I had a conversation with a friend recently regarding the nature of death and whether or not people will have a chance to be saved after they die. This is a relatively new belief that was made widely popular by Rob Bell and his book “Love Wins”, and it is defined by theologians as “postmortem evangelism” (PME). It is certainly a warm fuzzy thought and comfort: that people can get through life and either never hear of Jesus or deny His salvation, but then be given one last chance as they stand at the brink of eternity to choose between Heaven over Hell.
The good thing, and the truth found within this belief, is that Jesus is the only way to find eternal salvation. It is still exclusive and right in this claim.
But the problem is that Scripture clearly teaches that this is an impossibility. The author of Hebrews makes a clear assertion that upon our moment of death we will be taken to judgment.
“And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment…”
This is a difficult concept to understand. We know that God, being Spirit (John 4.24) and being the creator (Col 1, Gen 1-3), exists outside of time. He is not governed by the physical laws that uphold the world (Is 57.15), and the passing of time to God is irrelevant (Ps 90.5, 2 Peter 3.8, Ps 102.12, 24-27). So it is not only possible but likely that when we leave our physical bodies we will enter into that state of existence where time does not constrain us. In short, we can go straight from death to judgment – with everyone (even those who are still alive when we die) – at the end of time.
When we go to the judgment, we will go through two phases. The first is the Great White Throne Judgment where the believers will be separated from the non believers (Rev 20.11-15). The non believers, at judgment will be sent immediately to Hell. Then the believers will give an account for the deeds that they did while in the body, the Bema Seat judgment (1 Cor 3.12-15). This is the time where all of our deeds that were preformed to the glory of God will be refined from our sinful and wicked ones through fire and rewarded to us as Heavenly, eternal treasures: treasures that we can present to Jesus as gifts.
Not only does Scripture teach that judgment is what awaits us at death, Jesus also taught in a parable of the impassable chasm between Heaven and Hell in his story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. The story teaches us that after death the two were taken immediately to their eternity (through judgment): Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom (Heaven/the New Earth), and the rich man to Hell (Luke 16.22). The rich man could see Lazarus and in his torment begged Abraham to let Lazarus give him a drink of water, but he was denied (Luke 16.23-26). Abraham told him that the chasm between Heaven and Hell was impassable (Luke 16.26). No one can go from Heaven to Hell, and no one can go from Hell to Heaven. Abraham also condemned the rich man for his actions while he was alive and asserted that he was receiving the reward for his wickedness in life (Luke 16.25).
Scripture regularly teaches that our eternal destiny is based on our actions in life, whether to eternal blessing or damnation:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
– 2 Cor 5.10
Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
– 1 Cor 3.8
“Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.”
– Rev 22.12
“I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”
– Rev 2.23
“Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
– John 5.28-29
The deeds we preform and the salvation we receive or reject while alive will determine our eternity after death.
We also need to consider the sovereignty of God over salvation. Paul teaches us that everyone who will come to God for salvation was predestined to be saved before the foundation of the world:
“…just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”
– Eph 1.4-6
Those who have been predestined have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21.27), and they have been there since before time began. This is why Jesus so boldly taught the disciples that God has given some people on Earth to Him, and everyone that God has given to Jesus will come to Him:
“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.”
– John 6.37
The sheep analogy is continued and completed in this, as well. Jesus says that we are His sheep, and His sheep know His voice and come when He calls (John 10.27-28). Those who are not Jesus’ sheep are goats. We are fundamentally, by nature, different creatures. And that is why the first judgment will be the separation of the sheep and goats (Matt 25.31-46).
The last point we need to consider is the command and urgency of the Great Commission and missions. Jesus came to bring salvation to the world, and the last thing He said as He was leaving the world was “Go and make disciples” of the whole world (Matt 28.18-20). Paul said that He was obligated to the lost to preach the gospel (Rom 1.14-17). And we are commanded to be disciples, and part of being a disciple is to make disciples. If people had a chance to be saved after they left this Earth, then there is no urgency to go and tell. Why? Because anyone standing in front of two destinies, a fiery prison of suffering in Hell or eternal blessing in Heaven, will choose Heaven. If everyone will get to see those options and choose, then there is no point to struggle to take the Gospel to the world.
Ultimately, Jesus taught us that belief in Him, through the Gospel, means that one has already begun their eternal life while alive on Earth. Whoever does not believe still has the wrath of God abiding on him.
“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
– John 3.36
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
– John 5.24
And ultimately Jesus taught that those eternal destinies are already determined before life, those who are damned are already judged and condemned even though they might still be physically alive:
“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
– John 3.18
In summary, God has chosen us for salvation from the moment that He created the world. His plan cannot be thwarted. When we die, we go immediately to judgment – judgment for our deeds in the flesh and our belief in Jesus – and after judgment we will enter eternity in either Heaven or Hell, and the chasm between the two cannot be passed, in either direction. This is why evangelism is so necessary and urgent, because we only have a limited time on Earth and then we will spend an eternity in reward for our faith or our lack of faith. No, people cannot be saved after they die. So let’s get our own salvation established and then let us be obedient to the ultimate call of Jesus to go out and make disciples of the world, so that we can be obedient and we can spend eternity with our brothers and sisters from all nations!