What happens at death for believer and unbeliever?


(image courtesy ChristArt)

By Spencer D. Gear

It is not unusual to hear or read comments like this in person or in an online Forum or blog, ‘There is no Hell, Hell was devised to scare people into believing in God. Believe or spend eternity in horrible pain, the choice is yours. God doesn’t send people to hell people send themselves to hell’ (Valdarama; this was formerly in the thread, ‘The debate on eternal hell fire’, Christian Forums, but it is now deleted).

The garbage of hell

In person, I have received the comment when the subject of hell was raised and I gave Jesus’ view, ‘You don’t believe in that garbage do you? That’s the stuff of fantasy land’

How do we respond? This is only a brief overview of what happens at death for all people.

1. If we start in the Bible with Romans 3:23 and the wages of sin being death, we have to ask the question, What is the nature of death? If we go way back to the beginning of the world and the fall into sin, we read that God said:

But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Gen. 2:17 ESV).

When Adam and Eve sinned did they die, with their life ceasing? No! What happened?

‘Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him….’ (Gen. 2:8-9 ESV).

So, physical death did not come. Therefore, death was not meant to indicate the cessation of physical existence with the last breath breathed. When death came to our first parents, guilt came so that Adam hid from the presence of God. With this kind of death came guilt. In other words, it meant separation from God because of sin.

2. But what happens at physical death for people? In Ecclesiastes 12:7 we learn that at death, ‘the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (ESV). Concerning the body, this is something like what is emphasised in Gen. 3:19, ‘….for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.

So this confirms that human beings have something (body/flesh) that returns to dust but the ‘spirit returns to God’. So this is a clear statement that human beings are more than flesh, but they have an inner being that the ESV translates as ‘spirit’. Old Testament commentator, H. C. Leupold, states,

This verse refers to a coming into judgment, and the very thought of judgment denotes a personal responsibility of the spirit that returns to God. Why should that spirit have lost its personality? We shall not on the basis of this passage attempt to build up a full doctrine of the Old Testament concerning life eternal. This doctrine was simply not yet revealed in all its fullness to the Old Testament saints…. It tells every attentive reader: You personally will at your death appear before the judgment seat of God, therefore get ready.[1]

3. But if that spirit returns to God, does that mean that all people are in God’s holy and blessed presence and are experiencing bliss at death? If that were so, that would be the false teaching of universalism – all being saved. We know from Scripture that,

But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God (John 1:12-13).

4. Verses such as Matt. 25:41, Matt. 3:12 and Luke 16:23-24 speak of the wicked experiencing punishment in eternal fire. And that the punishment of the wicked was as long – eternal – as the length of life for the Christians. But isn’t there language in the Bible that talks about ‘destruction’ for the wicked? How do you align eternal punishment (meaning punishing) with destruction? I’m thinking of verses like Matt. 7:13,

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many’ (ESV).

Possible conflict: fire vs. annihilation

Is there a possible conflict here between eternal fire and destruction? Those who support annihilation believe that ‘destruction’ means extinction or annihilation. However, even in English, destruction does not mean extinction. When I backed my car over my son’s toy, it was destroyed, but not annihilated.

If we took some isolated Scriptures, it may be possible to take these passages to mean annihilation. I’m thinking of the word, “destroy”, in Matt. 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Greek: Gehenna]” (ESV). Even with passages such as Matt. 7:13-14 where the broad road leads to destruction and John 3:16, “Whoever believes in him shall not perish” could be pressed to try to get the meaning of annihilation. Even if we took the following passages alone without consideration of other passages, there is a possibility that extermination/extinction of the wicked could be an interpretation: John 10:28; 17:12; Romans 2:12; 9:22; Philippians 1:28; 3:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:3; Hebrews 10:39; James 4:12 and 2 Peter 3:7, 9. However, there’s a big barrier to this kind of interpretation.

There are verses that are impossible to square with destruction meaning annihilation. Second Thessalonians 1:9 is one of those barriers. It reads, “They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (ESV). Who are “they”? They are “those who do not know God” and “do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess. 1:8). This is referring to unbelievers. The words from 2 Thess. 1:9, “everlasting destruction”, could hardly mean “everlasting annihilation”. This verse creates the added problem against annihilation that the ungodly will be “away from the presence of the Lord”, which indicates that their existence is continuing but they will be shut out from being in God’s presence. If one were to speak of being “destroyed” from the presence of the Lord, it would imply non-existence. Scot McKnight put it this way:

“Paul has in mind an irreversible verdict of eternal nonfellowship with God. A person exists but remains excluded from God’s good presence”.[2]

5. The story in Luke 16:19-31 about the rich man and Lazarus may be a true story as the name of Lazarus is used and names are not used in parables. It provides accurate information of what happens at death if one regards it as a parable. It does give an indication of what happens at death prior to Christ’s death and resurrection:

  • Clearly death is not the end of existence as….
  • Lazarus, the poor man, was by Abraham’s side in life after death (16:22);
  • The rich man was in Hades in torment (Luke 16:23).

6. There’s a third aspect to death that is described in the Bible. This is known as the ‘second death’ or eternal death and is expressed in Scriptures such as, Revelation 21:8,

‘But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars —they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death’ (NIV).

This ‘second death’, also known as eternal death, is the final state of unbelievers. ‘The second death is an endless period of punishment and of separation from the presence of God, the finalization of the lost state of the individual who is spiritually dead at the time of physical death’ (Erickson 1985:1170).

We know from Revelation 20:6 that Christian believers will not experience the second death.

However, as from the beginning of the universe, death does not mean extinction of existence, but separation from God.

That’s my quick overview of what happens at death for believer and non-believer.

For further information on life after death, see my articles:


[1] H. C. Leupold 1969. Exposition of Ecclesiastes. London: Evangelical Press, p. 297. This is a reprint of the original publication in 1942 by The Wartburg Press.

[2] In Robert A. Peterson 1995. Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, p. 163.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 9 June 2016.