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What happens when we die?

Unless Jesus returns first, we will all die. Most of us have lost someone we loved to death. So, we all want to know what happens when we die. Let's look at what God's word says, and then see how it relates to our lives today.

What God says

First, we will all die, unless Jesus returns first.

Hebrews 9:27 says, "People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment."  Death comes for us all. Psalm 49:10: "All can see that the wise die, that the foolish and the senseless also perish, leaving their wealth to others." Neither wisdom nor wealth can prevent it. James 4:14: "Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes." This is true of us all.

Second, we die so we can live eternally.

People often wonder why death exists. If God were all-loving, he'd want to destroy death, we assume. If he were all-powerful, he could. But he doesn't. Why not?  Because of sin. The thief said, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve" (Luke 23:41). The Bible agrees.

Romans 5:12 says, "Sin entered the world through man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned." This wasn't God's intention. He created a perfect world, with eternal life with him. But when sin entered, death stayed. Death exists not because God doesn't love us or isn't powerful, but because of sin.

Now God had a choice. We could live forever in these fallen, sinful bodies and world, or we could step through death into eternity in paradise. God's word is clear: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable" (1 Cor. 15:50). And so physical death frees us to live forever in glorified bodies, with God in his heaven.

Then, one day death will be destroyed forever. Revelation 20:14 says, "Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire."  Revelation 21:4 is clear: "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

Third, death is eternal punishment for nonbelievers.

Revelation 20:15 says, "Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." In Luke 16 Jesus described hell as eternal torment. This is eternal separation from God. None of us wants this. This is why it's so important to do what the thief did—to choose Jesus today. And to tell those you know tomorrow. So be ready now. The Lord said to King Hezekiah, "Put your house in order, because you are going to die" (2 Kings 20:1).

Fourth, believers are with Jesus.

Our Lord told the thief, "Today you will be with me in paradise." This was a Persian word for the walled garden of the king. Not only would the thief receive eternal life, he would spend it with the King himself! "Today," he said. According to Scripture, only a Christian can receive this promise.

Paul: "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil. 1:23). Jesus taught us that the moment we die, the angels carry us to God's side (Luke 16:22). When we close our eyes here we open them there. We never die! We are forever and always with Jesus.

Imagine a small boy who falls asleep in the back seat of the car. When the family gets home, his father picks him up and carries him into the house. When he wakes up, he's home. That's exactly what happens for us, if Jesus is our Lord.

Fifth, we are in glory. It is paradise, as Jesus said.

Paul said "to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21). Revelation 14:13 says, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord." We will know God and each other as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12). And Revelation 22 promises that we will eat of the tree of life and live forever.

What should we do now?

So what now? Let's learn from the thief.

Jesus was and is the sinless, perfect Messiah, the only one who can get you off your cross of mortality. Don't look to the soldiers, the authorities, the religious leaders, or your own wealth or status—the nails are secure. There's only one Savior.

Do what the thief did. Turn to him now. Ask him to forgive your sin, and save you from hell and for heaven. Turn your life over to him now. For you have only today. And know that he will answer you. This is one prayer he always answers for us as he answered it for him: Today you will be with me in Paradise!"

God doesn't care about your past, only your future. If this thief could be with Jesus in Paradise, so can you. But only this way, for we're all thieves. We're all sinners. We're all nailed to the cross of mortality. And there's only one way down. How ironic: a crucified criminal was the first Christian in heaven. Not an apostle, or rabbi, or priest, but a thief. Just like us.

What about those you love who are heaven? For them it will only be a moment before they see you again. There is no time in heaven. They don't feel the separation we feel. In heaven there is "no more death or mourning or crying or pain." For them, you will be united again momentarily, and eternally.

If this were your day, would you be ready? Are you ready now to meet God? Is Jesus your Savior? Are your sins confessed? Are things right in your marriage, and family, and relationships? Are you ready to meet God? The choice is with you.

Conclusion

One of the most powerful sermons on our theme was preached many years ago by Arthur John Gossip as he spoke at his wife's funeral after her dramatically-sudden death. Gossip noted:

In the New Testament . . . you hear a great deal about the saints in glory, and the sunshine, and the singing, and the splendour [sic] yonder. And, surely, that is where our thoughts should dwell. I for one want no melancholious tunes, no grey and sobbing words, but brave hymns telling of their victory. . . . Think out your brooding. What exactly does it mean?  Would you pluck the diadem from their brows again? Would you snatch the palms of victory out of their hands? Dare you compare the clumsy nothings our poor blundering love can give them here with what they must have yonder where Christ Himself has met them, and was heaped on them who can think out what happiness and glory?

I love to picture it. How, shyly, amazed, half protesting, she who never thought of self was led into the splendour [sic] of her glory. . . . To us it will be long and lonesome: but they won't even have looked round them before we burst in. In any case, are we to let our dearest be wrenched out of our hands by force? Or, seeing that it has to be, will we not give them willingly and proudly, looking God in the eyes, and telling Him that we prefer our loneliness rather than that they should miss one tittle of their rights. . . .

When we are young, heaven is a vague and nebulous and shadowy place. But as our friends gather there, more and more it gains body and vividness and homeliness. And when our dearest have passed yonder, how real and evident it grows, how near it is, how often we steal yonder. For as the Master put it: Where our treasure is, there will our heart be also" (quoted in Yandall Woodfin, With All Your Mind, 231).

Where is your treasure today?

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