We are all stalked by an insatiable, bloodthirsty killer. This murderer never misses—he has a 100 percent success rate. Nothing can shield us from his attention; nothing can mitigate his relentless slaughter.
Death itself will visit all of us. There are no scientific advances, no technological breakthroughs, and no miracle drugs that offer an escape from the death’s destruction. Only God can usher living men into heaven—and He does it so sparingly that we know by heart the names of those He has permitted to bypass the grave.
In some ways, those blessed with longevity know the personal sting of death more than most. They’ve often lost a spouse, parents, and many close friends—no one remains unscathed for long. However it visits you, the pain of death and loss forces you to stake out a position on your own inevitable demise. Most of the world clings to the blind and often baseless hope that its dearly departed are “in a better place.”
That’s understandable. In the face of mortality’s unstoppable march, sinful man will cling to any hope he can find—even something as empty as the familiar lie that death is a pleasant transition. That pervasive idea isn’t built on evidence or experience. People simply believe it because the alternative is too unthinkable to bear. Nobody wants to exacerbate the grief and sense of loss they already feel.
Nobody wants to presume that a recently departed friend or family member who died in his or her sins will spend eternity in hell. We understandably don’t want to speculate about damnation—especially regarding loved ones.
But we must not make the same mistake in the opposite direction. We must not assume our loved ones are in heaven just because we want them to be there. That’s a dangerous self-deception—one that dilutes the clear teaching of Scripture and corrupts the gospel of Christ.
In the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death, many Christian leaders rushed to publish their lamentations of loss and presumptions of eternal reward for the fallen civil rights icon. In response, Conrad Mbewe, a Reformed pastor from Zambia, issued the following caution:
My chief concern is with the ease with which many evangelical Christians have used the words, “Rest in peace” as they have bade farewell to Madiba. I am also an evangelical. I take my Bible seriously and interpret it literally. In my understanding of the Bible, the only persons who will rest in peace in eternity are those who have repented of their sins and put their trust in Jesus Christ as their only hope of acceptance with God. The Bible says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:36, ESV).
I have a friend who once worked in the Zambian High Commission in South Africa. He wrote a book entitled, Why Is God Silent About Mandela? It was a clever way of asking the question, “Why is Mandela silent about God?” He noted that although Mandela did not vilify religion in general and Christianity in particular, neither did he say anything that showed his faith in God and especially in his Son Jesus Christ. Yes, Mandela had a Methodist background. However, any evangelical will know that growing up in church does not make one a Christian. You must personally turn to God in repentance and put your trust in Jesus Christ. On this matter, Mandela was conspicuous by his silence.
As is always the case regarding those who die without any concrete evidence of saving faith, it is foolish to speculate about what we don’t know. We shouldn’t read repentance and faith into the past lives of the dead. We must not imagine that the departed’s spiritual fruit blossoms upon further inspection.
Moreover, we must not ignore the things we do know. In the rush to usher friends and heroes into sainthood, believers often whitewash the very lives they’re hoping to celebrate. But there is no spiritual benefit to such willful ignorance. Pretending lost loved ones lived better lives than they did might help us sleep better, but it dishonors the Lord and devalues His righteous standard.
If you’ve been to a funeral lately, you have likely heard at least one of those errors committed—probably both! But Jesus did not share the foolish optimism of most clergy today. He said:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13–14)
Hell is heavily populated with people who did not expect to be there. Whether through rebellion or self-deception, they will spend eternity separated from God in torment that should make us shudder. Christ made that very point in Luke’s gospel.
My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! (Luke 12:4–5)
The biblical reality is that death is not a pleasant transition for the hordes of people who end up in hell. Scripture tells us that we shall all have our day in God’s heavenly courtroom where we will have to give account for the lives we have lived. For “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
Death Leads to Judgment
The book of Revelation paints a vivid and frightening picture of the Day of Judgment.
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:11–15)
The apostle John makes it abundantly clear that death represents the most horrifying transition imaginable for most people. John MacArthur offers the following commentary on this terrifying passage of Scripture.
The books contain the record of every thought, word, and deed of every unsaved person who ever lived. God has kept perfect, accurate, and comprehensive records of every person’s life, and the dead will be judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. Sinners’ deeds will be measured against God’s perfect, holy standard, which Jesus defined in Matthew 5:48: “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In his first epistle Peter wrote, “Like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16). To the Galatians Paul wrote, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them’” (Galatians 3:10)—a truth also taught by James: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all” (James 2:10). No prisoner before the bar of divine justice will be able to claim the perfect obedience to God’s holy standards that He requires. They “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 12–22 (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2000), 253.
In light of Revelation 20:11–15, the question mankind must ask itself is, if the Lord perfectly knows all our thoughts, words, and deeds, and the depth of our depravity, how can we possibly escape His righteous wrath?
God’s justice demands payment for every person’s sins. Christ paid that penalty for believers: “He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (Isaiah 53:5–6). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). “[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). But unbelievers, not having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them (Philippians 3:9), will themselves pay the penalty for violating God’s law—eternal destruction in hell (2 Thessalonians 1:9).  MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Revelation 12–22, 253.
We can either spend eternity being punished for our litany of crimes against God, or place our trust in Christ as our sin-bearing substitute. And death will only be a pleasant transition for the latter.
The onus is on us as Christians to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Those who presume upon eternal life without having repented of their sins and trusted in Christ must be warned of their impending doom. Conversely, those who despair at the hopeless thought of God’s sure judgment can be comforted in the knowledge of Christ’s substitutionary work as our righteous Savior and Redeemer.