Here’s an adapted selection from my new book Surprised by Hell: Unexpected Discoveries in the Bible and Church History.
“People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). That statement has often been used to support the idea that there are no second chances after death. Death closes the door on the possibility of repentance.
But Hebrews 9:27 is a general statement. It doesn’t state if judgment begins immediately after death. In fact, according to basic Christian teaching, final judgment cannot take place immediately after death. Why not? Because Christ must return and the dead must be raised and then final judgment will be dispensed. The period between the time of an individual’s death and the resurrection of the dead is known as the intermediate state. While the intermediate state has been a source of much controversy, all agree that it is not our final resting place because it takes place before final judgment. According to Christian theology then this verse should not be interpreted as “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment immediately.”
Hebrews 9:27 also doesn’t state if anything happens after judgment—”destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” and then what?
Finally, this verse doesn’t identify the nature of judgment. Should judgment be understood as remedial or retributive? Christian universalists, for example, can readily agree with Hebrews 9:27 because they believe remedial judgment—a process that will lead to salvation—occurs after death. Following remedial judgment or correction, all will turn to Christ in repentance and faith.
So does Scripture say that God’s mercy towards a sinner ends when that person dies? No. But many think it does because they have made certain assumptions.
On the other hand, does the Bible promise that all sinners will receive another opportunity to repent after death? No, there’s no explicit statement promising that will occur.
But many church fathers believed that it did occur—deceased sinners heard the good news of Christ and therefore were given an opportunity to repent.
Where did that get that idea? From 1 Peter 3:18–20.
Should people repent sooner rather than later? Absolutely. As Paul says, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). We should enter into a reconciled relationship with God as soon as possible. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that death is the end of God’s attempt to reach us. Death is not powerful enough to stop God’s love (Romans 8:38–39).
Finally, if you’re a Protestant and you think Hebrews 9:27 is clear-cut in denying the possibility of postmortem salvation, consider that the founder of Protestantism would have disagreed. Martin Luther knew his Bible well, including Hebrews 9:27, and yet he said, “God forbid that I should limit the time of acquiring faith to the present life. In the depth of the Divine mercy there may be opportunity to win it in the future.”[i]
[i] From his letter to Hanseu Von Rechenberg in 1522. Quoted by Steve Gregg, All You Want to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 261.