Monday, September 02, 2019

Anonymous Asks (56)

“Will we have a second chance to go to heaven?”

There are at least three different reasons a question like this gets asked. One is very Catholic, a second very Protestant, and the third ... well ... universal.

The Catholic might best have his question paraphrased as something like “Is there a purgatory, and do we get to go to heaven at the end of it?” The Protestant is really asking “Is this ‘rapture’ thing I’ve heard about really in the Bible, and if I get left behind, do I get another shot?” The universalist is asking some version of “Surely hell cannot last forever, can it?”

But if you’re looking for an excuse to put off becoming a Christian so you can do it at a more convenient time, the answer to the question is going to be the same no matter what theological presuppositions underlie it.

The Catholic Story

Why would a Roman Catholic question purgatory? It’s church dogma, after all. But so were lots of other things that have come and gone throughout the centuries. The thinking Roman Catholic cannot help but notice that the idea of a purification period after death and before entering forever into the presence of God is nowhere to be found in scripture.

Now, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it is impossible to advance a biblically-based argument for the existence of purgatory. The verses you need are simply not there. You can try to create them by inferring positive conclusions from negative pronouncements — for example, the argument is made that the Lord’s statement that a certain sort of sinner who “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” leaves open the remote possibility that that in some cases forgiveness may be possible in the age to come. But that is a deduction by inference, not an affirmation in plain language. The passage can as easily be read to stress the impossibility of forgiveness at any time.

The bulk of Catholic arguments in defense of the concept of purgatory are arrived at by human reasoning rather than by exegesis:
  • Why would anyone go to purgatory? To be cleansed, for ‘nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]’. This is a truly horrible argument in that it devalues the blood of Christ and its ability to “by one offering perfect for all time those who are being sanctified.” Our cleansing in the eyes of God is already accomplished, thank you.)
  • Why are there no arguments on the record against purgatory from the early centuries of the Christian church? Perhaps because at that time the doctrine of purgatory did not exist in its current systematized form, and therefore the early Church fathers had no particular reason to start penning counter-arguments.
  • Sure, the word ‘purgatory’ is not found in scripture, but neither are the words ‘trinity’ or ‘incarnation’. One could argue in favor of absolutely any heresy on this basis.
All these are rational arguments, not biblical ones. They start with a premise, then wrest scriptures to support it.

Thus, if Roman Catholic dogma turns out to be wrong, then there will be no second chance for those who are not welcomed into the presence of God on the first pass. While it is definitely taught by some Christians, you cannot make any sort of compelling argument for this type of second chance from the word of God.

The Protestant Question

Not all Protestants believe in the doctrine of the Rapture, but those who do have made a major impact on popular evangelical culture. The “Left Behind” series of 16 books, four movies and a videogame are evidence lots of Protestants would like to be able to believe in second chances. One of the Left Behind spinoff books by Mel Odom is even entitled Second Chance.

This is not the place to fuss about whether the Rapture will or will not occur. The return of Christ specifically to receive his people into glory is clearly taught in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Those who dispute it may argue with the Pauline text if they wish. My point is that even Christians who believe in the Rapture are not at all in agreement that being left behind when Jesus Christ returns for his Church offers one a second chance at salvation. Many argue quite convincingly that it will not.

The Bible plainly says men and women will indeed be saved during the Tribulation. Revelation speaks of 144,000 Jews who will come to Christ in this period. Believers will be beheaded for refusing to worship the beast, and these martyrs of the faith will come to life and reign with Christ in the millennial period. So there is absolutely no question that it is possible to be saved during the Tribulation. It certainly is.

The real issue is whether any of these men and women who will be saved during the Tribulation period had previously heard and rejected the gospel. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians seems to strongly suggest that people who had “refused to love the truth and so be saved” will be confirmed in their unbelief by the “false signs and wonders” and “wicked deception” of Satan. As Paul puts it, “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”

At very least, scripture gives us reason to be very concerned about the possibility of being “left behind” if we have heard and rejected the gospel.

The Universalist Question

Like purgatory, the doctrine of universalism is not based so much on scripture itself as on the argument that surely God, in order to show himself as truly loving, must offer to man near-infinite numbers of chances at salvation. Some universalists hold out hope for Hitler and even for Satan himself. This is more along the lines of wish-fulfillment than anything else.

There are strong arguments from scripture to be made against universalism, and I have made a number of them here, here and here. The biggest one, I think, is that the apostles repeatedly speak of eternal life and eternal punishment in the very same contexts, using the exact same Greek adjective. As I wrote back in 2017:
“Jude, for instance, refers to aiōnios fire in v7 and aiōnios life in v21. What bizarre principle of interpretation might permit us to understand the first one to mean ‘graciously temporary’ and the second ‘genuinely eternal’?”
The same is true of the Old Testament Hebrew word translated “forever”:
“Now, sure, ‘forever’ doesn’t always mean ‘forever’ in scripture. We can see that. But two uses of the very same Hebrew adjective set parallel with one another only a few words apart in Daniel present the universalist with the same interpretive conundrum as Jude’s New Testament use of aiōnios: You can’t very well make the one finite and the other infinite, no matter how much your theological system cries out for it. They very obviously describe two opposite fates of identical duration.”
To me that constitutes a complete refutation of universalism — unless, like the Sadducees, you are prepared to reject the concept of the eternal joys of heaven.

Like believers in purgatory, universalists construct their sentimental arguments first, then attempt to shoehorn scripture into supporting them. The biblical evidence simply is not there.

Second Chances

So, will people who reject the gospel in the present day get a second chance? It doesn’t seem to matter from which perspective you approach the question, the fact is that the arguments in favor of second chances require leaving behind the safe harbor of Bible-based arguments in order to make your case on the basis of theories and speculation.

The strategy of the writer to the Hebrews is much safer: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”


  1. Purgatory has previously of course come up quite a bit on this site so that the same standard arguments apply. As a Catholic I of course defer and refer to the Catholic scholars who would argue with you as in here:

    and here:

    On a personal level it is pretty immaterial to me since all Christians are brothers/sisters in Christ who can hope for being in the presence of God permanently at their appointed time. The only halfway serious consequence I see for you is that you may have to spent some extra time in there if it's for real since you so adamantly deny that it is factual :-). In any case, it always makes for an interesting discussion if everything else has dried up.

    1. If purgatory turns out to be the case, yes, I will definitely have to take my lumps.