At a recent conference a question came up about the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. What happened when Jesus died? Was He really dead?
Well, of course He was dead. If He had not died on the cross for our sins, and if He had not remained dead for three days before He arose, no one could have everlasting life (John 1:29; Rom 5:6, 8; Gal 2:21; 2 Cor 5:21).
But what do we mean when we say that Jesus was dead for three days?
Let’s start with what we don’t mean:
- Jesus ceased to exist for three days.
- He was unconscious for three days.
- He was unable to communicate and enjoy life during those three days.
Here is what we do mean when we say that Jesus Christ was dead for three days:
- His lifeless body remained in the tomb for three days.
- Jesus’ soul and spirit were in the good part of Sheol/Hades, which Jesus called Paradise (cf. Luke 23:43), until early Sunday morning.
- During those three days, He spoke with and enjoyed fellowship with Abraham and all the OT saints (Luke 16:22-31).
- During those three days He spoke with and enjoyed fellowship with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit.
I like listening to books on CD. I just finished listening to a book called Noise by James Patterson and J. D. Parker. I don’t want to spoil it for you, as it is an interesting book. But during the course of the book, one person dies. At one point a scientist says, “We cannot be 100% sure that she is dead.” He then plays a message from her that was not recorded before her death, but was, instead, recorded weeks after she died.
Yet earlier in the story, her body had disintegrated. Clearly her body was destroyed.
What the scientist meant is that in his mind she was not dead. Though her body was destroyed, she existed. She was still conscious. She could still communicate.
Yes, dead people do still exist. They are still conscious. They do still communicate.
Oddly, many Christians have the notion that death is more than the separation of the body from the inner self. While it is true that God does not allow us to talk with the dead—that part of the Patterson story is wrong (except for a few cases in the history of mankind when God did allow the dead to appear and speak)—Patterson’s underlying idea of the dead being conscious and able to communicate is true for both believers and unbelievers.
Believers who die go to the third heaven, where they are conscious and fully existing (without their bodies) until Christ returns (2 Cor 5:8; Phil 1:23). They enjoy fellowship with one another and with the Lord. When the rapture occurs, they will be raised from the dead and reunited with their bodies (1 Thess 4:16). Believers will live forever in glorified bodies in Jesus’ kingdom (Revelation 21-22).
Unbelievers who die go to the bad part of Sheol, also called Hades (Luke 16:19-31). They are conscious and fully existing (without their bodies) until after the Millennium, when they will be raised from the dead (Rev 20:11-15). Unbelievers will exist forever in non-glorified bodies in a place called the lake of fire (Rev 20:15).
So what is death? It is a separation of the body from the inner self. It is not a cessation of consciousness.
While we indeed grieve when our believing loved ones depart to the presence of the Lord, we are not to sorrow as those who do not know that their loved ones will soon be raised, glorified, and reunited with us (1 Thess 4:13-14). We miss them because they are not here. But we must not think that they no longer exist. Believers who have died are conscious and filled with joy.