What does the Afterlife look like for Unbelievers? – Greg Albrecht
I’ve been reading your site for a few days. I have read your beliefs that God does not punish anyone or turn away from them beyond letting them experience the natural consequences of their actions. In particular, you use the term “hell” to describe depravity and awful environments that humans cause on this earth by turning away from God. You reject the concept of hell as an afterlife of eternal torment for those who did not accept Jesus’ work before their death, and you assert that these unbelievers experience an “afterlife” in which they see God more clearly and still have the opportunity to turn and be welcomed into eternity with Him. My question is this: that post-death, pre-acceptance state is clearly not heaven, and clearly not this earth. Could you please explain your concept of what unbelievers experience after death while God is waiting to welcome them home?
Thank you for your question and comment. You ask a question for which, I believe, there is no definitive answer. No one has gone to heaven or hell and come back with a personal testimony (while some have claimed to do so, their stories are dubious, not authentic as I and many others would say). Further, the Bible provides very little in the way of details—or if it does, uses a variety of images that can’t be literalized. But, in my opinion, that has not stopped religion at large from making some dogmatic claims and statements, which are part of the problem.
You are of course correct—we all suffer the consequences of our actions. Yes, I believe that “hell” is just as operative a term in the present, an experience during our sojourn on this earth, as it is in the future. That does not mean that PTM does not believe in judgment—but again, there is a present and real judgment just as there will be one in the future. And yes, I absolutely reject eternal conscious torment as a reality or as a definition of hell. I see no way that the revelation of God in Christ allows for such a thing/place.
Theologically, the time between the death of the body and the resurrection of the body—and the reuniting of the soul/spirit with the body is often termed “the intermediate state.” There is much speculation about this “time”—some believe that there is a purgatory of sorts for those who don’t quite “make it” into “heaven”—a time and place where “purging” (hence purgatory) prepares individuals for the purity and holiness of God’s kingdom they did not achieve on earth.
Now if we’re talking about being cleansed and healed of everything in us that is not God’s love by the love of God, that’s one thing. But I find the typical punitive notions of purgatory indefensible in light of the New Testament, what the Cross of Christ means, what the grace of God means, and the message of the gospel at large. We do not “make it” or fail to do so on the basis of our works, now in this life, or in the intermediate state after the death of our body.
Others see the damned as a state predestined by God and that no human who is predestined to be “lost” can do anything to change that reality—upon death they go to hell. I reject that view as without foundation, as I understand the nature of God and of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some say that “believers” must be actively involved in sharing the gospel so that people will not die before having a chance to accept Jesus. And if they do not “reach” them, then the folks they failed to “evangelize” will be lost for all eternity. I find this view inadequate as well, for it makes salvation—which is the gift of God—dependent on human efforts to “reach” people. And, I would add, how effective have the efforts of people who believe such a thing been over the past 2000 years? Not so good, it would seem.
It seems best, then, to realize that there’s a lot about the afterlife that remains a mystery—things we don’t know absolutely. At the same time, we are convinced that God is love, he is fair, he is just and his will is that all will come to embrace his love and grace. So what does that mean, exactly? I don’t know. Some people condemn “postmortem” theology, that is, any thinking that allows for some way in which God may offer salvation to folks who never appreciated, understood or realized what the gospel was during their earthly life. I find their condemnation remarkably unChristlike. I believe God would reply to them, as he did in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, “Is your eye evil because I am generous? Don’t I have the right to be as generous as I wish?”
If you have further questions on this or another topic, please let us know. Thanks for allowing PTM to be of service.