What happens the moment you die? Popular theologians weigh in

A photo of a woman holding the hand of her mother who is dying from cancer during her final hours at a palliative care hospital in Winnipeg.
Reuters/Shaun Best

Pastors H.B. Charles Jr. and Ligon Duncan discussed what the Bible teaches about the moment believers die and identified some common pitfalls Christians fall into when thinking about death. 

In a recent episode of the Gospel Coalition podcast, Duncan, chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary, said the Apostle Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2nd Corinthians 5)

Thus, one of the things Bible-believing Christians can know about the “intermediate state” — our position between the time we die and the time Christ consummates His Kingdom — “is that we go immediately to the presence of Christ,” he said.

“That's important for assurance of salvation. It’s important for comfort in the wake of the death of a loved one,” Duncan said. 

Yet, in efforts to be “corrective,” evangelical writing over the last two decades has “downplayed the hope that believers have in the intermediate state, and has up-played the final resurrection and the new Heavens and the new Earth,” he contended. 

“Obviously, those things are huge for believers,” the pastor said. “We really care about the coming of Christ, the final resurrection, the future glory, the new Heavens and the new Earth. Those are huge truths that do need to be emphasized in the Christian life. But if the greatest thing in all of life here or hereafter is the experience of the presence of God, to know that the moment that you die, immediately you were in the presence of Christ, there's no greater comfort than that.”

The idea of immediately entering into the presence of Christ caused the Apostle Paul to vacillate between a desire to serve Christ in the world and leave by death to experience the presence of Christ.

“All believers ought to want that more than anything else, to be in the presence of Christ,” Duncan stressed. 

Charles, the pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, suggested that other times, Christians can fall into “being too preoccupied with the here and now, and forgetting that our hope is in a reality that transcends the present state of things.”

“If our hope in Christ is just in this life, we're the most pitiful people in the world,” he said. “We've missed the party. But the hope of the believer is that we will be with the Lord. And that our hope transcends the grave, and the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the hope for the future resurrection of the believer.”

The hope for the future resurrection “is a pledge of what's coming after us as we trust in Him,” Duncan added. “We love and serve a resurrected Lord, and the principle that Jesus constantly teaches His disciples in the Gospels is what happens to the master happens to the disciples.”

“If He is raised, so shall we,” he concluded. “That reality changes everything.”

Ligon Duncan
H.B. Charles, Ligon Duncan |

Roughly seven-in-10 (72%) Americans say they believe in Heaven — defined as a place “where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” according to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study.

But at the same time, 58% of U.S. adults also believe in Hell — a place “where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

In an earlier Q&A, prominent pastor John Piper said Scripture is clear that “after death there is not oblivion or sleep, unconsciousness. There is life in torment or in bliss.” 

Knowing that death ushers us directly into either Heaven or Hell, he said, should give Christians great comfort. 

“Christians have a double encouragement for those who are dying or have died. For the believer who trusts in Jesus Christ, Christ’s blood and righteousness have removed the condemnation for every believer and secured for us both final resurrection of the body in a new Heaven and a new Earth, and now, after death, an intimate, sweet experience of being in Christ’s presence between death and resurrection,” Piper said.

“It is a blessed hope in both ways,” he added. “We are safe. We are safe in Him now, we will be safe in His presence at the moment of death, and we will be supremely happy in a new and healthy body forever and ever in the new heavens and the new Earth.”

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