Friday, November 30, 2018

The Possibility of Repentance After Death

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment ... (Hebrews 9:27)
Evangelical universalism entails the possibility of “post-mortem conversion,” that is, the proposition that, though many depart this life without faith in Christ, yet is it still possible for them to come to such faith after they have died.

A common objection to this view has been Hebrews 9:27, “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment …,” and it is supposed that this precludes any post-mortem opportunity for salvation. It is then further assumed that if one has not come to faith in Christ when they die, all that is left for them is an eternity of conscious torment.

What is the Context?
But there are a few problems with such a reading. First, it ignores the context. Verse 27 is not a stand-alone statement or a completed thought but is part of a larger discussion about Christ as our high priest, holding him in contrast with the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament:
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:24-28)
The high priest of the Old Testament had to go into the Holy of Holies every year to make sacrifice for sins. But Christ did not come year after year to offer himself as a sacrifice over and over for our sins. He did not suffer many times but only once. Mark the word “once” in the verses immediately preceding and following verse 27; it is the key to the comparison the author makes.
  • Christ has appeared once for all to do away with sin (v. 26).
  • Just as people are destined to die once (v. 27).
  • So Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of the many (v. 28).
Note also the use of “just as” by the NIV (or “and” in several other versions) at the beginning of verse 27. It indicates the continuation of a preceding thought. The use of “so” at the beginning of verse 28 shows a continuation of the thought carried along in verse 27 and completes this portion of the argument that author is making: Just as people are destined to die once, so Christ was offered once, in sacrificial death.

What is the Judgment?
Here, we come to my second point, though still considering the context. The second clause in verse 27 has to do with judgment. If we think of this in general terms, it is worth noting that the author does not specify how soon after death this judgment comes, only that people are destined once to die, and after this comes the judgment. We cannot simply assume that it comes immediately, leaving no room for coming to repentance and faith.

But the author of Hebrews has been focusing our attention on Christ, and that, it seems to me, is how we should think of judgment here. The first part of verse 27, “destined to die once” is answered by the second part, “Christ was sacrificed once.” So also, the second part of verse 27, about judgment, is answered in the second part of verse 28: “to take away the sins of the many.”

To see how the taking away of our sins in verse 28 corresponds to judgment in verse 27, we need to understand something important about the nature of God’s judgment: it is not retributive but restorative. Our own sense of judgment is often about retribution or pay-back, even to the point of the destruction of offenders — and we tend to imagine that God must be that way, too.

But God’s judgment is always about restoration, for God is love, and love does not seek retribution. God comes to set things right — to set us right. The judgment of God does not come to destroy the offender but to remove the offense. For God did not send Christ into the world to condemn us (John 3:18) but to bring about reconciliation (more on that in a moment).

The judgment of God, then, does not preclude any further possibility of repentance, for repentance and faith are exactly what it is intended to bring about. Think of the many times in the Old Testament when God judged wayward Israel. It was not to abandon Israel forever but to bring her to repentance, for there was always the promise of the day when God would finally gather her in from the nations.

The ultimate judgment of God took place at the cross, where the “once for all” death Christ died destroyed the works of the devil (1 John 4:8), disarmed the principalities and powers (Colossians 2:15), broke the power of death, and the power of the devil, who held the power of death (Hebrews 2:14), and so, broke the power of sin. The cross is where the forgiveness of God was revealed, and the judgment of God made manifest.

The author extends the thought at the end of verse 28, showing that the One who was offered once for our sins, “will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” The death of Christ brings salvation — and that is the judgment of God.

The author of Hebrews is not arguing that death is a “point of no return” that precludes any possibility of post-mortem conversion but showing us something very different, a Christ-centered focus. Nor can we conclude that the future appearing of Christ is the cut-off point for repentance and faith; the author simply does not make that argument.

What is God’s Purpose in Christ?
This brings me to my third point: there are numerous passages in Scripture that clearly indicate God’s purpose is the reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth through Christ and by the blood of the cross. I have listed several of them in another article, “What If ‘All’ Means All?”, but I will mention three here:
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

With all wisdom and understanding, [God] made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
In the end, God will be, as Paul said, “All in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The reconciliation of all things will not happen apart from Christ, or the cross, or repentance and faith. But Paul does seem convinced that it will indeed happen.

If that is so, and all are finally to be reconciled, then it seems to me that post-mortem conversion is not only possible but is inevitable, seeing that so many people appear to depart this present life without having come to any repentance or faith in Christ. Hebrews 9:27 does not preclude this; it does not even address the question, much less answer it.

4 comments:

  1. This is reading a lot into a short passage. 'Judgment' has to be taken in context of other scriptural references such as 'we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ' and the bit about men being judged by the gospel and "being held to account for every idle word".
    Paul writes "as for the dead, the dead know nothing". When Saul had Samuel raised from the dead to ask his advice, Samuel's first question was "why have you awoken me?"

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  2. Glory to God, indeed All that the Father gave to the Son cannot be lost, and since he pleased him to recapitulate in him all the human race, all must be made alive in him and thus defied (or saved).

    Thank you sir for such exposition of the truth

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  3. Hello, Sal.

    There may be many ways to speak about judgment. But the judgment of God is restorative, rather than retributive. So, however it might be used in particular in Hebrews 9:27, it does not, as many seem to suppose, prevent one from coming to repentance and faith afterwards. It is interesting to me that as I survey the early Church Fathers who commented on this verse, none of them seem to have taken death or judgment as an impediment to conversion after death.

    The scene between Samuel and Saul is, of course, from the Old Testament, before Christ came into the world. But now that Christ has come, things are no longer the same. See what he says in John 5:25, "Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live." Now that Christ has come, the dead can hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who give ear live. For Christ is the Resurrection and the Life, having destroyed the power death at the cross. So, death can now no longer be an impediment to hearing and coming to faith in Christ.

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  4. Why do most Christiand assume that judgment is retributive, rather than restorative? Retribution is not the nature of God as revealed in Christ, who said "if you have seen me you have seen the Father". Therefore I conclude that all other images of God being retributive are either allegorical, or come from a lack of revelation of the Father.

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