What Happens To Non-Christians After Death?
Last week I wrote on the subject of whether or not people who have never heard the gosple could be saved. I believe they can.
Today lets consider that I and others are wrong and those who've never heard actually do go to Hell. And yes, I believe the Bible teaches a literal Hell. Very few Christians believe Hell does not exist. But here's a question on which there is disagreement. Is everyone's experience in Hell the same? In other words, do those who have never heard of Jesus have the same experience in Hell as the Hitlers, sex-traffickers and false teachers? No.
The simplistic version of Hell believed by the average Christian is completely different from that of most theologians. I'm grateful for the following ideas based on the book, One Minute After You Die, by Erwin Lutzer, the former senior pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, a conservative Christian if there ever was one.
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 lots of confusion because 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/her 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 to some degree, way before the coming day of judgement.
The Old Testament was originally written largely in Hebrew. The New Testament in Greek. Unfortunately, when it was translated into English, the word "Sheol and Hades" was translated into Hell. Therefore, most people associate Hades with Hell. They are not the same. Hell does not yet exist. (More about that later.) Both the rich man and Abraham were in Hades or Sheol, but each were having completely different experiences.
"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, or Sheol even to this day is the intermediate state where those who have not received God's forgiveness must await the judgment. All the dead who are unsaved, before and after Christ will 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." Il Peter 2:9
In other words, Sheol/Hades are more like the waiting room or holding cell BEFORE you go into the courtroom to receive the verdict. Hell is where non believers go AFTER they receive their final verdict on Judgement Day. 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
The New Testament "After-life" for Believers.
But after the ascension of Christ, both Old Testament believers living in Sheol 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 - one for the righteous and the other for unrighteous. However, we still belleve non-believers who lived more morally than others, still have a better experience as they await judgement.
Non-believers: Jesus taught this about life after death and the judgement for those who will end up in Hell, "The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready and does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows." Luke 12:47,48 Meaning they will be punished based on how much knowledge of God they had and how they lived while on earth. So it's quite possible that those who have never heard the gospel, or non-believers who lived moral lives, will experience separation from God, but not the pain and punishment, that the truly ungodly will experience.
So, what's the point of this conversation? It often surprises both older conservatives and secular, irreligious people, that there are highly respected conservative Christian theologians who've come to the conclusion that God may be far more just and kind to "non-believers" than traditional Christianity has presented him to be. And I'm one of them.
1 Barackman, Floyd, Practical Christian Theology, Kregel Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 467.