There are many Christians who are offended at the thought of post-mortem conversion — that repentance and faith might be a possibility after death for those who had none before, so that they might turn and know God and be rescued. “They should receive a ‘Get Out of Hell Free’ card?” they chide.
“Get Out of Hell Free” is a mocking crude way to put it, but there it is, and it shows us something of the mentality of these offended ones. They assume that those who did not have the foresight to repent during life ought to suffer the torments of hell forevermore after death. It is too easy, they think, to repent once one has experienced that infernal place.
Leave aside that they often have a very unbiblical idea of hell. For them, hell is some sort of imprisonment — an eternal jail — imposed by God upon the wicked for having rejected God. Leave aside also the crudeness of the “Get Out of Jail Free” card analogy and let’s think about it for a moment. Would that not also be the same thing God has done for all who turn to God in this present life? Are such not considered to be rescued from an infernal existence in the age to come?
Why, then, should they be offended at the thought that God might offer the same for those who experience torment in the age to come? Is it somehow more difficult to repent in this present existence than it is for those who are suffer torment in the next? That would seem to cast timely repentance as some sort of meritorious work. But repentance is always a gracious gift from God. Otherwise none of us should ever be able to break free from our bondage to self and turn to God.
Now think for a moment about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. This son treated his father very shamefully then went off to an alien country far from home. There he squandered his inheritance on an immoral life. A terrible famine came and left him in a desperate situation. But then, Jesus says, “he came to his senses.” He remembered his father’s house and the goodness of his father. He was ashamed of how he had acted. He repented, got up and returned home.
And what did the father do? Did he say, “No, you don’t get a ‘Get Out of Famine Free’ card. Your repentance was too easy and came too cheaply”? Quite the opposite, the father saw him coming in the distance — he had been watching for his son all along, you see — and ran out to meet him. He embraced him as his son, receiving him fully and completely into his house. Then he threw a great feast in celebration, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”
But the father’s older son was upset by all this and thought his father far too gracious and forgiving of his younger brother. He wanted to shame his younger brother — and his father, as well — but the father would have none it. “We had to celebrate and be glad,” he said, “because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (I have written more about the Parable of the Prodigal Son here.)
Should we suppose that God is any less gracious than the father in Jesus’ parable, that he would ever turn away anyone who turns to him in faith — even if it be from the bowels of hell? But of course, the question remains: Is post-mortem repentance even possible? My answer is that it is not only possible, it is inevitable. The reason I believe this is the New Testament tells us how everything will be in the end. There are several Scriptures that indicate this, but I will focus here on two. The first one is found in Paul’s letter to the Church at Philippi:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)In the end, every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. This will be universal; there will be no being of whom this is not true and no realm in which it is not so. The language of knee bowing and tongue confessing is not the language of what has been coerced by force or threat or anything else. It is about what is freely and willingly offered, worship freely given. In another letter, Paul tells us that no one can confess Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. “Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). The confession that Jesus is Lord is the language of faith inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The second Scripture is 1 Corinthians 15:28, where Paul describes the final state of all things and tells us that God will be “all in all.” That is an all-inclusive statement and leaves nothing and no one out.
Because every knee will one day bow to Christ and every tongue confess him as Lord, and because God will finally be “all in all,” it seems quite apparent to me that even those who have not turned to God in this present life will have opportunity to do so in the age to come — and will indeed do so. For God, who knows the end from the beginning and what he has purposed to do in Jesus Christ, has told us what that purpose is and how it will all be in the end.
Call it “Get Out of Hell Free” if you must, though that is a crude depiction and betrays a man-centered understanding rather than a Christ-centered one. But I will speak of the eternal love, grace and mercy of God that pursues us even in hell.