19-31).
It’s a frightful end for those who don’t know God and don’t love the Lord Jesus Christ. They go to hell, where they will suffer eternal torment.
Things are very different, however, for the righteous. And by the righteous the Bible means those who by faith are united to Jesus Christ and seek to live a godly live. When they die, their soul or spirit is taken to heaven while their body is laid in the grave to await the resurrection.
Paul speaks of these things in a number of his epistles. In Second Corinthians, for instance, he speaks of the Christian being taken to heaven when he dies. He says,
For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (2 Cor. 5:1).And then he adds that this is a far more preferable thing than living in this world. He says,
We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord… and we would rather be away from the body and at homeHe says this in an even more powerful way in the first chapter of Philippians. He says,
with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6, 8)
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (Phil. 1:21-23)So the picture that emerges is that at death, the body is laid in the grave, while the soul or spirit of the person is taken either to heaven or to hell, to receive either the reward of the righteous or the punishment of the wicked.
But Paul also tells us that it is not desirable, nor is it God’s intention, that we should remain disembodied spirits forever (cf. 2 Cor. 5:2-4). At death, our bodies are laid in the grave awaiting the resurrection when Christ comes again. In his testimony before the Roman governor Felix, he said, “There will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). And in his first letter to the Corinthians he says (specifically with respect to believers),
Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ (1 Cor. 15:20-23)Jesus also spoke of this when he said in John 5,
An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (Jn. 5:28-29)All the dead will be raised up again on the last day, both the righteous and the wicked. Their souls shall be reunited with the bodies. The righteous will enjoy eternal blessedness in both body and soul, and the wicked will be eternally punished in both body and soul.