I was young. Four or five, and we had a big yellow/orange tabby cat that lived outside. I loved that cat. I loved all animals, but our golden retriever was so big and had so much energy that being only as tall as him, he would run circles around me. In contrast our fat tabby cat liked to lay on the driveway and warm herself in the sun, be scratched and cuddle. One day she got hit by a car and my dad and I went out to bury her. We had a good sized back yard, and there was one section of the yard that fed into some woods behind us, and we went and buried her there. While he was digging the hole, I asked him what happened to her next. He said he was not sure, but probably nothing.
That was not actually true, as there was a pest of some sort that kept digging up her skull, so my dad got to rebury her multiple times, and when we realized her skull would not stay in the ground, my older sister took it to show-and-tell at school!
Death. It is ugly. It hurts. It breaks families apart and causes mourning too deep for words. It is terrifying. How much time have you spent thinking about the reality of what happens after you die? We are all going to die.
With medicine, security measures like seat belts and food availability what it is in the western world today, I know quite a few people well into their thirties who have never experienced the loss of death or even attended a funeral. This is mind boggling to me, as I lost six peers in as many years when I was a teenager, on top of losing grand parents and others from churches along the way. But I vividly remember beginning to wonder about eternity at the point that we buried our cat.
“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”
– Heb 9.27
Scripture does not give us step-by-step details about what happens after we die. Some people in the Bible are accounted for having died and then raised back to life, but never do they testify about what they experienced in the meantime. Lazarus was dead and buried for four days and restored to life. So dead that he “stinketh” according to the King James version (John 11.39).
But the authors of Scripture deemed that detail insignificant because of the clarity with which Jesus spoke of the eternal kingdom of God. The resurrection by which everyone who has ever lived will be gathered before the throne of God, and we will all be judged – each one according to our works (2 Cor 5.10).
Jesus, when he was speaking to Lazarus’ sisters, reminded them that he would live again. They knew of the resurrection of the dead, whereby everyone would be restored to life. And Jesus taught them that He Himself is the resurrection. He is the one who will call everyone to the judgment, and then He will judge us.
Paul makes an amazing claim about Jesus when writing to the Church at Colosse:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”
– Col 1.15-18
The first time Paul says that Christ is the firstborn, he is referring to status and not chronology. Jesus is the preeminent son of God; the only, and the heir. But when it says the firstborn from the dead, he means that Jesus is the first to be raised from the dead in the eternal sense whereby we will all be restored to life for an eternity of reward for our deeds on earth. Yes, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, and the widow’s son was raised by Elijah hundreds of years before Jesus came to the earth. But these people died again. Their resurrection was not the one unto judgment and eternity.
There are two judgments mentioned in Scripture. When we are first raised, the sheep and the goats will be separated (Matt 25.31-46). It is at this point that those who have not repented of their sins and come to Jesus Christ for salvation by faith alone will be damned to Hell. Forever. Then the believers will give an account for their deeds in the flesh, and their bad deeds will be burned up like chaff while their good deeds remain as reward to be used in worship to God (Rev 20.11-15).
What happens in the meantime? This is an unanswered question in Scripture. Some believe we are in a paradise-like state. Some believe we are unconscious until the judgment, while others believe at the point of death we leave the confines of time, much in the way God exists, and arrive at the judgment as it is occurring, with everyone else. This is an unanswerable. But we do know that we will be judged according to what we did on the Earth and therefore there will be no time for repentance once we die.
God will require from us an account of how we used those gifts, talents and possessions with which He has blessed us. He will take account of every careless word that was spoken (Matt 12.36). How do you want to answer the creator of the universe?
You are going to die. And then you will be judged. Are you ready?
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
– Matt 6.19-21
And if you were curious, even Solomon – the wisest man to ever live – said that no one knows what happens to animals when they die (Ecc 3.21).