Over my years in the ministry, I learned that a large majority of Christians do not know the answer to the question of the title. Answers, actually, as there are many things to consider. I composed the following as a Christian, writing to Christians.
Sadly, we swallow large doses of what popular culture spoons out to us. We wind up believing things like this: people become angels, they watch over us, and they can get trapped on earth if they have unresolved issues.
People are people and angels are angels. “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation (Hebrews 1:14)?” Humans were the pinnacle of God’s creation, whom He made in His image. He created angels to have great power, but He did not make them in His image. Even more, He created angels for us humans.
Yes, we have guardian angels. No, we don’t become guardian angels when we die. And we do not look over our loved ones from heaven. Revelation chapters four and seven provide a picture of heaven, with all the saints—used here to signify any Christian, not specifically, say, Saint Peter or Saint Paul—gathered around God’s throne in worship of the Lamb, Jesus Christ.
Many are comforted by the notion that a loved one is watching. It hurts, for example, that a mother is not present to see her child’s accomplishment, so if we can conjure her watching from heaven we feel better. What we do not consider is that if Mom is watching us win the blue ribbon, she also hears us when we let fly with a blue streak of foul language. Even worse, how could heaven be joyful and glorious if our loved ones watch when we suffer illness, divorce, and all of this life’s tragedies?
God’s Word gives us no information that our deceased loved ones are watching, and certainly not that they have power to assist us. On the latter point, it is vital that we do not turn them into idols. The Lord God is almighty, all-powerful, and all-knowing. He needs no help in taking care of us, and when we feel we are getting help from our dead relatives, we rob Him of the glory He deserves for being God—our Father, our Savior Jesus, and our Comforter the Holy Spirit.
Here is what happens when we die. “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecclesiastes 12:7).”
Later, I will explain why the death of the Christian is not the ultimate thing to happen. For now, keep it simple: We die. Our soul goes to heaven. Our body stays on earth. For the time being.
There’s no unfinished business. If a person left a huge task undone, he will not be haunting his house or friends. And, no, he won’t be coming back, reincarnation-style. “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27).”
(You’re wondering: What about ghosts? If one sees a ghost of a human, it will be a demon impersonating the person. Since people just love this stuff—We eat it up! It’s scary, but it’s also so cool!—Satan uses such things to distract us from the Lord and His Word.)
As this age continues its course until the Last Day when Christ returns in glory, death is a temporary situation. It is not good that our body and soul are separated by death. The Lord will fix that.
The following passage is one that, over the course of the 150 funerals I officiated, I found myself using in my sermons almost without fail. Soak this in: “So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).”
Perishable/imperishable: This is obvious. We are prone to dying and we die. When Christ raises us from the grave, it will be impossible for us to die again.
Dishonor/glory: It is a disgrace to be placed into a box and under a few feet of earth, or to have our bodies cremated. That we will be raised will be glorious, bringing us back to the living beings which the Lord always intended.
Weakness/power: Our bodies are weakened by disease, accident, aging, and more. In the resurrection we will be powerful, no longer prone to any of the maladies of this life.
Natural/Spiritual: In this life, we are bound by the laws of nature which the Lord created for our good. We do not have a firm grasp on what it will mean to have spiritual bodies, but one good thought is that we will not age. From those who died as fetuses, babies, youngsters, and elderly, all of us will be perfectly whole and healthy adults, no signs of premature death or aging, and that perfection will continue forever.
I love talking about this, and here is more good stuff! How will all of this take place on the Last Day? Here is a shorthand sketch:
First, the resurrection: “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).”
• Christ will return but will stop above the earth. The dead will first be raised and will rise to meet Him, and then those who are alive when He comes will also join Him in the air.
Why in the clouds? This question begs another: Where will we be living forever? Here is the answer to both questions: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved . . . But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:10, 13).”
• We will need to meet the Lord Jesus in the air because He will be destroying and recreating the earth, bringing it back to the perfection in which He had created it. After the judgment, we will return to earth and then, literally, heaven will be on earth: “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them (Revelation 21:3).”
I bet you know the next quote: “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left (Matthew 25: 32-33).”
• In the air, all people will either be on the Lord’s right or left. Sadly, those on the left will be judged in their sins and “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (verse 41),” while the sheep will given the crown of eternal life (James 1:12), and then . . .
From John’s revelation of the Last Day, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (Revelation 21:2).”
• The judgment complete and the earth having been recreated, Christ and His people—pictured here as the new Jerusalem—will descend to the earth, to dwell with our Lord and with each other, forever, and never again will death or mourning or crying or pain visit us (Revelation 21:4).
A final, wonderful, comforting note. Did you catch in the Thessalonians passage the reference to our being asleep? Did you know the word “cemetery” means “place of sleep?”
All over the New Testament, the death of the believer is referred to as sleep. Why would this be? Because Christ is going to wake us up to the dawn of the new, eternal day!
To you and me, death is final. We can’t do a thing about it. To the Lord Jesus, death is the enemy which He conquered by rising from His own grave, and it is no harder for Him to handle than it is to say, “Wake up! The Big Day has arrived! Look at everyone who’s here and rejoice!”
I cannot wait for that day, so I close the way the Holy Bible closes: Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all. Amen.