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2022-01 Daily Devotional - Learning from God - plant shoots growing in the ground with a green background. 2022-01 Daily Devotional - Learning from God - plant shoots growing in the ground with a green background.

Questions and Answers | Learning From God

Do all people (souls) live forever, whether it be in heaven or hell?

The short answer is that both repentant and unrepentant souls persist through death. But it may be helpful for us to have a better understanding of the difference between the body and the soul. The soul is your immaterial part—rational, emotional, and spiritual faculties— whereas the body is your physical part. One does not “have a soul,” rather, one is a soul that has a body.

At death, the person’s soul departs his or her body to be judged (Heb. 9:27). At this time, Jesus condemns the unrepentant: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). Unbelievers are neither annihilated nor repentant after death, but “go away to eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46). For those who have acknowledged the lordship of Jesus Christ, their soul is immediately conducted into the presence of God.

While contemplating his pending execution, Paul told the Philippians that “I desire to depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23; see also 2 Cor. 5:8). At death, the believer’s soul will be immediately in God’s presence! Believers endure neither soul-sleep nor purgatory, but experience conscious and joyous fellowship with Jesus Christ and other saints.

When we die, do we go directly to heaven or wait for the final judgment day when God judges the living and the dead?

Although our souls are immediately conducted to either heaven or hell at death, John described a “great white throne” judgment (Rev. 20:11–15), in which everyone stands before Jesus Christ.

This final judgment at the end of time is the conclusion of divine justice, when God’s “righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). On that day, unbelievers will receive degrees of punishment “according to what they had done” (Rev. 20:12). Believers will receive rewards according to their good works in Christ (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 11:18); and fallen angels, whom God “bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (Jude 6), will be sentenced to absolute punishment (see 2 Peter 2:4). In fact, we are told that believers will participate in the judgment of angels (1 Cor. 6:2–3).

Believers are not subject to punishment. Jesus said, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24); and so, Paul taught that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Nonetheless, nothing will be hidden at His judgment. The Lord “will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God” (1 Cor. 4:5). Knowing this encourages us to “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Why did God create people knowing that they would make choices that would result in eternal punishment? I understand being separated from God or even annihilation, but why eternal punishment?

We acknowledge that, by our natural moral intuitions, the eternal punishment of the unrepentant seems excessive and cruel. However, we must also admit that our natural moral intuition, even at its best, does not compare to God’s perfect judgment.

Consider Job’s confusion at God’s justice, as he pleaded, “Do not declare me guilty, but tell me what charges you have against me. Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands while you smile on the plans of the wicked?” (Job 10:2–3). In response, God proclaims His greatness and goodness, which Job acknowledges: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:2–3). Whether or not we fully understand God’s ways, we sing with the great multitude in heaven, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Rev. 19:1–2).

We are often calloused to the effects of our sins against one another. Although others, being made in God’s image, are worthy of our respect and love, we are prone to disparage and harm them in our selfishness with little remorse. In addition, we do not feel guilt proportionate to our own wrongdoing. Nonetheless, our sins are profoundly harmful. To sin against God, who is infinitely more worthy of respect and love, is to incur infinite guilt. The unrepentant in hell will remain unrepentant forever. Their eternal punishment is a consequence of their eternal sinfulness and not a result of divine cruelty.

BY Sanjay Merchant

Sanjay Merchant is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute and a teaching pastor at Northshore Christian Church in Everett, Washington. He earned his Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University School of Religion, and Master’s degrees from Biola University. He enjoys helping his students wrestle with hard questions of the faith, teaching courses on philosophy, theology, and apologetics. Sanjay and his wife, Erin, have four children and reside in Roselle, Illinois.

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