The Fate of Unbelievers

Matthew 10:

11 Whenever you enter a town or village, find out who is worthy there and stay with them until you leave.

12 As you enter the house, give it greetings.

13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come on it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.

14 And if anyone will not welcome you or listen to your message, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or that town.

15 I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town!

(NET Bible®)

(See also Luke 10:1-16)

“Believe and be saved!” “Unbelievers shall be damned!” This is why the ancient Jewish cities which rejected Jesus’ disciples will be cursed on Judgment Day while cities of Believers such as Sodom and Gomorrah…

Wait a minute! The Bible gives no record of Believers in Sodom and Gomorrah other than Lot and his family. Sodom and Gomorrah were especially sinful, worse than most other pagan cities. Meanwhile, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were monotheists, remembered the Sabbath, studied God’s Word, and kept many of the Commandments strictly. In absolute terms, the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were much less wicked than the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But the Pharisees were Believers, and thus accountable. So much for unbelievers being damned; it is believers who sin who should worry. The Bible has many passages to this effect as we’ll see below.

The Danger of Accountability

God is just. How can a just god punish people for acts they did not know were sinful? The answer: He doesn’t. At least, this is what Paul stated in Romans when he said the Gentiles are a “law unto themselves.”

Romans 2:

9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek,

10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.

11 For there is no partiality with God.

12 For all who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous before God, but those who do the law will be declared righteous.

14 For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves.

(NET Bible®)

Romans 1:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness,

19 because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

20 For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened.

(NET Bible®)

But “law unto themselves” does not mean unbelievers have zero accountability. I have heard many a religious conservative claim that moral knowledge is impossible without knowing God. They are wrong. Moral philosophy is a real subject, learnable through logic, empathy, and observation. Classical pagan and modern secular moral philosophers have successfully re-derived much that is in the Bible. I have had many a deep conversation on the subject of morality with atheists, agnostics and pagans. I know staunch atheists who are more morals-driven than many Christians I know.

That said, moral philosophy is a difficult subject. Few get it all correct. ‘Tis easier to learn by studying and practicing Biblical Law, than by starting from scratch. The jumble of blunt commandments scattered about in Exodus through Deuteronomy contain a great deal of subtle wisdom, wisdom applicable to the modern era. Some of this wisdom went into the U.S. Constitution. Even though many of the Founders were deists or agnostics, they were well versed in the Bible, more so than many modern day Christians.

Because moral philosophy is difficult, those without the Law are held to a lower standard. They are less accountable, a “law unto themselves.” Paul took note of this in Romans Chapter 1 and thus held all people accountable – somewhat. (Also, unbelievers who are moral, are moral without hope of eternal reward. Good works by atheists are thus more altruistic than those by Christians.)

Modern Christians have easy access to God’s laws. We are not in the position of the Gentiles Paul addressed nearly 2000 years ago. Indeed, Christians today have better access to scripture than at any time in history. Printed Bibles are cheap, and we even have computerized Bibles for searching and cross-referencing. We are accountable. And the more we study, the more accountable we become.

Mark 12:

38 In his teaching Jesus also said, "Watch out for the experts in the law. They like walking around in long robes and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces,

39 and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.

40 They devour widows' property, and as a show make long prayers. These men will receive a more severe punishment."

(NET Bible®)

Furthermore, the more we claim to know, the more accountable we become [Mark 12:40]. Be very careful about claiming to be an authority. You may get judged to a higher standard, yet!

This brings up troubling questions: Why become a Christian? Why study the Bible? Why preach? Why do missionary work? Why am I writing this chapter?

I could give many different answers. I will give more answers later. But for now let us settle for one answer based in the Christian-as-intern simile I presented in A Pearl of Great Price. In general, commissioned salespeople have more opportunity for high earnings than those on salary. But they get paid less or not at all if they fail to perform. Higher potential pay and greater accountability go together. Similarly, franchisees and independent contractors have more potential upside than wage earners doing similar work. In a well-run corporation, upper management is held accountable for the success or failure of the enterprise. We who desire a place in Jesus’ kingdom must likewise accept accountability as part of the price.

And yes, this is a big price, bigger than martyrdom. Jesus warned potential disciples of this price and actively discouraged half-hearted recruits to his movement.

Faith and Forgiveness

Ever wish you could have lived back in a time of miracles? Seen the parting of the Red Sea first hand? Watched Jesus multiply the bread and fish? Wouldn’t it be nice to unequivocally know there is a god?

Matthew 11:

20 Then Jesus began to criticize openly the cities in which he had done many of his miracles, because they did not repent.

21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you!

23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be thrown down to Hades! For if the miracles done among you had been done in Sodom, it would have continued to this day.

24 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for the region of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you!"

(NET Bible®)

Matthew 12:

38 Then some of the experts in the law along with some Pharisees answered him, "Teacher, we want to see a sign from you."

39 But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them — and now, something greater than Jonah is here!

42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon — and now, something greater than Solomon is here!

(NET Bible®)

(See also Luke 11:29-32)

Are you sure? Notice how foul-tempered God is described in Exodus. Note how many upstanding citizens Jesus cursed during his ministry. To witness such great events is to be more accountable! Unambiguous revelation comes at a steep price. Are you willing to pay it?

Today, we live in an age of few obvious miracles. Two millennia ago, the Holy Spirit was a surge of power, causing recipients to glow and do miracles. Magicians offered to pay money to get in on the action [Acts 8:9-20]. Today, the Holy Spirit is a faint nudge in the back of our minds. You won’t find modern New Age gurus knocking on church doors to get baptized in order to gain cool powers.

On the other hand, we live in an age where it is safe to be a Christian in much of the world. Opportunities for martyrdom are few in the United States. You have to seek them out and seriously practice turning the other cheek. Yes, you can experience mild persecution by refusing to work on the Sabbath or acting morally within a public school, but such persecution is trivial compared to that experienced by the earliest Christians.

Methinks the two phenomena are related. Early Christians received strong evidence of heavenly reward, but were required to pay a heavy price. Today, the evidence is faint, but the price is lower. Ours is the pleasant test, but no less difficult. We face the tests of Solomon: riches, luxury and temptation. And if we modern Christians fail these tests, our descendants will face greater trials, much as faithful Israelites faced after the death of Solomon. Indeed, the storm clouds are already on the horizon…

In the world of investing, they speak of risk adjusted rates of return. A ten percent chance of 100% return is the same as a 100% chance of a 10% return – if you make enough high risk investments to average out. Otherwise, the ten percent chance of 100% is worth less, so the market discounts accordingly. For this reason bold investors can average higher returns than conservative investors.

In much the same way, when God hides his face from us, he makes gathering treasure in heaven more affordable. Because of faith, our works go farther. But faith does not eliminate the need for works! (I’ll present other possible reasons for the need for faith later.)

Consider the position of the Pharisees in light of this theory. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had their sins. Apparently, they were doing a poor job of helping the poor. (Maybe they were failing to obey the jubilee law, but this is not recorded explicitly.) But every generation has its sins. In many ways said Pharisees were sinning less than their ancestors. They were diligent in keeping the Sabbath, avoiding idol worship, avoiding sexual sins, and making sacrifices at the Temple.

Unlike most of their ancestors, however, the Pharisees were presented with direct experience of the divine – the strongest evidence since the Exodus – and did not repent of their remaining sins. For this, they had to experience a dress rehearsal for the end times.

Throughout history, many Christians have pointed fingers at the Jews who failed this particular test and neener-danced or worse. This could be a grave error. The fate of the ancient Pharisees could be mainly a prophetic warning to latter-day Christians. Consider how many of the Religious Right focus on the same aspects of religion as the ancient Pharisees, while allying themselves politically with the party of the rich. Consider also, that the technology which allows the current golden age also enables the disasters described in Revelation. We have atom bombs and genetic engineering. We have rendered many species extinct, and are tampering with the atmosphere. Rebellious battle robots may be possible in a few decades.

And remember, even though we do not have the direct experience of miracles that the ancient Pharisees had, we do have ready access to scripture, and immense wealth. Our excuses for neglecting of the poor are considerably weaker.

Degrees of Damnation

Certain Jewish cities of Jesus’ day are scheduled to fare worse on Judgment Day than wicked pagan cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah. This opens the question: are they to be worse off because a greater fraction of their populations are to be damned? Or are the individuals within said Jewish cities to be damned to a greater degree than residents of said pagan cities?

Luke 12:

42 The Lord replied, "Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom the master puts in charge of his household servants, to give them their allowance of food at the proper time?

43 Blessed is that slave whom his master finds at work when he returns.

44 I tell you the truth, the master will put him in charge of all his possessions.

45 But if that slave should say to himself, 'My master is delayed in returning,' and he begins to beat the other slaves, both men and women, and to eat, drink, and get drunk,

46 then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee, and will cut him in two, and assign him a place with the unfaithful.

47 That servant who knew his master's will but did not get ready or do what his master asked will receive a severe beating.

48 But the one who did not know his master's will and did things worthy of punishment will receive a light beating. From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked.

(NET Bible®)

The typical picture of Heaven and Hell preached by many speaks to the former interpretation. Justice speaks to the latter. In a city of sinners, who deserves an eternity in a heavenly paradise? In a city of practicing Jews, who deserves to be roasted eternally? Come to think of it, does anyone deserve to roast eternally? Does even Adolph Hitler deserve eternal torment?

The Bible gives ample evidence that the typical picture of Heaven and Hell as the two afterlife options is decidedly wrong. Over the course of this series I will point out many passages at odds with the typical picture, and suggest an afterlife picture that better matches scripture, as well as common-sense notions of justice. (And as Paul pointed out in Romans 1, our common-sense notions of right and wrong have validity.)

We shall start with the idea of multiple levels of individual punishment. Read the parable in the sidebar to the right. It lists one level of reward and three levels of punishment:

  1. The faithful servant is made ruler over the master’s household [Luke 12:44]. Here is the promise, the pearl of great price.
  2. The unfaithful servant who abuses his underlings is to be cut in sunder [Luke 12:45-46]. This is the fate of hypocritical Jews and Christians who judge others harshly. Think hard on this, ye members of the Religious Right! Read The Power of Mercy for more on this subject.
  3. The servant who knew his master’s will and didn’t do it will be beaten with many stripes [Luke 12:47]. Sinning Christians and Jews may get to live, but hard times await.
  4. The bad servant who didn’t know his master’s will is to be beaten with few stripes [Luke 12:48]. Pagans and atheists, those not Called, will get punished for their sins, but lightly.

We have three levels of punishment listed, only one of which leads to death. So, where do these punishments take place? Does Heaven have a vestibule where whippings take place? Do some sinners spend a finite duration in Hell before being transported to Heaven? Is there a Purgatory? Or is the entire picture of Heaven and Hell incorrect? Stay tuned. But first, we must address another issue.

What About Grace?

Christians are more accountable for their sins than pagans and atheists. Therefore forcible conversions to Christianity are not acts of mercy. And dumbing down the definition of Christianity is downright dangerous!

Yet many preachers speak of being saved by accepting Jesus, that Jesus died to cover up for our sins. These preachers have many scriptures to back up their thesis. We have an apparent contradiction, one which Christendom has wrestled with for centuries. We too shall wrestle with the issue of divine grace next. Then, we’ll proceed to a closer look at the Afterlife.

But first, a few more passages on Christian accountability:

Matthew 21:

28 "What do you think? A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.'

29 The boy answered, 'I will not.' But later he had a change of heart and went.

30 The father went to the other son and said the same thing. This boy answered, 'I will, sir,' but did not go.

31 Which of the two did his father's will?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, tax collectors and prostitutes will go ahead of you into the kingdom of God!

(NET Bible®)

John 9:

39 Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may gain their sight, and the ones who see may become blind."

40 Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and asked him, "We are not blind too, are we?"

41 Jesus replied, "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains."

(NET Bible®)

James 4:

12 But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge — the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit."

14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes.

15 You ought to say instead, "If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that."

16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.

17 So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.

(NET Bible®)