The Bible is clear about the fate of the unbeliever at death. It is not, however, a comforting doctrine. But the truth is given so that the unbeliever might become a believer in Jesus and not experience the really terrible fate of those who do not believe.
Many too many within the Church today do not tell the whole truth. In a church culture where so many churches are busily marketing themselves and putting on a happy face to draw folks in, these all too often stay clear of some of those “hard” doctrines of the Bible. There is a tendency to go quiet or to mumble when counter culture teachings surface, such as hell and damnation.
The matter of hell and future judgment is often avoided when presenting the good news of salvation in Christ. But the truth is, there is a flip side to the good news and that is the bad news. Jesus Christ died for the sins of human beings, so that if they will accept God’s free gift of eternal life, they will be eternally secure in their position as a child of God. This truly is good news. But the whole truth should also be given; that there are very real consequences (the “bad news”) for an individual who chooses not to accept God’s free gift of eternal life. The consequence is death that is eternal.
In our previous article, we defined death essentially as “separation.” Death means separation of some kind, not non-existence. The Bible speaks of three kinds of death. First, there is spiritual death, which means that a person is separated from God because of their sin (cf. Eph. 2:1). And unless this condition is corrected, that same person will experience the second death (Rev. 20:14) which is eternal separation from God. The “second death” is avoided only through a person placing their trust in Christ for salvation. The third kind of death is that of physical death. When a person’s material body dies, the body and the soul/spirit separate. The body is placed in the ground but the immaterial part goes either to heaven or to hell, depending on whether or not Jesus Christ is the savior of that person.
The previous article addressed the future of the believer in Christ after his or her death. And it is an incredible future for sure. This article will focus on the future of the unbeliever after physical death. And as a reminder, this subject of the future of the individual is in many ways the most personally important aspect of biblical prophecy.
THE INTERMEDIATE STATE OF THE UNBELIEVER. At death the unbeliever, just like the believer, continues to consciously exist. But his existence is truly unpleasant. The Scriptures teach that the unbeliever faces torment. Some have pointed out that sheol/hades is simply used as a term for the grave or for a hole in the ground, but is never used of eternal punishment. It is true that sheol in the O.T. often means “grave”, but it is used of a place of punishment (e.g. Psalm 9:17; Prov. 23:14 where no amount of parental discipline will keep a child from the grave, but it can keep him from punishment in sheol). In the N.T. hades/hell usually are term for punishment (Luke 16:23; Matt. 5:22; 11:23; 23:33), as well as being used for the grave. It is also should be noted that the Bible does not speak of hell is as a place of eternal punishment. Technically, hell will come to an end (thus is not eternal) when it will be cast into the “lake of fire” (the place of eternal punishing). So the immediate fate of the unbeliever is going to be a terribly unpleasant one, which is why God so patiently works with people to bring them to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It should be mentioned here that the theological idea of “soul sleep” as postulated by Seventh-day Adventism is completely refuted by such passages as Philippians 1:21-23 and 2 Corinthians 5:5-8. The refutation of “soul sleep” is beyond the scope of this article (see my book, “Understanding End Times Prophecy”, pages 350-352).
THE ETERNAL STATE OF THE UNBELIEVER. The future of the unbeliever is completely opposite from the believer who will experience a fullness of joy forever (Psalm 16:11). They will experience suffering, loss and ultimate separation. Jesus soberly warned about their future and exhorted people to avoid being placed there (Matt. 24:51; 10:28; 11:21-24; 18:9; 8:12; 5:22, 29-30; 7:23; 2 Thess. 1:7-9; Luke 16:19-31).
The Apostle Paul’s description of the future of the unbeliever really is very sobering. Unbelievers are not going to be “partying” in hell with their friends and a keg of Coors beer. The reality is far from that. Note what he teaches in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-9.
“…when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His might angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”
The unbelievers will “pay the penalty” because they would not let Jesus pay the penalty for them (note Eph. 1:7). Those who carelessly pushed aside the love and grace of God will now experience the judgment of God (note God’s character in Exodus 34:6-7). “Pay the penalty” is a legal term which indicates that punishment is determined by a lawful process. This punishment will come as a result of the “Great White Throne” judgment (Rev. 20:11:15) where unbelievers are revealed as unbelievers because their names are not in the “book of life”; and where their punishment is determined by the “book of deeds” (which strongly suggests that there will be degrees of punishment).
The Apostle then describes what the imposed penalty will be. He speaks of their “destruction.” This is not speaking of annihilation (another subject that is outside the scope of this article, but see pages 356-359 in UETP), but rather refers to ruination; that is, the loss of everything that makes life worth living. In this life, we can experience this to some degree when we live futile, empty lives that push a person towards suicide. In one sense, it is like being deeply, severely depressed forever. Life has no meaning. It is a painful, useless existence that the unbeliever has. Yes, it also includes conscious punishment according to Judge Jesus (Matt. 13:42, 50; 24:51).
A second thing to note in Paul’s discussion is that the unbeliever will be “away from the presence of the Lord.” The unbeliever is forever separated from the Lord. Man who was created for fellowship with God will instead not have God in their experience at all. There is no experience of “common grace” (God’s unmerited favor towards all people). Everyone in this life experiences God’s grace to some degree; as Jesus noted the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. This may not seem like much since many unbelievers may not acknowledge or appreciate God’s grace in their world. But when it is absent, it will be noticed. We do not necessarily appreciate the air we breathe, but take it away and suddenly it has great significance.
The Apostle also notes the duration of their experience. It is “everlasting”. The punishment will last forever in this place of confinement called the “lake of fire.” Jesus also spoke of the eternality of it in Matthew 25:46. It must be noted that if the believer’s experience is an everlasting one then the unbelievers is also. Jesus used the same word in Matthew 25:46 to describe the duration for the believer as well as the unbeliever.
The sobering reality is that the future of the unbeliever is truly a terrible one. This information is given in the Scriptures to warn unbelievers and cause them to turn to the Savior. But it is also a powerful exhortation to we who are believers to be more merciful to those obnoxious, sinful unbelievers that are part of our personal world. We sometimes want to see them judged now and removed from this world. But when we understand that their future is horrible, it ought to have a tenderizing effect on us. Their future is forever in separation, loss and torment and the only remedy is the good news about Jesus. We who possess this good news need to proactively seek to be filled with grace and truth and let them know that there is a Savior; and yes, they do need saving.