Q: Dear Pastor, why can't God forgive someone of their sins after they die?
A: If you knew what you were really asking, you would realize how your question crushes God’s heart. Because the question is seeded with the idea that people should have the freedom to completely ignore God as they live, then be forgiven on principle after they die. In other words, we should have all the benefits of the prodigal son and a big party at the end of the day, even though we never came to our senses and loved God at all during our lifetime. (Luke 12) That question is seeking permission for people to ignore their responsibility for the here and now.
The idea of being saved; accepting Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness while we are alive, means that we admit we need God. But that free-gift of rescue has an important component attached: God wants to know you. He didn’t save you just to add another notch on his belt or a trophy on his shelf. He saved you because he loves his creation (you) and longs to interact with you; have talks and walks; moments of intimacy and revelation; relationship of the deepest kind. God loves us so much that he sent Jesus here for thirty-three years so he could thoroughly relate to our human struggle; absorb all the ways we need his grace; give out all of himself that he could; and then die in our place so we could join him again after we die. If we believe or even imagine there’s no need to confess our sins, we’re suggesting that Jesus’ earthly season was a waste of time—that he didn’t need to come and die after all since we’ll be automatically forgiven anyway.
“Well,” you say, “God can be my friend anytime! I’d love to know God! What does that have to do with asking for forgiveness?”
He is holy, that’s what. And we’re not. He’s holy like we cannot imagine: perfect, supreme, unsoiled, unblemished, without flaws or mistakes, pristine. We are not in the same league as God when it comes to holiness because we stink with the filth of this world. We must confess and repent (be cleansed) of our sin in order for God to come near to us. “For all of us have become like one who is unclean; and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; and all of us wither like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6, NASB.) God longs for our friendship, but he is not like us and he can’t be. We’re the ones who must approach him, the holy King, and he asks that we do it a certain way.
Your question also suggests the idea that God somehow isn’t able to accomplish post-death forgiveness—that there are limits to his abilities. Wrong. Hebrews 1:3 says, “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power...” The Apostle Paul is speaking about Jesus in this passage, making it clear that everything, “all things,” are upheld by his power. There are no limits to what God can do (Matthew 19:26.) He is omnipotent. All powerful. God set up a system to forgive us here and now, not afterward, and that’s the way it is. We honor God’s system out of our love and respect for him. We don’t tell God how to run his system or decide it isn’t fair, as if we could advise him of a better way of doing things.
Jesus addressed this topic by saying, “Now, He is not the God of the dead but of the living...” (Luke 20:38.) The Savior tells us our business with God is accomplished while our heart beats and our lungs breathe air. Once they cease to function, we die. Once dead; our history, our track record and our earthly story ends. We then begin another kind of life, an eternal one with him that is determined by how we lived. I urge you to take time to know him and live well.
Adrienne Greene pastors two Christian churches in southeastern Indiana. Do you have a question or comment for Pastor Adrienne? Please send your inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O. Box 214, Harrison, OH 45030.