The question, “What happens when I die?” is one of the great existential questions of life. These questions are universal, not limited by cultural context, age, or any other variable. It is truly a universal question. Of course, the answers differ. Today, though, let us limit our thinking to the question.
My experience is that, mostly, people avoid the question rather than confront it or debate it. If it is debated, I have observed that it is done so in the most detached, academic manner. I suspect this is a way of protecting oneself against the visceral fears that could cripple one’s life if the matter were considered personally. However, I propose that addressing the matter of the after-life—i.e., that branch of inquiry called personal eschatology—on any level but personal is ultimately unhelpful, if not. For instance, we certainly don’t consider the matter of, say, options in treatment for a life-threatening disease by detached theorizing. It is personal. We get involved. We do our work. We research. We ask questions. We seek so that we can find.
As a pastor and a teaching theologian, the state of the soul after the cessation of human life—the finality of existence in this world, not surprisingly, this has been one of the more frequent questions I have received in my career as a minister of the Gospel. Also, not surprisingly, the question of the immortality of the soul and “what happens when we die” arises, not in the form of an academic question, but in the context of crisis. Mostly, my classrooms for this subject have been hospital cancer wards and emergency rooms.
If you are familiar with my writings, you will undoubtedly know my answer. It would be altogether easier to state my response in succinct terms, and the matter would be over (for me, anyway). However, such brevity doesn’t make for good reading or argument. So, let me tell you a story—not a “once upon a time” story—but an event that happened early in my ministry.
True to form, the incident occurred in a hospital ward. The hospital could have been from the 1920s or the 1970s. For it appeared to me that not much had changed. I sat with a family going through that most holy of moments in family life, and one of the great privileges of any pastor: the vigil. In such times, people gather, literally, waiting for their loved ones to die. I have had some of the most memorable times in ministry during vigils. The singular encounter I relate to now remains amongst those most indelible.
The Question Put in Practice
I was a young pastor. I was on assignment as a pastoral care intern in another congregation— “on loan,” one might say. My assignment? I was dispatched by church leadership to be with a family I didn’t know. I was told that the Henley Family was gathered at the community nursing home. The family had requested a pastoral presence. I would find Mr. Henley, a long-time member, in room 201. His wife of sixty-some-odd years would be there to greet me. Mr. Henley’s son and wife would also be there.
After parking my car, I opened my Bible to a passage that would be my “pastoral anchor” as I sought to minister Christian hope to this family:
“For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2:27, 28 ESV).
The family greeted me at the lobby of this prestigious elderly care facility. Formal introductions in hushed tones formed the introduction to the family. They asked me to follow them to Mr. Henley’s room.
Mr. Henley, nearing 100 years of age, a long-time believer and leading member of this particular congregation, had also been a prominent attorney in the community. He was known as a godly, devoted family man. He had served for many years as an elder at his church. The family—Mrs. Henley and her adult son, *Mark, and his wife, *Brenda—were gathered in a family vigil. Without a doubt, Mr. Henley was dying. The widow-in-waiting, *Mrs. Loula Henley broke the silence otherwise interrupted only by the portentous death-rattle of her semi-conscious husband: “Pastor, what happens to the soul when one dies?”
It would be a familiar scene in my ministry to come. But this was my first.
The Question Answered in Promise
Even the most fastidious closet-theologian must admit that the occasion and response to this kind of question has unique emotional variables that condition both the question and response. For Mrs. Henley, she had known the answer to that question for all of her life. Reared in an evangelical church, she had been taught the truth all of her life: “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV). But shock, grief, and the anticipation of loss can challenge the human soul. Physically, those invasive emotions can disrupt the mysterious and divinely-designed complexities of indexing and connecting brain cells to produce memory., Moreover, the minister has to carefully balance dogmatic exactitudes, along with the possibility of truth in tension, what you know and what you don’t know that you don’t known, pastoral wisdom (sensitivity and truth-telling), and what my Aunt Eva, who reared me, called, “manners.”
Yet, the call has come. I must index Scripture, theology, and pastoral practise in seconds. I am instantly transported, by virtue of both brain cells and the Spirit, to Dr. Robert L. Reymond’s classes in which he taught personal eschatology:
[Enter that enigmatic, often conflicted cranium of pulsating, gray, hemispherical-placed tissue, neurons, blood vessels, and magnificent wonder. Recognize the power of the Holy Spirit as He teaches me, in that very instant, what Jesus taught, according to my faithfulness to hear, digest, and appropriate: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26 ESV).]
1. The Present State
a. You are soul and body, once without sin; now, if unregenerate are under judgment, and your will is bound to do what your rebel heart desires. If you have been saved from both the consequences of the fall and the future punishment awaiting you, you are in a place that is possible to sin and possible not to sin. Saved by grace, you are nevertheless endowed with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to exercise a grace-granted “freedom of the will.” In short, you may follow God’s law. To wit:
i. Your body and soul, like all of Creation, are marred by the Fall and its consequences: Paradise Lost.
ii. Your body and soul need redeeming from the Fall.
iii. Jesus Christ is the Redeemer according to the Covenant of Grace.
When the Gospel is proclaimed and received by faith, the benefits of redemption are imputed to you (you receive Christ’s righteousness and His atoning sacrifice on the Cross; Christ received your sin and punishment for sin). By divine virtue of this Great Exchange, you pass from death and judgment to forgiveness and eternal life:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (John 5:24 ESV).
Not so the unrepentant. The soul remains in a fallen state, responsible for the terms of the Covenant of Works (the soul that sins must die). While, the pastor, nor the parishioner, for that matter, need not recite the words in the difficult moment, a life of teaching a compendium of the Faith once delivered (Judge 3), such as in the Westminster Confession of Faith, set forth the terms of what happens when we die with unambiguous terms with an ingenious economy of words:
- The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect of holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies. And the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Beside these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none.
- At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the self-same bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls for ever.
iii. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour: the bodies of the just, by His Spirit, unto honour; and be made conformable to His own glorious body.
Mental Indexing and Connecting
The Present State: We live, either for Christ or “the devil, the flesh, and the world.”
The Intermediate State (not Purgatory, but that state between our death and the Second Coming of Christ and the Great Resurrection): We die. The human soul, our person, goes immediately to either the presence of God or is ushered away into darkness and reserved for eternal punishment.
The Final State: Jesus Christ comes again in glory. The dead bodies, in Christ, are resurrected (whether ashes or dust, whether at the bottom of the ocean or in outer space) and caught up to be with the Lord. Those who are alive also caught up with a new resurrected body. The faithful are raised to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. Others, including those already in the Intermediate State, are raised unto a Great Judgement and a divine sentence, brought upon themselves, of eternal punishment.
A New Heaven and a New Earth are ushered in. And in some grand way on a scale hitherto unknown or imagined by the human mind, the Son, the Mediator of the Covenant, hands over the Kingdom that He secured by His life and death, to the Father, that the Triune God might become all in all (1 Corinthians 15: 28).
Back to the Future
“Pastor . . .” It had been only seconds, back to Mr. Henley. I opened my Bible and asked Mrs. Henley to read the Scripture (I sensed that the exercise was not insensitive, but, rather, held the potential for nourishment in her wilderness). Mrs. Henley wiped her eyes, sought to compose herself as if she were the selected Reader for the Sunday reading of the Epistles. She nervously adjusted her 1950s-framed-spectacles before leaning in to read.
“Go ahead, Mrs. Henley. I want to hear this, too.”
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8 KJV).
Mrs. Henley looked up again, as her carefully coiffed silver head raised up from the sacred pages. The woman’s eyes met my own. Then, the sound.
A baleful blast from one of the several life-sustaining medical devices signaled a change. I backed away, holding Mrs. Henley. The adult son and his wife also left the room. The dutiful medical personnel rushed in. In a moment, it was over. The attending physician, who was as concerned about that centenarian as he might have been over a child, embraced Mrs. Henley without words. Soon, the new wisdom, her son, and daughter-in-law were embraced as one. As I prayed with the family and began to depart, my footsteps echoing off of the hard surface of the floor, I heard the click of a woman’s heels. Mrs. Henley was following me, her family watching in the background, near the door to the late Mr. Henley’s room.
“Pastor, I just wanted to tell you: According to the Bible, my Johnny—my husband—is with the Lord.”
I put my right hand on her shoulder, seeking to agree. “Yes, Ma’am. You are right. Your husband’s faith in Jesus Christ had become his biography. He is with Christ.”
Mrs. Henley looked away at a future dream only she could imagine. She turned to say “thank you” with her eyes. I said goodbye to her with a promise:
“Ma’am: You. Will. See. Your husband. Again.”
Jesus, our Lord, says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
Quite simply—gloriously, and miraculously—the destiny of your soul is inextricably and eternally tethered to the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is risen. If you will receive Him, you will pass from judgment to life.
Repent of your sin. Trust in Christ alone. Don’t take my word for it. Read His Word.
And rest assured.
Carruthers, S. W. The Westminster Confession of Faith : Being an Account of the Preparation and Printing of Its Seven Leading Editions ; to Which Is Appended a Critical Text of the Confession with Notes Thereon. Greenville, S.C.: Reformed Academic Press, 1995.
Grieb, A. Katherine. “Last Things First: Karl Barth’s Theological Exegesis of 1 Corinthians in The Resurrection of the Dead.” Scottish Journal of Theology 56, no. 1 (February 2003): 49–64. Accessed December 22, 2020. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/scottish-journal-of-theology/article/abs/last-things-first-karl-barths-theological-exegesis-of-1-corinthians-in-the-resurrection-of-the-dead/4040FFBCAB7A86037985AEBE0FF3B959#access-block.
Hunt, Nigel C. Memory, War and Trauma. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Ladd, George Eldon. The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974.
Levine, Peter A. Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books, 2015.
Moltmann, Jurgen. The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology. Fortress Press, 2004.
Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015.
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020.
Robison, Jay D. Life after Death?: Christian Interpretation of Personal Eschatology. Lang, 1998.
Van Wyk, J.H. “John Calvin on the Kingdom of God and Eschatology : Research Article.” In die Skriflig 35, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 191–206.
Walls, Jerry. The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology. OUP USA, 2010.
“Westminster Confession of Faith.” Faith Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Accessed December 22, 2020. https://www.faithopc.org/content.cfm?id=9033.
 Jerry Walls, The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (OUP USA, 2010); J.H. Van Wyk, “John Calvin on the Kingdom of God and Eschatology : Research Article,” In die Skriflig 35, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 191–206; Jay D. Robison, Life after Death?: Christian Interpretation of Personal Eschatology (Lang, 1998); Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (Fortress Press, 2004).
 The name is a pseudonym for the sake of privacy. I will use an asterisk before the name for other cases.
 For me, a “closet theologian” is that erudite soul who studies theology apart from human beings. Of course, a theology that cannot preach is no theology at all.
 Peter A. Levine, Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past: A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory (North Atlantic Books, 2015).
 Nigel C. Hunt, Memory, War and Trauma (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
 Much of Western manners, and, certainly English-speaking manners, are adaptations of Scripture for daily living. In this case, I believe the “manners” is linked to, e.g., Proverbs 25:11: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver” (NKJV).
 See, e.g., John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2015).
 See George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1974).
 “Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” This is truth that is inconceivable by the human mind. Even the greatest of our doctors of the Church have bowed before this verse as so ethereal it defies explanation. For this reason, then, the very reading of the passage excites the soul, tantalizes the mind, and engenders an awe and wonder not born in this world. Perhaps, we do well to listen to Paul: “There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another” (1 Corinthians 15:40 ESV). Some things are so glorious, we must merely say, “Yes, my Lord.”
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”