Where Do Unbelievers Go Prior to the Judgment?

Greg offers some thoughts concerning the afterlife.



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There's always been curiosity about the so-called "intermediate state." That is, what happens right after somebody dies, but before the final disposition of all things at the Great White Throne Judgement and we go to the new heavens and the new earth, and those who are condemned to go to the fiery hell that's prepared for the devil and his angels? We have a picture of what that entails, but what about in between? In 2nd Corinthians it says that when we die, or Paul says, "To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord." Sometimes we call that "Heaven," and certainly Heaven is God's abode, but we use it in a general sense. There's also going to be a new heavens and new earth. The word "Sheol" is meant to describe the place of the dead, the grave, so to speak, in a very, very general way. "The dead go down to Sheol" is the language that's being used. The fact is, we just don't have a lot of information about this.

Jesus tells either a parable or gives an account, it's not entirely clear which one's which, but of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus, in this case being a poor person who dies in grace, apparently, and the rich man who dies not in grace. Lazarus goes to Abraham's bosom, which is a place of comfort, and the rich man goes to a place of torment. This isn't the final disposition; it's like a waiting area. Abraham says, "There's a great gulf separating the two, so you can't cross one to the other," and it's hard to know what to make of these in terms of the particulars. I think it's best not to strain too much of the details, because many times we're at a loss, even those in the know, like Jesus or Paul or whatever, of explaining eternal things or immaterial things or spiritual things in physical terms. Many times we're thinking, "Gee, is this an allegory? Is this fact, whatever?"

Here's the best way, I think, to take it, given that a lot of things may be, in a certain sense, allegorical. What is the main point of what Jesus is saying? There is a place of waiting until the final disposition for those who are in grace and those who are not. The place for those who are in grace is a place of comfort; the place of those who are not is a place of torment. In both cases it's a foretaste of what is to follow. In the end there will be a final disposition where God resolves everything. All the final judgments are going to be made, and the sheep will go enter into the Joy of the Lord and the goats will enter into eternal punishment. That's the most important thing. We don't have a lot of other detail. None is needed, really.

Paul does say that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, so it is likely that after the crucifixion and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that instead of being in Abraham's bosom, the believer now goes to be with the Lord in an intermediate state, and the non-believer is still in torment. I have no reason to believe otherwise. I think that's the most we can make of these, and I think that's enough. If we try to get any more particular about it, we run the risk of running into error. I think that information is good enough for us.

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Greg Koukl