With all the “I died, went to heaven and back”, books and movies out today, it’s made me aware of just how little the average Christian knows what the Bible teaches about what happens one minute after people die.
I’ve also found that most young people believe in heaven, but reject the idea of hell except for child murderers and Hitler. To them it’s inconsistent with the actions of a loving God. Perhaps you’ll find my explanation for the fate of those who have never heard the gospel, helpful for them as well.
So, I hope you’ll use this blog to share with your family or Bible study group this brief summary. Here’s my disclaimer; much of what I’ve written was gleaned from a wonderful book by Irwin Lutzer, One Minute After You Die. Lutzer is the Senior Pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. Sheol One of the most important words in the Old Testament which speaks of the after-life is the Hebrew word Sheol. In the King James Version it is translated as hell thirty-one times and grave thirty-one times, which has caused some confusion. Sheol is not hell. In the Old Testament Sheol is a general term for the nether world, the region of departed spirits, where they live a conscious after-life.
There is a clear distinction between the grave where the body rests and Sheol where the spirits of the dead are gathered (Isaiah 14:9). Sheol is spoken of as a shadowy place of darkness (Ezk. 26:20). After death one can be united with his ancestors in Sheol. Jacob went down to Sheol and was gathered to his people (Gen. 49:33). Finally, there are hints in scripture that Sheol has different regions (Duet. 32:22).
“This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” (Psalm 49:13-15)
The reason Sheol has different regions is that it has two different kinds of inhabitants. In Sheol, both the righteous and the wicked enter, though when they arrive they do not have the same experience. Some inhabitants of Sheol are the faithful and for them it is a pleasant experience. But for the ungodly, their experience is not pleasant. Therefore it can be said that the unrighteous are already being punished.
Hades When the Old Testament was written in Greek, the word Sheol was translated into Hades. Therefore, most people associate Hades with Hell. They are not the same. Both the rich man and Abraham were in Hades or Sheol, but not hell. Hell does not exist yet.
“In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” (Luke 16:23-26)
Hades, even to this day is the intermediate state where those who have not received God’s forgiveness must await the judgment, both before Christ and after. All dead who are unsaved, remain in Sheol until the final judgment.
“If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.” (II Peter 2:9)
The New Testament “After-life”, for Believers But after the ascension of Christ, Old Testament believers and the New Testament Christians are said to go directly to heaven. The thief on the cross heard Jesus promise him that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) In other words, the two regions of Hades no longer exist side by side. “Abraham’s bosom” is heaven today. However, Catholics believe that Hades (Purgatory) still exists for believers and non-believers.
One minute after believers die, believers enter into the presence of Jesus (Phil. 1:23; II Cor. 5:8). Once in heaven, they will meet all other believers from all time. They will also have knowledge and an understanding of many things, which we could not in this life.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (I Cor. 13:12)
The Intermediate State What kind of body will we have in heaven, since our permanent, resurrection body is still in the future. The truth is that scripture is not clear. Since believers will speak, sing, bow down, wear white robes, etc. some form of “body” is required. However, it is thought that we will have the type of body Jesus had immediately after his resurrection. Jesus could walk through closed doors, yet could eat food and be touched.
The Judgment for Believers The eternal fate of true believers is not based on works, but on personal faith in Jesus Christ. However, the nature of a believer’s works will be examined to distinguish the worthless ones from the worthy ones (I Cor. 3:11-15). The outcome is either reward or deprivation of reward. This deprivation may involve humiliation and shame at the judgment.
Will there be sorrow at the judgment? Yes, until God himself “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 17; 21:4). When we think of the opportunities we squandered on earth, how imperfectly we loved Christ and others we will grieve. Our sorrow will vanish, but for a moment we will be pained for what could have been. After that – joy. Those whose good deeds prove the presence of saving faith will enter the kingdom.
The Bible says that the old heaven and earth will be destroyed and there will be a new earth, which we believe will be similar to the earth Adam and Eve experienced prior to the fall. Therefore the old adage that “heaven is my home”, is not really correct. Our ultimate home is the kingdom of God over which Jesus will reign forever. In his kingdom, believers will have tasks to do, which are meaningful, enjoyable, and there will be no sin, pain, or frustration.
The Judgment for Non-Believers When Jesus returns, every person who ever died will be raised and all the living gathered together and judged individually. The believers to eternal life and bliss – non-believers to eternal death. The Bible says that death and Hades will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Hell). That is Hades will be destroyed and all non-believers will go to Hell (Rev. 20:14). Hell exists because unbelievers are eternally guilty – They’ve never asked for God’s forgiveness. Hell is eternal torment and abandonment (Rev. 20; Matt.10:28; 12:32; 25:48). Satan and his angels will also be thrown into Hell, and will not be the tormentors, but the tormented (Rev. 20:10).
However, like Sheol or Hades we believe different people will have different experiences in Hell. F. Barackman, a well-known conservative theologian puts it this way, “Although all will share the same doom, like people assigned to the same prison, yet like Sheol, there will be less unpleasant regions and degrees of punishment according to their guilt (Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; Luke 12:47-48; Romans 2:5-11). It will depend on how much knowledge people had of the Son of God and exposure to God’s truth.” 1
So, it’s quite possible that those who have never heard the gospel, or non-believers will experience separation from God, but not the pain and punishment, that the truly ungodly will experience. Christians believe in a God of love, justice and mercy. We can fully trust the fate of those who have never heard, or of non-believers who were kind and generous people, into the hands of a loving, just and merciful God.
1Barackman, Floyd, Practical Christian Theology, Kregel Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 467.
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