What happens when we die? A primer on the end times

Andrea Mantegna, Resurrection, 1459

People wonder all the time about what happens in the end times—Where do we go when we die? What about the rapture? What is heaven going to be like? Will my dog be there? Is there really a hell?—yet for all the interest, clearing up the confusion about these things seems rare, with people who have been Christians for decades still not quite sure what to think of it all. So we wanted to help clarify as much as we could, helping you to understand what the Bible says, what it might say, and what it doesn’t say.

One of the best places to start when asking about a complex issue like this is the ancient creeds of the church. They’re like a cheat sheet to all the most important things in the Bible, and they’re like a set of guardrails helping us not to get too crazy in the way we understand the related passages and themes.

Here’s what the Nicene Creed says about all this (Note: what we call the Nicene Creed was actually finalized at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. It’s called this because the statement is based very heavily on the statement developed at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The church had realized over those 56 years that there were a few things they needed to clarify, so they added a tiny bit more detail.):

We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…
Who ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father,
And shall come again, with glory, to judge both the living and the dead,
Whose kingdom shall have no end.
 …
We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

Redemption’s own belief statement emphasizes that when Jesus comes back he will physically resurrect everyone who is dead and judge the living and the dead, some to be eternally separated from him and some to live in eternal satisfaction and joy in the presence of Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit for all of eternity.

The must-believe-to-be-a-Christian: mass resurrection

It’s this resurrection, when heaven comes to earth and all the dead people come out of their graves, that has been a major point of emphasis for us in our preaching (and here and here and here, among others) and writing (and here and here, among others). We emphasize it so much because the earliest Christians did too, as we see in the creeds and also in the New Testament itself. In fact, resurrection is so important that it is an essential of our faith.

At Redemption, we spend a lot of time trying to distinguish between what’s an essential and what’s not. In fact, doing so is one of our core convictions. When something is essential, we believe that it separates Christians from non-Christians—believe this and you’re a Christian, but believe something else and you’re something else. That’s why we rely on the creeds like we do, because that was exactly their original intent, to clarify what all Christians everywhere have always believed, to clarify what is and is not essential. When something is not essential, Christians can and do believe a variety of different things. The reason it’s important for us to distinguish essential from non-essential is that it keeps us from fighting about petty, non-essential things that just aren’t that important, yet it also allows us to prioritize and insist on the essential truths that Jesus expects will lead us to new spiritual birth and eternal life.

We believe resurrection is this kind of important, must-have, essential truth of our faith. In fact, Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 15:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Now, this is a well-known passage, but I’m afraid it might not be as well-understood as it is well-known. Let’s look closely at it. In verse 12, Paul raises his main problem: there are some people claiming that there is no resurrection of dead people. Apparently these people are going around arguing something along the lines of, “Yes, Jesus was resurrected. But that was a one-off event that has no bearing on the rest of us. Now all that matters is that we die and go to heaven. There is not going to be a widespread, mass resurrection for the rest of dead people.” (This sounds to me like a lot of what I hear in modern-day American churches…) Paul’s argument is that this position is incompatible with belief in Jesus.

Here’s how we could boil down Paul’s argument into its main steps:

  • Main point (see verse 12): believing in Jesus is incompatible with not believing in mass resurrection.
  • Step 1 (verse 13): If as a rule people don’t get resurrected, then Jesus wasn’t resurrected either.
  • Step 2 (verses 14 and 15): If Jesus wasn’t resurrected, Christianity is pointless and a lie about God.
  • (Verse 16 repeats step 1: No resurrection of dead people means no resurrection of Jesus.)
  • (Verses 17 to 19 repeat step 2: No resurrection of Jesus means no Christianity.)
  • Step 3 (verse 20): You are Christians, so you know that Jesus was resurrected.
  • This all proves his main point (which was explicitly stated at the outset in verse 12): Jesus was resurrected, therefore people as a rule are going to be resurrected, and to believe otherwise is incompatible with Christianity.

Paul continues this line of argument for the rest of the chapter, doubling down on the idea of widespread resurrection for another 38 verses (1 Corinthians 15:21-58) and going into detail about what kinds of bodies we’ll have after resurrection, etc.

On top of all that, this is what Jesus himself clearly and repeatedly taught. When a certain sect of Jews wanted to debate with Jesus because they didn’t believe there would be a widespread resurrection, he told them “You are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). In another place, he teaches us “the time is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear my voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

In addition to these key passages, as if they weren’t enough, resurrection is a major theme throughout the New Testament—it pops up over and over and over. There are literally dozens of references to resurrection. We won’t quote all of them, but here are a few, in case you still need convincing:

Jesus says “Because I live, you also will live.” John 14:19

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2

“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:4-5

“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:23

Paul’s overwhelming desire is “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

“When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:4

“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” Colossians 1:18

“Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.” Revelation 1:4-5

“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.” 1 Thessalonians 4:16

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that resurrection seems to be in mind almost every time the New Testament talks about “eternal life”, the day of “redemption”, or our future “glory”. These are all terms that strongly imply resurrection, so when we see them it’s usually wise to remind ourselves, “Oh, they’re talking about resurrection again!”

Other points of emphasis for Jesus and the early church: the return of Jesus, judgment, eternal torment, and the kingdom of heaven

Now, resurrection is hugely important, but it’s not the only thing that the New Testament emphasizes about the end times. It emphasizes:

  1. That Jesus is coming back,
  2. That when he does come back he’s going to judge the living the dead,
  3. That judgment is going to be unthinkably bad for some,
  4. And that judgment is going to be unthinkably good for others.

Several of the passages above incorporate these themes, but in case you need more passages that clearly talk about these, here is just a handful:

Jesus himself says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 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. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ 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. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46

“And when Jesus had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” Acts 1:9-11

“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31

“They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” Romans 2:15-16

“Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:5

Optional beliefs: the intermediate state between death and resurrection, rapture, tribulation, and the millennium

Now, so far in this post all we’ve done is explain that Jesus is coming back to earth to physically resurrect all people, some for a resurrection of life and some for a resurrection of judgment. That’s all we’ve explained so far because we don’t think anything else is make-or-break for Christians. This is everything that is taught in the ancient creeds, and it’s everything that we try to emphasize at Redemption.

But notice all the things we haven’t mentioned yet: going to heaven when we die, rapture, tribulation, the millennium, or anything else. Unfortunately, these other things are the things that Christians often emphasize and fight over. They’re the things we hear at funerals. They’re the things that we sometimes mistakenly think should give us the most hope. But none of these things are as important to Jesus or the rest of the New Testament as the widespread resurrection that will happen at Jesus’ return. Jesus coming back and physically getting us up out of our graves to be with him forever is our hope. Nothing else is. And if we let anything else undermine our hope, even if it’s something “Christian” like the idea of going to heaven when we die, our hope is not the hope that Jesus wants us to have.

With all that in mind, here are a few thoughts on all the rest of these non-essential beliefs.

What happens after we die but before we’re resurrected. I personally believe that when we die we somehow remain conscious and exist happily in the presence of God until resurrection (or we exist not so happily and away from the presence of God, if we don't know Jesus). I believe that we’re happy in this intermediate state but still yearn to be made fully human again, body and all, at resurrection.

However, there are many Christians who believe that when we die we have no consciousness until resurrection. These people and I may disagree, yet we are all still Christians, as this is a non-essential issue.

There have been well-informed Christians on both sides, both using various New Testament texts to support their claims. For me, the clinchers are a few passages that seem to imply some sort of disembodied consciousness of the dead:

“Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 2 Corinthians 5:8 (I take the “away from the body” to mean that Paul would be dead, disembodied. He seems to prefer this to being away from Jesus. The implication is that being dead but with Jesus is still somehow possible and good, though not as good as being both embodied and with Jesus—that’s resurrection, the best outcome.)

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Philippians 1:21-23 (Paul wants not to be alive, not to be in his flesh anymore so he can be with Jesus. But remember that later in this same letter, in the passage quoted above in the resurrection section, Paul emphasizes that the only thing he ultimately cares about is being resurrected together with Christ.)

Rapture, tribulation, and the millennium. These three are the big multi-syllabic words that scare some and captivate others. These are also the three that cause the most disagreement in the church, both presently and historically. Bottom line, these are the three that are farthest from being essentials of the faith. But, no primer on the end times would be complete without explaining them just a bit, so here we go.

The millennium is a one thousand year period that is somehow related to the kingdom of heaven. This era may be alluded to in several places but is explained in some detail in Revelation 20. Here are the first few times in that chapter that the thousand years are mentioned:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

There are three camps who believe that this thousand year kingdom will take place in various ways.

Premillennialists believe that there is a thousand-year-long kingdom of Jesus on earth that exists before the final and permanent consummation of heaven coming to earth—after our current period, they expect Jesus to come back to earth (Revelation 19), to reign for a thousand years (Revelation 20), and then for heaven to come to earth in full culmination for the rest eternity (Revelation 21).

Amillennialists believe there is no literal thousand year reign of Jesus on the earth. They believe that the thousand years represent the current era. The beginning of this “thousand years” would be Jesus’ first coming, and the end of it would be when Jesus comes back. In other words, the only major thing left in the course of world history is the return of Jesus to resurrect, judge, and reign forever. (They take Revelation 19, 20, and 21 not to be in a strictly chronological order.)

Postmillennialists believe that the thousand year reign predicted in Revelation 20 happens before the return of Jesus. In other words, Jesus returns after the millennium. The millennium is initiated by the power of the Holy Spirit working as the gospel is preached throughout the world, bringing about a glorious age when all people live in peace together. After that long period of peace (“thousand” may simply be a symbol of a long perfect period, not an exact length), Jesus would return, resurrect all people, judge, and reign forever.

There have been, and are, faithful Christians who are adherents of all three positions. Amillennialism seems to be the view that has had the most support throughout the history of the church. Premillennialism had several important early adherents (like Irenaeus in the second century, one of the earliest great theologians, who happened to have been the disciple of the disciple of Jesus' best friend John; they were known “chiliasts” back then and believed in a slightly different version of premillennialism than many modern day folks would), and postmillennialism has well-known supporters as well (like Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the pre-eminent American thinker, who was a theologian and pastor in the 18th century). Interestingly, the predominance of one view over the others at various points in history seems to be correlated with how optimistic Christians were about their governments.

If all that isn’t complicated enough, premillennialists have a variety of views on the rapture and tribulation. (Amillennialists and postmillennialists believe Jesus when he says there’s some sort of period of tribulation, like in Mark 13:19—they just don’t have a central place for it in their explanation of the end times like premillennialists do.) The tribulation is a period of seven years that comes right before the millennial kingdom. It’s understood to be seven years because of Daniel 9:27. The rapture is the event when Jesus comes back and calls living believers up into the sky to be with him in heaven, as made famous in the Left Behind series.

The timing of the rapture compared to the tribulation splits people into several more groups. Pretribulationists believe that the rapture happens before the seven years of tribulation (which happen before the thousand year reign which happens before the ultimate culmination of God’s eternal reign). Posttribulationists believe that the rapture happens after the seven years of tribulation. And midtribulationists believe that the rapture will happen right in the middle of the seven years of tribulation. There also have been several other variants (pre-wrath rapture, partial rapture, repeated rapture, etc.) that we won’t explain here, as they are relatively rare.

Finally, just for kicks, here are a few things the Bible doesn’t say but you might have heard:

We become angels when we die. This would be really bad news if we did—Jesus only saves humans, not angels (Hebrews 2:16). Plus, humans end up judging angels in the end (1 Corinthians 6:3).

Our bodies are bad and we need to be released from them. The whole point of Jesus becoming human was to redeem humanity—he became human, including having a human body and a human mind, so that he could save and redeem the entire human person, body, mind, and otherwise.

You can be good enough to go to heaven. There is no one good enough. Only Jesus. You need him and his goodness to count for you, or you have no hope.