Beyond Death

What will tomorrow bring? Some things you can predict fairly well—where you will go, whom you will see, what the weather will be like. But also many uncertainties cloud today’s horizon, and the farther you look into the future, the denser they become. The tomorrow that has especially haunted the human heart is the one that follows death. Will you return to life as a different person in this world? Will you live only as a disembodied ghost floating in some distant sky of loneliness? Will you even exist?

The answer is provided by the religion known as Christianity. It says that after death you will live forever in either of two places: in heaven, where you will know perfect happiness in fellowship with the God who created you, or in hell, a place of suffering. Hell is the destiny you deserve, because you are a sinner; that is, you have willfully and habitually broken the moral law of God. But God loves you and wants to spare you from hell. He therefore offers you a way of escape so that you can enjoy heaven instead. The deliverance available to you is known as salvation, and any message or appeal that explains how you obtain it is known as the gospel.

In one convenient summary provided by God’s Word, the Bible, we learn that the gospel calls for two things: repentance and faith (Acts 20:21). Repentance brings a man to the place of wanting a right relationship with God. Faith achieves that relationship.

The gospel is like a diamond. On the surface a diamond is beautiful in its angular simplicity and shining clarity. But inside it is held together by forces so complex that we barely understand them. Likewise the gospel. Even a child can grasp the essentials, but the good news of salvation through repentance and faith is full of mysteries beyond human comprehension.

Repentance Defined

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, forged from the roots meta ("change") and noia ("mind"). Therefore, a common definition of repentance is "change of mind." Certainly, this is what repentance produces. Yet a definition that rests solely on a word’s derivation may not capture its real meaning. A casual look at an English dictionary finds many examples. Prevent does not mean "go before." Nice does not describe someone who is ignorant. Sinister does not point to something on the left side. And no one would imagine that a "villain" is a farm boy. In every language, a word’s meaning is determined not by its derivation, but by its usage. Thus, we must examine how Scripture (the Bible) uses repentance if we wish to pinpoint its meaning. From many texts we learn that repentance is a way of looking at self (Job 42:6; Matt. 9:13; Acts 8:22; 2 Cor. 12:21). Specifically, it is a sorrow for the sin that self has committed and a desire to forsake it.

Here at the outset we must emphasize what repentance is not. It is not an actual turning from sin. This requires the power of the Holy Spirit (a person of the Godhead), and the Holy Spirit does not come to indwell a man until he has been granted salvation (or, as Christians say, until he is saved). Therefore, to tell a man that he must put sin out of his life before he can be saved is to demand the impossible.

For a balanced perspective, however, we must attach another thought. Although the Bible conceives of repentance as an inward change of heart rather than an outward change of behavior, genuine repentance (that is, repentance unto salvation) certainly bears fruit in good works (Matt. 3:8).

A Threefold Understanding

The best glasses for spiritual vision have lenses made of simple honesty. Biblical repentance requires a man to don these glasses and look at himself in the mirror of God's Word (Jas. 1:23–25). Then he will make three sobering and perhaps alarming discoveries.

  1. He is a sinner. Sin is any thought or deed that violates the law of God, and God declares that all men have sinned. The Bible verse Christians often use to show someone his true condition is Romans 3:23: "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." This is a good choice because it contradicts both of the vain excuses that guilty mankind likes to throw in God’s face.

    1. I'm not so bad. Rather than admit they are sinners, many protest, "Perhaps I have some faults, some imperfections. But I can't imagine that God would send me to hell just because I'm human." Or, like a certain rich young ruler, they may represent themselves as completely innocent of wrongdoing (Mark 10:17-22). But, "All have sinned" (Rom. 3:23; see also Rom. 3:9–18; Gal. 3:22; 1 John 1:8).

      In exhorting this ruler to "come, take up the cross, and follow me," Jesus (the divine man worshiped by Christians) was teaching him that his root sin was failure to follow Jesus with his whole heart. He was therefore breaking the first of the two greatest commandments: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matt. 22:37–38). Then, to show him that he was also breaking the second, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt. 22:39), Jesus required the young man to give his wealth to the poor. His refusal to comply proved how callous he was to their needs. What was true of him is true of all men. We have all trespassed these same commandments. Can you, dear reader, claim that you have always kept them as you should?

      The Biblical view of human nature is not in the least complimentary. The declaration that all men are sinners appears often in both divisions of the Bible; not only in the portion called the New Testament, cited earlier, but also in the Old Testament (1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 14:1; 130:3; 143:2; Eccles. 7:20; Prov. 20:9). The cumulative impact of these divine words is overwhelming. Who can dodge charges brought by an all-knowing God?

    2. I'm pretty good. Apart from the grace of God, everybody flatters himself that he is good enough for heaven. Even the worst criminal thinks he has a spark of good that makes him good enough. But, "All have . . . come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

      In my life’s journey through a wide world, I have mingled with sinners of all kinds. I have seen society at the bottom. For a while in my childhood, my father operated a mission in the slums. In college I helped with door-to-door Christian outreach in the ghetto of Chicago, where I saw the poorest of the poor. Later I served on the staff at a ranch for difficult children, and I went regularly to share my faith with men on death row and in maximum security at a state penitentiary. I have also, in some degree, seen society at the top, which is no less a showcase of sinners.

      I have often been amazed to find that people in deepest sin seem immune to any worry about what happens after death. One time when going through a wing of maximum security at the penitentiary, I found perhaps the worst sinner I have ever met. I came to a cell window and tried to strike up a conversation with the man inside. Although reluctant to talk, he told me his name was "the executioner." He claimed that he earned the name by killing more than one man since coming to jail. My attempts to alert him to the peril of his soul aroused no sign of guilt or fear, only proud ridicule.

      When pressed by the gospel, even a shamelessly flagrant sinner may argue, "I'm good enough." He may see his sin as legitimate pleasure, or as somebody else’s fault, or as a justifiable payback to a victimizer, or as whatever, but not as sin.

      But what if God took everybody to heaven? Then heaven would not be heaven. It would be much like the world we live in now. In case you do not know it, this world is a terrible place. A heaven open to everybody would be worse than this world, because we would all have greater power to further our own desires.

      Someone might reply, "Yes, but God could take just the nice people to heaven." But God sees our hearts, and He knows that if we seem nice, the only reason is that we have not had greater opportunity or incentive or provocation to do wrong. Take a "nice" person and make him an absolute dictator, and you will find out how long he remains nice. "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." This adage would fit no place better than a heaven populated by imperfect human beings who nevertheless have power and abilities on a heavenly scale.

  2. His sin is wrong, and he deserves the punishment that God has ordained. For a man simply to recognize that he has broken the law of God is not enough. Even the devil knows that he is a sinner. After Satan gained permission to test Job, either Satan himself or one of his emissaries went to Job's friend Eliphaz and manifested himself in a dream. He wanted Eliphaz to take Job the discouraging message that he was suffering for his sins. The spirit said of himself, "Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly" (Job 4:18). The speaker knew that he had offended God, but in his words we see no real repentance. All we see is bitter complaint.

    In real repentance, a man not only recognizes that he is a sinner, but also admits that his sin is wrong. He acknowledges that God's law is just and he is unjust, and, moreover, that he deserves the divine sentence upon sinners. What is this sentence? It is to be cast into hell, a place of eternal separation from God, where the sinner will pay for his own sins. How? By suffering the torments that God's wrath will pour upon him (John 3:18, 36).

    How could a God of love send people to hell? He punishes sin precisely because He is a God of love. You hate whatever is a threat to a beloved person or thing. Suppose when my sons were little boys, I went out walking with one of them and a big dog attacked us. Suppose it lunged for my child’s throat. How would I have felt about that dog? I would have hated it. If I had the means, I might even have killed it in defense of my child. Likewise, God's hate is simply the other side of love. He loves righteousness; therefore, He hates sin. He loves His own children; therefore, He hates the presence of evil in the same universe where His children dwell.

  3. He is sorry for his sins. A man with head knowledge that he has done wrong and deserves punishment still falls short of repentance unless he also has a heart-level desire to forsake sin and do right. As soon as he fervently wants to do right, he cannot help but regret all the wrong he has done in the past. A sign that a heart has ripened to true repentance is a godly sorrow for sin (2 Cor. 7:10).

Defective Repentance

Certain Biblical characters exemplify a defective repentance.

  1. Saul. We read that Saul sought forgiveness for sparing the livestock of the Amalekites and the Amalekite king, Agag (1 Sam. 15:24-5). Yet, to judge by his subsequent behavior, this was not true repentance. Samuel did not accept it (v. 26). Saul was merely seeking to manipulate Samuel for his own political advantage (v. 30). He was not sorry, although he may have understood to some degree that he was wrong.
  2. Ahab. After Elijah pronounced an awful doom upon his house, Ahab repented in sackcloth and ashes (1 Kings 21:20-9). Yet afterward, when he needed counsel, he chose false prophets and scorned the true prophet Micaiah (1 Kings 22:1-8). Evidently, his repentance, such as it was, proceeded from fear rather than sorrow for sin. As soon as the fear subsided, he returned to his old ways. Scripture remembers him as the king of Israel who "did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him" (1 Kings 16:30).

True Repentance

The Bible also gives us examples of real repentance. The best is David's repentance after he committed adultery and murder. The contrite spirit he expressed in Psalm 51 corresponded to a genuine renewal of righteous living. He never fell into the same sin again, and he meekly accepted God's chastening. He lost his child by Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Violence tore his family apart, leading to the deaths of three of his oldest sons. Yet he raised no complaint against these heart-rending punishments.

The Lies of Satan

When Satan sought to draw our first parents, Adam and Eve, into sin, he came to Eve and told her a series of lies (Gen. 3:1-6). The first was an insinuation that God had not forbidden them to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve answered decidedly that in fact God had set the tree off limits. Then Satan told her two enormous lies, equally of the first magnitude. He said that the true result of eating from the tree was not to die, as God had said, but to become an all-wise, self-determining divine being. Moreover, he said that God Himself was a liar, misrepresenting the consequences of eating from the tree because He wished to keep man from becoming His equal. In her eagerness to become godlike and to define right and wrong however she liked, Eve swallowed the lies and ate the forbidden fruit. In essence, she was choosing to obey her own wishes rather than God's demands.

Every human being by nature follows Eve in accepting the same lies. But repentance opens a person's mind to the truth. Whereas he formerly espoused these lies, he now turns his back on them. Instead of continuing to regard himself as a god with final authority over moral questions, he now accepts the true God as his authority. He turns back the clock of history to the moment of first temptation and makes a decision different from Eve's.

Cautionary Conclusion

Repentance is good and necessary, but it does not gain salvation. You are not saved by repentance. Repentance merely brings you to the place where you want to be saved—where you see your need for salvation and desire a Savior.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.