Physical death is the separation between the body and the spirit, which happens to all as the Preacher teaches: “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before… the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1,2). The body, made of the dust of the earth, returns to it but the spirit returns to God and is eternal as He is himself.
In due course there will be resurrection of the dead, as one of the greatest prophets teaches: “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt”. (Daniel 12:2). These are the two destinies for humanity, already foreseen before the coming of Jesus Christ to the world bringing the good news known as the Gospel.
Jesus Christ came to the world with the purpose of giving His life, so that everyone who believes in Him may come out of the spiritual death (separation from God because of sin) he finds himself in and obtain “eternal life” (reconciliation with God). This is what the Lord Jesus called “new life”, which is to enter a state of everlasting fellowship with God, which can never be lost.
Conscious existence continues for everybody after physical death, whether they have “eternal life” or not and, considering that all will go through a period of time after physical death in which they won’t have physical bodies before resurrection, the following questions are raised: “Will the spirit (or soul) of the dead have recollection of its past on earth, or some knowledge of what goes on here? What will be its activity where it is? Will all the dead be resurrected together, or will there be a separation into different periods? What is the “first resurrection” (Revelation 20:5 and 6)?
We shall look for the answers to these questions, without entering into cogitations of our imagination.
The spirits (or souls), all conscious, will go after death to different places, as illustrated by the Lord Jesus with the case of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Abraham, justified by his faith, and the beggar Lazarus, who had received evil things in his lifetime, were far away from the rich man, separated by a great gulf. The three were physically dead, but conscious, in a place called “hades”. They were not only conscious, but they could recognise each other, as well as communicate between themselves.
The rich man remembered his life in the world, his family, and Lazarus. Lazarus didn’t take part in the conversation, but this doesn’t allow us to conclude that he was any different. We have the rare example of Samuel who, some time after dying, appeared in spirit to speak with king Saul, remembered him and gave him a prophetic message from God (1 Samuel 28:13-19). Samuel revealed having current knowledge of the situation Saul was going through. Moses also appeared in spirit on the mount, with the prophet Elijah, to talk with the Lord Jesus, and this was witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John. The souls of those who will have been killed as martyrs during the tribulation will demonstrate great interest as to when the Lord will judge and avenge their blood on those who dwell on the earth (Revelation 6:10).
Given these examples, we conclude that it is possible for the souls of the dead to be aware of events on earth. We do not know when, and on which conditions this takes place, or if there are any restrictions.
It is very common for us to say, when a brother dies: “he now rests on the Lord”, which conveys the idea of total inactivity until his resurrection. In fact a voice from heaven told John to write that the saints of tribulation who die after the beginning of the great persecution carried out by the beast, or antichrist, are blessed, and the Spirit confirms that death will bring them rest from their labours and their works follow them (Revelation 14:13). From this we understand that what they did for the Lord will be remembered in heaven and that they will have their reward.
The Bible speaks many times of those who “sleep”, referring to the dead, which may give a false idea of rest and inactivity (Acts 7:60; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 15:18, 15:51, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, 2 Peter 3:4). It is, however, a metaphorical use of the word “sleep” (Greek “koimaomai), and refers to the death of the body. It is appropriate because of the similarity between the body of the dead and that of who only sleeps: both are characterised by an appearance of rest and peace. It suggests that:
The Bible informs us about various resurrections, some being a simple “awakening” of the mortal body, which eventually died again. Others are of great amplitude, and all the dead will go through them. We shall limit ourselves to these.
The first resurrection is known as the “Resurrection of the Just”, and the Bible declares that “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6). This began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, also called “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep”: He was the forerunner, and during forty days demonstrated His new glorious body to more than five hundred people, before being taken with it up to heaven, visibly, in front of His disciples (Acts 1:22, 2:31, 4:33, Romans 1:4, 6:5, Philippians 3:10, 1 Peter 1:3, 3:21). Following, we shall find two well defined phases of this resurrection:
Finally, after the millennium has ended, the resurrection of the judgment of the unjust will take place, comprehending all the remainder of the dead, so as to appear before the “white throne” to receive their sentence of condemnation (John 5:29, Acts 24:15, Revelation 20:5).