My uncle “Rog” wrote a memoir titled, Roundtrip to the Morgue, based on that very experience. After a massive auto collision, his body was transferred first to a hospital in hopes of saving him, and then to the morgue when hope was lost. Just as the mortician wheeled Rog’s body into its designated chamber, he wiggled a toe.
Dead people don’t do that.
Rog was rushed back to the hospital, where he was fully revived, and… full of stories about life after death. He tells of what he saw and heard and thought as his spirit left his body, just before he was revived.
For Rog, there was no tunnel or light or destination—just a “hovering” outside of his body. To this day, he knows that there is life after death, but he doesn’t know exactly what comes after the “hovering”.
Many Christ-followers are in the same place: we know there is life after death, and we have a hazy awareness of what follows, but there is also much confusion. What does God say about what happens when we die?
“…an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice (Jesus’ voice, upon His return), and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29).
Every human who’s ever lived will one day experience resurrection. Dead people won’t live as disembodied spirits forever. Those who know Jesus will enjoy a “resurrection of life”; those who don’t know Jesus will suffer a “resurrection of judgment”.
The spirits of believers are immediately transferred to heaven after death (Lk. 23:43), but they will not experience resurrection until Jesus returns (1 Thess. 5:16-17), at which point they will receive unimaginably amazing resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15:35-58).
The spirits of unbelievers are not immediately resurrected, nor are they immediately transferred to Hell. Presently, nobody is in Hell. The spirits of unbelievers are transferred upon death to a place of torment called “Hades” (Lk. 16:22-23). You can think of Hades as being like a “holding cell” for those who await their sentencing.
TWO THRONES OF JUDGMENT
“Then I saw a Great White Throne and Him who was seated on it… Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them according to what he had done… (Rev. 20:11, 13).
This is the “resurrection of judgment”. The spirits of those who don’t know God are released from Hades to stand before Jesus at the Great White Throne. Believers get to bypass the Great White Throne Judgment entirely (Jn. 5:24) because their eternal destination is already settled. For them, a different throne, and a different judgment awaits.
“For we (Christians) must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Christians will be judged at “the judgment seat of Christ”, where He will determine whether they wasted their lives (1 Cor. 3:15), or whether they lived a life worthy of reward. Many passages teach that there are differing levels of eternal reward for Christians (Mt. 19:29-30; Lk. 12:32-34; 19:11-27; 2 Cor. 4:17; etc.). In fact, there will also be differing levels of punishment in hell (Mt. 11:20-24; Lk. 12:47-48). How we live matters eternally!
TWO FINAL DESTINATIONS
“…if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15).
After the “resurrection of judgment” at the Great White Throne, unbelievers are thrown into their Final Destination, “the lake of fire”, often called Hell. Despite what some teachers claim, Hell is not a slap on the wrist on the way to Heaven. It is an eternal destination (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 25:46; 2 Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:10-11; 20:10).
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Rev. 21:1).
While theologians disagree about what is commonly called the “Millennium” (Rev. 20:1-6), there is great consensus about the Final Destination of God’s people. We will not live forever as disembodied spirits in a spiritual paradise called heaven. Instead, our eternal home will be physical: a resurrected Universe, with resurrected bodies and our resurrected Lord.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
This matters because you will die, and so will everyone you know. Everyone you know is headed toward one destination or the other. Have you done everything in your power to ensure the eternal happiness of those around you?
This also matters because it is one of the great motivators of the Christian life. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob endured their long seasons of waiting and wandering because they set their hearts on “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). The Apostle Paul endured persecution because he knew God would reward him richly for it (2 Cor. 4:17). Jesus endured the Cross for the eternal reward of “joy [that was] set before Him”.
What season of wandering and waiting are you enduring now?
Don’t throw away your confidence in God—your pain is not for naught. Ten thousand years from now you’ll look back with gratitude, not only for how suffering made you a better person, but also, for how richly (and eternally!) God rewarded your perseverance.