This is a common question about when a person passes away “Are they in heaven or hell”?
Such questions are especially common right after a celebrity or other famous figure passes away, but we also get similar questions from those wondering about a deceased friend or relative. Scripture gives good reason for us to be careful when making assertions about a specific person’s eternal destiny.
In truth, it’s usually impossible to say for certain what relationship another person has with God.
We cannot see the heart, but God can (1 Samuel 16:7).
Neither do we possess the ability to peer into heaven or hell.
Human beings simply aren’t equipped to come to an infallible conclusion about whether someone is in heaven or hell.
For this reason, the sensible thing is to refers such questions back to a basic understanding of the gospel.
A better question than “is so-and-so in heaven or hell?” is “was so-and-so’s life consistent with saving faith in Christ?”
Lives clearly fall on one side or the other of that criterion.
Yet, according to the Bible, it’s possible to “put on a show” and still be lost (Matthew 7:21–23). And it’s possible to struggle to apply one’s faith and still be saved (Matthew 21:31). Only God truly knows what goes on in the heart, even when that person seems beyond hope.
Rather than make a definitive claim with respect to an individual’s eternal destiny, our preference is to point to what the Bible says about those who trust in Christ and allow others to form an opinion of their own.
Realistically, the best we can do is say that someone who has passed away is “probably saved” or “probably not saved.”
Those who publicly profess faith in Christ and whose lives seem consistent with that profession would be on the “probably saved” side of the spectrum. When a person’s words and actions give evidence of faith in Christ, then it’s reasonable to assume that he will be with God when he passes.
This conclusion is tempered by the fact that externals are not what actually matter; it’s possible for pious behavior to mask a lost soul (Matthew 23:26–28).
Those who overtly reject Christ would be on the “probably unsaved” end of the scale. Those who make it clear by their words and actions that they reject the gospel give others reason to think they’ll be lost when they pass.
At the same time, God can save anyone, no matter how close to death they are (Matthew 20:1–16; Luke 23:43), and we don’t know what may happen in the secrecy of a person’s heart in the last moments before his death. Also, there are those who may struggle with habitual sin despite having legitimate faith.
One’s public persona, especially for celebrities, is often not the same as one’s private life. This dichotomy can make it virtually impossible to say what a public figure’s real views on faith and spirituality were. Even if we can make an educated guess, that assumption has to be kept in perspective.
Ultimately, the gospel is the only hope for any of us after this life. Regardless of whether some particular deceased person is in heaven, our personal need for Christ remains. We can confidently say that in Christ there is salvation (John 6:27).
If a person accepts the gospel and is born again, he will be with God after death.