What Happens When We Die?

Are we in an unconscious state until our bodily resurrection, or do we go spiritually into heaven to await our new, physical bodies?

To imagine a loved one who has passed away just lying in a grave, unconscious until Jesus’ return, is not a comforting thought, in my opinion. Apparently thousands of people believe this based on a particular interpretation of Scripture, but is it true? Here is a personal story that prompted me to write on this tender subject.

A friend of mine recently lost his wife to cancer. It was both their second marriages, so they were older when they got married. She was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist. He began attending her church since she was so involved in that fellowship. Eventually, my friend became a Seventh-Day Adventist. 

I did not know much about this church’s beliefs, so I asked my friend’s wife about it. She said that a prophetess felt God impressing on her that He was not pleased with how Christians now celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday instead of Saturday, as was practiced in the Old Testament. This prophetess was a very passionate woman who was influenced by another man who had similar theological understandings. Between the two, a new denomination sprung up in the late 1800s. What made this new denomination unique was its firm belief to return to the 4th Commandment — to keep the Sabbath holy and on Saturdays. This became an essential doctrine of Seventh-Day Adventists. 

The Lord’s Day 

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul exhorts each believer to determine keeping one day as sacred, or “set apart” for God, on the basis of his own conscience (Rom. 14:5-8). We are not to judge another believer by his diet or observance of holy days.

Historical records infer that the first-century church did not teach Gentiles to keep Sabbath Saturday. Instead, New Testament evidence suggests the practice of worship was kept some time during Sunday. There was no notion that the Lord’s Day was treated as “Sabbath transference.” The Jewish Sabbath was so distinctive, with a rigorous focus on a physical day of rest from work rather than for special acts of worship, that the Christians tended to steer clear of this kind of observance.

Remember that Christ transformed the Sabbath law to guard against legalism (see Mark 2:27). Yet, there is an analogous relationship between Sunday worship and the Sabbath. Both occur weekly, celebrate redemption, and have a notion of worship and Lordship over time.

So, how did most of the Church today end up holding Sunday services? The first day of the week, Sunday, was the day that Christ resurrected. This is now referred to as “The Lord’s Day.” In Revelation 1:10, John says he was caught up “in the spirit on the Lord’s day,” which infers a precedent had already been set to establish Sunday as significant. 

When I consider that an entire denomination was started over Saturday as the day Christians must attend church, I don’t consider this an essential doctrine of Christianity. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”(1) So, regarding my friend’s religion, I left it alone.

Tragedy Strikes

Sadly, my friend’s wife was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer, and within one year, she passed away. We grieved her passing and attended the funeral at her Seventh-Day Adventist Church. 

My friend asked those in attendance at her funeral to say a few words, and then handed me microphone – first. Gulp. I wasn’t prepared, but thank the Lord, He brought to mind a fun memory. My friend’s wife loved to dance, and when I first met her, she asked me to go across the street to dance with her, where there was a local band playing on the 4th of July. I did! We had a blast, laughing and dancing while enjoying the music. I shared that memory and finished by saying, “She is dancing in heaven now.” 

Oops. Little did I know that Seventh-Day Adventists don’t believe Christians go straight to heaven when they die. Instead, they believe Christians are in a “sleep-state,” unconscious of time or anything else until the Second Coming of Christ. Had I known this, I would not have shared that last bit about dancing in heaven. 

Since her passing, my friend has shared paperback books with me about his Seventh-Day Adventists beliefs. I accepted them graciously but really didn’t want to read them. Yet, I sensed God was asking me to discover what my friend believes. So, I picked a few chapters to peruse and what I read was clearly based on misunderstanding. 

In the book, Real Peace, Real Answers, it quotes Psalm 115:17, “The dead do not praise the Lord, not any who go down into silence.” (2) There are several other verses quoted from the Old Testament and the New to affirm their belief that the dead are unconscious.

What is Misunderstood

There many verses in the Bible that show that the dead are anything but unconscious. For example, Jesus’ response to the dying criminal’s plea for mercy while hanging on the cross was this: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43; NIV) Christ did not say someday, when you get your resurrected body, you will be with me in paradise. He said “today.” In first century Judaism, “Paradise” was not only used to refer to heaven, but also of the Garden of Eden. Eden was the King’s Garden — the garden of God.(3) In essence, Jesus was telling the thief that today you will be with me in God’s garden. That doesn’t sound like a sleep-state to me.

In another telling verse, the Apostle Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:8 (NASB): “but we are of good courage and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” We can be confident about this because Paul also says, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And then he says that to be with the Lord is “better by far” (Phil. 1:21, 23).

Unconsciousness is not better “by far” than life in this world, but the conscious enjoyment of the presence of Jesus is. John Calvin says, “The reference [to ‘fallen asleep’] is not to the soul but to the body, for the dead body rests in the tomb as on a bed until God raises the person up.” (4)

What is meant by “sleep”?

Many may not understand the word usage of “sleep” in the Bible. Some interpret this to mean an unconscious state. However, the Bible Dictionary states that when the Bible uses the language of “sleeping” to describe those who have died, it does not mean that they are in a state of unconsciousness (see link below for a full article on the meaning of sleep.) (5)

Another compelling verse that shows when we die we’re not in some unconscious state is what happened at the Mount of Transfiguration. In Matthew 17:2-3, Jesus goes up to talk with two men who died a long time ago: “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” Moses and Elijah were obviously not in some unconscious sleep-state!

And how about this verse:

“and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

Ecclesiastes 12:7

My friend buried his wife in a grave near his home. His plot is next to hers, which he plans to be buried in someday, too. He has their graves facing East because he wants his wife to face East to rise seeing Jesus at the Second Coming, based on this verse in Matthew 24:27, “ “For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Many scholars say that in this verse, Jesus is speaking euphemistically to described the speed and brilliance of His return. There may be no other intended meaning. The thought of my friend thinking that his wife is laying in that grave in an unconscious state facing East to see Jesus’ second coming disturbs me. If God opens the door to have a conversation with him about this, then I will gently share what most orthodox Christians understand about death.

“It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.”

1 Corinthians 15:44

This is my hope — when believers die, we immediately go into the presence of the Lord in our spiritual bodies. It is not until the Second Coming when we receive our resurrected-physical bodies. Until then, believers are doing anything but sleeping — they are rejoicing in the presence of the Lord at home in ‘God’s Garden.’ 

For a full teaching on this, I highly recommend the book by Randy Alcorn, Heaven. This book is backed up by sound Biblical exegetical work and is a hopeful look on what happens when we die.

This is my hope — there are wonderful things that my friend’s wife is experiencing in heaven, right now in a spiritual body.


  1.  St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430 CE).
  2. White, Ellen G. “What Happens When We Die.” Real Peace, Real Answers, Pacific Press, Nampa, Idaho, 2013, p. 168.
  3.  Hamilton, Adam. “The Promise of Jesus’ Words…” www.adamhamilton.com. Accessed 12-30-22.
  4.  OpentheBible.org. “Those Who Have Fallen Asleep.” www.openthebible.org. Accessed 12-30-22.
  5.  Bible Study Tools. “Sleep.” www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sleep. Accessed 12-30-22.


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