The Immediate Judgment

When we sin, God knows.  You can’t slip things by Him.  Because we don’t see God, we sort of forget that He sees.  It is similar to what happens to us in a hotel.  We get into an empty hallway and we feel all alone even though possibly every room is full.  So we talk loudly as if no one is there to hear.  But everyone hears us.

God knows our sin, but for those who are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism God sees Jesus, and we live as forgiven for as long as faith remains.  In a way, we have been judged as righteous from the moment God connected us to Jesus

For as long as we live, forgiveness through Jesus is possible for anyone whom God can bring to faith.  Their fate has not been sealed.  You can’t plan on it, but even on a death bed it is possible for somebody to be saved and avoid the permanent judgment of God.

Is death the line in the sand, the point of no return?  Or is Judgment Day when eternal fates are sealed?

The Bible clearly indicates that some kind of judgment accompanies death.  With our death, we either enter Heaven because we are forgiven and therefore righteous or we enter Sheol (see my other blog entries about Sheol), because we are sinners without a Savior. Is that the final judgment?

Hebrews 9:27-28 is often evoked on this topic:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

The understanding of most is that the judgment accompanying death is immediate and final, but what is the function of Judgment Day in that scenario?  Is it merely a technicality?  The passage is making the point that Jesus doesn’t die multiple times for sin.  To bolster the point, the writer appeals to the fact that we don’t reincarnate.  Hebrews 9 doesn’t technically answer our question.  1 Peter 4:6 may speak to our question better.  I’m quoting New King James here because NIV is a lousy translation of this passage.

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The uncomfortable yet literal understanding of this passage is that the Gospel was preached to dead people with the end goal of having them live or, in other words, be saved.  The context of this passage is Jesus’ descent into Hell (Sheol) mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19.  If we are to understand this passage as the Gospel was preached to living people who have subsequently died, then the second half of the sentence doesn’t make much sense and you are not literally translating the original text.  You are adding (now) dead, which is what the NIV does.

Could it be that Judgment Day is the line in the sand, the point of no return?  We are given marching orders to spread the Gospel to the living.  It is of urgent importance that people hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation through that event while they live.  I cannot go to Sheol to preach to the dead.  But did Christ do that?   Does He still do that?  The ancient church, particularly in the East believed that He did.  I hope so, too.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (Part 5)

One of the reasons that most people have learned very little about Christ’s descent into “hell”, is a reaction to an overreaction about this part of the story in the early Eastern Church.  “Christ’s descent” became the ancient equivalent of a superhero story.  There are stories about Jesus being swallowed by Sheol and in Jonah-like fashion, Sheol vomited out Jesus and everybody else.  You can still get a very popular story of the time on Amazon, The Gospel of Nicodemus.  I read it on Ibooks.  Stupid book, but it was free.  It is about Jesus saving the Old Testament people from Sheol, but all the characters could only say lines that they had said in the Bible.  Anyway, the fiction around this story became so thick that people couldn’t discern fact from fiction.  Augustine expressed this complaint, and that seems to have carried down to the Reformers.

One idea that arose in the Eastern Church and remains to this day is that Christ’s descent was not only to free the Old Testament righteous, but also to bring a saving Gospel to the unrighteous.  This bothers a lot of people.  Some church bodies have expressed doctrines that your destiny is sealed at your death.  Others basically have that same assumption without enshrining it as a doctrine.

Is there anything biblical to say or even suggest this?  One comes shortly after the passage in 1 Peter mentioned earlier in 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who were dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

The chapter and verse number system was introduced to the Bible during the Reformation period. It is invaluable in helping us find stuff. But sometimes it gets in the way and makes us break up the context of the Bible in our minds. In this case, if you ignore the big number four and let Peter continue his thought, it seems pretty clear that the preaching to the dead referred to in this passage is the same dead Peter spoke of in 3:19. A more literal translation might be: “For this reason, the dead were evangelized”. The verb rendered here as “were evangelized” is what is called an indicative aorist verb. In Greek, this indicates past continuing action. One common interpretation of this verse is that it refers to the evangelization of people while they were living who are now dead, but that doesn’t quite fit the sentence. What is past is the evangelizing, not the people’s lives. What this sentence seems to propose is shocking. It says the dead were evangelized, and almost all of us assume that once you die the opportunity for evangelism is over.

This makes it sound like the preaching was a second chance for people who had disobeyed God during life and had not had an opportunity to hear the promise of salvation. Peter is acknowledging that the disobedience of these people resulted in their judgment—namely death in the flood and thousands of years in the agony of Sheol. But the purpose of this visit from Christ is that they might live in the spirit.

Obviously, this makes us nervous on one hand and relieved on the other. It has always seemed unfair that some would go to Sheol without the benefit of hearing the Gospel in some form, even though they are sinners and knew right and wrong inherently. All humanity deserves the judgment and cannot earn salvation, but cannot God be gracious to whom He chooses when He chooses? Can we say for certain that physical death marks the end of your opportunity to believe and be saved? Judgment Day could be the end of opportunity.

The main biblical objection to this interpretation is found in Hebrews 9:27:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgment, so Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

This passage is not primarily about whether there is any chance of being saved after physical death, but it does make a statement about dying once with judgment assumed to immediately follow. This passage is essentially saying, “Just like we live and face judgment only once, Christ lived and died once, not over and over again. This would rule out a reincarnation scenario, but can we really say it precludes Jesus reaching out to someone in Sheol. As noted in an earlier blog about Psalm 139, Sheol is not quite yet forsakenness. The timing of the judgment in relation to physical death is not specified in the Hebrews passage. We just assume it to be immediate and final.

In one sense, judgment upon our death is immediate. The dead found themselves in Sheol and not Heaven. That is a judgment. Their residence in Sheol could be for thousands of years. But is it final? If it is final, then is Judgment Day simply perfunctory?  I will say here that I do not know God to be simply perfunctory about anything. Everything has its purpose. Some treat baptism as perfunctory, for example. It isn’t. Baptism has a definite function.

Establishing that Jesus can, did or even does reach out to the lost in Sheol is a radical enough of a suggestion that one needs more than these somewhat obscure passages in 1 Peter. Another possible reference to Jesus liberating even some of the damned in Sheol is Psalm 107.   Once again these words:

He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart. Let them thank the Lord for His steadfast love for His wondrous works to the children of man! For He shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron.

The phrase “doors of bronze” gets frequent use in non-canonical literature as a reference to Sheol. So if this passage applies, and I think it does, it is speaking about the “disobedient” rather than the righteous. Still other passages, namely Isaiah 42:7b and Luke 1:79, speak of “captives”. These passages are inconclusive, however, because they do not specifically say to whom they are referring.

For some early Eastern Church fathers and for the Orthodox Church, the teaching that Jesus preached the Gospel to perhaps save some of the lost or even all of the lost in Sheol is a big piece of their doctrine and liturgical life. They consider it to be simply logical that this process continues to this day. I will say I hope this is right.

Does this teaching do violence to any other understanding or practice within the Church? It certainly seems in line with the mercy and passion of God. It doesn’t necessarily suggest that everyone is saved in the end. We will see in a later entry that people are eternally damned and in great number. Some argue that a loving God couldn’t and wouldn’t damn someone eternally. They don’t understand the unchangeable nature of God’s Law. God clearly does damn people because of the requirements of the Law, but a loving God could pursue someone up until the last possible moment and that last moment may be Judgment Day rather than death.

If Christ did preach the Gospel in order to save in Sheol, wouldn’t everybody there repent and believe? I mean what sort of idiot would decline such an offer after experiencing such suffering? The rich man in Jesus’ story of Lazarus seems open to a change. Still, we might be surprised. Saving faith is not the result of even overwhelming proof. Faith is the gift of God to people who are able to receive it.

Whether Christ was giving the disobedient in Sheol a chance to hear the Gospel and believe is hard to concretely determine. At best, we can say that it is possible. This shouldn’t rob us of any motivation to share the Gospel among the living. People suffer in Sheol. If we care, we would want them to avoid this. If people become disciples while still living they can carry out their God-given purpose and even realize reward for it. We are rewarded for our faithfulness in this regard. Beyond this both love and Christ’s command compels us.