Does judgment occur immediately after death?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: I’m questioning the afterlife for a non-Christian friend. He’s an atheist, and he asked me something I couldn’t figure out… so I’m asking you! He said he died… and that he was "officially" dead for around 4 minutes. But, in that time he doesn't remember seeing or sensing anything — just complete darkness. He asked me to explain this, and I have two thoughts… but I’d like to run them by you.

First, God didn’t bring him to judgment because he knew that my friend would come back. Second, that’s what souls who don’t trust in Jesus experience after death. So, I’d appreciate comments on my ideas (or any other ideas on the matter). Thank you.

Answer: Greetings, friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries… and I appreciate you “hanging in” with your atheist friend. Your patience and demeanor will speak loudly — even when he has blocked his ears to the truth (Acts 7:57).

Concerning your responses to him, the first was reasonable. God, who is omniscient (Isaiah 46:9-10; Hebrews 4:13), knew that your friend wouldn’t die. So, there was no need for judgment and its fallout at that time. But there’s another issue: judgment will not happen until after Christ returns. So, the dead will not be judged immediately upon their deaths (Luke 16:19-21; Revelation 20:11-15). As such, one shouldn’t expect the activities associated with judgment to occur within four minutes of dying.

Your second idea has a problem, though. If that’s all death is — nothingness — then there is no consciousness and no ongoing punishment. But Jesus said that there was (… as did Peter, Paul, John...).

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.” (Matthew 18:8, NIV)

The notion that unsaved people just sort of “go away” after death and are not punished is called annihilationism. It is an unbiblical idea, of course… although part of me wishes it were true. (Eternal punishment is hard to even think about, let alone teach!) But have you noticed that truth is rarely easy or comfortable… and the Bible is clear that the human soul is everlasting and that its state in eternity future is dependent upon what we do in this life.

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’” (Matthew 25:41–43, NIV)

So, if we take God at his word — that salvation is available in Jesus Christ (John 3:16; John 1:12) — then we will spend eternity with him (John 5:24; Romans 8:1). But if we seek salvation elsewhere — even with maximal earnestness and the best intentions — the Lord will disavow us… yet we continue to exist forever.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

Now, atheists are not usually seeking salvation anywhere… so a few Bible verses won’t convince them of their peril. But they have the same jeopardy as those who worship false gods. Physicalism — the belief that nothing non-physical exists — is its own religion… and God will grant no one who subscribes to this a conscientious objector’s status on judgment day.

This is because we are all responsible to the general revelation that God has given all of humankind (Romans 1:18-20)… and anyone with the wherewithal to choose physicalism over God is without excuse. Physicalists have plenty of light… they are just choosing wrongly… and they are choosing for eternity because our spirits are immortal (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

Let me end this section by giving you links to two articles that speak to the eternal persistence of the human soul and its ramifications.

I’d now like to take you up on your offer to share an idea of my own, and that idea is this: your friend was not dead.

“Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” (John 11:39, NIV)

An untreated body at room temperature will start to smell of decomposition after three days… and there’s no “coming back” from that… not unless Jesus raises you from the dead! The problem for us today is that different people define death differently, and you know this because you put “officially” in quotes… I mean… look at Lazarus. He wasn’t “officially” dead. He was actually dead… and no one is actually dead until their biological processes cease… continually and forever.

Now, I do not want to minimize your friend’s experience or his peril. It’s serious business when the brain and/or heart stop functioning… and this would have meant sure death a century ago. But people come back from this kind of “death” quite often now… so, when is someone dead? The Bible and common experience tell us that decomposition is absolute proof of death while a stopped heart or a cessation of brain activity can be intermittent phenomena.

The unmistakable odor of decomposition tells us that the body has stopped performing the chemical processes necessary to sustain biological life. In fact, the end of one process — biological life — is the beginning of another process — recycling — as our constituent parts return to the biosphere… and if God wants to chase down those very particles to make our resurrected bodies, I’m sure he can manage that (1 Corinthians 15).

But since your friend was “gone” a mere four minutes, and since his mind and body resumed functioning rather than decomposing, whatever he was, he was not dead. We just like to play with that word… and that’s the first hint that we’re dealing with the logical fallacy of equivocation. When people try to ambiguate a concept — bending it to make their point — they are equivocating. For logic to prevail, both parties need to agree on the terms in a discussion… and I don’t agree that your friend was dead.

Therefore, the fact that he didn’t sense anything for four minutes is meaningless in the discussion of life after death. This is a common experience — one I’ve had for five hours during surgery! It adds nothing to the discussion of whether there is something or nothing after death. The only people who are in a position to add to that discussion are people who are truly dead… but there’s the Catch-22. The dead can’t join our debate for obvious reasons.

This is why Christians often use extra-biblical arguments for the existence of God. Atheists don’t want to hear Scripture, but plenty of extra-biblical ideas point to the existence of God and therefore the validity of the Christian worldview… which includes an afterlife.

There are many extra-biblical ways of arguing for God, but many of these are variations on the main four. Let me link you to one of my articles that explains these in more detail.

May God bless you as you try to help your friend.

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