Does the Bible tell us what actually happens when we die?

I like to think that when I die, I’ll be in heaven immediately. I like to think it will be as C. S. Lewis describes the new Narnia at the end of The Last Battle – so wonderful that the unicorn exclaims “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.”

It is in this new Narnia that, as Lewis writes, “this is the end of all the stories, and we can truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

It’s a nice dream. It’s non-specific but it’s positive and makes me feel comfortable. I like to think of it as the scene we don’t see after the hero and heroine have won the day in the movies – the lights fade to blackout and behind the rolling credits is an eternal scene of peace, harmony and happiness.

People want specificity though. Whole papers and books have been written about what happens when you die. Not the general “going to heaven” bit, the actual literal nuts and bolts of what happens.

One of the passages of the Bible which seems to give us some glimpses is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This passage has been the basis of many explorations and provide the foundations of some interesting theological twists including “the rapture”. This is the idea that all believers who are still alive when the Lord comes at the last day, will be snatched up into the sky. We see it in various forms in the movies and is a pretty new idea (the 19th century). 1 Thessalonians is also the only place this idea really exists. In fact there a many of the “nuts and bolts” that only appear here.

People being “raptured” in the 2013 film, This is the End

Apart from that, this passage seems to raise more questions than it answers – when we die, do we fall asleep first? Does that mean we are somewhere else before we go to heaven? Or does “sleep” just mean “die”? There appears to be an order: the dead believers go first then the alive believers. So what happens to the dead non-believers? Are they asleep too? Or are they already in hell?

And here’s the problem. If we look for specificity, this passage just doesn’t give enough information to answer the questions that we have. It is not a science book or a blow-by-blow account of what will happen.

So what is it? Are the tiny glimpses and micro-details the point of this passage?

The beginning and the end of the passage give us some clues as to what Paul is communicating here. The passage starts with Paul saying he doesn’t want the Thessalonians to be uninformed about those believers who have already died. Remember, this is a very early Christian community. Paul is writing this letter around 15 years after Christ’s crucifixion. Many believers thought that Christ might return within their own lifetimes and so the fledgling community in Thessaloniki are understandably worried that their dead brothers and sisters will miss out. So Paul is wanting to comfort them that their brothers and sisters will be with the Lord also.

The end is also telling. “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.”

Let’s look back over the passage and pick out everything that is encouraging.

The encouragements are:

  • We don’t need to grieve for the death of our believing brothers and sisters (v13);
  • We have hope in the face of death (v13);
  • We have a solid and sure foundation for our hope because we know Jesus died and rose again (v14);
  • We will all be together, those who have already died and those of us still living when the Lord comes (v14);
  • This is not secret knowledge. This will happen according to God’s word which he has communicated to us. Our destination has been made known to us and confirmed multiple times (v15), and therefore;
  • We know where we are going (v15-16);
  • The Lord himself will bring us to him (v16);
  • We will be with God for eternity (v17).

That’s quite a list.

I talked about this in my Bible study group and two things really struck me. First, everyone was interested in the nuts and bolts because its in the Bible and we care about what’s in the Bible. But not a single person really cared about the nuts and bolts. Second, because of the person from whom the communication and promises come, not a single person felt anxiety about death. The nuts and bolts don’t matter because we know where we are going and who we are going to be with. And thats the point of this passage.

We can over think things sometimes. We can go down rabbit holes and chase the details. Sometimes we just need to sit back and see what the bigger picture is. Paul is not describing the nuts and bolts. He’s encouraging his worried church and he is reminding them of what is true and encouraging.

For me, in the midst of life that can change and flip and present an endless list of things to worry about, this list of encouragements puts many things into perspective. My life is small. My God is great. What awaits me with him is wonderful. It will be my home.

I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include one on the Transfiguration and one on Leviticus which appears to outline the value of women that is less than a man. If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!