The Bible says that when Christ returns, believers who are alive will be transformed, while the dead will be resurrected in Christ’s likeness. So, till Christ’s second coming, where are the souls of dead believers? Are they still on earth, or do they exist in a state that is not hell, earth or heaven? Also, we know that a believer’s body will be transformed into Christ’s resurrected body. But what transformation (if any) will an unbeliever’s body go through?
The matter of death, and life after death, has been a perpetual enigma. Though philosophers and sages have grappled with these questions and attempted to come up with answers, man — limited to space and time, despite all other human achievements — can only come up with conjectures at best. Answers to these questions can only be derived through divine revelation, since the matter is beyond humans. The Bible, proven to be divine revelation, is therefore able to address and answer these questions without ambiguity.
The Word of God states that human beings are comprised of spirit, soul and body (1 Thessalonians 4:23; Hebrews 4:12). The spirit and soul are the immaterial parts of the human being: they are the seat of life, emotions, intellect etc. At death, the material — that is, the body — is separated from the immaterial. The body, taken from dust, shall return to dust. After Adam and Eve fell in sin, God told Adam, “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is true of all human beings, death being common to all.
There are three kinds of deaths in the Bible. The first is the physical death. This is the separation of material from the immaterial, as discussed before. The second is the spiritual death. This is the separation from God, about which God had warned Adam in Genesis 2:17 when He said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”. The third death is what the Bible calls ‘second death’, which is eternal separation from God when sinners are cast into hell fire.
When physical death occurs, the immaterial part — spirit and soul, which are inseparable, one from another — goes to God who made it. The words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ are often used interchangeably and, sometimes, one of these terms is used for both. About what happens at physical death, Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Paul also echoes this truth in Philippians 1:23. He says, “…to depart and to be with Christ which is far better”. Again, this fact is attested by Jesus Himself in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The Lord said about Lazarus’ death, “The beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). ‘Abraham’s bosom’ is a Jewish usage for paradise, which is the third heaven or God’s abode (2 Corinthians 12:2, 4; Luke 23:43). From these Scripture passages, it is very clear that the immaterial part of a human being does not roam around on earth or anywhere else after death. Rather, immediately after death, the immaterial part of the believer is with the Lord Jesus.
When physical death occurs, the immaterial part — spirit and soul, which are inseparable, one from another — goes to God who made it
The resurrection programme of the Lord is very orderly (1 Corinthians 15:23). The resurrection of New Testament believers will happen when the Lord comes to take away the church — an event known as the rapture. The immaterial part shall unite with the body and it shall be raised. Paul discusses this possibility as well as the state of the resurrected body in detail in 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. Those who are alive at the coming of Jesus and the resurrected believers shall be transformed and taken to the Lord’s presence together. The Bible says, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). The Lord shall do this with His power, “by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself” (Philippians 3:21). Then, all the believers shall be conformed to the glorious body of Jesus Christ their Lord.
As for those who are dead, who died without believing in Jesus Christ, their soul goes to the place of torment. This is evident from the words of the Lord about the rich man (Luke 16:24). They are not in an unconscious state or roaming the face of the earth or elsewhere. They shall also be raised from the death. Their resurrection is termed as “the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:29). They shall be raised to “shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), to be judged before the Great White throne (Revelation 20:13). This should happen only after the Millennial reign. It can be assumed that no transformation shall occur in their case — only a degeneration.
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