What happens to an individual when he dies? As James says, “the body without the spirit is dead” (2:26). When we die our spirits are separated from our bodies. What happens to our spirits is determined by our relationship to God. For the person who has not trusted in Christ and His sacrifice, God’s only provision for eternal life, there is only separation from God.
This is highlighted in Jesus’ account of the death of Lazarus and the rich man at whose gate Lazarus would sit and beg (Luke 16:19-31). Whereas Lazarus, a believer in God’s promise, went to Abraham’s bosom (King James version) or side (New International Version, NIV), a place of comfort (v.25), elsewhere termed “Paradise” (Luke 23:43; see 2 Corinthians 12:4), the rich man ended up in “hell” (NIV). The Greek term is “Hades,” which was conceived of as a shadowy place under the surface of the earth where the spirits of human beings were held until the last judgment.
In a conversation with Abraham, the rich man, who is described as being in torment, begs Abraham to send Lazarus with just a drop of water to cool his “tongue” because of the agony of the fire. But since this is his spirit and not his body it must have been a psychological sensation only, a representation of how he felt in his soul. Literal fire needs physical fuel to continue burning. Abraham, in response to the rich man’s request, reminds the rich man that such a bridging of the gulf between them is impossible, so Lazarus cannot go to him.
Hebrews 9:27 teaches us that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” There are no second chances. Revelation 20:11-15 reveals that after the millennial kingdom of Christ, just before the establishing of the eternal form of the kingdom, “death and Hades” will give up the dead to be judged at Jesus’ great white throne judgment. They will be judged out of the books that apparently hold accounts of their lives, and out of the Book of Life. Because their names are not written in the Book of Life they are cast into the Lake of Fire, what is more properly termed “Hell.” Presumably, the level of punishment they experience in the Lake of Fire is determined by their deeds in life as recorded in the “books” (v.12).
Jesus taught degrees of punishment in Hell. He told the towns of Korazin and Bethsaida (Jewish towns) that it would be “more bearable for Tyre and Sidon [Gentile towns] at the judgment” than for them (Luke 10:14). This strongly suggests that one’s response to the truth, one’s rejection of the light of God’s revelation, brings a heavier judgment than others might experience. Those who have turned away more from the path God has prescribed for us will experience more torment in hell than the rest. A Hitler will suffer more than a Gandhi, though neither, presumably, ever put his trust in Christ.
The death of an unbeliever results in separation of his spirit from his body and from God. Only trust in Jesus as savior will rescue us from this double separation.