Death: What Happens to Unbelievers?

Editor’s note: I realize it may seem odd to you that we are exploring the topic of evil and Satan the same month we look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Odd as it may be, it is actually quite relevant to the celebration of Jesus’ birth. He had to come into the world in order to defeat Satan (1 John 3:8). Without Christ’s death on the cross we would have no escape from the grip of Satan and would, because of our sinful state, spend eternity in hell. I mentioned this before, as Christians we are thankful that God has chosen us and has saved us. Amen! 

Death: What Happens to Unbelievers?


There are beliefs in the world which say there will be no eternal punishment for the wicked. There are even those who believe that all will receive the gift of salvation. But is this what the Bible says about life after death?

When it comes to the destiny of the unsaved there are three popular views. Eternal punishment holds that there is an “endless duration”[1] of punishment for “whoever rejects the Son” (John 3:36, NIV). Annihilationism believes that some or all of mankind will simply cease to exist after death. This may mean all of humankind, or only those who are not redeemed.[2] A third popular view is known as universalism, which states that “all men will eventually be reconciled to God”.[3]
While some may try to explain away what happens to our souls after death, there is no doubt that there is a place that our souls go after death. Upon death, all souls go to Sheol (Hebrew) or in the greek, Hades, which is an intermediate state, the grave. The wicked and righteous will be here after death (Gen. 37:35) but the righteous do not remain (Ps. 16:10; 49:15; 86:13). The ultimate destination of the wicked soul is Gehenna (Matt. 25:41; 2 Thess. 1:8). This is the “final and everlasting place of punishment for the wicked following the last judgment”.[4]
This author holds to the view of eternal punishment. The Bible is very clear sin will be

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punished (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 10:15; John 5:28-29; Rom. 5:12-21). It is also clear that those who do not “believe…Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31, ESV) their punishment is eternal (Matt. 25:46). In Matthew 25:46, Jesus states that the punishment of the wicked is eternal, as is the reward for the righteous. This word, “eternal,” conveys the idea of an “endless duration”[5] that is given to those who go into “punishment” and “life” (v. 46).
There are two common objections to the view that this author holds to. A universalist will use 1 Tim. 2:4 or 2 Pet. 3:9 to say that God wants all people to be saved. They will also use John 12:32 to say that Jesus’ death on the cross “will draw all people to [himself].” An annihilationist will use 1 Tim. 1:17 and 6:16 to say that only God has immortality, not man. 
To the universalist, this author would say it is important to understand that while God may “[desire] all people to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4), and while the benefits of the death of Christ on the cross are available to all who will believe (John 1:12), God has said, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Rom. 9:15 cf. Ex. 33:19).
To the annihilationist: Scripture is clear that upon death God will “give” (Rom. 2:7b) either eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46; John 5:29) or eternal life (Matt. 25:46; Rom. 2:7; 5:21). In other words: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:23, emphasis added).
Some may ask how a loving God can allow eternal punishment. The answer is simple: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16, 18). While God does choose to “[harden] whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18; [John 6:65]) all have the choice to receive eternal life if they make the decision to believe. This is how it can be said that it is “fair” for God to allow people to suffer in hell. Just as Eve and Adam chose to disobey God in the garden (Gen. 3:6), so is all of mankind responsible for choosing whether or not to believe in Christ.
When it comes to evangelism, the view of hell as a real place of eternal punishment must be emphasized. People try to downplay the existence, or severity, of hell because no one wants to believe that God would allow eternal punishment to take place. The reality, as shown above, is that God does allow it but that he also offers a “free gift of…eternal life” (Rom. 6:23) to those who believe. While this should not be the only part of an evangelistic conversation, it must be a part.
Points to Remember 


  • Sheol is Hebrew, Hades is Greek, for grave.

  • Gehenna is the ultimate destination of the wicked soul, the unbelieving.

  • While God may desire all to be saved, this is not in his plan. Those who reject him will suffer.

Questions to Promote Bible Study and Learning 


  • What are the three views concerning life after death? What do they believe? Of these three, which do you believe?

  • Who is present in Hades?

  • Is Gehenna eternal or temporary?

  • Do you think it is “fair” for people to suffer eternally for rejecting Christ? Why or why not? What Scripture supports your view?

  • How does your view of hell and eternal punishment effect your evangelism?




  • [1] – Morris, L.L. “Eternal Punishment.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 395.

  • [2] – Nicole, R. “Annihilationism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 64.

  • [3] – Root, J.R. “Universalism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 1232.

  • [4] – Cruz, V. “Gehenna.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 480.

  • [5] – Morris, L.L. “Eternal Punishment.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), 395.



  • Root, J.R. “Universalism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. 1232. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001.

  • Morris, L.L. “Eternal Punishment.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. 395. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001.

  • Nicole, R. “Annihilationism.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. 64. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001.

  • Cruz, V. “Gehenna.” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Elwell, A. Walter. 480. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001.

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4 thoughts on “Death: What Happens to Unbelievers?

  1. Aaron, I like very much your article on eternal punishment. I believe you have done a very nice job of showing how the Scripture holds two perspectives in tension: 1) divine sovereignty and 2) human responsibility. My sermon this Sunday will focus on the causes of the atonement as it relates to the incarnation. The answer is found in God’s character where it is his love and justice that are the cause of the atonement. Keep up the good faithful writing. Dad

  2. All my life, I have said that life isn’t “black and white,” that there is a gray are that many of us over look or take for granted. The thing about this topic, Heaven and Hell, at least in the context you have written in it and from a Biblical perspective, the topic of Heaven & Hell IS black and white.

    It seems pretty straight forward. For all those who believe, they will have eternal life and go to Heaven. For Non-believers, who have spent their life rejecting God, will suffer and burn in Hell.

    That’s the jist, but is it just?

    *Disclaimer*: Before I delve further, I am in no way thwarting or rejecting what you are saying, but I want to offer my “Incite.” 🙂

    It is a painful realization that people in my life who do not share or have a relationship with Christ or have faith and will probably suffer the consequences because of that. But this is true for a lot of us because it’s the result of living in a broken world that is consumed by sin.

    From scripture, we as believers are built and born to last, our souls are eternal and we will be granted eternal life.

    John 3:16:

    For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    Whoever BELIEVES will not perish, but have eternal life. And then when you look at this verse:

    Revelation 21:8

    But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.

    Scripture is very specific at who will burn in hell, but on some level, I feel that is only scratching the surface.

    From Scripture and good Biblicial Theology, no one will be in Hell who did not effectively choose it by either follownig in the footsteps of Adam (Old Nature) and preferring their own way of life (Free Will) instead of God’s (New Nature, by the Spirit). God at some point reveals Himself and His Will to everyone and everyone responds or rejects in their own way (Free Will).

    Romans 2:5-11:

    But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.

    Nonbelievers have universally made their choice to reject God and Hell is God giving people the result of their choice.

    The argument is of course if God is all loving, tender, kind, compassionate, that He wouldn’t allow any one to go to Hell, He’d save everyone (ie: Predestination. I love how these two topics go hand in hand). But, the truth is and this is probably a truth that many of us look over; A person’s escape from Hell is not dependent upon the love of God but upon the repentance and faith of each individual person.

    Do I think it’s fair? It doesn’t matter what I think, only God’s opinion matters. I am not God and I can’t judge others based on the way they choose to live their life. But I can be an example, I can be a voice and I can be a disciple. We all can. God knows everyone, He knows their heart. It’s sad reality that not everyone will go to Heaven due in part to their rejection of Christ, but we still have a mission here before we go to our real home in Heaven. We need to live by the example of Christ’s character and have His heart.

    Before I turned my life completely over to Christ, I rejected the belief in Heaven and Hell for the simple fact that in my heart I believed that no loving God would ever send a person to Hell. It seemed judgmental and went against His character. At least that is what was always embedded into my head by the wrong people. Until I started really reading the Word and understanding the morality and character of Christ, what we do in this life has no bearing on who He is, it has bearing on who we are through Him, in Him and because of what He did so we can have life.

    No one wants to hear, “If you don’t believe, you’re going to Hell.” It’s not something we want to think about because it’s the severe result of another person’s lack of faith (and admittedly, sometimes my own). But it is something we need to come to terms with at some point in our life, because our faith and our souls rely on that truth.

    It is my sincere hope that people will begin clinging to that truth, their souls depend on it.

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