The question of what happens after death is one that humanity continues to wrestle with regardless of their religious affiliation (or lack thereof). Even among Christians, who have the Bible to guide us, many are still confused as to what exactly happens to a person after they die and the order of events that are mentioned in Scripture.
Some believe that after death, all people will "sleep" until the final judgment which determines if individuals will be sent to Heaven or Hell. Others believe that all people will be judged immediately upon death, then sent to their eternal destination. There is another belief which speaks of a "temporary" Heaven or Hell, wherein humankind will await the final resurrection, the final judgment, then a final sentence to the eternal Heaven or Hell. While these are all interesting theories, we can find the best answers by looking directly at what the Bible says happens after death.
For the believer in Jesus Christ, after they have breathed their last, their soul is taken to God's presence in Heaven, for their sins have been forgiven by having accepted Christ as their Savior from the punishment for their sin (John 3:16, 18, 36). 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 tells us that to be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord." (Also see Philippians 1:23.)
For unbelievers, those who have rejected Jesus Christ until their final breath, their eternal punishment for their sins against God begins. Luke 16:22-23 tells a horrifying story of a rich man being tormented immediately after his death. He is heard crying out, “I am in agony in this fire” (Luke 16:24). Eek.
For both believers and unbelievers, their physical bodies remain behind until the final resurrection. (More on that later.)
We don't know for sure, but it is reasonable to assume that these "holding places" between physical death and the final judgment are outside of time because, at least for believers, they exist in the same place as God, who we know exists outside of time (2 Peter 3:8; Psalm 90:2). It may happen instantaneously, or it may seem like a super short time. After all, a thousand years for God is "like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night" (Psalm 90:4).
Scripture tells us that believers will be resurrected and given glorified bodies, reuniting the body with the spirit (1 Corinthians 15:50-54; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17). These resurrected bodies will be perfect and will go with believers to the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22).
Revelation 20:11-15 tells us that all the unbelieving dead will be resurrected as well, then judged at the great white throne before being cast into the lake of fire—the final place of punishment and eternal separation from God.
For those of us still alive today, the important takeaway is that once death has come for each of us, our eternal destiny has been set in stone. It is only in life that we can make the decision to change our final destination. As long as you have the breath of life, it's not too late to accept the free gift of salvation from the punishment due to you because of your sin (Matthew 25:46; John 3:36).
Jesus Christ died FOR you so that you wouldn't have to suffer or be separated from God (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). He took the punishment that you actually deserved. You were on His mind as He hung on the cross, in unimaginable physical pain. Then He did something that we could never do: He came back to life and proved that sin and death would never hold Him down (Romans 6:4-5). If you truly believe this, then TELL GOD, and He will reward you with a certain purpose and work His wonders through your life.
For the believer in Jesus Christ, after death, the spirit is immediately taken into God's presence (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). For the unbeliever, the spirit is taken into a place of torment (Luke 16:22-24). After a period, all physical bodies will be resurrected, reunited with the spirit. Finally, unbelievers will be judged, then cast into the lake of fire eternally (Revelation 20:11-15), and believers will enter the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21-22). As long as we live, it's not too late to change our final destination. Accept the free gift of Christ's sacrifice as payment for your sin and receive eternal salvation (Matthew 25:46; John 3:36).
Cat is the web producer and editor of 412teens.org. She loves audiobooks, feeding the people she cares about, and using Christmas lights to illuminate a room. When Catiana is not writing, cooking, or drawing, she enjoys spending time with her two teenage kids, five socially-awkward cats, and her amazing friend-amily.