What Are We Made Of?
To understand what happens when a person dies I think it is important to understand at the beginning of the discussion what are humans made of? There are three possible answers to this question:
- We are made up of just physical material.
- We are made up of three distinct essences – body, spirit, and soul.
- We are made up of two distinct essences – body and spirit; we are dual in makeup
The Bible teaches mankind is made up of the third option; we are body and spirit. The following Bible verses point this out: “Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2Cor. 4:16). The Psalms says, “My eye is wasted away from grief, my soul and my body also” (Ps. 31:9). Also, “My soul thirst for you, my flesh yearns for you” (Ps. 63:1). The book of Job points out this duality too, “But his flesh upon him shall have pain, and his soul within him shall mourn: (Job 14:22 KJV). Proverbs also says, “The merciful man does good to his own soul; but he that is cruel troubles his own flesh” (11:17 KJV). There are additional forty-seven verses peppered throughout the Bible confirming man is dual in his make-up.
What is Death?
Death is defined as the termination of life.1 This tells us that the norm for us is to be alive. By this, I mean that nothing proceeds from death to life; death always proceeds from life. My point in saying this is that death is always a negative term.
God made man to be a living being, “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7 KJV). As you continue on in Genesis you see that man was to live in fellowship with his maker, but when sin entered into the picture so did death (cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12).
There are three aspects to death; death can be experienced on the spiritual, physical, and eternal level:
Spiritual death means a state of depravity that permeates our nature; we sin, and we like to sin. It is a state of death because it separates us from the source of life; God himself (cf. Isa. 59:2; Eph. 4:18). I point out that I do not believe this is a complete depravity, for man is capable of doing some good, e.g. a mother can love a child.
Physical death is something we are all familiar with. Man is alive as long as the body and spirit are united, but James 2:26 says, “The body without the spirit is dead…” Physical death occurs when the spirit leaves the body (cf. John 19:30).
Eternal death will follow the final judgement which is eternity in hell. This is referred to as the second death in Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8. This is the true essence of death for it is an eternal separation from God; an absolute, irreversible separation.
What Happens When We Die?
With this ground work laid, we can now briefly discuss what happens when a person experiences physical death. Ultimately, there will be a resurrection from death, a final judgment, and eternity either in heaven or in hell, but what happens in the interim? Two possibilities exist after we die: There is an intermediate state or there is not.
Those who hold to the idea there is not an intermediate state base their position on man is not a body/spirit essence; man is only physical material. Jehovah Witnesses hold this position. I have already addressed the error of that thought above.
Seventh-Day Adventist hold a similar view in that they view the soul as nothing but a spark of life that returns to God at death. Therefore when a person dies they hold: “The soul has no conscious existence apart from the body. There is no biblical text indicating the soul survives the body as a conscious entity.”2 There are other views such as soul sleep, and instantaneous resurrection, but I’m trying to keep this short.
The biblical view of death holds there is an intermediate state after death, and the Bible has many verses that support this view: 1 Samuel 28:11-19, God permitted the prophet Samuel to speak to King Saul after Samuel’s death. The conversation shows a continuing consciousness by Samuel. Mattew 17:3 is the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the mount of transfiguration where they were seen by Peter, John, and James conversing with Jesus which again indicates an ongoing consciousness with the two prophets. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” This shows more that the soul is separable from the body and continues to exist apart from the body after physical death.
The biblical view of death would not be complete without reference to the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31. In the story, both men have died and continued on in a conscious existence, in an interim state.
What are The Characteristics of The Intermediate State?
The intermediate state appears to be made up of two sections: Paradise and Hades, and the conditions under what a person exists in the intermediate state depends on whether they are saved or lost.
Whether saved or lost, both states do share some commonality: Residence of both realms exist without a body – an unnatural state because we were created to be both body and spirit. Also, it is not the final destination. The final destination for the saved is the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21:1; which does not yet exist. The destination of the lost is hell.
The verses mentioned above lead us to conclude that the intermediate state is a conscious state, but there are also these verses: Revelation 6:9-11; Luke 23:42-43; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; Hebrews 12:18-23.
As I said, what one experiences in the intermediate state is dependent on whether a person is saved or lost. Again, in Luke 16:23-24 we see the rich man in Hades was in torment, while Lazarus in the preceding verse is spoken of as being at Abraham’s side. There are other verses that paint a dire picture for those in Hades: 2 Peter 2:9; 1 Peter 3:19; Luke 16:24-25.
Paradise however is pictured as interim state of bliss, and more desirable. It is not yet perfection since it is a time of “nakedness” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5) for we are without our bodies. Paradise is however better then our present condition as noted in 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:21-23.3.
1 American Heritage College Dictionary
2 7th Day Adventist Believe p. 83
3 Thank you to Dr. Jack Cottrell and his book, The Faith Once For All (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 2002) for much of my source material.