The Christian View of Death

by | Mar 20, 2024 | Theology

Our church recently experienced a number of deaths among us, including one of our founding pastors dealing with the passing of each of his parents within months of one another. This difficult season has prompted me to address the subject theologically so that we will have hope as we grieve, be ready for death ourselves, and help others prepare likewise.1

One might ask: what is it about the way that Christians view death that distinguishes a Christian view of death from non-Christian views of death? A natural place to start would be to provide a sampling of varied non-Christian views in order to set up a clear contrast with the Christian view.

A Sampling of Non-Christian Views

Some non-Christians hold that when someone dies, they die just like any other organism. That’s it. When you’re dead, you’re dead. From this perspective, if the person who died was suffering a lot at the time of death, then death could be viewed positively. It is the end of struggle and pain.

Along these lines, some unbelievers hold that death is a natural part of the cycle of life and ought to be embraced to some extent. The Lion King popularized the concept of “the circle of life.” Within this paradigm, death is just like the changing of the seasons: springtime, summer, fall, and winter. It’s part of the cyclical design of the universe, and everything that is natural ought to be appreciated and accepted for what it is rather than avoided as a bad thing, per se. The non-Christian concept of reincarnation is somewhere along this spectrum by asserting that death is not the end, but we continue to live on in some way, meaning that death is just the changing of a season of life. Conceptions of souls hanging around as ghosts or spirits would also fit somewhere along this spectrum. The person has not been annihilated nor are they elsewhere. They’re just in a new season and a different form.

Other non-Christians hold that there is some kind of judgment before some kind of god or against some kind of standard, and that we face reward or punishment after death for how we have lived. From old pagan conceptions of the afterlife like Valhalla and Hel to Islamic conceptions of Jannah and Jahannam, and many other varying conceptions in other religious systems, there is a commonality of belief that your ends correspond to your deeds in some way.

Finally, some non-Christian conceptions of death assert that there is a need for the people who are still living to do something for the departed souls to reach their final state of blessedness. The Barbadian practice of a “wake” assumes that a person’s soul is waiting around near their body, and that friends and family of the deceased ought to delay burying the person too quickly before their soul leaves to be with God. The implicit assumption is that what the living do can affect the trajectory of souls after death. Thus it fits in this category of non-Christian conceptions of death. The Roman Catholic conception of praying for the souls of the dead also fits in this category since it likewise assumes that what the living do can affect the trajectory of souls after death.

Of course, the aforementioned views are not an exhaustive list, but they do provide a backdrop against which we can present the Christian view of death in clear contrast. The Christian view asserts that death is not the end of a person’s existence, contrary to some non-Christian views. Nor is it something to be accepted or embraced as if death was natural. It sometimes results in a merit-based outcome for the soul, and other times it doesn’t. Lastly, the Christian view of death is that God puts the soul where it belongs after death, apart from any requisite involvement of those who are still living. Let’s consider each of these assertions briefly, in turn.

The Christian View

First, the Christian view asserts that death is not the end of a person’s existence. Like some other non-Christian views, the Christian view agrees that humans do not simply die like other organisms, but there is a non-body component of our personhood which lives on after the body has died.2 Namely; the soul, or spirit, lives on. However, this separation of body and soul is anything but natural and acceptable. In the beginning, God created man to have two constituent parts: his body and his non-body, which is his soul, or his spirit (Gen. 1:27; 2:7). Death is the horrifyingly unnatural dis-integration of what God created to be integrated together in a person. Thus, death is a consequence of mankind’s fall into sin and is called an enemy (Gen. 2:17; 1 Cor. 15:26). Therefore, while Christians do not need to fear death (Heb. 2:14-15), we do nevertheless view it as a negative and unnatural phenomenon, and we grieve over it (1 Thess. 4:13).

Next, Christians reject the non-Christian view of reincarnation and assert instead that the soul proceeds immediately either to heaven or hell. The souls of the departed do not hang around as ghosts nor do they enter an interim state, but they proceed immediately to the place they have been assigned to be for eternity. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 implies that the souls of Christians are either in our bodies and “away” spatially from the Lord, or our souls are “away” spatially from our bodies and “at home” or “present” with the Lord. There is no conceivable third option.

Likewise, in Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells a parable indicating that the souls of departed non-Christians are presently “in anguish.” Now, I am well aware that this is a parable and perhaps not every detail ought not to be assumed to correspond directly to what happens when non-Christians die. For example, within the parable the non-Christian has a tongue (Luke 16:24) while in reality he would have been a disembodied soul while “in anguish.” In that state, he would await the general resurrection, when his soul would be reunited with his body again to be “in anguish” together (John 5:28-29). So we can recognize that not all of the details in this parable ought to correspond directly to the present state of things for non-Christians who have died. However, without its description of the afterlife, this parable would be toothless and a moot point of warning to non-Christians who are called to “hear Moses and the prophets” before it is too late. This is the obvious motivating reason for Jesus to tell the parable in the first place. So Christians assert that the soul proceeds immediately after death either to heaven or hell, and as our 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith states, “besides these two places, for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none” (Chapter 32, Paragraph 1).

Now some non-Christians may agree with the broad categories of blessedness or punishments after death, and perhaps even a corresponding spatial location for both which Christians call “heaven” and “hell.” However, what distinguishes the Christian view from theirs is that according to the Christian view we will not receive merit-based rewards. Yes, you read that right. Let me explain myself. The Christian view is that a person’s end corresponds to his deeds with respect to punishment, but not with respect to blessedness.

Why do some people end up in hell? Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death.” So when you do the work of sin, the wages you get paid is death. You get what you earned. The Scripture is abundantly clear that God sends no innocent person to hell, but given the reality that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) each person is “condemned already” apart from faith in Jesus (John 3:18). So Christians would agree with those non-Christians who believe in hell and assert that the only people who end up in hell are those who deserve to be there.

However, there is an important point of disagreement. Namely; Christians assert that we all deserve to be in hell. Remember, “all have sinned” and, therefore, we are “condemned already” (Rom. 3:23; John 3:18). The Christian understanding of sin is more severe than non-Christians who typically divide the world between “those who deserve to go to hell” and “those who don’t deserve to go to hell.” Our worldview only allows for one category of the fallen children of Adam: we are all among those who deserve to go to hell.

Why then do some people go to heaven? Is it because they deserve to be there? It cannot be so, if indeed we all deserve to go to hell. Romans 6:23 goes on to say, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thus, there is an asymmetry in the eternal destinations of mankind. Hell is earned. Heaven is a gift. At the end of a pay period, do you ask your employer for the gift of your wages, or do you expect to be paid what you are owed? Expecting and demanding wages is not unreasonable, for they are earned. They are yours now to possess. But ought a child to demand a birthday gift or a Christmas gift? No. To do so would be to misunderstand the nature of a gift. Likewise, no one may earn eternal life in heaven. It must be received as a gift. And it is given, as Romans 6:23 says, “in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus came into this world in order to live in such a way that deserves eternal blessedness as a representative and vicarious substitute for people who deserve to be punished for our sin. And he bore the hell that we deserve on the cross. So he takes what we deserve in our place, and gives us what he deserves instead. By relying upon and trusting in what Jesus has done for us rather than our own performance (which is what the Bible means by “faith”), we receive what he gives us freely as a gift (heaven), and we no longer receive what we have earned (hell). We trade our terrible wages (death) for a wonderful gift (life) held out to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Summary and Important Considerations

In summary, is there anything anyone still living has to do (or can do) for the soul of a deceased loved one to enter into heaven? No. We could never atone for the sins of another. We can’t even atone for our own sins! Only Jesus can do that. Nor can we accomplish enough righteousness on behalf of deceased loved ones for them to become acceptable to God, for even “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is. 64:6). They are, therefore, unsuitable to please God on our own behalf, or on behalf of another. Again, only Jesus can give any of our loved ones the perfect righteousness required to be justified before God. Our hope for deceased loved ones can only be in the righteousness and atonement of Christ. He is the only hope there ever is for people like us who are “condemned already” because of our sins and are on our way to hell apart from faith in Christ (John 3:16-18). Therefore, things like praying for the dead, lighting candles, delaying burial, or any other ceremonies or rites are utterly ineffective. It’s all about the relationship of the deceased person to Jesus.

Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” After death it is too late to change one’s mind about Jesus. Let us all, therefore, look to him in faith while we are living. Don’t delay. “As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts…’” Moreover, having believed, let us lovingly and winsomely endeavor to have meaningful conversations about life and death, heaven and hell, with those we love and point others to the free gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

1. I first addressed the Christian view of death by releasing a podcast on the subject. This article is a (lightly!) condensed and edited summary of that podcast episode.
2. Though some Christians hold a trichotomous view of a human being, which means that we are composed of three parts, body, soul, and spirit, I hold a dichotomous view which means that we are composed of two parts: body and non-body. In the dichotomous view, the terms soul and spirit may be used interchangeably and I will do so throughout the remainder of this article.

Find Content by Category

Find Content by Month