Can People Be Saved After Death?

heaven and hell

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…”

Heb 9:27

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!

3 comments on “Can People Be Saved After Death?

  1. Chris Isaacs says:

    Hey Alison, I don’t know if you remember me from HLBC in Louisville, but I have had a few conversations on this subject recently as well. Unfortunately the person whom I was having this conversation has not gotten back to me in some time (which is unfortunate because he hadn’t answered any of my questions). So if you don’t mind/have the time I’d like to ask you a few questions.

    Is universal salvation a new belief? What of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, or Maximus the confessor? All these church fathers seemed to have taught universal salvation or something quite close to it.

    Does scripture clearly teach eternal judgement/damnation? You bring up Hebrews 9:27, but what of Hebrews 2:9 which states “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone,” or “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” John 12:32? What are we to make of 1 John 2:2 “he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world,” “Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” Romans 5:18, or “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets” Acts 3:21. These are just a few verses among others that seem to teach that either God will reconcile all to himself. Then there are others—for example Titus 2:11 and 2 Peter 3:9—that show God extending grace to everyone in his desire for all to be reconciled but we chose either to accept or reject such grace (which I think aligns more with Arminianism). What do you make of these verses?

    I also have a question in regards to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Could this not be the state the eternal life before the atonement, before the New Covenant? I must also bring up that the Rich man is talking to Abraham not God. Did not God bridge the chasm of sin on the cross? Cannot God also bridge chasm of hell as well? Is God not sovereign? Are you saying that God is not all powerful, or is he omnipotent but just unwilling? How can is God love, but at the same time unwilling love the entirety of his creation?

    You then bring up that our eternal destiny is based on our actions. This a question about Calvinism in general. How can I or anyone be judged by my actions if I had no choice in making them? How can God doom someone for their sin when he predestined them to sin in the first place? How can I be morally responsible for my actions when I have no choice in the matter? Doesn’t that make God at some level complicit in our sin or the creator of sin?

    Your last point is that if we believe that everyone will have the chance to God after death there is no need evangelize. But could this critique also apply to those that hold to predestination at well? If God has already decided who and who isn’t a part of the elect then it doesn’t really matter? I assume you’d counter that it may be through that evangelism that God had predestined them to come into the Kingdom. But could this argument not also work for those that seek Universal Salvation

    So yeah those are my questions. I personally don’t claim Universal Salvation but I do think it has a place within Christian Orthodoxy and tradition. I would just like to stress that I am asking these questions out of a pure desire to understand, nothing more and nothing less.
    Thank you for your time,

  2. awhitely says:

    Hey Chris! Good to hear from you!

    These are certainly important and good questions to ask when examining this topic, and any topic, thank you for your response!

    You are absolutely right, finding an actual “new” belief or thought process is difficult, and there have been traces of all sorts of beliefs throughout the history of the faith. Universalism has been a hope for a variety of people in a variety of settings – some would even argue that the reincarnation belief systems are a type of universalism: we keep getting more chances until we find enlightenment. The study of Church history and the developments of creeds and councils is thus extremely important and helpful as we examine the Scriptures on our own. PME is not, however, a true universalist belief as it would hold that there might still be some who would not choose Christ, even at the brink of damnation. It still holds to exclusivism and giving people the choice, just one extra choice that is not commonly believed in evangelicalism. And it’s acceptance within the protestant belief system has been minimal – I think you are seeing people (like me) say that it is “new” are meaning that it is new that a relatively large number of people are beginning to believe it.

    As to your question about eternal damnation, I think I am hearing you ask two questions: Firstly, is there truly damnation, and secondly for whom did Jesus die. These can be tightly intertwined – as they appear to be in the way you worded your thought.

    On damnation: Revelation 20:11-15 clearly says that anyone whose name is not found in the book of life will be damned in the eternal lake of fire. If everyone’s name was written in the book of life, there would be none who fell into that category and then that verse would not make sense.
    John 3.36 – Jesus said that anyone who does not believe in Him remains under the wrath of God, and the rest of John 3 speaks clearly to those who do not believe already being judged.
    Matt 7.13-14 – Jesus also says that the road to Heaven is narrow and there are only a few who find it, but many find the road to destruction (Hell).
    Matt 7.23 – Jesus will also turn people away from Heaven who believed that they were saved because they had a head knowledge of God and even preformed miracles in His name, but yet they never knew Jesus and repented of their sins.
    1 Thess 5.3 – Paul says that many will not escape, even when they think there is peace in the world, it will come suddenly.
    Matt 18.11-12 – Jesus teaches that Jews who do not repent and come for salvation will also go to Hell.

    So yes, I think that we can see that Scripture teaches eternal reward – Heaven and Hell, and that there will be people who are sent there.

    For whom, then, did Jesus die? You quoted many verses that have been used to take the Arminian perspective, as you noted. When we study the Scripture, however, we have to be intentional to read the Scripture as a whole and let the Scripture interpret Scripture: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1.20-21). God has a purposeful and clear intention for us in the things that He revealed and wrote for us.

    Now, these passages that you have quoted, I believe, are understandable in the context of the rest of Scripture, without teaching universalism or even Arminianism. As I showed earlier, there is indeed a Hell, it is God who sends people there, there are people who go there, and they go there as consequence for their sin. Therefore what do those verses mean? 2 Peter 3.9 was written specifically to the Church, and was written – at least in part – to encourage those within the church who were either not truly believers or who were being distracted from their calling (2 Peter 1.10ff). God indeed is patient towards us in the path of sanctification, and I am quite comfortable to even say God does not wish – in the sense of taking pleasure – that any should perish (as you quoted, 3.9). Ez teaches us that God takes no pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. I am sure you have heard the analogy of a meeting being called: When a board sits down, the convener will often ask, “Is everyone here? Are we all present?” We understand that “all” in this situation is not everyone in the entire world. We understand that “all” is not every American. It is the select group of people who were invited and expected. It is exclusive. But yet he expects everyone who is supposed to be there.

    What then about 1 John? Did Jesus’ death pay the penalty for every human being who has ever lived? No. It cannot. Because it if did, then no one would go to Hell. If Jesus already paid the penalty, then there is no sentence left to serve. What it ˆdoesˆmean, however, is that Jesus paid the punishment for all who will believe. Everyone. “The whole world” – people from every single nation. And the offer is extended to everyone who breathes, but it depends on God to draw them.

    As to your question about Lazarus and the chasm before atonement. Jesus did indeed live in an interesting time before the new covenant and bringing it to pass. Eternity was discussed in much less clear terms before Jesus came – but Jesus spoke more about Hell and damnation than He did about Heaven. Jesus, however, in teaching about Lazarus, in no way implied that this was a temporary or passing reality. He clearly taught about the changing nature of the old covenant and explained what would be upheld by the Law. If Jesus was changing something, He said it. And He clearly taught of eternal judgment and damnation, warning often against it. He would not do so if He were taking it away. We cannot add an argument that Scripture does not say, just to make our doctrines fit. Arguments from silence are not only dangerous, but a bad discipline. We could supersede pretty much anything onto Scripture by arguing that Jesus “didn’t” say it.

    Yes, Jesus did miraculous bridge the chasm on the cross – as we regularly draw in our evangelism strategies. But God has ordained that the chasm we see between Lazarus and the rich man not be crossed, as Abaraham stated. It is not that He can’t, it is that He won’t. This is how He planned for life and eternity to go.

    Your last question is extremely important and one of the most difficult in considering predestination. Paul asked the exact question in Romans 9.
    “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be!” – Rom 9.14

    “You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” – Rom 9.19

    Paul is arguing for God’s sovereignty and asking the questions, “How is this fair?” And His answer is clear: God does not owe us anything. The crux of the problem is that we consider ourselves the highest being, we think that we deserve life, happiness and pleasure. But in fact, we are sinners who deserve damnation. All of us. So grace is the blessing that we do not deserve. And while many of us would ˆsayˆ that about grace, we do not truly believe it. If we did, our sentiment would not be, “that’s not fair that some go to Hell”, but rather, “That’s not fair that I get to go to Heaven”. THAT is the true injustice. And if God chooses some and not others, He is God. He has that right (Rom 9.15).

    But if God predestined belief and unbelief, how can we be held accountable? Rom 9.21-23 teaches us that God, as God, can make some people for eternal destruction for the sake of believers. Is that fair? He is God and He created everything, He has the right to create people for different roles. If they were made as sinners, how can He send them to Hell? Well they are sinners, they never were saved, so that is their eternal consequence. They still chose to sin. And the wages of sin is death.

    Why then should we evangelize? Because even though God is sovereign, we are not. We do not know whom God has chosen. We have been commanded to go out and make disciples: to go find those people in whom the Spirit is working and teach them. Plant Churches. God has ordained that we be a part of His plan to call believers from around the world. Why do it? Because we love Him, and we are blessed and fortunate to be a part of His plan.

    I know I just grazed over all your questions, because you asked many of the most weighty questions in theology, but I hope this helps! If you want to talk more indepth on any or all topics, let me know! I’ve actually written on some of these points more extensively, I can send you those if you like. 🙂

    Hope you are doing well, send my love to everyone!

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