Q: Hebrews 9:27 says, "Man is destined to die once and after that to face the judgment." Does Scripture say why God ends choice for/against Jesus as Savior at physical death? If God were to extend the opportunity for even 30 seconds after physical death, what a difference that might make!
—Paul Gavitt, Tucson, Arizona
A: When the writer of Hebrews speaks of dying "once," he uses a word that means not once merely as distinct from two or more times, but "once and for all." The adverb (hapax in Greek) points to the decisiveness of the event it qualifies; by happening once, the event changes things permanently so that the possibility of it happening again is removed. That is what the word means when it is applied in verses 26 and 28 to Jesus' atoning sacrifice of himself on the cross, and in verse 27 it means the same when applied to the event of our own heartstop and brainstop and the separating of the self from the corpse.
The unrepeatable reality of physical death leads directly to reaping what we sowed in this world. So Jesus taught in his tale of the callous rich man and Lazarus the beggar (Luke 16:19-31), and when he spoke of dying in one's sins as something supremely dreadful (John 8:21-23). So Paul taught when he affirmed that, on judgment day, all received a destiny corresponding to their works; that is, to the decisive direction of their lives (Rom. 2:5-16; Gal. 6:7-8; 2 Cor. 5:10). The New Testament is solid in viewing death and judgment this way.
Modern theologians are not all solid here. Some of them expect that some who did not embrace Christ in this life may yet do so savingly in the life to come. Some who expect this are evangelicals who think that the God of grace owes everyone a clear presentation of the gospel in terms they understand. Others who expect an exercise of postmortem faith are universalists, for whom it is axiomatic that all humans will finally enjoy God in heaven, and therefore that God must and will continue to exert loving pressure till all have been drawn to Christ. So John Hick posits as many postmortem lives for each non-Christian as is necessary to this end, and Nels Ferr describes hell as having "a school and a door" in it: when those in hell come to their senses about Christ they may leave, so that the place ends up empty. But this is nonscriptural speculation, and reflects an inadequate grasp of what turning to Christ involves.
What sort of event is "choice for/against Jesus as Savior?" The phrase might suggest it is like choosing the preferred dish from a menu—a choice where you opt for what strikes you as the best of the bunch, knowing that if your first choice is not available, a second is always possible. But coming savingly to Christ is not like that. When it occurs, there is a sense of inevitability about it, springing from three sources: the pressure of gospel truth that feels too certain to be denied, plus the sense of God's presence forcing one to face the reality of Jesus Christ, plus the realization that without him, one is lost, currently ruining oneself and desperately needing to be changed. This sense is generated by God's prevenient grace—his action of making the first move. There is no commitment to Christ (no "choice for Jesus," if one prefers to say it that way) apart from this convicting divine action. The nature and necessity of regeneration (for that is what this is) was never a matter of dispute between Puritan Calvinists and Wesleyan Arminians.
The act of the heart in choosing Jesus Christ is not always performed in a single moment, nor is it always performed calmly and clear-headedly. At surface level there are often crosscurrents of reluctance. C. S. Lewis, dissecting his own conversion story, wrote of "the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet," and scoffed at the idea that anyone really seeks the real God and the real, living Christ, with their dominating, dictatorial demands for discipleship. ("You might as well speak of the mouse's search for the cat.") But in every real conversion, prevenient grace (meaning, as is now clear, the Holy Spirit) ensures a real change of heart through the Calvary love of Christ becoming irresistible.
How a just-dead person's perceptions differ from what they were before is more than we have been told. But Scripture says nothing of prevenient grace triggering postmortem conversions, and that being so, we should conclude that the unbeliever's lack of desire for Christ and the Father and heaven remains unchanged. So for God to extend the offer of salvation beyond the moment of death, even for thirty seconds, would be pointless. Nothing would come of it.
J. I. Packer is visiting scholar at CT and professor emeritus of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Send your questions for evangelical scholars to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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