What Happens to Us When We Die?

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Rabbi Eric Tokajer

Over the past few weeks, we have had several members of our synagogue family who have lost extended family members. When you add these new deaths to the list of all of our friends and loved ones who have died over the past several years, you can understand why one of the most talked-about and asked-about subjects in my world has been, “What happens to us when we die?” 

One person might ask what happened to “my wife,” another “my grandfather,” a third “my son” or “my daughter” and still another “my friend.” Others ask what happened to “my enemy.”

The reasons for wondering are different. Some may be questioning the existence of G-D or questioning their faith in G-D, while others are asking because they knew their friend or loved one was questioning the existence of G-D or their faith in G-D. Some are questioning because they are looking for confirmation of where their friend or loved one will spend eternity. Some are hoping their friend or loved one will spend eternity in heaven, while others are hoping their enemy will spend eternity in hell.

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If you ask most rabbis or pastors, they will tell you the Bible is clear in what happens to us when we die. However, once you enter conversation with each of these spiritual leaders, you will find that while they each are sure that the Bible is crystal-clear on what happens to us when we die, their crystal-clear understandings of the Bible’s treatment of the subject vary in many ways.

These differences in understanding of what happens to us when we die include not only who goes where, but also who goes where and when. They also include their disagreement in the interpretation of where those “wheres” are, and even if those wheres exist at all. Do heaven and hell exist? Are both heaven and hell eternal? Do the departed go directly to heaven and hell, or is there a temporary waiting place or places where they exist until a time of final judgment? Is there a judgment at the end, or are we all judged as we live, and death ends our judgment? 

I would run out of space before I ran out of the questions I have been asked about a topic about which so many biblical teachers and scholars—who are absolutely positive they are right about and sure the Scriptures are crystal-clear about—differ so widely. 

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After all, the Bible say to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (see 2 Cor. 5:8). So we can conclude that once we die, we are eternally with G-D. But the Bible also says that when we die, we sleep (see 1 Thess. 4:14).

The Bible also speaks of death, hell and the grave, Gehenna and Sheol, and more than one judgment. The truth is that while the Bible is clear in what it states, and the Bible is true and doesn’t contain any contradictions within its pages, every one of those rabbis and pastors, theologians and teachers, and biblical scholars of every type and kind are humans, including me. Because we are human, we are rarely crystal-clear, and we are never 100% correct. We are often full of conflicting conclusions and contradictions. Because we didn’t author the Bible, we simply try to interpret the words of its author to the best of our ability. 

The truth is that while the Bible is true and crystal-clear without contradictions or errors, those of us who teach it while doing our best are none of those things. So, while I am positive that I am correct in what I teach about what happens to us when we die, I am also positive that the only one who knows precisely what happens to us when we die is G-D, and He wrote it down for us in His book so that we would know also. So, please read His book, because the truth is that it is much more important that we know Him personally than it is that we understand the mystery of eternity.

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Eric Tokajer is the author of “Overcoming Fearlessness,” “What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong?”, “With Me in Paradise,” “Transient Singularity,” “OY! How Did I Get Here?: Thirty-One Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Entering Ministry,” “#ManWisdom: With Eric Tokajer,” “Jesus Is to Christianity as Pasta Is to Italians” and “Galatians in Context.” Visit his website at rabbierict.com.

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