Curtains; but then what?
We know what happens to our bodies when we die, but what happens to our souls? One idea (of many) is that after death the soul ‘sleeps’ until some future date. This may offer some comfort to the bereaved, but the Bible teaches that the souls of those who die remain alive and conscious.
The Old Testament certainly refers to those who ‘fall asleep’ (or die) and the New Testament records that Stephen, the first Christian martyr prayed, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ and then ‘fell asleep’ (Acts 7:60). But when the Bible says that someone ‘falls asleep’ in death, it means only that the person takes no further part in conscious earthly activities.
The Scriptures consistently teach that the soul remains conscious after death. This is established in a story Jesus told about two men whose lives had been very different (see Luke 16:19-31). The first was a rich but godless man who died and was buried and found himself ‘in torment’ in ‘Hades’ (v.23). The second was a poor but apparently godly man who ‘died’ and was carried by the angels to ‘Abraham’s side’ (v.22).
‘Hades’ clearly means a place of punishment for the ungodly, while ‘Abraham’s side’ obviously means a place of great bliss.
There is no need to examine the details; we need only note that the rich man sees and speaks after death. The language is clearly metaphorical and relates to his soul – which must have been conscious as it was able to feel pain. Both the rich man (in Hades) and the poor man (at Abraham’s side) were alive, even though by then their bodies were in earthly graves.
A great divide
Whatever divisions we make for cultural or other reasons, the Bible divides humankind into two groups – ‘the righteous’ (Romans 1:17) and ‘the unrighteous’ (2 Peter 2:9).
If we were to read the whole Bible we would find that ‘the righteous’ are those who have come into a living relationship with God and seek to serve and obey him, while ‘the unrighteous’ are those who have never known such a relationship – even though many of them may be religious and outwardly respectable.
After death, the souls of the righteous are ‘at Abraham’s side’ (Jesus once called it ‘Paradise’; Luke 23:43) which is a place of unimaginable delight. The souls of the unrighteous are in Hades, where they are kept ‘under punishment until the day of judgement’ (2 Peter 2:9).
In the full biblical meaning of the words, therefore, the righteous are not in heaven at this point and the unrighteous are not in hell. As an illustration we could say that the righteous are in the palace waiting to enter the throne room, while the unrighteous are in custody waiting to be sentenced.
But here’s the problem – not one of us is righteous by nature. We are sinners and ‘the wages of sin is death’, both physical and spiritual. How then may we become righteous and fit for heaven?
The Bible asks precisely that question – by asking another question: ‘How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?’ (Hebrews 2:3). So there is a way of escape from death and condemnation! But what is this ‘great salvation’?
It must obviously be a means of forgiving all our sin and paying its penalty in full on our behalf. Yet only God can truly grant forgiveness, as he is the one who has been wronged by every sin we have ever committed.
Also, the one who pays the penalty – our substitute – would also have to be a sinless human being. He must be sinless so that no penalty would be payable for his own sin, but only for the sins of others. And he must be human because only in a human body and soul could the penalty of physical and spiritual death be paid.
The greatest news ever revealed to the human race is this – there is such a substitute! This is the Bible’s central message from cover to cover, but there are places where the whole stupendous story is put into a few words:
‘While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly’ (Romans 5:6); ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8); ‘This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:9).
God and man
Two truths hold all of this together. The first is that Jesus Christ is God. The Bible’s message is not that God sent a third party to rescue us from the power and penalty of sin, but that he came himself. Jesus claimed to be God – ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30); ‘Whoever sees me sees him who sent me’ (John 12:45).
The second truth is that Jesus Christ became a man, adding humanity to his deity and from then onwards remaining both God and man. Though without a human father, he was ‘born of woman’ (Galatians 4:4) and grew to manhood. He had to learn to walk, speak, write and dress. We are specifically told that he was hungry, thirsty, tired and weakened by suffering. He expressed love and anger, joy and sorrow.
It is this Jesus – fully God and fully man – who is our only means of escape from the horrors of hell: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15); and ‘There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
But how does he save people from hell and ensure they go to heaven? The Bible’s answer is that in his life and death he fulfilled all the demands of God’s law on behalf of others.
The demands of the law
Firstly, he lived the perfect life God’s law demands. He never thought, said or did anything that was not completely in tune with God’s perfect will. He was able to say, ‘I always do the things that are pleasing to him’ (John 8:29), while his close companion Peter testified, ‘He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth’ (1 Peter 2:22).
Every virtue known to man was present in his life, and every vice known to man was absent from his life. And he lived that perfect life in order to meet all the demands of God’s holy law on behalf of others.
Secondly, he paid the penalty God’s law demands. Time and again the Bible underlines its message that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). In his death, Jesus received those ‘wages’ in full, even though there was not a trace of sin in his life.
On the face of it, his death seems both illogical and immoral, but it was neither. For Jesus died voluntarily not for his own sin but for the sins of others: ‘Christ … suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18).
This is the very essence of the Christian gospel: Jesus died in the place of sinners and on their behalf. He became as accountable for their sins as if he had been responsible for them, and he paid in full the penalty that was due.
Not only did he die physically by being crucified, but as he was dying he cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46).
What Jesus endured in that agonising moment is utterly beyond our understanding, but we do know that he experienced the full impact of God’s terrible wrath against the sinners he represented and the sins they had committed.
So great salvation
This is the ‘great salvation’ that God offers to guilty, lost and helpless sinners. What is more, it is the only way of salvation: ‘And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12).
If this were the end of the Bible’s message it might leave us moved by such an amazing sacrifice, but still baffled as to how we might benefit from it. But it is not the end of the story!
After three days, Jesus rose again from the dead and over a period of seven weeks (before returning to heaven) he met with hundreds of his friends and followers, providing ‘many convincing proofs that he was alive’ (Acts 1:3).
Not only was Jesus ‘declared to be the Son of God … by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4), but his resurrection was proof that all the demands of God’s holy law had been met, his justice completely satisfied, and those for whom he died justified before God for all eternity.
To trust this Saviour is to receive eternal life.
© John Blanchard. An edited extract from his book Where do we go from here? published by Evangelical Press.