Addressing Objections: We Die Once and Then the Judgment Argument
A primary objection to the idea that people can be saved from the lake of fire or second death is that we only have one life to live and then we get judged. In other words, this life is our one and only chance. After that, there is no hope for redemption. This is an interesting idea that has no real scriptural support. The Bible passage that is typically used to support it is Hebrews 9:27 which says “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”
As a matter of first importance, I want to be clear that I do not dispute that judgment comes after we die. In fact, I argued previously from Scripture that this must be the case for everyone. If judgment means eternal hellfire, then everyone would experience it. We know, however, that judgment does not mean hell, but rather judgment, and we know that God’s judgment is fair and right and that it involves both varying rewards and varying penalties.
How then can Hebrews 9:27 serve as a proof text that hell must be a place of eternal punishment or that there cannot be any hope of salvation after death? The simple answer is that it cannot.
Now let’s look at the verse with a bit more context to see what it is actually trying to explain.
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The point of the passage is to explain that Jesus only had to die once, not multiple times, because his sacrifice was enough to pay for all sin! In the same way that we only have to die once, Christ too only had to die once to pay for the sins of the world. The final sentence further explains his second coming in which he won’t have to deal with sin any longer. Why? Because he already has atoned for it! When he returns, he will be coming to save us.
Now some will argue that this salvation only applies to those who are “eagerly waiting for him.” And this is a reasonable reading of the passage, on its own. However, we have an abundance of other passages that explain his role as the Savior of all. Perhaps, instead of limiting the scope of Christ’s salvation, this passage clarifies why he is the “Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). When he returns, those of us who believe in Him are saved in a special way because we get to reign with Him and do not have to experience the second death. This does not preclude, however, the eventual salvation of those who do not yet eagerly await his coming.
There is not a single Bible verse that expresses the idea that physical death makes it impossible for a person to come to God. Not one! So again, we are seeing a theological construct being imposed upon the Word of God and being preached as gospel.
Some, however, will still argue that there is no positive affirmation in the Bible that the dead have any opportunity for salvation. But, once again, they would be dead wrong (pun intended).
I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
Here we see Jesus speaking and asserting that He has the keys to death and Hades. Does that mean that He has power over them? Can He actually unlock death and free those who are captive in it? Of course He can! He has power over all things and death cannot stop Him.
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Again, we see that the gates of Hades (the abode of the dead) will be breached by the church. To understand this passage, it is critical to understand that gates are passive, inanimate objects. Gates don't chase you down and try to overcome you. Instead, the image is that the church will break down the gates of Hades and the gates will be powerless to stop us. Notice that the church is the active entity, with the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the ability to bind and loose things on earth and in heaven.
And don't forget that Christ has the keys to death and Hades and that He was sent to set the captives free (Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18). Aren't those dead in sin captives? As Ephesians 2:1 tells us, we were "dead" in our transgressions and sins. And there is abundant biblical evidence that we were all "slaves to sin." Doesn't Christ tell us Himself that He came to save us from this captivity and slavery?
Now, to quiet those who still would falsely claim that there is no evidence of postmortem evangelism, let's look at some passages that explicitly say that there is.
1 Peter 3:18-22 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
1 Peter 4:6 (ESV)
With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
Now, given these passages, it is impossible to argue that postmortem evangelism is not in the Bible. Indeed, we are explicitly told that Christ "proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah." We are told specifically that Christ is proclaiming a message to the unrighteous after His resurrection. What was He proclaiming?
Did the same Christ who pleaded with His Father "forgive them, for they know not what they do" go to the unrighteous in death to gloat and say "neener neener" in childish taunting? The mere suggestion that this was His purpose is inane. In fact, we are told His purpose in preaching to the dead just a few verses later. Not only that, we are told what he preached: the gospel. And he preached it so that "they might live in the spirit the way God does."
I'm anticipating that some people will be tempted still to assume that it is only Noah who is hearing the gospel since he is mentioned in the passage. But this is a misreading of the text. The text clearly says that the proclamation was given to those who were disobedient in the days of Noah. The reference to baptism as analogous to the salvation of Noah illustrates that it is better to be saved now than to wait and be judged harshly by God. Noah's salvation contrasts with the death and destruction in this life that occurs when we choose to follow our evil tendencies. There are present and future rewards for those who choose to be baptized by Christ now, and grace for all of us because of Christ's atoning sacrifice that 1 John 2:2 tells us is not only for us who know Him presently, but "also for the sins of the whole world."
Now, there will still be those who want to say that the passages I just referenced in 1 Peter are poor proof texts for postmortem gospel preaching because the passages are "kind of weird" and "nobody is really sure what they mean." If that is you, you must recognize that the only reason why the passage is hard to understand is that you assume that Christ does not preach to those who have died. You assume that there is no hope for the lost after death. You assume that God's mercy can only be found before your physical heart stops beating and after that God is powerless to save, even though He clearly states that the salvation of the whole world is His will. But these assumptions directly contradict the Bible, and if you read the passage at face value, it is not actually confusing at all.
So the question must be asked and considered carefully: Do you trust more in your unbiblical theological constructs, or in the Word of God?
Previous Chapter Next Chapter