Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying the only things that are certain in life are death and taxes. Death is the great equalizer because for every living creature, there must come an end. Although, looking around today, it would be hard to fully grapple with the plight of mortality. Western society, and the United States in particular, has pushed death to the outer edges of daily life. Whereas the majority of individuals throughout history often died in their homes so families could clean and prep the bodies of the deceased; nowadays many die in the hospital or some kind of healthcare facility. Bodies are taken to the morgue and funeral homes take care of the arrangements. Death has been moved from the center of society and pushed to the periphery. However, as much as we might try to avoid it, death is ever present. COVID-19 is one such event that pulled back the cloak which shrouded death for most of American society. As of this writing, there have been 1.11 million deaths from COVID in the United States alone, let alone over 6.7 million deaths worldwide. With the COVID-19 pandemic, death came into view as almost everyone was touched by loss in some way. It is apparent that death has been removed from the periphery and once again pushed towards the center of society, at least for the time being. Pastors and theologians must be prepared to wrestle with the claims of faith and proclaim the Gospel effectively. Who has not lost a loved one and wondered “where are they now?” “What will happen to me when I die?” “Where is God in all of this?” Let’s dive into answering some of these big questions. 

What happens when we die? This is an excellent question, and one humanity has asked itself since its inception. Almost all religions provide an answer of some sort, Christianity itself having a long history of outlining the contours of the afterlife. However, since science has developed rapidly over the centuries, I believe it can provide insight for us today while remaining in conversation with the Bible. My goal will be to look at the biblical, historical, theological, and scientific resources that are available for us today to present a credible case for the reality of life after death with some tantalizing hints as to what it may be like.

Now, the question will inevitably arise as to whether we are conscious in the intermediate state. Are we conscious between our death and resurrection? The Bible does not provide us with any details. Instead, the Bible tends to simply say that when we die, we will be with Christ (Luke 23:43, Phil 1:23, 2 Cor. 5:8). This can be understood in numerous ways. However, I believe science demonstrates that consciousness does continue after death, or that it is at least possible. Dr. Bruce Greyson, MD has spent decades studying consciousness and death. He has been particularly interested in Near Death Experiences (NDEs) where consciousness appears to be separate from the functioning of the brain. Over the years, there have been various psycho-biological interpretations proposed for making sense of this phenomena but, according to Greyson, “none of them has been proved so far, while some of them are contradicted by the available data.”1E. Facco et al., 2. This claim challenges the reductionist materialism that defines current scientific understanding which says that the brain produces consciousness and that when the brain dies, consciousness dies with it. Instead, Greyson and others call for a revaluation of the relationship between the mind and the body. Whereas, at this present time, science sees this relationship as a “one-way static mechanism” from brain to mind, it might be more appropriate to see the mind and body constituting a “yin-yang relationship” where the brain relies on consciousness and consciousness relies on the brain. Various studies of neuroscience have found that “brain activity allows the manifestation of mental phenomena, but at the same time mind shapes our brain, yielding both functional and plastic changes.”2E. Facco et al. 3 & 7. Greyson, in his book After writes that our minds, the part of us that experiences consciousness is not reducible to simply the brain, the mass of pink-grey matter in our craniums. The relationship between mind and brain may be like the relationship between a radio receiver and a broadcast with our minds being the broadcast and our brains picking up the signal.3Greyson., After. 122-125. Some research that can be used to support this claim is neurological studies studying “terminal lucidity,” also known as “paradoxical lucidity” in patients suffering from Alzheimer’s. Terminal lucidity is an unexplained phenomenon when someone with Alzheimer’s, or another form of dementia, is suddenly able return to normal mental function after a period of decline. Patients with terminal lucidity are suddenly able to recognize family and carry-on conversations when previously they were unable to. According to Greyson, this phenomenon usually occurs in the hours right before a person dies. He suggests that this means “the deteriorating brain has lost its ability to filter the mind, which is briefly free to express itself before the person dies.”4Greyson., After. 128-9. This makes no sense because the brain is not healthy enough to resume normal mental function in such patients, so how can they return to normal consciousness with a deteriorated brain? 

Another study conducted by Dr. Greyson; Dr. Sam Parnia, M, Ph.D;  and a plethora of other medical specialists found that “consciousness may be present in patients despite clinically undetectable consciousness. For instance, implicit learning with the absence of explicit recall has been demonstrated in patients with undetectable consciousness, while others have demonstrated conscious awareness during persistent vegetative status (PVS).”5Parnia et al. 1802-03. Studies of this kind demonstrate that consciousness can continue during periods of cardiovascular standstill and when consciousness is undetectable. Near Death Experiences demonstrate that consciousness may possibly exist outside of a dying body. For example, Greyson writes that “experiencers sometimes report having viewed their bodies from a different point in space and are able to describe accurately what was going on around them while they were ostensibly unconscious; or that they perceived corroborated events occurring at a distance outside the range of their sense organs, including blind individuals who describe accurate visual perceptions during their NDEs.” Other examples include some individuals dying and encountering “deceased relatives and friends, and some child NDErs describe meeting persons whom they did not know at the time of the NDE but later identified as deceased relatives from family portraits they had never seen before.” One more fascinating insight has been the reports of individuals who have died “having encountered [a] recently deceased person of whose death they had no knowledge.” It is clear that “these features and the occurrence of heightened mental functioning when the brain is severely impaired, such as under general anesthesia and in cardiac arrest, challenge the common assumption in neuroscience that consciousness is solely the product of brain processes, or that the mind is merely the subjective concomitant of neurological events.”6Greyson., 477.{/mfn] Scientists and medical professionals who engage in this kind of work are pointing to what the Christian tradition, and other religions, have taught from the beginning—that consciousness does not cease at death. What is it like to be in the intermediate state? The Bible does not give us many clear answers and the experiences of those who have had Near Death Experiences are not entirely clear down the line. We should hold onto the concept of the intermediate state loosely, especially when it comes to time and space. Martin Luther, himself, often said that the dead would wind up at the resurrection after death because they were taken out of time. Is there time after death? Is there chronology? We do not know but are assured that God will be faithful and do what is best. I believe the answer given by John Calvin is fitting for such inquiries: 

The traditional explanation, handed down by theologians throughout the ages, has been a two-stage process. The traditional explanation goes something like this: when we die, our souls go to Heaven or Hell in what is called the intermediate state. In the intermediate state, our souls wait in God’s presence until Christ returns and resurrects the dead. At the resurrection, our souls will be reunited with our bodies. This has been the traditional understanding of the Christian hope from Gregory of Nyssa to Origen, Augustine, Thomas, Aquinas, and more. In The Hope of Eternal Life, an ecumenical agreement between Lutheran World Federation communion and the Roman Catholic Church, the conclusion is made that “Lutherans and Catholics affirm that Scripture teaches the ongoing existence of the self between death and resurrection;” indeed, “there is evidence for belief in an intermediate state of the dead before resurrection.”6The Hope for Eternal Life. Par. 33.
 But how do we make sense of this from a scientific standpoint? I believe that physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne may be helpful. Polkinghorne follows Aquinas and Aristotle who both taught that the soul is the form of the body, which is different from the Platonic notion that the soul is a spiritual substance that resides in the body. Another way to understand this is to see the soul as an “infinitely complex, dynamic, information-bearing pattern in which the matter of our bodies at any one time is organized.”7Polkinghorne., 51. What ensures continuity within ourselves from one moment to another? Our cells are constantly dying and being replaced in a process that occurs every seven years. According to Polkinghorne, our continuity rests in the information pattern remains consistent, and is ever-expanding over the course of our lives. Another way to think about this is by using a rather crude analogy that should be held loosely. Think of our being as a computer. Our body is the hardware and our soul is the software. When we die, the software is taken by God to be given new hardware in God’s own time.8Polkinghorne, 52.

“Moreover, to pry curiously into their intermediate state is neither lawful nor expedient. Many greatly torment themselves with discussing what place they occupy, and whether or not they already enjoy celestial glory. It is foolish and rash to inquire into hidden things, farther than God permits us to know. Scripture, after telling that Christ is present with them, and receives them into paradise (John 12:32), and that they are comforted, while the souls of the reprobate suffer torments which they have merited goes no farther.9Calvin., Institutes., 3.25.6.

We now move to the doctrine of resurrection. The afterlife emphasis of the Bible and the Christian tradition has always been the resurrection of the dead. Paul writes that we shall be raised just as Christ was raised (Rom. 6:5 & 1 Cor. 15:12-15). If Christ was not raised, then there is not hope for us being raised. “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” Lutherans and other Christians recite from the Apostle’s Creed almost every Sunday. Resurrection is the primary feature of the Christian afterlife. Christ will return and raise the dead, the whole of creation will be transfigured and transformed, and there will be a New Heaven and a New Earth with a New Creation (Rev. 21-22, Is. 11, 65:17, 66:22, Mk 13:31, 2 Peter 3:13). The transformation of the whole created order is the central hope of the Christian faith. Our main clue to understanding this state is by looking at the state of the Risen Christ. The nature of resurrection is shrouded in mystery for us here on earth but there are estimations we can make concerning this state. This resurrection is not the revivification of a corpse but rather a new body, a “spiritual” body, one that is as different from the original body as a plant is from its seed (1 Cor. 15:35-44). Paul writes that flesh and blood cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven (1 Cor. 15:50). The most important point is that we, as humans, will be embodied, in some shape and form, as embodiment is central to who we are.10Polkinghorne., 53-54.{/mfn] We do not have the language to do justice to this reality. However, science can give us some language to grapple with this reality. John Polkinghorne writes that our hope is not in evolutionary optimism, but rather in God’s faithfulness. Resurrection is a transformation of the created order instead of simply the resuscitation of the body. This New Creation will be characterized by continuity and discontinuity. Continuity occurs by understanding that “the new creation arises ex vetere, as the redeemed transformation of the old creation, and not as a second, totally new, creation ex nihilo… yet there must also be sufficient discontinuity to [ensure] that the new creation is not just a redundant repetition of the old.”10Polkinghorne., 49-50. What this ultimately looks like is beyond our grasp. However, looking at the resurrection of Christ gives us a clue. If God can raise Jesus from the grave, God can raise us too. God will thus resurrect us according to God’s own timetable, either immediately after death or, as the New Testament says, at the end. We can also assume that there will be judgement to follow this resurrection. Judgement playing an important role in the Bible and the Creeds. Whether this will establish two destinies—one paradisical and the other hellish, is outside the scope of this article. However, it is apparent that judgement of some sort is affirmed in the Bible and in the Creeds. What this looks like, we shall commend to God. 

We have covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. This article has presented what is, in my estimation, the best insights that both science and theology can offer regarding life after death. I hope this article has been helpful in exploring the truth of our hope as Christians. Christ has defeated death and thus we have no need to fear. As Paul writes, we do not grieve as those without hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Christ has given us the gift of eternal life. Let us stamp our feet and praise the Lord.  


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge, available at

Facco, Enrico. Christian Agrillo, Bruce Greyson. Epistemological implications of near-death experiences and other non-ordinary mental expressions: Moving beyond the concept of altered state of consciousness.Medical Hypotheses. 2015. 

Greyson, Bruce. After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond. New York City, NY: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022. 

Greyson, Bruce. Getting Comfortable with Near Death Experiences: An Overview of Near-Death Experiences. Missouri Medicine. 2013. 

The Hope of Eternal Life. Lutherans and Catholic in Dialogue XI. Edited by Lowell G. Almen and Richard J. Sklba. Lutheran University Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2011. 

Parnia, Sam et. al. AWARE-AWAreness during REsuscitation- A prospective study. Journal of Resuscitation. 2014. Polkinghorne, John. Author. Ted Peters, Robert John Russell, and Michael Welker, eds. Resurrection: Theological and Scientific Assessments. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Jaren Summers
Jaren Summers

Jaren Summers is a third year student at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH. He is currently completing his internship at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church of Upper Arlington to be ordained in the ELCA as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Jaren has a passion for faith and science conversations, especially pertaining to the topics of eschatology and quantum mechanics. He has a B.S. in Social Studies Education from Ball State University and is working on earning his Master of Divinity at Trinity Lutheran Seminary.

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