During His First Advent, the Lord Jesus unlocked many mysteries for the Church, not the least of which is what happens when we die. The Old Testament doesn't provide a lot in terms of specifics, since OT believers operated under the terms of a different Dispensation.
During the Dispensation of the Law, believers were not immediately whisked into the presence of the Lord at the moment of death. The blood of bullocks and lambs was insufficient to cover their sin.
Old Testament believers expected to stand in the Resurrection at the Last Day, but had no expectation of eternal life in the sense that the Church understands it.
"As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away: so he that goeth down to the grave shall come up no more." (Job 7:9)
"For in death there is no remembrance of Thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?" (Psalms 6:5)
"For the grave cannot praise Thee, death can not celebrate Thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy truth." (Isaiah 38:18)
Until Jesus defeated death at His resurrection, death was still pretty much a mystery. The general understanding was that first a man dies, and then he awaits the resurrection of the dead at the last day.
The Book of Job, chronologically the oldest book in the Bible, spoke of the resurrection of the dead even before the time of Abraham, confidently saying;
". . . all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come. . . " Job awaited the call of the trumpet at the Rapture, thousands of years before it was generally known as doctrine. "Thou shalt call . . ." (Job 14:14-15)
"For I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another; though my reins be consumed within me." (Job 19:25-27)
The Lord Jesus filled in the missing details about death and the grave under the Dispensation of the Law when He told the story of the rich man and Lazarus. I want you to note that Jesus did NOT say, "learn the parable of the rich man." He began with a definite statement of fact: "There was a certain rich man. . "
And Jesus says that there was a "certain" beggar named Lazarus. The rich man and Lazarus were real people; this is not a parable or Jesus would have identified it as such.
"And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried. And in hell, he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom."
Let's stop there for a second and examine this newly-revealed truth. Until now, OT believers thought that when they died, they stayed in the grave until the Resurrection. They had no expectation of continued consciousness - until Jesus revealed the truth to His Disciples.
Jesus told them that the rich man went immediately to hell. Lazarus was immediately carried by the angels into a place called "Abraham's bosom."
This was a totally new revelation. The Lord revealed that hell was divided - there was a place of comfort for the righteous dead with Abraham on one side.
In the middle was a great gulf or chasm, and on the other side was hell, a place of flames and torment and loneliness. Moreover, the Lord reveals that those in hell could see across to Paradise.
There are several other things we learn from Jesus about hell, and about those who are condemned to it. First, the rich man has no name, whereas Lazarus is addressed by name throughout the passage. The rich man needs no name. Nobody will ever call it again.
He is eternally separated from God; to all intents and purposes, he is 'dead' to God, and to everyone who ever knew him. He is only alive to himself. But the rich man is cognizant of his life, how he ended up in hell, and those he left behind. His memories of his earthly life are intact:
"Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment." (Luke 16:22-28)
Jesus teaches us that those condemned to hell are; a) in fiery torment, b) are self-aware, c) are nameless and without hope of reprieve, d) are conscious of their situation, and, e) their memories of their earthly lives are intact.
The Book of the Revelation teaches that what we call 'hell' is more analogous to a county jail, where prisoners are held pending trial and conviction. Once a county jail inmate is convicted, he is transferred to a state penitentiary to serve out his sentence.
"And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death." (Revelation 20:13-14)
When John describes the judgment against the devil, he writes: "And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever."
Note two things. First, the beast and false prophet 'are' - present tense -- in the lake of fire. They were not consumed. Secondly, it is a 'lake of fire and brimstone' and its inhabitants 'shall be tormented day and night forever and ever'.
Thus is the fate of those we fail to reach in our effort to discharge our Great Commission. It's a sobering thought.
Jesus taught specifically and incontrovertibly that, when the moment of death comes, our conscious spirit lives on, AWAITING the resurrection of the dead, which is when our spirit is united with our new and improved physical bodies.
At the Cross, Jesus told the repentant thief, "Verily I say unto thee, TODAY shalt thou be with Me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
When Jesus descended into hell after His Crucifixion, He went to Paradise to "lead captivity captive", the Scriptures say. He went to Paradise to preach the Gospel and to present Himself as Savior and bring them from Paradise to Heaven.
Our spirits exist and have substance, and they are not only conscious after death, they are completely self-aware. Death is not the end of our existence.
Death does not, evidently, even impair our consciousness.
During the Dispensation of the Church, the Apostle Paul noted that for believers to be 'absent from the body' meant to be 'present with the Lord.'
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad." (2nd Corinthians 5:10)
The Apostle Paul wrote of physical death as it pertains to believers, saying; "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope." (1st Thessalonians 4:13)
But yet we do sorrow when a loved one dies. Even when we know that our loved one is now safely resting in the arms of Jesus. We know that our loved one's race is run and their burdens have been lifted.
They are now where we all wish to be - but that does little to dry our tears. It is one of the conundrums of Christianity - everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.
Why do we sorrow when we know the truth? Would we be sad if our loved one had won the lottery? Of course not. But Heaven is the ultimate winning ticket. When your number comes up, you win.
And all your family and friends cry.
Why is that? Does that mean that their faith is weak? Are they really secret doubters? Paul intended to offer words of comfort -- indeed, the chapter closes; "Wherefore comfort one another with these words."
Paul offers words of comfort because of the sorrow that comes with losing a loved one. Being sorrowful at the loss of the loved one is not evidence of a lack of faith. If you think about it, your sorrow isn't because you have any doubt that your loved one is safe in the arms of Jesus.
You haven't betrayed the faith. You sorrow because they aren't here. Our loved ones are a gift from God given to us to make our sojourn on the Big Blue Marble bearable. The gift is deliberately temporary, which is what gives it its value.
When a loved one dies, we lose the gift of their companionship. Even though we know loss is also temporary, which mitigates the tragedy - it does little to ease the pain of loss in this life.
Our sorrow is not for our loved one - it is for ourselves. Their gain is our loss. It's just that simple.
There's nothing selfish in that - if one of my children got a fabulous job on the other side of the world I would be very happy for him - but personally devastated by the loss of his companionship.
The fact that I know I would see him again would mitigate the sense of loss. But it wouldn't keep me from missing him while he was gone. Or wishing he was still here. (Or make me feel guilty because I did.)
Death comes to us all - we know that. But death doesn't come to us once. It comes to us all the time - death is the one certain part of this existence. Our own death is simply the last one we have to endure.
At the Rapture, some believers will not yet have experienced death. They will be instantly changed into their incorruptible bodies. Those who have experienced physical death will be reunited with their bodies, which will be raised and changed.
But their spirits and consciousness are already awake and alive and in the presence of the Lord. Those who are 'asleep' in Christ are those who have experienced PHYSICAL, but not conscious death.
At the Rapture, the "Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise (physically incorruptible) first: Then we which are (physically) alive and remain (in our natural bodies) shall be caught up together with them (changed and incorruptible) in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1st Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Our loved ones who have gone home to the Lord are ALREADY in His Presence, enjoying Heaven and its unimaginable joy and riches. They are NOT mouldering the grave, unconsciously awaiting the call of the Trumpet.
They are alive and aware and eagerly anticipating the opportunity to meet with us in the air and embrace us once more. We will see them again. We will recognize them and they will recognize us.
". . . and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore, comfort one another with these words." (1st Thessalonians 4:18)