What happens when you die?
Alexander Nisbet (1623-69) was a Covenanting minister and Bible expositor in and around Irvine in Ayrshire. He was ordained in 1646 and was removed from his church in 1662 for refusing to comply with the re-establishment of Episcopacy.
14 Jul, 2022

It’s coming to all of us. Young or old, whether we’re in the prime of life or feeling a bit past it, eventually our lives here will come to an end. And then what? A recent survey of attitudes to Jesus in the UK found that across all age groups, one of the big questions people have is, “What happens when you die?” The options are stark but we all need to confront reality. Death is not the end, because our souls will all live on. But what kind of existence will it be? And what can we do about it before we come to die? Alexander Nisbet sets out the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes in the following updated extract.

Dying means going to our long home

As King Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes 12:5, we are all going to “our long home,” or as the original is, to “the house of eternity,” meaning the state where the soul will be eternally, without any further change.

It is our wisdom therefore, before this time comes, to make sure that we are reconciled to God in Christ. That will provide some suitable consolation for our souls, while our bodies will be [laid in the dust].

Therefore, while we are fit and healthy, we should employ our strength well, to make sure we are at peace with Him who is most high, so that He will not be a terror to us in the evil day (Jer. 17:17). If we have faith, then things that may present themselves as terrifying to others, will be no cause of fear to us.

Some people think that the best they will ever get is in this present life, and they promise to themselves that they will enjoy things on earth perpetually. Yet they shall find themselves after a little while miserably disappointed. They shall find that this is not their home. It would be wiser for them instead to look on their mansions here as short-stay residences, and to think of themselves as strangers and pilgrims, that so they would give all diligence to ensure they will have everlasting habitations.

After death there is no change of the state of souls as to their misery or the blessedness. They must remain for ever either with Satan in his prison, or with Christ in His Father’s house.

Death affects both soul and body

Solomon summarises our future state after death, making reference to both body and soul, the two principal parts of which we are made up: “Then shall the dust return to the earth, as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Eccles. 12:7).

The body, Solomon calls “dust,” because it was formed out of the dust (Gen. 2:7). When the body is separated from the soul, it is the most vile and loathsome piece of dust of all. He says it “returns to the dust,” because it is ordinarily buried in the earth, to remain there till the resurrection, and because it is in effect the same substance as the dust of the earth.

The more noble part is the soul, here called the “spirit” because it is immaterial, and because of its resemblance to God, the Father of spirits. The soul “returns to him who gave it.” This does not mean only the souls of the godly, but rather it is the common state of the souls of all humans after death. Every soul is said to return to God, because in the very moment of its separation from the body, it must appear before God as the supreme judge, for Him to settle our eternal state. This will be done according to the state of the soul at death. Surely then we will timeously make our peace with God, so that He will receive our souls favourably at death, and so that we may lay down our bodies in the dust in hope of a glorious resurrection.

From this we see that although our bodies have some beauty and majesty imprinted on them while the soul resides in them and activates them, yet in themselves our bodies are only dust, and when the soul is separated from them they will look like very loathsome clay. The thought of this should keep us from being proud of our bodily strength or our physical looks (Jer. 9:23). It should also make us admire the Lord for condescending to have anything to do with such dust (Gen. 28:27), and for His marvellous skill and power in framing so beautiful a piece of work as our bodies just out of dust (Psa. 139:24). But especially it should make us admire Him for taking so frail a being as a human body into a personal union with the deity (Psalm 8:4). Yet we can also make use of this fact as a ground of confidence that we can obtain pity and help from Him to frail dust (Psa. 103:14). It should also make us careful to get the ornament of His grace, which makes base dust truly beautiful (1 Pet. 3:4), and it should make us long for the time wherein Christ shall change our vile bodies, and make them like His glorious body (Phil. 3:21).

Unlike our souls, our bodies do not go to the state they will be in eternally. Instead, as they were at the first taken out of the earth, so they must go back there for a time, while we believingly await the resurrection.

Unlike our bodies, our souls do not die, or decay away. Instead they subsist after their separation from the body. This fact alone should make us careful to see to the eternal well-being of our souls.

As our souls came to us as God’s free gift, so, when our souls go out of the body, they will appear before Him. He will throw the spirits of the wicked into the lake that flames with fire and brimstone, and He will bind up the spirits of the godly as his jewels in the bundle of life.

After death comes the judgment

Solomon finally says, “God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.”

The last judgment is both certain and exact. At this time, both our more open and visible actions, and our more secret plots, and closest contrivances, of whatever sort, good or bad, shall be brought forth to be sentenced, either to reward or punishment, according to their nature. If we desire to be truly happy here and hereafter, we must leave off the pursuit of earthly vanities and sinful delights, and apply ourselves to this blessed thing, to “fear God and keep his commandments, which is the whole duty of man.”

So exact will the last judgement be, that no action or purpose shall escape the cognisance and sentence of the judge in that day. People’s public sins will then be published to all, and their secret sins, even the sins of their hearts, which they had altogether hid from the eyes of the world (and which they tried all along their life to hide from their own consciences, neglecting to confront them and mourn for them) will then be laid open.

The very best actions of the godly, considered in themselves, cannot abide the trial of God’s judgement by reason of the sinfulness mixed in with them. Yet considered as they are perfumed with Christ’s merits, and made perfect by him, they shall be brought forth to judgement to receive the reward of grace which the righteous judge shall give in that day.

All people’s evil actions, which they now refuse to look in order to mourn for them, and make use of the blood of Christ for cleansing them, shall in that great day be set out clearly and made patent, to their shame and terror. They will receive for them deserved wrath to the utmost. They should consider this when they are tempted to sin, and when, complacent and impenitent, they make light of the wickedness they have done.

This last solemn action, the last judgement, will be in a sense between time and eternity. It deserves our most frequent and serious consideration. Otherwise we will never get our hearts properly alienated from pursuing perishing vanities and sinful delights, as if these were our chief good. Nor will we be properly committed to pursuing true godliness. It should be much in the thoughts of the Lord’s people, who should live in such a way as that they may daily desire to see this day. “Even so come Lord Jesus.”



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