"The little-understood truth is that God's initial purpose for mankind is that he not die. The temporary existence that ends in death is not God's original purpose for mankind. It is part of the curse for sin brought on humanity by the wrong choice made by our first parents, and all have chosen to follow that sinful way ever since" (Romans 3:23)
So as we humans live with the first sin of Adam and Eve, we do, indeed, die. I find myself with many questions about eternal life. As an inquisitive human being, I have often wondered what happens to the soul upon death.
I know discussion of this subject makes some squeamish and others refuse to even consider the final outcome of earthly existence. But, I think, as people with intelligence, we must all consider the possibilities, and certainly the probabilities of the destination of the soul when the body returns to dust. Much of my answer to this question calls upon Biblical translation.
I do have many questions about the entire subject of the afterlife. For example, "What about infants and other young children who die long before they can understand or gain the maturity to receive the Holy Spirit and seek God's Kingdom? What about people who live and die in nations where they may never even hear the name of Jesus Christ, much less make any kind of commitment to Him? What about people who adhere to high moral values but don't hold to any particular religious beliefs or commitment?" Too many questions beg for answers. In this entry, I will try to address my findings for one: "What happens to the soul when we die?"
The Scriptures show that two distinct dimensions of existence do exist and that humans are composed of elements of both of these dimensions. This accounts for the spiritual and physical dimensions and each is separate from the other in function and creation; however, both work together to enable humans to exist on a higher plane of consciousness than the rest of physical creation. "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him (God the Father) which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)
The Bible says little about what happens to the soul between death and the Last Day when Christ returns. On the other hand, Scripture does speak far more often about Resurrection on the Last Day and the eternal life or death that will follow. After the Judgment Day, both the souls and bodies of all people will spend eternity either in heaven or in a place of eternal torment (John 5:28-29). At this moment all people will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye.
But, what about the destination of the soul immediately after death? Does the soul sleep and remain with the body until that final resurrection on the Last Day? Or does the soul leave the body at death, to be with the Lord in Paradise (if Christian), or to a place of punishment (non-Christian)?
"The Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some evangelical Christians hold to the soul sleep view. Lutherans, Catholics, and most Protestants hold to the soul leaving the body view," according to Dr. Richard P. Bucher (www.orlutheran.com). Depending upon the belief of the individual, contradictions to both widely held views can be found in the Bible.
The Catholic faith would add another destination to the mix, believing if a person dies in a state of grace but loves God "imperfectly," their souls would enter Purgatory, where they must be purged and refined by fire.
The soul sleep view is supported by Solomon as he notes that the dead have no awareness, nor are they in some other state of consciousness: "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing . . ." (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Thus, the person who has died is unconscious and unaware of the passing of time. In explaining the condition of the dead, Daniel compares death to sleep. Sleep is the most common word for death in the Bible, occurring over 50 times in the Old Testament and 18 times in the New. (www.orlutheran.com)
Soul sleep proponents contend that the billions of humans who have lived and died over the centuries are completely unaware of the passage of time. An awareness of passage of this interim time between the moment of death, when conscious thoughts cease, and the instant when they awake to life again at the Resurrection does not exist for them. It is compared to sleep without dreaming. In other words, in death, humans are totally unconscious with no activity or knowledge of any kind. "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10.)
Proponents of the belief that the soul travels upon physical death contend that both Christians and non-Christians leave the body and go to another place. The souls of the unrighteous (unbelievers) go to a place of punishment until the Last Day. The souls of the righteous (believers) go to be with the Lord in Paradise. A classic example of this understanding is the criminal who was crucified next to Jesus. When he asked the Lord, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The soul travel belief contends that it is highly probable that the verses in support of soul sleep are speaking of the fate of the body only. Also, this belief finds that New Testament verses contradict Old Testament contentions of soul sleep. "And we must always interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament, since the New is the fulfillment and culmination of the Old," states Dr. Bucher.
In the Garden of Eden, God gave us this temporary, mortal life to prepare us for eternal life. The hope and promise of that resurrection is a belief all Christians hold. But knowing there is also a "resurrection of judgment" gives a reason to pause. God alone knows the answers to the mysteries of life and death. It leaves it up to us to prepare for our own futures.