What’s Next After Death?
A headline on AOL.com asks, “Osama bin Laden Is Dead, What Comes Next?”
The question raised was focused on international terrorism, not bin Laden’s eternal destiny, but a cartoon in USA Today raises the question of what comes next for him. It depicts a distraught bin Laden standing in front of a body scanner, being ordered by Satan (pitchfork in hand), “Empty your pockets…remove your shoes…proceed through the metal detector and body scanner…”
People smile at the irony. But, more soberly, the cartoon opens the door to a deeper question: Will there be justice after death for what we have done in this life?
Following his announcement that Osama bin Laden had been cut down by Navy Seal commandos, President Barak Obama announced to the world, “Justice has been done.”
But has it really? Of course, Obama was referring to American justice rather than God’s justice. But does bin Laden’s death account for all his crimes, or does real justice demand more? Does physical death qualify as real justice for someone responsible for the mass murder of innocent people?
We watched in horror as victims of 9/11 jumped to their deaths from the inferno of the burning World Trade Center buildings. In an instant, hundreds of children lost their parents. Dreams and hopes of young and old lovers alike were expunged in a single act of hatred and malice—all orchestrated by Osama bin Laden.
Videotapes reveal a jubilant bin Laden as he heard the news that the hijacked airplanes had hit their targets, damaging the Pentagon and destroying the Twin Towers along with thousands of innocent lives. No empathy for the burned men, women, children and babies. No tears for those who lost loved ones. Free from feelings of guilt and remorse, the world’s number one terrorist began plotting even more sinister acts.
So, has justice been done? Osama’s life was snuffed out in an instant; much too quickly for many of those who are still suffering the aftermath of 9/11. Although American justice is satisfied, how does the ending of bin Laden’s life provide retribution for his crimes?
Many believe instant death was too light a sentence for all the blood-curdling terror and pain bin Laden brought to others. So too with Hitler; we want him to pay dearly for his atrocities of sending six million innocent Jews to gas chambers, ordering tortuous medical experiments on children, and committing genocide against the disabled.
But some argue that a loving God should forgive each of us, regardless of what we have done or what we believe. “Santa Claus theology,” as J. I. Packer calls it, teaches that God’s love is so powerful that “his favor extends no less to those who disregard his commands than to those who keep them.”
In other words, bin Laden should get a free pass. And so too should Hitler, Stalin and others who have committed such atrocities. To them there should be no ultimate justice. If they are right, these mass murderers will be just as well off as godly people like Mother Theresa in the afterlife.
But the Santa Claus theology doesn’t square with Scripture. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that God is both good and just. In his letter to the Romans, he admonishes Roman believers to not make the grave mistake the Jews made when they rejected Christ in unbelief. The apostle warns, “Behold therefore the goodness and the severity of God; on them which fell, severity; but toward you, goodness.”
Regarding the apostle’s words, Packer notes, “The Christians at Rome are not to dwell on God’s goodness alone, nor on his severity alone, but to contemplate both together…. Both must be acknowledged together if God is to be truly known.”
In other words, we can’t just remake God into what we want him to be like; we must accept God for who he really is.
So if God is both loving and just, what will happen to bin Laden now that he is dead—and what will happen to us when we die? Where do we find answers to these vital questions?
There is only one person who has died and come back to tell us what’s on the other side: Jesus Christ. He claimed to have the answers to these questions (see Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?). Let’s examine what he said.
What Did Jesus Say About Heaven and Hell?
Jesus spoke about God as loving and forgiving. But he also revealed that those who oppose him would be judged severely.
One day Jesus told his disciples a story about two men; a rich man and a poor beggar named Lazarus.
The rich man, lapping in luxury, was oblivious to the needs of others. He lived in a gated house, spending each day in selfish pursuits and partying.
Lazarus was full of sores, and unable to walk. In hopes that the rich man would have compassion on him, someone laid him at his gate. Lazarus was hoping for a few crumbs from the rich man’s table.
Jesus then tells us both men died and were separated by a “great gulf,” Lazarus to a place of comfort, and the rich man to a place of torment.
In this story Jesus reveals that we will be judged for what we do in this life. He also reveals that there is a place of torment as well as a place of blessing after death.
Jesus gave us another important clue regarding what happens to us after death. Two thieves who were crucified next to him mocked him for seemingly being unable to exercise his power as king and “come down from the cross.”
We don’t know what the crimes of these two thieves were, but it is apparent they had stolen from others, and were criminals deserving of extreme punishment.
However, for some reason one of them had a change of heart, and asked Jesus to remember him when he [Jesus] entered his kingdom. Jesus answered him affirmatively with the assuring words, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
What did Jesus mean, and why didn’t he promise paradise to the other thief? Despite the crimes the repentant thief had committed, he was forgiven. We don’t know what caused him to change his mind about Jesus, but his new heart attitude resulted in his salvation.
Many want God to accept them on their terms, not his.
One man who felt that way came to Jesus, asking him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. The man was rich and had great authority. Jesus answered by telling him that to receive eternal life he needed to obey all the commandments.
The rich young man then told Jesus that he had obeyed all the commandments. So Jesus told him he needed to do one more thing: “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
We know Jesus was not saying that the way to get to heaven is by obeying all the commandments and giving all our possessions to the poor, because he made that clear in other statements.
Jesus knew the man’s heart and was dealing with his pride and unwillingness to humble himself before God. He challenged the young man to put God ahead of his material wealth, and the man sadly refused.
In contrast, the thief on the cross who acknowledged Jesus as his Lord was forgiven, even though he hadn’t obeyed God’s commands prior to his humble confession of faith. It was his heart attitude that saved him, not his good deeds.
Does that give hope for someone like bin Laden? Sadly, unlike the forgiven thief, there is no evidence bin Laden ever changed his mind about Jesus Christ. His life and words were diametrically opposed to Jesus Christ’s followers.
Bin Laden’s hatred of Americans, Jews and Christians continued until his death. He held fast to his ungodly hatred, stating on Al Jazeera TV, “Every Muslim, from the moment they realize the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews, and hates Christians. This is a part of our belief and our religion.”
Over a decade later, in personal handwritten diaries discovered within his walled compound in Pakistan, bin Laden instructed his followers, “Strike smaller cities. Target trains as well as planes. Above all, kill as many Americans as possible in a single attack.”
So what did Jesus say about murder? Jesus stated that murder is against God’s Law. Furthermore, he said that we are guilty even if we have anger in our hearts toward others.
The breaking of God’s Law invokes God’s wrath. God’s wrath is something that all who oppose God will face. The Apostle Paul writes to the Roman believers of God’s wrath against the unrighteous:
“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”
What is God’s wrath like? Is it like human rage and anger? Not at all according to theologian Packer. He writes, “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil….God’s wrath is always judicial.”
Since God is all knowing, all wise, and totally impartial, we can count on him to exercise his wrath and justice with perfection. God’s wrath is a necessary expression of his holy and just character. And his justice is as perfect as God himself is perfect.
The end result of God’s wrath is eternal separation from his love, grace and goodness.
In his famous sermon on the subject, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” theologian Jonathan Edwards suggested that hell is a state of eternal separation from God in which its inhabitants experience a continual “guilty and accusing conscience.”
Again, those who espouse the Santa Claus theology argue that a loving God wouldn’t condemn anyone to an eternity of torment, even someone as despotic as bin Laden. To them, it is impossible for a God of love to exhibit wrath.
Those who believe there will be no ultimate judgment are second-guessing God, questioning his justice. But they don’t make the rules. They, and we, both need to trust that God is absolutely fair.
The great patriarch Abraham came to terms with God’s perfect justice. As Abraham contemplated the impending judgment on the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, he asked God how many righteous people in the cities it would take for him to change his mind and not destroy them.
Abraham negotiated with God over how many righteous people in the wicked cities would prevent their destruction. The patriarch appealed to him on the basis of his perfect justice, stating, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Although Abraham asked God to restrain his judgment, he accepted the fact that God would ultimately do what is right. He acknowledged God’s superior wisdom and character. In the end, only his nephew Lot and his daughters escaped God’s judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah.
So how can we escape God’s wrath? By comparing ourselves with bin Laden or Hitler, we might feel pretty comfortable, assuming that God’s wrath doesn’t apply to us. Some people think that in comparison to others that they are “good,” undeserving of God’s justice.
That leads to the question, what is God’s requirement for us to be forgiven of our sins and go to heaven? Jesus claimed to not only have the answer, but declared he is the answer. He tells us that he came so that we could escape God’s wrath and judgment.
This is the remarkable thing Jesus did when he died on the cross; he demonstrated God’s perfect love, while satisfying his perfect justice. The Apostle Paul stood amazed at our awesome God who made it possible for us to know him without compromising his perfect justice.
“Frankly, I stand amazed at the unfathomable complexity of God’s wisdom and God’s knowledge. How could man ever understand his reasons for action, or explain his methods of working? For: ‘Who hath known the mind of the Lord? Or who hath been his counselor?…For of him, and through him, and unto him, are all things. To him be the glory for ever, Amen.”’
To discover what God’s love and justice means to you personally, and to know for sure whether or not you will go to heaven.