Life after death for non-believers

  • Question 103 – from CP, United Kingdom

    In your post about the time lapse between bodily death and resurrection, you say: “The deceased are already resurrected and to them it would have felt instantaneous.” It seems to be your belief that those who achieve a life ‘with God’ and with Jesus in this life are the ones who are resurrected. And The Bible says those who believe in Jesus and ask for forgiveness will be resurrected. However, it seems strange that lots of very ‘good’, charitable, loving and kind people who might not believe in Jesus or might be vague about it will not be resurrected with the others. Where do they go? How about the difficult person who causes a lot of upset to others but who believes in Jesus all along or towards the end? Why would that person be resurrected before the charitable person? I understand to the degree that we ALL inevitably sin in our lives and Jesus is the key to being re-united with God. However, this type of question still puzzles me. How does it all work?

    This question in one form or another has perplexed Christians for many years. Loosely speaking there are three basic alternative solutions:
    i) universalism – the belief that everybody is granted eternal life,
    ii) annihilationism – where the ‘saved’ (or righteous/good) receive eternal life, while the unsaved (bad) cease to exist, and
    iii) judgement – where the saved/good go to heaven and the unsaved/bad go to hell.

    There are problems with all three doctrinal positions, so it comes as no surprise to discover modified and hybrid opinions as well. However, put simply, universalism does not allow for free choice, because human beings get saved whatever they do. It also has very little Biblical basis. It does, however, emphasise God’s grace, mercy and forgiving nature, and has a long pedigree among freethinking Christians (often regarded as heretics). One notable theologian who adopted this view was the third century scholar Origen, who went so far as to claim that even the devil would eventually be redeemed.

    Annihilationism is often argued from the reference in Revelation to the ‘second death’ endured by those who are thrown into the lake of fire in chapter 20, verse 14. As with the more typical ‘division between heaven and hell’ judgement scenario, annihilationism does take human sin seriously. In fact, human sin is the reason why those judged unrighteous are annihilated. However, this goes against the Biblical statements about hell, which seem to infer a continuing, conscious existence (see Mark chapter 9, verse 48).

    The judgement scenario has always been very popular in Christian thought, particularly among ‘fire and brimstone’ preachers. In some ways the concept of hell feeds the social insecurity caused by religion, in that while Christians may feel that they are a persecuted and threatened minority, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they will be proved right on judgement day. However, this simplistic approach – that believers automatically go to heaven and unbelievers automatically end up in hell – has intrinsic difficulties, both in its Biblical support and internal logic.

    For a start, it has often been pointed out that it was the religious leaders that Jesus warned about hell. Jesus clearly saw a distinction between words and deeds, with words on their own not enough to save a person (Matthew chapter 7, verses 15-23). So it appears that a person who “causes upset” will be judged for it, regardless of whether they have said the ‘right’ formula of words (e.g. a ‘prayer of salvation’).

    Reducing the effects of salvation merely to the afterlife takes the emphasis away from doing the will of God in the here and now, which is clearly part of Jesus’ intended message. In Luke chapter 4, verse 18, Jesus launches his ministry with a declaration of intent borrowed from the prophet Isaiah and promises “To preach good news to the poor”, liberate prisoners and the oppressed, and heal the blind. Later in Luke many of these phrases are repeated to authenticate Jesus’ status as the messiah to the imprisoned John the Baptist (chapter 7, verse 22).

    In two ways then, the Biblical stories undermine the simplistic heaven/hell divide. There is also the question of rational understanding. If hell is a ‘physical’ place or dimension it must have been created specifically for that purpose, but there is no Biblical record of that taking place. In fact it seems from the Old Testament that the idea of hell ‘evolves’ or develops as time goes on, from ‘sheol’ the grave, through to ‘gehenna’ in the New Testament.

    If hell is defined as ‘separation from God’ (as it often is in ‘softer’ versions of the judgement theory), then logically how can any place be separate from its creator? Hell will always bear the creative mark of God. Added to that is the sense that if people are condemned to hell for eternity, then evil has won, and God is not the triumphant victor that Christian tradition has always proclaimed. The question why God would allow human souls to be ‘lost’ is an inexplicable mystery.

    Perhaps the best answer to this query is to say that the destiny of unbelievers remains uncertain. In contrast, the future of the believer is assured in the Bible and in Christian theology. While many missionary endeavours have been spurred on by the belief that people are being saved from hellfire, it would be as inspiring to give people the opportunity to replace uncertainty with the certain knowledge of eternal life.

    Thanks for your question, CP.

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