The late Bob Saget, just nine days before his own tragic death at 65, paid tribute to his fellow entertainer and cultural icon Betty White, who had passed away just days short of her 100th birthday. In his Instagram post, he noted that “she always said the love of her life was her husband, Allen Ludden, who she lost in 1981. Well, if things work out by Betty’s design—in the afterlife, they are reunited.” Saget went on to say, “I don’t know what happens when we die, but if Betty says you get to be with the love of your life, then I happily defer to Betty on this.”
When I read this post, I felt a twinge of sadness. It’s unfortunate that so many people misunderstand the nature of life and death. What lies beyond this mortal life is a giant question mark for millions of people, including famous entertainers. However, what isn’t in question for them or anyone else is the brevity of life and the surety of death. “The living know that they will die” (Ecclesiastes 9:5),1 the Scriptures remind us. We all agree that we’re headed to the grave, but what then? Do we continue to exist in some other form? Has Betty White already been reunited with Allen Ludden, the love of her life?
Some argue that death is the end of everything; this brief flash of existence upon earth is all there is. Others believe that humans are immortal and that when a person dies, their soul or spirit leaves the body and goes to an unknown destination. This could be paradise, hell, or even purgatory, depending on their theological beliefs.
Still others understand that when a person dies, the life switch has been turned off. They believe there’s nothing inherently immortal in human beings because the Bible says that God “alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). Thus, death is like a deep sleep, in which the person remains unconscious until the resurrection at the second coming of Jesus.
Is there a sure way to sort through these competing ideas and determine what really happens when a person dies? I believe the answer is yes. For a Bible-believing Christian, it is possible to cut through the philosophy, tradition, and human speculation about death and tune in to the truth as it is revealed in the Word of God.
the Old Testament
Beginning with the Old Testament, we see that the Genesis record tells us about the creation of man and woman: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). When God shaped Adam from the dust of the earth, he was nothing more than a doll made of clay. But as soon as God breathed into him the breath of life, he became connected to God, the Source of life. Then Adam’s true existence began. Before God breathed life into his body, Adam did not exist; a moment later, he was a man, a son of God.
Genesis continues the story by stating that Adam and Eve were warned of the consequences brought about by disobedience to God. He warned them that “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). But Adam and Eve strayed from God’s clear command and reaped the result of their sin—death. It seems like harsh punishment by today’s standards, but it demonstrates how much God values obedience to His revealed will. The dire consequences of sin hung heavy in the air. “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This pronouncement by God left no hint of a portion of man’s spirit or psyche surviving the moment of death.
Apparently, death is simply a reversal of life. When Adam died, the opposite of creation transpired; he became disconnected from the Source of life, and all that was left returned to dust. Just as Adam did not exist before matter was joined with the breath of life, the separation of these elements at death meant that he would cease to be any type of living being.
It is a simple concept and one that David echoed in the Psalms, “You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29). And Solomon added, “The dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The Old Testament unequivocally teaches that man is a unit that exists as an undivided whole and upon his death ceases to exist.
the New Testament
The New Testament continues the same teaching. A human person is an indivisible unit. No conscious part of him or her survives after death.
Let’s consider a case in which Jesus Himself was involved. The Bible tells us that Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was sick and finally died. In talking to His disciples about the death of His friend, Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (John 11:11). When Jesus reached Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, lived, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. To Jesus’ request for the stone that sealed the tomb to be removed, Martha protested, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (verse 39).
Arriving at the tomb, Jesus lingered for a few moments and then “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ ” (verse 43), and Lazarus, in obedience to the Giver of life, came out of the tomb. Where had Lazarus been during those four days? In the tomb. Jesus didn’t order him to come out of any place other than the tomb. Jesus gave him life anew; He reconnected Lazarus to the Source of life just as He had connected Adam. If Lazarus’s soul—as many believe—went to heaven at the moment of his death and was already in the presence of God and the angels, he would likely have complained to Jesus for bringing him back into this world of darkness, sin, and suffering.
resurrection of the dead
More than any other New Testament story, this account clarifies the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Jesus never gave the impression that any conscious component of the human person survives the death of the body. At the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He consoled those who were grieving with the words, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (verse 25).
Jesus also showed that the resurrection will be at the end of time: “This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (John 6:39). In the same Gospel, He gave an explanation that’s impossible to misunderstand: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28, 29).
The doctrine of the resurrection, a central teaching of the Bible, would be empty and meaningless if every person received his or her reward at death. Why would a spirit who had been enjoying heaven’s bliss for hundreds or thousands of years want to rejoin its body? The beautiful truth is that every person will receive their reward or punishment on the last day. “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (Matthew 16:27).
Bob Saget and Betty White were sadly confused about what happens when a person dies, but you don’t need to be. The Bible sweeps away the confusion and brings you the glorious assurance of resurrection to a new life. Someday soon, the Giver of Life will rouse the sleeping saints and grant them their ultimate destiny, eternal life with Him.
1. Bible verses are from the New King James Version®.
Atilio R. Dupertuis is Professor of Theology, Emeritus at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan.