The Fate of the Unbeliever

Christians have little debate as to what happens to them when they die.  Well, there’s plenty of debate over specifics but most are in agreement that the believer goes to heaven.  What heaven is actually like isn’t always agreed upon, but pretty much the image used is pearly gates and streets of gold.

What has become a huge debate within the ranks of Christianity is what happens to those who have not accepted Christ as their savior.  Are even good hearted, well intentioned but misled people bound for hell?  How does this equate with a loving God?  What about those who never have a chance to hear the gospel during their lifetime?

Numerous thoughts have been offered as to how each of these things affect the fate of the unbeliever, unfortunately much of it is done without ever opening the Bible.  I am personally horrified by what is being preached in some of our pulpits today and the false teaching that comes from it.

There are four basic lies about hell that are circulating about hell today.  In order from least to most popular – as far as I can tell – they are:

1) Unbelievers get a second chance after death

2) Hell does not exist

3) Hell means destruction as punishment

4) Everyone will go to heaven

The last two are the main teachings that have popped up in evangelical churches and I will spend most of my time on these two issues.  Finally, I will offer my own support for what I believe to be the Biblical view of hell, that it is real and eternal.  

Next Section – Unbelievers Get a Second Chance

Dispensation of Promise

For reasons that are unknown to us, God chose Abraham for blessing and called out to him while he was living in Ur of Chaldeans. It may have been because Abraham lived more righteously than those around him. He may have been chosen because God knew that he would respond positively in faith. Or there may any number of other reasons that we simply don’t know.

In this dispensation God begins to work with a group that doesn’t encompass all of humanity. While Noah was singled out, the covenant to him did not begin until he represented all of humanity. Now God has chosen to work specifically with Abraham and his descendents to the exclusion of other people.

The Abrahamic Covenant is first given in Genesis 12:1-4 but is confirmed multiple times to Abraham and his descendents. As it is confirmed, it is fleshed out more. There are three major promises made in the Abrahamic Covenant. The first is that Abraham would be made into a great nation. This promise is made all the more significant when we remember that Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren.

The second promise is actually a series of promises made personally to Abraham. He would be the father of numerous descendants. (This is different from a great nation as Abraham was the father of Ishmael and grandfather to Esau, both of whom grew into nations as well but not the great nation which God would specifically bless.) Abraham would also have his name be made great, be blessed by God, and be a blessing to other people.

The third promise of the Abrahamic Covenant is to the Gentiles. While the dispensation applies to Abraham and his descendants, part of the covenant that God makes with Abraham applies to all other nations. Those who bless Abraham and will be blessed and those who curse him would be cursed. Even more important is that all nations on earth would be blessed through Abraham.

The Palestinian Covenant is given after the giving of the law. It is found in Deuteronomy 28-30, being summarized in 30:1-9. While it takes place in the dispensation of law, it is not really a new covenant so much as another confirmation and expansion of the promise of land given to Abraham. This reinforces the idea that new dispensations do not do away with what God has shown man in the past, it simply adds to it.

The Palestinian Covenant promises dispersion for disobedience, that Israel would repent while in dispersions, that the land would be restored to them, that God would circumcise their hearts, that Israel’s enemies would be judged, and that the nation would return to national prosperity. While Israel was promised the land of Canaan and this covenant promises their return after disobedience, at no point has Israel ever possessed all of the land that God promised them in Number 34:1-12. This promise it still in the future.

The dispensation of promise ended in failure because of a lack of faith. There were no requirements for the Israelites other than to trust God and they couldn’t even do this. Abraham responded in faith when God told him to leave the land of Ur. He responded in great faith when he offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice before God stopped him. The people became a great nation by virtue of the fact that God had promised Abraham this. But they took it for granted. They did not wish to follow Moses when it was time to leave Egypt and did not support him when he confronted Pharoah. They grumbled against God when they wandered in the wilderness, not trusting that God had led them there for a purpose. And they failed to believe that God had given them the land of Canaan and cowered in fear at the report that the land was full of giants. Even after that generation had died off, the Israelites still did not take all of the land that God had promised them and began to make compromises with the idolatrous inhabitants of Canaan.

Dispensation of Law

Under the dispensation of promise all that was required of the Israelites was that they trust God to do as He had promised. They failed in this and the law was introduced. Man’s conscience had failed him already as wickedness abounded in the time before the flood. Likewise, man was incapable of governing himself, so God imparts His laws to His people.

God’s laws are not given as a burden or punishment however. They serve three purposes. First was that they were given to protect the people just as a parent forbids a children from a dangerous activity for their own good. Second, the sacrificial system pointed to Jesus and every detail had a purpose in portraying the coming Messiah. And third, the law was meant to show the Israelites that they were totally incapable of living up to God’s standards and were thus in need of a permanent solution for sin – Jesus’ death on the cross.

The Mosaic covenant can be broken into three parts. First is the commandments; this obviously includes the Ten Commandments, but also the many rules for day to day living that were handed down to Moses by God. The second part is judgments. These were not just what the lawbreaker should expect as punishment from God as was the case in previous covenants. This also outlined what human governments should do as punishment for various offenses. The third part is ordinances that instruct the people how to properly remember the Lord and worship Him.

The three parts of the Mosaic covenant address the failures of the three previous dispensations. Because man was unable to follow his conscience, God gave specific rules to be obeyed. Because man was not able to govern justly, God gave specific punishments for failure to uphold the law. And because man was unable to see God’s plan at work and to trust Him, God gave specific religious instructions that were meant to point to the coming Messiah.

The dispensation of law failed worse than the previous dispensations. Not only did the fixes to the previous dispensations not work, the Israelites missed the point in the law itself. Rather than pointing them to their need for a Messiah, the people became self righteous. When Jesus came, He frequently butted heads with the Pharisees who believed that they were righteous because they followed the law and added more laws to what God had given them. They missed the fact that no one was capable of following the law and needed Jesus!