What is death and what happens at death? Do we know the exact mechanism that occurs at death?
When can someone declare a person dead? The usual answer, in management school is, “it depends”. No pun intended, but it is true.
Concepts of death are different in secular, religious groups and even among themselves in the same groups. In secular parlance, one considers death when the person is unconscious, not breathing on his own and there is no pulse. However, with today’s technology, a person maybe in coma, artificially breathing on respirator, heart beating because of pacemaker, blood pressure maintained on medications, bodily functions intact, and still can be pronounced dead legally when EEG is “flatline”; not having brain waves. Yet, among religious groups, what is commonly defined as a dead person in the tomb at any length of time, that state may still be defined as “sleep”.
Unanimity in Christian Tenet
Death considered as “sleep”, is a well-entrenched tenet for Christians. It is taken as a temporary state, much like sleep, as we wake up even after a long sleep. A waking-up period is a given because of the “hope of resurrection”. When a person dies, according to this teaching, at resurrection the person will not know events in-between, as in being “asleep” sans dreams. While they believe in eventual “eternal death” for non-believers, there is hope of resurrection for those who believed in Jesus. Hence, death is only “sleep”. Similarly, among live Christians, being “dead to sin”, is a state to be in as an admonition against sinning and to reckon themselves as in:
Rom. 6:11, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus“.(NIV) A Christian is expected to follow the Ten Commandments and not commit sin.
Resurrection, you can bank on it
Why “hope of resurrection”? Is there really a resurrection of the dead? That there is “life-after-death“, is a teaching that all traditional Christians are unanimous to share as a core belief. And, this is on faith which is evidenced-based (Heb. 11:1) anchored on very credible witnesses. Resurrection from death to a physical, flesh-composed, mortal bodies are well-documented by biblical historical records.
1 Kings 17:17-24 Elijah resurrected the son of Zarephath’s widow. Notice V-21, let this child’s soul(nephesh) come into him again and V-22 and the soul(nephesh) of the child came into him again, and he revived. By usage, nephesh in this context means “life”or life-giving element of man.
2 Kings 4Elisha resurrected the son of the great Shunammite woman
2 Kings 13:21 Dead man came back to life when he touched Elisha’s bones.
Luke 7:13-15 Jesus resurrects the widow’s son at Nain
Matthew 9:25 Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead. See also Mark 5:42, and Luke 8:55
John 11:43-44 Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.
Matthew 27:52-53 Saints resurrected and seen by many after Jesus’ resurrection
Acts 9:36-42 Peter raises a female disciple named Tabitha from the dead
Acts 20:9-12 Paul raises Eutychus from the dead.
The preceding resurrected individuals, were restored to life in a flesh-composed body. And, they all died again to undergo future resurrection.
There is another type of resurrection that the Bible calls the “ better resurrection”Hebrews 11:35) confirmed by apostles and other witnesses. In contrast to resurrection to a flesh-composed body, this is to an eternal life with immortal spirit-composed bodies. The pioneer of this type of resurrection is Jesus. See Matthew 28:5-7, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-11, and John 20:1-10.
Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples that betrayed Jesus, was replaced so that “one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection”(Acts 1:22).
In Acts 4:33, “with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus”.
The apostle Paul personally saw and talked with the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8; Acts 22:6-10), confirming the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. Paul asked King Herod Agrippa II,“Why should it be thought incredible by you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8). He told him, “To this day I stand, witnessing both to small and great . . . that the Christ would suffer, that He would be the first to rise from the dead” (Acts 26:22-23), implying that others would follow.
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [in death]” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The apostle Paul explained that Jesus is “the firstborn over all creation,” “the firstborn from the dead” and “the firstborn among many brethren” (Colossians 1:15, 18; Romans 8:29), indicating others will follow. Moreover, Paul explained how the resurrection of God’s firstfruits will occur:
“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly [physical, material] body that it may be conformed to His glorious body”(Philippians 3:20-21; compare 2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
“It is sown a natural [physical] body, it is raised a spiritual body . . . as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man [Jesus Christ]. Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God ” (1 Corinthians 15:44, 49-50). Notice that our current flesh-composed body cannot enter the Kingdom of God; we need to change structurally. For those who will still be alive at Christ’s return, notice 1 Corinthians 15:51-52:
“Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (compare 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25).
We will receive this “better resurrection” or immortality when Jesus comes again, as in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55).
“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible…So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
What happens at death?
While death’s definition depends upon how each person perceives it, the ultimate mechanism that brings about death, in a religious sense, is shared by many. To grasp the mechanics of this truth, one has to understand how a person comes to be and becomes alive before knowing how one dies.
Going back to the narrative in Genesis, human evolution is “fake news“. We were informed that there is a Creator by the name of YHVH (Lord God), who is an “intelligent designer” of man, as in:
Genesis 2:7 “And 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(being)”.
Notice that man has 2 components, viz, dust + breath of life. That dust, which is the body, came from the ground and therefore matter-composed. Whereas, the breath of life, which is the “spirit of man”, the mind/psyche, comes from a Spirit-Being/God (from above) and therefore spirit-composed. The body, of and by itself, was not alive until the “breath of life” was “breathed into his nostrils.” Therefore, a living soul (nephesh) is composed of body + spirit of man (mind or psyche). In other words, man is composed of body which is matter as it comes from earth/mud/dust and a mind or psyche which is spiritual as it comes from a spirit-composed God breathing into man’s nostrils.
Now see how death is described and what happens to the 2 components of man at death in Ecclesiastes 12:7 (NIV)
“The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it”
Also, in Gen. 3:19 ” for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
James 2:26 “For as the body without the spirit is dead,…”
Essentially then, the mechanism of death is that the spirit component of man separates from the matter component flesh-body; the former goes back to God where it came and was “breathed” from; the latter goes to hades(buried in the tomb to rot) where it was formed from. Scientifically, although an assumption, the sudden electrical burst in EEG at time of death may find basis for this “separation”( 1,2,3).
Where Differences Lie
Let us then examine this concept of death in light of where the differences lie among biblical teachings of different sects in Christianity. In so doing, we may re-evaluate, optimize our current understanding of this subject and hopefully limit animosity.After taking up what teachings Christians (Catholics, Protestants, etc) align with, we can now enumerate where they differ from, viz.,
1. Is anyone who died, currently living in heaven?
It is a common belief that when we die, we immediately go to heaven or hell. This teaching was based on what Jesus at crucifixion said to the criminal and robber in the cross with him, as in:
Luke 23:43: “Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
In the original Greek text, there is no “comma’ before the word “today”. This “comma” was an English grammar construction and interjected interpretation. Thus, with this comma before the today, Jesus went to heaven with the criminal on that “day” or immediately at death. With this teaching, one has to explain how could this happen when Jesus was still in the tomb for “3 days and 3 nights”. Moreover, a teaching that a criminal goes directly to heaven had to assume that Jesus forgave him at the cross, without proof that he actually said so and does not need to do any “good works of the Holy Spirit”.
Alternatively, it may well be argued that the “comma” should follow the word “today” which then changes the connotation, as in:
Luke 23:43: “Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.”
With the preceding rendering that the “comma” was placed after the word ” today”, the meaning changes to another interpretation. That is, Jesus said those words on that day, but the criminal would have that “rendezvous in paradise” in the future; yet, another conjecture. Or, wherever the comma is placed before or after the word “today”, it may just mean that both of them will die the same day and both their spirits(spirit of man) would go back to the Father in heaven, following the same mechanism that defines death.
Going back to the 1st question whether any man (the whole body and spirit) after death is currently living in heaven, one only has to listen to Jesus words, viz.,
John 3:13 “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven–the Son of Man.”
Also, consider what apostle Peter said on the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2:29, 34 “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day…For David did not ascend into the heavens…”
Notice that the context refers to the whole person, body + spirit. When the text says, no one who died is in heaven, it therefore refers specifically only to the body. David, and for that matter anybody, is still buried, i.e. his body. The claim that no one who died ascended into heaven, refers to the body-component. However, while the whole person did not go to heaven and the matter-composed body is still in the tomb, we learned (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Gen. 3:19; James 2:26) that the active spirit-component went to God where it came from. The spirit-component of man although active is “naked“, unclothed, as in 2 Cor. 5:3, i.e., not having a body and therefore “nobody”. Only Jesus, who came from heaven, ascended into heaven with a “glorious body“, i.e., his mortal body did not rot in the tomb. Instead, after “three days and three nights”, it was changed “in a twinkling of an eye” into a glorious/spirit-composed body that is immortal. And with his spirit-composed body + psyche/spirit, the whole person ascended into heaven, (compare John 20:17, Matt. 28:9, Mark 16 and Luke 24). This new body of Jesus can be visible or invisible to human eyes.
2. Can the dead speak?
The following verses are self-explanatory:
(ESV), “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence”.
Psalms 6:5 “For the dead do not remember you. Who can praise you from the grave?
Psalms 30:9 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise You? Will it declare Your faithfulness?
“For Sheol (grave) cannot thank You, Death cannot praise You; Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness
How about in Rev. 19:1? Did not Apostle John hear “a loud voice from heaven” as in:
“After these things I heard a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, ‘Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power to the Lord our God!’
Did John hear the voice of dead saints? Compared with Revelation 5:11-12, this voice clearly came from a multitude of angels, “Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”
How about the “voices of the slain” in Revelation 6: 9-11
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
Knowing what we know now that only the psyche/spirit of man goes to God at death, not the body nor the whole person, one maybe able to explain this event. By itself and without a matter-composed nor spirit-composed tongue, the psyche/spirit is incapable of talking and vice-versa. For one to speak, both psyche/spirit and body have to be together. Like “faith without works is dead being alone“(James 2:26), the body is dead being alone.
Nothing was said about the psyche/spirit that goes to God whether alive or dead. In this narrative, only the psyche/spirit is with God as the body of the slain is still in the earthly tomb. Since the psyche/spirit has stored memories, what is in there can be accessed and can be expressed, not by the psyche/spirit itself as it has no body to be used to vocalize with. This is akin to “dream” where through the mind we appeared to be talking or walking, but actually still asleep; not vocalizing using our tongue nor walking using our legs. This verse that says “the slain cried out with a loud voice“, must be taken as an allegory with memories of the slain longing and hoping for the resurrection with new immortal body. Not that the “slain” actually spoke and voice heard.
3. Do dead people know anything?
Here again, the following are self-explanatory:
King David said, “for the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing… their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, NKJV, see also Psalm 146:4; 115:17
Eccl. 9:10 “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (grave)where you are going”
The preceding has to refer to the body, not the “spirit of man that separated from the body at death and went (with all its memories) to the Father.
4. Jonah praying in the belly of whale
Here is the narrative:
Jonah 1:17 “Now the LORD had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
Jonah 2:1-10 “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish’s belly, And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look againtoward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD. And the LORD spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”
The common teaching was that while in the belly of the big fish, Jonah was alive and praying to God. Was he really alive in the belly of the fish and praying? Remember that he was there in the “belly” for “three days and three nights” after having been swallowed. The answer lies in the actual testimony of Jesus and what happened to him.
Matt. 12:39-40 “A wicked and adulterous generation demands a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Jesus used the story of Jonah as an example of his death and how long he would be in the tomb as the only sign to “a wicked and adulterous generation”. No one disputes the fact that Jesus was dead and was buried. And so, shouldn’t we extrapolate that while in the belly of the big fish, Jonah was dead and was not alive praying? This was confirmed by the description that Jonah was “brought up my life from corruption“, i.e. from death. It is therefore conceivable that while he was still alive, drowning and about to become unconscious, he was praying. He was then resurrected after 3 days and 3 nights like Jesus was.
5. Lazarus/Rich man-story?
When does this narrative find application? The common teaching is that after death, they were still “alive” but Lazarus was in “comfort” at Abraham’s bosom while the rich man was tormented in flames. A number of areas are conflicted here. We now know that when a person dies, he is actually dead, not alive. Also, which hell is referred to? When was this resurrection? Which of the 2 final resurrection was referred to? Let us then go through the whole account for analysis:
Luke 16: 19-31: “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, `Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, `Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, `They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, `No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, `If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.”
This narrative speaks about their death and subsequent resurrection. Lazarus went to “Abraham’s bosom”, while the rich man was resurrected and found himself “in torment”, and “in anguish in this flame”. To begin with, there are 3 types of “hell”, viz., Hades where dead people are buried(entombed), Tartaros where rebellious angels are and Gehenna fire, the final death. Only Gehenna has unquenchable fire. Hades does not have “flame” of fire nor does Tartaros. What was referred to, could only be “Gehenna fire”, which has flames of fire that living people can be tormented till death. The following are other English translations of this story:
Luke 16:23 “While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side.”(CEB). Notice, that the place of the dead was not specified as to any of the 3 types.
Luke 16:22-23 (CPDV) “Then it happened that the beggar died, and he was carried by the Angels into the bosom of Abraham. Now the wealthy man also died, and he was entombed in Hell. Then lifting up his eyes, while he was in torments, he saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom.
Notice from these alternate English translation, that the place where he was buried was in “hell” or Hades-Sheo. But where he was resurrected or “lifted up his eyes” and was in torment, because of the flame, was not specified.
Luke 16:21-23 (DRC1752)”And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. And the rich man also died: and he was buried in hell. And lifting up his eyes when he was in torments, he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom
. Again, notice here that the place where he was buried was in “hell” or Hades-Sheol but where he was resurrected or “lifted up his eyes” and was in torment because of the flame was not specified.
Considering all the preceding, the timing of this resurrection had to be the “second resurrection”(Rev. 20:12-13), post-Millenium; in contrast to the first resurrection to immortal spirit-composed bodies at the beginning of the Millenium(Rev. 20:4-6; I Cor. 15:20; I Thes. 4:16; Rev. 20:4) This is a resurrection of the dead to flesh-composed bodies where people are judged whether to accept the “good news” of salvation and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Those who did, went to Abraham’s bosom for spiritual growth and development to attain salvation/immortality. Those who rejected this final offer, gift and grace of God, were thrown in the Gehenna fire to be tormented till consumed to die. This could only be the reason why Abraham said “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead”; some finality to this punishment.
6. Do we have immortal soul?
Only God is immortal (see 1 Timothy 6:15, 16). Paul says that the righteous “seek for glory, honor, and immortality” (Romans 2:7). If we had immortal souls, why would the righteous seek after something they already have?
When man was created, YHVH ELOHIM (Almighty God) made the body, all parts of it, which is matter-composed from the ground/earth. This “body” of man was not alive until “the breath of life” was breathed into his nostrils by God. This life-giving component came from a spirit being and therefore spirit-composed. These are the 2 components of man, viz., matter-composed body + spirit-composed mind/psyche (aka. spirit of man).
At death, these 2 components separate; the body which is matter-composed goes to the grave (hades), entombed and rot, while the psyche/mind which is spirit-composed goes back to the Creator. The body is dead without the spirit while the mind/psyche without the body cannot speak, praise, vocalize, pray, etc because it is “nobody“. Yet, it is still active, although non-functional, and has embedded memories, desires, longings that allegorically can be expressed.
To be functional, this spirit/psyche/mind combines with either a “glorious, spirit-composed body”, immortal (made by God) at first resurrection that commences at the Millenium and reigns with Jesus on earth. Or, with a “flesh-composed, mortal body” at the second resurrection after the Millenium to have a chance to believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit of power, be guided by that Spirit for spiritual growth and development and eventually to become “son of God” with immortal body. Those who rejected this last chance will be thrown in Gehenna fire to be consumed and die forever, not tormented forever.
The new heavens and earth will therefore be ruled, not by angels, but by the “sons of God” with Jesus as the head of this “kingdom of God”, all spirit-composed. This is the gospel of the “kingdom of God”, the destiny planned by God from the foundation of the world.
May God bless us with this knowledge to enhance our faith in Him.
1. Stokes, Mark, Brain Metrics: Retrieved 5/4/17 from:
2. Horizon Research Foundation: Spikes in EEG at time of Death. Retrieved 5/4/17 from:
3. Tsakiris, Alex, EEG Expert Can’t Explain Near Death Experience Data… and, Dr. Penny Sartori Finds More Than Hallucinations in NDE Accounts. Retrieved 5/4/17 from:
Revised 5/10/17, 10/15/2017
DEDICATED to a friend whose funeral we attended December 2012 in Inverness, Illinois