Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
When Unbelievers Die
But I will show you whom you should fear: fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him! Luke 12:5 NKJ
Question 86 of the Larger Catechism, asks, "What is the communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death?" It gives the answer, "The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls. Whereas the souls of the wicked are at their death cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, and their bodies kept in their graves, as in their prisons, till the resurrection and judgment of the great day." Last week we saw what happens to believers after death. Today we consider where the wicked go the moment they die.
As we noticed last time, although question 86 of the Catechism asks only about the afterlife of true believers, its answer contrasts that state with the condition of the wicked when they die. Remember, we are not here talking about the final state of human beings, which shall commence when Christ returns and fully establishes His kingdom, raises the dead, and judges all flesh. Rather we are considering the condition of men from the moment they die until Christ's second coming, or what is usually referred to as the intermediate state. Thus, the specific scope of our question does not speak to the totality of life after death unto all eternity, but only addresses what happens to the soul from the moment of death until Judgment Day.
Here we notice that the Scriptures teach that the souls of both believers and unbelievers continue to exist and retain consciousness after they are separated from their bodies by the phenomenon that we call death. The Westminster Confession explicitly rejects the doctrine of soul sleep in chapter 32.1. When a person dies his conscious and aware soul immediately goes either to heaven or to hell, for there are no other places for departed souls acknowledged by the Scriptures. Consequently, in Luke 16, "Abraham's bosom" is heaven, and the rich man is in hell. Likewise, the "Paradise" that Jesus mentions on the cross in Luke 23:43 is clearly another name for heaven, as Paul makes clear in 2 Cor. 12:2-4, where he relates being caught up to highest heaven (the third heaven) "into Paradise."
As the Scripture at the head of this article also indicates, immediately after death the wicked are cast into hell. By "the wicked" the Catechism refers to all those people who die in their sins, not having believed in Jesus Christ and repented at any point in their lifetimes. Now, upon their deaths, it is too late to repent and believe. The day of salvation is over for them. The season of grace has ended. It has happened to them according to the Word of the Lord in Jeremiah, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved!" (Jer. 8:20). The Catechism describes hell as a place of torments and utter darkness. The torment is the wrath of God that is due to them on account of their sins. No one in hell ever receives an ounce more punishment than they deserve. The darkness is utter in that there is no hope, no mercy, not the slightest bit of comfort from the pleasurable countenance of God. It may surprise you to consider it, but God is present in hell just as surely as He is present in heaven (Ps. 139:8). In fact, it is God's presence in His anger, displeasure, and wrath that makes hell, hell. The wicked do not experience the absence of God as is sometimes suggested. The book of Revelation teaches that they will cry out "to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!'" (Rev. 6:16). The wicked in hell would give anything to find a place where they can hide from the punishing gaze of God but there will be none. But this is not all. Even as departed believers, who are with the Lord, have greater joys to look forward to when they will be given new bodies with which to enjoy the pleasures of heaven, so the wicked will one day be cast body and soul into hell where their torments will forever be physical as well as spiritual. May the truth of the doctrine of hell be used by God to our everlasting good that we would, as the Scripture at the head of this article commands, "Fear Him who has power to cast into hell; yes," Jesus says unto us, "fear him!