We’ve all thought about it. What happens the moment we take our last breath, our heart stops beating, and our soul departs from our now dead body? Truth be told, most of us fear dying, even if we do not fear death. Dying is often a painful struggle. Dying often occurs in a sterile, clinical environment and is usually an ugly process. However, by trusting in the promise that death means entrance into eternal life in the presence of the Lord, as well as trusting in the power of Christ to raise the dead, Christians need not fear the outcome of death even if we experience trepidation regarding the process of dying.
Stories and legends about death and dying abound. This is the case, in part, because the Scriptures do not describe the process of dying, although they do speak of several individuals who died but were raised back to life by Jesus. Lazarus comes to mind (John 11) among others (e.g., the widow of Nain’s son in Luke 7:11–17). But we do not possess any firsthand account (including from Lazarus) of what these people experienced when they died. We can only but wonder what Lazarus was thinking when he died a second time, this time to enter eternal life. Now, we do know what our resurrection bodies will be like, since Paul gives us a remarkable description of the complete transformation that takes place when Christ returns and we are raised imperishable (1 Cor. 15:35–49). But there is not much biblical data on the intermediate state—that period of time when the souls of the believing dead await the resurrection of their bodies and the final and complete overturning of the curse (death).
It is also the case that the very nature of the question (What happens to our soul when we die?) lends itself to speculation. I recall my saintly grandmother (a pastor’s daughter) recounting bedside vigils with dying church members. She described how before breathing their last, a dying person would often open their eyes, look heavenward, express some sort of joy and expectation, then surrender to the inevitable. She believed these saints were given a brief glimpse of what (or who) awaited them. That may be, but it is just as likely that the biochemical reactions within the brain to a body shutting down produces all kinds of sensory activity. Such accounts, however sincere, are anecdotal and provide no basis on which to build doctrine.
We’ve all heard stories about those who supposedly died and then returned from the afterlife. Such stories are fascinating, which explains the existence of the cottage industry of books written about near-death experiences that spin tales of the author’s personal visit to heaven before returning to write a book about their experience. These books usually reveal encounters with the dearly departed, they often include descriptions of heaven (usually exaggerated earthly scenes), accounts of meeting Jesus, talking with God, and descriptions of heavenly things.
But all of these likely spurious accounts conflict with what we know the Bible says about entrance into the presence of God. Isaiah 6:1–7 comes to mind. Isaiah is overcome by his unworthiness when given a vision of the Lord. The biblical accounts of encounters with God—such as Moses’ glimpse of the Lord’s glory (Ex. 33:18–23) or Jesus’ appearance to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:37)—produce fear if not terror at being in the presence of the Holy God. The biblical accounts do not square with the casual, if not trivial nature of the “I saw heaven” or “I walked with Jesus” genre of literature. Since the Bible does not describe the process or the reflections of the dying, many have sought to fill in the gap with fabricated stories. Sadly, they’ve been very successful. Many people accept these legends as truth.
Thankfully, the Bible gives us two points of reference regarding the intermediate state that help prepare us for death. First, in several well-known passages, Paul specifically addresses the matter of what happens to believers between the time they die and when Christ returns. According to 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul teaches that at the moment of a believer’s death, we immediately enter into the presence of the Lord. The Apostle writes, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Paul also spoke of how he desired “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). When we die, we are immediately “with Christ” and enter into the presence of God. This is usually what we mean when we speak of “heaven.”