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Is Grace Available After Death?

Is Grace Available After Death? October 1, 2021

How good is your Good News? It is wonderful, is it not, to join together and sing the praise of our God? We feel his nearness, we thank him for his love, we rest in the sure knowledge that we have been given his righteousness, and do not need to impress him to earn our way into Heaven. Celebrating the goodness of God is a festival of joy, and one of the highest privileges given to human beings! But what happens when the Good News turns into the worst news of all?

 

My heart goes out to those who believe that a loved one, who passed away without faith in Christ, is destined for eternal torment in Hell. I’ve seen the unbearable pain in their faces, heard it in their voices when that nerve is touched. They still know that God is good; they feel it when they pray and praise, but they are enduring the worst, most agonising cognitive dissonance, because they also believe that in the outworking of divine justice, their loved one will be tormented forever. For a person in this position, the Good News becomes an insufferable tragedy.

 

As an empathetic person, I cannot avoid feeling that pain when I come across it in another believer. For me, their pain is my pain, because I care about other people. I would go so far as to the say the Good News, as understood by many, is only good news if you don’t care about others. If you do have a heart of compassion, the Good News (as commonly understood) is the worst news anyone has ever heard.

 

I hope we can lance that boil, here and now, by demonstrating that however ubiquitous this doctrine has become among reformist denominations, it is not Biblically sound, because it is dependent on the assumption that grace is no longer available after death – something the Bible does not teach. The narrative I was taught in my reformist upbringing goes like this: We have the span of our lives to either accept or reject Christ, but when we die, that door closes forever – our fate is sealed. In other words, this narrative insists that grace only exists up to the point of death and not beyond. As far as I can tell, and believe me I have been digging, the Biblical case for this rests on the slender shoulders of three words. Hebrews 9, 27-28:

 

‘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.’

 

That’s it. I can’t find another Biblical statement that offers a timeline for life, death and judgement, but then neither does this one; it simply says that judgement comes after death. The belief that saving grace in no longer available beyond the grave rests on those three words, ‘and after that’, which don’t offer any understanding about the duration or nature of the judgement itself.

 

Some argue their case for grace ending at death from another verse. 2 Corinthians 5: 10,

 

‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.’

 

The argument is that judgement measures the things done in the body, implying that when we pass away, the period of obtaining grace is over, because it was not received while in the body. I agree that judgement will concern the things done in the body, but think about who this was written to – a group of believers. This verse is saying that believers and unbelievers alike will be judged for the things done in the body. It is not talking about ultimate salvation, but accountability and justice between individuals. Everything will be seen for what it is on that day, regardless of our saving relationship with Christ, and we will have each other to reconcile with, as well as the Lord. 1 Corinthians 4: 5,

 

‘Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.’

 

There is an unhelpful tradition, commonly clung to by believers, which states that when we approach God on Judgement Day, he will not see us, but will see the cloak of righteousness given to us in Christ, and as a result we skip the process of judgement altogether and pass straight through to paradise. This is completely unbiblical. For the sake of brevity, I will save the rebuttal of this for another post, which will focus on Judgement Day itself, but for now, a single passage should be enough to clarify the point. 1 Corinthians 3: 11-15,

 

‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.’

 

The believer whose works are dross will still be saved, but not before their deeds go through the fire of judgement. The believer is saved by grace, but will not escape the process of judgement, where all matters will finally be exposed and resolved. Personally I believe judgement day will involve many rewards and much reconciliation, but tempted though I am to expand on this, it will have to wait.

 

According to this passage, the judgement of the deeds done in the body applies to everyone, including believers, and it does so without detracting from ultimate salvation. Logically then, there is no link between facing this judgement and the receipt of saving grace. We will all face this judgement for our deeds, and yet grace remains.

 

So let’s move onto some actual good news. As already demonstrated, the Bible does not teach that saving grace is unavailable after death, but it does indicate the opposite. 1 Peter 3, 18-20:

 

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.’

 

After being made alive in the Spirit (most believe between Jesus’ death and resurrection), he went to preach in Hades, which the Jews understood as a holding place for those who had lived their lives, passed away, and were awaiting judgement. According to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31), there were two sides to this waiting place – one pleasant and one not so pleasant, separated by a vast gulf. Importantly, Hades was never understood as a permanent situation. This is where those who were disobedient in Noah’s time were waiting too, and the first thing Jesus did after dying and coming to life in his spirit (but before rising from the dead), was to preach to those rebellious spirits and lead them out of captivity.

 

Theses verses in 1 Peter only speak of the fact that Christ preached to them, but it is Ephesians 4: 8-10, which completes the story:

 

‘Therefore He says:

 

“When He ascended on high,

He led captivity captive,

And gave gifts to men.”

 

(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)’

 

The information we need to join the dots is all there – ‘when he ascended on high’ must refer to Christ’s resurrection from the dead and/or his ascension. The verses in parentheses make this abundantly clear – (‘Now this, “he ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

 

The one who ascended (who else could that be but Christ?) had first descended into Hades, referred to colloquially as the lower parts of the Earth (scientific discovery was a mere twinkle in the eye by this stage of human history, and the temporary waiting place of Hades was thought to be in the bowels of the Earth). This same One, who descended to Hades and led captives out of captivity, then ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. Who else is the One who ascends to fill all things but Jesus, the Name Above All Names? This links directly to the passage previously quoted, from 1 Peter 3:

 

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.’

 

These two passages are transparently referring to the same glorious events – the descent of Christ into Hades, the preaching of the Gospel to those who’d passed away in rebellion, and the liberation of those captives in his ascent. In other words, saving grace was available to them after death.  

 

Understanding then, that grace was extended to this group of people after death, why would it not be extended to everyone else? Has every person who has lived since the time of Jesus had a fair chance to respond to the Gospel? A chance that is equal to a visitation from the risen Christ? Of course not. These captives from Noah’s time saw him face to face! What of a tribesperson who devoutly worships the moon and knows not the name of Christ? Is he or she not to be given a proper chance to respond to grace? This idea that grace is a locked doorway after death is in my view, fundamentally unjust, and out of line with the nature of God.

 

Even the great reformer, Martin Luther, did not believe that grace was only available in this life. From his letter to Hanseu Von Rechenberg, written in 1522:

 

“God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be an opportunity to win it in the future.”

 

Why believe something the Bible doesn’t say (that saving grace is no longer available after death) instead of something it does? I encourage readers to abandon the false tradition and believe these passages that speak clearly of Christ’s descent into Hades and dispensing of grace to those who had already passed away. As a Church, we are still being led into all the truth by the Holy Spirit. The mysteries of scripture are still being unveiled. There are so many things we have got wrong, and those misguided, unscriptural doctrines harm us, and oppose the Gospel. Of all the false traditions that hinder, mislead and disempower the Church, as written about in Nullifying the Word of God, this has to be the most damaging. How many believers are tortured, loving their God but believing their loved ones are destined for eternal torment? My heart breaks at the thought of such agonised confusion and internal dissonance. Such people are living through a kind of Hell on Earth.

 

If this is you, Dear Friend; if your heart is broken because your loved one has passed away without embracing faith in Christ, I pray you will take heart. Our dear ones will have every chance to respond to God in the life beyond, so do not despair. They are not lost. You will see them again, and no-one will take away your joy!

 

 

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