That (Other) Dratted Verse...

As you may have noticed, in an earlier post I deliberately (and perhaps provocatively) stated that I didn’t believe that there was anything contained within the Recapitulation Theory of the atonement, nor within scripture, which contradicted the idea that people can repent post-mortem. I was well aware, whilst writing, that at least some of you were going to think:

‘But what about Hebrews 9:27? That clearly says that judgment comes after death. And judgment, for those who haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and saviour, means eternal punishment in hell, which means those people can’t repent.'

I was going to set in and write my own post about why and how Hebrews 9:27 is misinterpreted, and then I remembered that my good friend Tony Cutty also has a blog, and that he has written a very comprehensive exposition of this verse and its context. I asked if I could repost it here, instead of writing my own. It’s rather longer than the things I usually write, because Tony is much more thorough than me, so I have edited out all but the ‘essentials'! Nevertheless, I hope you find it enlightening and enjoy reading it. The full version of the post can be found here. Over to Tony:

Hebrews 9:27 (King James Version):

And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

That Other Dratted Verse…

[Author’s Note: This essay is about a verse in the ‘Letter to the Hebrews’. No-one is certain who wrote that Epistle, but for the sake of convenience I will here refer to the writer using the masculine pronouns ‘he/him’ and as the ‘writer’ rather than presuming either a name or a gender]

I once wrote a piece about a Bible verse that seems to cause more trouble than any other; the one ‘dratted verse’ found in 2 Timothy 3:16 where it supposedly says that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed…’ and about how that verse, or at least the modern-English translation of it, is used as the basis for the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, and thence used as a weapon by Christian religious zealots to beat people over the head. Of course. For more on that idea, please see the piece I wrote earlier.

I so wish that verse wasn’t in the Bible.

So, then, today’s journey into the mysterious world of misused Scripture texts takes us to the Letter to the Hebrews. Here, in Chapter 9 and verse 27, is found the Other Dratted Verse:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment… Hebrew 9:27-28

I so wish that verse wasn’t in the Bible, either.

And I’ll tell you for why.

It’s because the verse is regularly used by certain Christians as a proof-text – a Bible verse that supposedly proves a person’s point – for the doctrine that death is some sort of ‘deadline’ (pun not intended; I detest such things!) for fulfilling, well, whatever condition they want to impose on you.

Usually, the thing they are touting is that if a person does not ‘accept Christ’ [or other religious requirement of their choice] before they die, then it’s off to Hell with them, and of course they will naturally have to pay for their own handbasket. And because the verse in question, Hebrews 9:27, appears to support this idea, it has become virtually exclusively the verse used to ‘prove’ that doctrine; in fact I can’t think of another such verse. Like many doctrines, this whole idea tries to negate the concept of God being all-loving and all-merciful, and of course it also reinforces the Hell doctrines that I stand so vehemently against, because the inference is that at this ‘judgment’, everyone will be found guilty and end up going there – apart, of course, from the one preaching, and his denomination, because naturally they alone are the people who have received the ‘one true gospel’

So, you see, this verse has been used continuously, for some time now, as a high-pressure sales closing technique. Buy your salvation ticket now, folks, because tonight you might be dead and then it will be too late! I could rant about the rights and wrongs of such an approach, but I am a man of mercy and I will spare you. But still the fact remains that generations of pushy evangelists have misused this verse in this pressurising manner, presumably each of them picking up the technique from the ones they have watched and learned from.

And Hebrews 9:27 is the verse which is used as the proof-text to show that the moments just before death are actually a person’s ‘last chance’ before the opportunity closes. They need to ‘repent!’ by then, or else!

That’s why I wish this verse was not in the Bible!

But that stuff I have written above – is that really what the verse actually means? Or have those Christians simply read into the verse the things they want to see there, as happens so often with other ‘proof-texts’? And would it surprise you if they had?

What else could the verse possibly mean, though, if not the interpretation that we’ve always accepted? Well, we need to look a little closer at the context. If you read the sentence itself, it’s like, ‘Just as it is set for man to die once, and then face the judgement, so also …’ and so on. This shows that the phrase is being used as a comparison (as we will see below); it is not intended as a standalone proof that death is followed by some sort of judgment. The writer is not trying to show that death is the last chance to ‘comply’; he is simply setting up the next part of his argument.

Seeing this important point, then, the first thing we can note from Christianity’s abuse use of this verse is that the first stanza of the verse – the part that contains the point they want to emphasise – is the only part that is generally used. It’s very rare that the quote is continued into the concept it’s being compared to. I think it’s safe to say that most Christians probably can’t quote the rest of the verse as readily as they can the first part. But key to understanding this verse is the knowledge that the writer is using a Hebrew poetic device known as ‘synonymous parallelism’ where he compares two concepts in the same verse. To omit the second part of the verse, as they do when they only use the first part of the verse, is to fail to do the whole verse justice because we will miss the point its writer was originally intending to make. Worse than that, not only does it not do the verse justice, in fact, but also it demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the Scripture and its proper interpretation, which I am absolutely sure is intentional in some cases. Some people will do it from ignorance, sure, but for those who understand the proper exegesis of Biblical texts, they should not interpret that text in the way they have. To deliberately use the text in this way, when you know how to do proper exegesis, is simply dishonest plain and simple. It is extremely clear that the sentence structure is quite deliberate and it is perfectly apparent that ‘parallelism’ is definitely what the writer is doing. The part about dying once and facing judgment has neither meaning nor contextual relevance unless the writer’s argument is continued into the next stanza, so that he can finish what he was saying; the comparison is not complete without continuing the sentence. This should be obvious to any perceptive general reader because verse 27 begins with ‘For just as…’ implying that there’s something else to follow the sentence. So, for example, if I said, ‘Just as the sky is blue, so is the ocean’, then that carries meaning. If, however, I just said, ‘Just as the sky is blue…’ it wouldn’t mean anything. ‘Just as the sky is blue, what?’, would have to be our next logical question, because you expect that there will be a conclusion to the comparison. This is the same thing here. ‘Just as it is appointed….so….[something else]’. Now that makes more sense.

So now if you look at the local context, you should be able to see it:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.Hebrews 9:27-28

Do you see it? It’s quite obvious when it’s pointed out, isn’t it?

Taking this lack of completeness into account, then, we can see straight away is that the bit about ‘die once and then face judgement’ is actually not the main thrust of the writer’s argument. As already stated, he’s using it as a comparison; as an analogy or even an allegory if you like. He’s saying “Christ’s one-off sacrifice to take away the sins of many people is analoguous to when man dies once [as the quotation claims] and then faces judgment”. He then goes on, in Chapter 10, to expand on the idea of just what the analogy compares to, and all that stuff is really what this Scripture section is all about. The idea of death being a person’s ‘last chance’ is not in any way what is being presented in this context.

I hope that’s clear.

And there’s a fair bit more to it than that. Like, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but that idea about ‘die once and face judgment’ is found nowhere else in Scripture. In our verse in Hebrews 9:27, the writer is not quoting a Scripture passage when he makes this assertion. However, in other passages in the Epistle, where he is making a major point from a premise in his Scripture (to us, that would be what we call the Old Testament), it is obvious that he is quoting Scripture. That such a quotation is not apparent does not of itself mean that it is not a Scriptural idea, of course, but for us nowadays with powerful search tools, we can look and see for ourselves that it is not a text from anywhere else in the entire Bible, in either the Old or the New Testament.

So, if we take that whole context and non-Scriptural quote into account, we see that the verse cannot in fact be used to prove post-mortem punishment or judgement, because a) he’s not talking about this as a way proving it, and b) the context suggests that the phrase is probably an already commonly-accepted idea or some other premise (an ‘axiom‘), and that it is also extra-Biblical in origin – quoted from another source outside the Scripture – because it’s not as if the writer is quoting an Old Testament passage like he does in other parts of his letter. Or like Jesus does when he says ” ‘You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye…’ ” in Matthew 5:38, quoting Exodus 21:24. And so, the axiom is not Scripturally founded. Sure, it’s in the Scripture as we know it nowadays, but the writer’s argument is not presented as being from a Scriptural perspective from his point of view, like he does with other points in Hebrews. Maybe it’s folklore or something that he’s got the idea from. Maybe it’s a ‘they say that…[something is true]’. It could be anything. He might as well be quoting the song lyric, “All you need is Love”, for all the Scriptural precedent it has! This idea of ‘die once and then face judgment’ is nowhere near as powerful, nor as conclusive, nor as firmly quoted, as are his Scripture references. In fact, it’s almost as if he simply plucks the thing out of thin air! Where does that idea come from? It is not made clear, which suggests that the writer thinks its veracity unimportant from a doctrinal point of view – because it’s being used as a comparison, not as a doctrinal point.

And the fact that it is in the Bible as we know it today is not sufficient to make it an objective fact, given its context of being a quotation, and especially from an undefined source which was almost certainly not a source which was considered Scriptural when Hebrews was written, else the writer would have made that clear.

This all means, then, that for people to use Hebrews 9:27 as the sole proof-text that people face judgement immediately after death is nowhere near as straightforward nor as ironclad as they would like to claim. It is an accepted principle of doctrine formation that no major belief/doctrine should ever be founded on a single verse of Scripture, but, sadly, this is what seems to have happened here.

But even if it were true; even if just before death is, as they claim, the last chance a person has to ‘put things right with God’, or whatever other thing they’re trying to push on you, then you would expect it to fit with the entire arc of the Scriptural narrative. But it doesn’t.

[Tony makes many more good points, reinforcing the view that this ‘last chance’ narrative is fatally flawed - to read those, please see the full version on his blog.]

Conclusion: The arguments from this Bible verse ‘proving’ that idea are therefore a flawed premise. Hebrews 9:27 cannot be used as a watertight proof-text to show that human death is the point at which they have run out of time in order to respond to God (or, more usually, to those who claim to be His people). There is no fear in death, because Jesus has defeated it.

Wow! Now that’s good news!

Let me leave you with this beautiful piece of writing from John Spinks, in his superb book ‘Cult Escape‘:

“This perfect unconditional love [of God] does not have terms and conditions, stipulations, requirements, demands, obligations, prerequisites, boundaries, time-scales or laws to obey.

“To receive it, you just have to believe.

“No, not believe to get it, but believe to realise that it is and was already there, waiting patiently for you to open your door and allow it in.

“This is because this perfect unconditional love will not violate your will. It will not push your door down and force its way in. It will not roll its eyes in frustration and get annoyed with you when you refuse to accept its gentle knock on your door. It will not threaten to punish, hurt, or destroy you. There is no fear in this love, absolutely no fear whatsoever, not one iota of fear in fact. There is nothing to be scared of. There is no fear that one day this love will lose patience with you.

“There is no fear that it will ever run out of time. [Emphasis mine – TC]

“This is because it is eternal, it lasts forever, it never gives up, it never changes, and it never changes its unconditional nature. It never eventually introduces conditions. It never puts you under the remotest form of pressure to conform or obey. It does say follow but only in the meekest, humblest, gentlest of ways, so gentle, just like a still small voice, that if you are making a noise you might not even hear it.

“If man is making a big noise in your life by putting pressure on you, telling you that you are under law, giving you conditions to meet, placing boundaries around your life, expecting you to meet certain requirements, any requirements, tying you into terms and conditions, controlling any aspect of your lifestyle via rules, commanding you to follow him, teaching you that your identity is determined by your level of conformity to his latest dictates, demanding unswerving loyalty to whatever he tells you to believe…..

“…..then you are unlikely to hear the still, small, ever so gentle voice”.

– John Spinks, Cult Escape, Kindle Edition, location 2385

Grace and Peace to you

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022