The Fate of Unbelievers

Matthew 10:

5. These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not:

6. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

7. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

8. Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.

9. Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses,

10. Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat.

11. And into whatsoever city or town ye shall enter, inquire who in it is worthy; and there abide till ye go thence.

12. And when ye come into an house, salute it.

13. And if the house be worthy, let your peace come upon it: but if it be not worthy, let your peace return to you.

14. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.

15. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.

(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’s 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. Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;

10. But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:

11. For there is no respect of persons with God.

12. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;

13. (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

14. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

Romans 1:

18. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;

19. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.

20. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

21. Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.

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 rederived 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 so 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.

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. And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces,

39. And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts:

40. Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation.

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 began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:

21. Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.

22. But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.

23. And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.

24. But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.

But the Pharisees of Jesus’ day overlooked the miracles that they witnessed, it would seem:

Matthew 12:

38. Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee.

39. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas:

40. For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

41. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.

42. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.

(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 Unitied 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 descendents 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. And the Lord said, Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his lord shall make ruler over his household, to give them their portion of meat in due season?

43. Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing.

44. Of a truth I say unto you, that he will make him ruler over all that he hath.

45. But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken;

46. The lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.

47. And that servant, which knew his lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

48. But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

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 book 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. But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard.

29. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went.

30. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.

31. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.

John 9:

39. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.

40. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also?

41. Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.

James 4:

12. There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?

13. Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain:

14. Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.

15. For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.

16. But now ye rejoice in your boastings: all such rejoicing is evil.

17. Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.