What Happens When a Christian Dies?

Date Posted: April 2nd, 2012

He shared their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death… and free those who… were held in slavery by their fear of death.  Hebrews 2:14-15

When Jesus died, something happened that can change the nature of death for you, to such a degree that you can be released from the slavery that comes from the fear of death.  What happened when Jesus died?  What will happen when you die?

Two very different accounts of death

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow… if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  Matthew 26:38-39
Come with me to a garden and see a man in great agony of soul.  Jesus says is overwhelmed with sorrow and He cries out Father.  He is appalled at the thought of what lies ahead.  But what is this cup that He longed to have taken from him?  Is He afraid of the physical pain?

Contrast that with the account of these Christian martyrs… It is Oxford, England, and the year is 1555.  Two men, Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, refuse to recant and are sentenced to be tied to a stick and burned.  As they’re brought out, Latimer says to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”  Were Ridley and Latimer braver than Jesus?

Two dimensions of death

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  Matthew 10:28

The Bible speaks of death in two dimensions.  There is physical death—what happens to the body, and there is what the Bible calls “the second death” (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).

Jesus was talking about, not the first death, but the second death when He said this.

The first death happens to five thousand people in our country every day.  The second death is the judgment of God that will be poured out on the last day.  Jesus Christ experienced the first death and the second death at the same time. 

When Jesus died, wicked men were pouring out their hatred on the Son of God, using a cross as their instrument of torture.  Jesus was bearing the wrath of men.  But at the same time, Christ was bearing the wrath of God, “He bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).  

What happened when Jesus died?

He suffered death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.  Hebrews 2:9

When the Bible says that Jesus “tasted death for everyone,” it means He tasted both dimensions of death together.  He died in sin!  Not His own sins, but the sins of the world that were counted as His.  And He faced the wrath of God.  He was alienated from God in His suffering.  That is why he cried out “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The sting of death is sin.  Sin ushers us into the second death.  Christ tasted death with the sting. That’s what was so appalling about it.  But He drew the sting, and that’s why Ridley and Latimer could face death with such courage.  They knew that they faced death without the sting.

Death is still a dark valley, but Christ has swept the enemies out of the valley, so that death for the Christian is no longer a passage into God’s judgment, but a passage into God’s presence, “by his death, he… destroy[ed] him who has the power of death, that is the devil” (Hebrews 2:14).

Satan’s aim is to steal and kill and destroy.  Death brought final exclusion from the presence of God, but that power has now been broken, “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51).  Christian, you will never taste death as Christ tasted it.

What happens when a Christian dies

What will happen to you when you walk through the dark valley of death?

Christ will meet you

“When the evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he [Jesus] was alone on the land.  He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake.”  Mark 6:47-48

Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray, and when the disciples saw Him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost.  They were terrified, but Jesus said to them, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid” (6:50).  Then He climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. 

Death is not some hidden terror for the Christian; it is Jesus coming to take you home.  The experience may be a frightening one—some Christians die peacefully, and other Christians die with a struggle, but that struggle will soon be over.  What matters is that Jesus is coming to them.

Death is like the disciples straining at the oars.  The winds may make it a great struggle, the darkness may make it seem frightening, and you may wonder, “What in the world is happening?”  But take courage, what is happening is that Jesus is coming to take you home.

Christ will stand with you

Here am I, and the children God has given me.”  Hebrews 2:13

You will not stand in the presence of God in your sins.  You will not stand in the presence of God alone.  You will be presented, in the presence of God, by the Lord Jesus Christ.  Everything hangs on this relationship in which Christ says, “He’s mine! She’s mine!”

Do you see what a privilege it is to be a Christian?  When you are set free from the fear of death, you are able to live life.  When you know how to die, you discover how to live.

 This LifeKey is based on the message “Death,” by Pastor Colin S. Smith, from the series, “Unlocking the Bible in Hebrews & James,” preached on November 11, 2001.

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