As far as their future is concerned, there is one question – and only one – that ultimately concerns every human being on our planet. Old or young, rich or poor, educated or otherwise, robustly healthy or seriously ill, black, white or any other colour, we all face an issue that can be put in six simple syllables: Where do we go from here?
The question is inescapable for the simple reason that, as a friend of mine once put it, ‘We are not here to stay; we are here to go’. We invest a massive amount of time, energy, working, thinking, planning – and money – into the things we do in life. Our jobs, homes, families, possessions, hobbies, plans, well-being, hopes and pleasures take up every waking hour – yet every one of these things will be snatched away from us by death.
Immediately before his execution, an American criminal said, ‘You can be a king or a street-sweeper, but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper’. I imagine he gave hours of thought as to what his final words would be, yet he was only stating the obvious. What millions are asking is what happens when the dance is over.
As far as our bodies are concerned, the answer is fairly straightforward – in most cultures involving burial or cremation – but what about the soul? Popular ideas have ranged from agnosticism, which says that what happens after death is a complete mystery; annihilationism, which says that death ends human existence; universalism, which says everyone will go to heaven, regardless of their beliefs or behaviour; and reincarnation, which says that when a person dies he or she is ‘recycled’ and returns to earth as a different kind of person (or even as an animal, a bird, a reptile or an insect) depending on their previous quality of life.
Although countless millions of people hold to each of these ideas, none has any biblical basis. The Bible tells us that the souls of those who have died remain alive and conscious in what theologians call the ‘intermediate state’, the nature of which depends on the spiritual condition of the deceased.
This is illustrated in a story Jesus told about a rich but godless man who died and was buried and ‘in Hades’ was ‘in torment’, and a poor but apparently godly man who ‘died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side’ (Luke 16:19-31).
‘Hades’ clearly means a place of punishment for the ungodly, while (as Abraham was universally recognized as ‘the father of all who believe’; Romans 4:11) ‘Abraham’s side’ obviously means a place of great bliss. In this story, these are intermediate states.
As illustrations we could say that the righteous are in a palace, waiting to enter the throne room, while the unrighteous are remanded in custody, waiting to receive their final sentence.
The souls of the dead will remain in these intermediate states until the Lord Jesus Christ returns to the earth, when ‘There will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust’ (Acts 24:15). This tells us that while people may be said to be ‘dead and buried’ they are never ‘dead and gone’.
Without explaining how this happens (and how could we understand it?) the Bible says that the souls of unbelievers will be taken from the ‘condemned cell’ of Hades and reunited with their resurrected bodies to face their Maker as whole persons and receive their final, dreadful sentence.
The souls of believers, also reunited with resurrection bodies, will likewise stand before God – not to be condemned but to be welcomed into an even fuller experience of God’s glorious presence than they enjoyed in paradise.
While theologians differ on the exact timetable as it concerns those still living on earth when Jesus returns, both believers and unbelievers will eventually also have changed bodies and as whole persons stand before ‘the Judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:35).
The ultimate division between the righteous and the unrighteous will come on the day of final judgement, when ‘each one of us will give an account of himself to God’ (Romans 14:12) – a Judge who is utterly perfect, has complete and perfect knowledge of everything we think, say or do, is righteously angry at all sin, and has clearly stated that ‘nothing unclean will ever enter [heaven]’ (Revelation 21:27).
The gaze of a holy God
As ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23) this would seem to spell certain disaster – and the picture gets even worse when we realise that all our own efforts to get right with God by keeping his law will count for nothing on that day. As John Stott rightly explains, ‘The law cannot save us, for the sole reason that we cannot keep it; and we cannot keep it because of indwelling sin’.
This means that unless there is an astonishing intervention on our behalf, we are doomed to ‘go away into eternal punishment’ (Matthew 25:46). The Bible’s major word for this is ‘hell’, which the Bible likens to a rubbish dump, a prison and a place of darkness where ‘there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew 8:12).
Yet the most terrible picture of hell tells us that those condemned to be there will be ‘tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’ (Revelation 14:10).The twentieth-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre – who was brought up in church circles but later ‘stopped associating’ with God and became an icon of atheism – once glimpsed the horror of this: ‘The last thing I want is to be subject to the unremitting gaze of a holy God’.
Yet this will be the appalling fate of the unrighteous. They will be exposed to the awesome fire of God’s holy and unrestricted anger, unleashed against them in the way their sinfulness deserves and his holiness demands, with never a glimmer of his love, mercy, kindness or compassion, all of which they rejected while on earth, when they were freely available to them.
One other thing will make hell even worse: those who are sent there will remain there for ever. The Bible knows nothing of purgatory, a ‘second chance’ or a ‘larger hope’. It speaks of ‘eternal fire’ (Matthew 25:41) and of the unrighteous being ‘tormented day and night for ever and ever’ (Revelation 20:10).
Rescued by Christ
Yet the glory of the Christian gospel is that God has wondrously intervened to rescue sinners from this terrible fate. This is the Bible’s main message from cover to cover, sometimes put in a few words: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
In the sinless person of his own beloved Son, God provided a substitute for sinners – one who lived in perfect obedience to God’s law, then in his voluntary death paid in full the appalling penalty the law demands, becoming as accountable for men’s sins as if he had been responsible for them.
Nor is this the end of the story! After three days Jesus was ‘declared to be the Son of God … by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4) – proof that all the demands of God’s holy law had been met, his justice completely satisfied and his holy anger against those for whom Jesus died vented in full.
As we move towards the end of life, our final destiny is at stake, with heaven and hell as the only alternatives. Left to our own efforts, even the most religious or respectable of them, we are doomed to hear the dreadful words, ‘Depart from me … into the eternal fire’ (25:41) and to be exposed to God’s awesome anger for ever – but there is an alternative!
In his amazing grace, God has made a way for sinful rebels to return to him and to enjoy eternity in his glorious presence. Jesus came, lived, died and rose again ‘to bring us to God’ (1 Peter 3:18) – to deliver sinners immediately from the penalty of sin, gradually from its power, and eventually from its very presence, in heaven where ‘death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain’ (Revelation 21:4).
There is no escape from the wrath of God except in the one who bore that wrath on behalf of those who put their trust in him. The church’s task is to preach the gospel ‘to all nations’ (Matthew 28:19), assuring even the worst of sinners that everyone who truly turns from sin and trusts in Christ ‘has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has passed over from death to life’ (John 5:24).
Adapted from John Blanchard’s latest evangelistic booklet, Where do we go from here?, published in March 2008 by Evangelical Press.