The particular interpretation of Heb 9:27 for which I will be arguing below will likely be new to many, but it is not completely original. It was, in fact, first advanced in 1823 by Walter Balfour, a Scottish-born American universalist from whose books and magazine articles I’ve gleaned many insights over the years. While I’ve somewhat modified and expanded upon his initial argument (as well as attempted to show how v. 28 relates to v. 27), I am very much indebted to his initial thoughts on it. (I should also add that, if this particular view turns out to be erroneous, it’s by no means the only possible interpretation that is consistent with an “ultra-universalist” theology! )
“…it is appointed for men to die once, and after that judgment…”
What is the “judgment” (krisis) of which the author speaks here? First, it is important to note that there is no indication that this krisis involves anyone’s being punished after death, whether for an infinite or a finite duration of time. Nor is there any indication that it involves any kind of conscious experience whatsoever. And if this krisis takes place prior to the resurrection of the dead, then it most certainly doesn’t refer to this - for it cannot. From the opening chapters of the Bible we find that death is not an entrance into more life, but a termination of life. God’s complete silence concerning anything Adam and Eve would experience following their deaths strongly suggests that death would put an indefinite end to their conscious existence (Gen 3:16-19). This fact is consistent with what we are told elsewhere in the OT, where the dead are spoken of as being “no more” (Gen. 42:13, 36; Lam 5:7; Ps. 39:13; cf. Matt. 2:18).
We know that this was Job’s understanding of man’s condition after death. In chapter 3, Job laments:
“Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest. For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves, or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master.” Job 3:11-19
Similarly, in Job 14:10 the following question is asked: “Man breathes his last, and where is he?” There can be no doubt that Job’s question is spoken of all people without exception; thus, to answer this question is to know what happens to all at death. Fortunately, we do not have to search far for an answer to Job’s question, for he answers it himself in the next few verses: “As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep. Oh, that you would hide me in the grave [lit. [i]Sheol], that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, and that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me” (vv. 11-13). Here, Job reveals his understanding of where man is when he “breathes his last.” According to Job, he is in Sheol (i.e., the domain of death). Here, man is said to “sleep” in silence. It would appear from these verses that Job had no knowledge of a conscious existence for anyone immediately following death. Instead, Job’s hope for any kind of life after death was in a resurrection alone (cf. vv. 14-15).
Sharing a similar view regarding man’s state following death is Solomon, who declares, “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing. Their love and their hate and their envy have perished” (Eccl 9:5-6). He goes on to say (v.10), “There is no activity or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol.” That those who die lose all capacity to engage in any conscious, vital activity (of which worship was seen as the greatest) is also taught throughout the Psalms: “The dead do not praise the Lord, neither do any that go down into silence” (Ps. 115:17). “For in death there is no remembrance of you: in Sheol, who shall give you thanks?” (Ps. 6:5) “Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?” (Ps. 30:9) “Will you show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall your loving kindness be declared in Sheol, or your faithfulness in destruction? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Ps. 88:10-12; cf. Isa. 38:18-19)
Now, if the dead in Sheol “know nothing,” and are no longer engaged in any activity or thought, then it follows that they are no longer able to consciously experience “judgment” (at least, as long as they remain dead they’re not!). While it’s remotely possible that a judgment following the resurrection may be in view, it’s unlikely that this is what the author had in mind. Had that been the case, it would have been more appropriate for him to have said, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after the resurrection, judgment…” Moreover, the preposition translated “after” (meta) suggests that the judgment in view so closely follows death in sequence as to be nearly accompanying it (as opposed to a judgment taking place after a long and indefinite span of time, and then only after the dead have first been raised). So to what then does the krisis after death refer? Well, as the word krisis can denote a decisive or critical event or action (as our English word “crisis” means), given the close association of this krisis with man’s death we may understand it to simply refer to the decisive event by which man’s death is given the appearance of finality and permanence. And what event is that? Answer: the decay and decomposition of the human body. This inevitable process is so closely associated with death in Scripture that God represents it as the event by which Adam’s life of pain and toil under the sun would come to an end: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat your bread,till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).
In the OT, both death and Sheol (the state of the dead) are commonly associated with the corruption and destruction that follows death when man begins to return to the elements from which he was made (see Job 26:6; 28:22; Ps. 16:10; 49:9-20; 88:11; Prov. 15:11; 27:20). Using typical Hebrew parallelism, Job speaks of going down to “the bars of Sheol” and “descending into the dust” as being equivalent (Job 17:16). Job also refers to the sleep of the dead as being “in the dust” (Job 7:21). Psalm 30:9 describes those who are in Sheol (here referred to as “the pit”) as being “dust.” And as his death was quickly approaching, David told a young Solomon that he (i.e., David) was about to “go the way of all the earth” (1 Kings 2:2; cf. Josh 23:14). The fact that we must inevitably return to the elements from which we were made is a sobering thought for those contemplating death, and serves as a solemn and humbling reminder of our human frailty and utter dependency on the One who both created and sustains us: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goes forth, he returns to the earth; in that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:3-4). Here the Psalmist fully explains the verse under consideration: “It is appointed for men to die once (“his breath goes forth”) and after that, judgment (“he returns to the earth”).”
Significantly, it is this otherwise inevitable event (i.e., the bodily decomposition that follows death) that we are specifically told didn’t happen to Christ after he died. In Acts 2:31, the apostle Peter declared to his Jewish brethren that David “foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” Similarly, Paul exclaimed in Acts 13:36-37, “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, but he whom God raised up did not see corruption.” Just based on the fact that it was prophesied that the Messiah’s flesh would not “see corruption,” it would appear that bodily decomposition and decay was not something that was looked upon as a desirable thing by the Hebrew people - and the fact that Jesus was spared from this fate was likely seen as further evidence that he was God’s Anointed one.
So how does all of this tie in with the verse that immediately follows the one under consideration? Verse 27 is often quoted as if v. 28 were completely disconnected from it. But together they form a complete sentence: “And AS it is appointed (or “allotted”) for men to die once, and after that judgment, SO Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” But what is meant by Christ’s appearing “a second time?” First, the word here translated “appear” (optanomai optomai) need not refer to a literal, visible sight. That this is the case is evident from John 1:51, where Jesus tells Nathanael he would “see (optanomai optomai) heaven being opened, and the angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Similarly, in Matthew 26:64 (cf. Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69) it is unlikely that Jesus was telling the High Priest that he (i.e., the High Priest) would be looking out his window one day and see Jesus riding in on a cumulous cloud! Jesus is here referring to a vision from Daniel 7 concerning the Messiah, and the prophesied scene is set in Heaven’s throne room (thus, even if it did describe a literal scene, it’s not something people on earth could visibly observe). Second, the time at which this “appearance” of Christ was to take place likely corresponds to the “Day” that the original readers of this epistle (written circa AD 60-68) could, in their generation, “see drawing near” (Heb 10:25) - i.e., the overthrow of Jerusalem in AD 70. Thus, Christ’s appearing “a second time” would refer to his coming to establish the Messianic kingdom in the world before that first-century generation passed away (Matt 10:17-23; Matt. 16:27-28; Mark 8:38-9:1; Luke 21:20-32; cf. Luke 17:30-31). This was a promised kingdom which the believers to whom this epistle was addressed were apparently expecting to receive in their lifetime (Heb 12:25-29; 11:39-40; cf. 13:14). Moreover, we are told earlier in the epistle that the time in which they were living was “the last days” (Heb 1:2), as well as that Christ had appeared to put away sin “once for all at the end of the ages” (Heb 9:26) - which suggests that a new age (i.e., the age of the Messianic reign) was about to dawn at that time.
But what is the connection between v. 27 and v. 28? It is possible that the only point the author is making is simply that, just as certainly as man is appointed to die once and then return to the earth, so Christ would certainly appear a second time to “save those eagerly waiting for him” (understood in this way, the parallel being made would simply be between man’s one-time death and Christ’s one-time death). But I submit that there is more to it than a mere simple comparison. The terms here translated “as” (or “just as”) in v. 27 (kay hoson) can also be understood to mean “inasmuch as” (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown). The same expression occurs in Heb 3:3: “For this one has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as (kay hoson) he who built the house has more honor than the house.” Thus, understood in this sense, the expression would be pointing to the reason or occasion for which Christ appeared “a second time” to “save those who [were] eagerly waiting for him” - with that reason being the universally-known fact that “it is appointed for men to die once (his breath goes forth) and after that, judgment (he returns to the earth).”
It may initially appear strange to view this fact of human experience as being the reason for why Christ would “appear a second time.” But the larger context of Hebrews may help us appreciate what the author is saying. Back in chapter 2, we were told that the Messiah had to share in flesh and blood in order that, through death, he might “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the slanderer, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). From these verses we may infer that the salvation that Christ appeared a second time to bring those who were eagerly waiting for him was a deliverance from the fear of death (a fear that was only confirmed and accentuated by what inevitably followed death - i.e., our return to the dust!). Those who were converted to faith in Christ after his ascension to Heaven did not get the opportunity see Jesus in his resurrected state; consequently, their faith in the fact that Jesus had indeed “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1:10) was based solely on the testimony of others. But when Jesus’ prophetic words concerning the overthrow of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple came to pass before that generation passed away, it was viewed by the believers as Jesus himself appearing “a second time” to announce to the world his victory over death and the grave, and to proclaim his Lordship over both the living and the dead. In this way, Jesus’ coming at the end of the Jewish age was the ultimate source of hope and consolation for those who believed on him as the promised and risen Messiah, for it was (and continues to be for us today!!) a powerful and permanent reminder that death, the last enemy, will ultimately be destroyed.