When people gather in churches after a disaster, they come to hear words of comfort, encouragement and hope. Yet, try as they might to bring hope to a grieving people, some Christian leaders unwittingly proclaim a message that amounts to despair, hopelessness and fear for people whose loved ones died without having first professed faith in Jesus Christ.
Many Christians are convinced that everyone who did not profess Christ before death, even those who never so much as heard of Christ, are now in hell, being tortured by God—the God the same Christians ironically proclaim as compassionate, merciful, loving and full of grace. “God loves you,” some of us Christians seem to be saying, but then comes the fine print: “If you don’t say the sinner’s prayer before you die, then my merciful Savior will torture you forever.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. It remains forever, good news, the best news imaginable, for absolutely everybody and everything. It is not merely good news for the few who came to know Christ before they died; it is good news for the whole of creation—even for all who died before they ever heard of Christ.
Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice not merely for the sins of Christians but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). The Creator is also the Redeemer of his creation (Colossians 1:15-20). Whether people know that truth before they die is not the thing that determines whether it is true. It depends entirely on Jesus Christ, not on human action or human response of any kind.
Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version in this article). It is God who loved the world and God who gave his Son, and he gave him to save what he loved—the world. Whoever believes in the Son whom God sent will enter into eternal life (better translated “the life of the age to come”).
The verse does not say that belief has to come prior to death. In fact, it says that believers will not perish, and since even believers die, it is obvious that “perish” and “die” are not the same thing. Belief keeps people from perishing, but it does not keep them from dying. The kind of perishing that Jesus is talking about here, translated from the Greek word apoletai, is a spiritual death, not a physical one. It has to do with utter destruction, with being abolished, put an end to, or ruined. Those who believe in Jesus will not come to such a final end, but will, instead, enter into the life (zoe) of the age to come (aeonion).
Some enter into the life of the age to come, or kingdom life, while they still live and walk on the earth, but in the grand scheme of things, this happens to only a small percentage of those who make up the “world” (or “kosmos”) that God loves so much that he sent his Son to save it. What about the rest? This verse does not say that God cannot or won’t bring to faith any of those who die physically before believing.
The idea that death is a barrier to God’s ability to save, or to his ability to bring a person to faith in Christ, is a human interpretation; the Bible states no such thing. We are told that everyone dies, and then they are judged (Hebrews 9:27). But let us remember that their Judge, thank God, is none other than Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb of God who died for their sins—and that changes everything.
Creator and Redeemer
Where do people get this notion that God is only able to save live people and not dead ones? He conquered death, didn’t he? He rose from the dead, didn’t he? God doesn’t hate the world; he loves it. He didn’t create humanity for hell. Christ came to save the world, not to condemn it (John 3:17).
One Christian teacher (and probably many others as well) said that God is perfect in hate as well as perfect in love, which accounts for why there is a hell as well as a heaven. He went on to explain how dualism (the idea that good and evil are equal and opposite forces in the universe) is a false doctrine. But doesn’t he realize he posited a dualistic God with his explanation of God holding in tension perfect hate and perfect love?
God is absolutely just, and all sinners are judged and condemned, but the gospel, the good news, lets us in on the mystery that in Christ, God took that very sin and its judgment on himself for our sakes! Hell is real and horrible. But it is precisely that hell, the hideous hell reserved for the ungodly, that Jesus bore in humanity’s stead (2 Corinthians 5:21; Matthew 27:46; Galatians 3:13).
All humans are under condemnation because of sin, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ (Romans 6:23). That’s why it is called grace. In Romans 5:15, Paul puts it like this:
The free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass [this “many” refers to everybody; there is no one who doesn’t bear Adam’s guilt], much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many [the same “many”—absolutely everybody]. (Romans 5:15)
Paul is saying that as bad as our condemnation for sin is—and it is bad (it deserves hell)—it can’t even hold a candle to the grace and the free gift in Christ. God’s word of reconciliation in Christ is incredibly louder than his word of condemnation in Adam—the one completely eclipses the other (“much more surely”). That is why Paul can tell us in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “in Christ God was reconciling the world [that’s everybody, the “many” of Romans 5:15] to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
So, then, what about the family and friends of those who die without having professed faith in Christ? Does the gospel offer them any hope and encouragement about the fate of their dead loved ones? Indeed, the Gospel of John records Jesus declaring, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). That’s good news, the gospel truth. Jesus didn’t lay out a timetable, but he said that he would draw everybody to himself, not just a few who find out who he is before they die, but absolutely everybody.
Then it is no wonder that Paul wrote to the Christians in the city of Colossae that in Jesus Christ, God was pleased, pleased, mind you, to “reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20). That’s good news. It is, like Jesus said, good news for the whole world, not just for the limited few.
Paul wanted his readers to know that this Jesus, this Son of God raised from the dead, is not just some exciting leader of a new and improved religious concept. Paul is telling them that Jesus is none other than the Creator and Sustainer of all things (verses 16-17), and more than that, he is God’s way of fixing everything that has gone wrong with the world from the beginning of history (verse 20)! In Christ, Paul was saying, God has moved once and for all to make good on all his promises that he made to Israel—promises that he would one day act in pure grace to forgive all sins everywhere and make everything new (see Acts 13:32-33; 3:20-21; Isaiah 43:19; Revelation 21:5; Romans 8:19-21).
Only for Christians
“But salvation is only for Christians,” some people howl. Yes, of course it is. But who are “the Christians”? Are they only the people who repeat the sinner’s prayer? Are they only those who are baptized by immersion? Only those who belong to the “true” church? Only those who are absolved by a duly ordained priest? Only those who have ceased sinning? Only those who come to know Jesus before they die?
Or does Jesus himself, the one into whose nail-pierced hands God has given all judgment, decide who is and is not ultimately to be included among those upon whom he will have mercy? And while he is at it, does he, the one who conquered death and gives eternal life to whomever he wants, decide when he might bring a person to faith, or do we, the all-wise defenders of the true religion, make that determination for him?
Every Christian became a Christian at some point, that is, was brought to faith by the Holy Spirit. But the common assumption seems to suggest, however, that it is impossible for God to bring a person to faith after that person has died. But hold on, Jesus is the one who raises the dead, and he is the one who is the atoning sacrifice, not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
“But the parable of Lazarus,” someone will argue. “Abraham says that there is a chasm fixed between his side and the rich man’s side” (see Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus did not give this parable as a textbook on the afterlife. After all, how many Christians would want to describe heaven as “Abraham’s bosom” with Jesus nowhere in sight? The parable was a message to the members of the first-century Jewish privileged class who rejected their Messiah, not a portrait of the resurrection life. Before we take that further than Christ intended, remember what Paul wrote in Romans 11:32.
In the parable, the rich man was unrepentant. He still saw himself as Lazarus’ superior. He still saw Lazarus as existing only to serve his personal needs. Maybe it is not unreasonable to think that the rich man’s persistent unbelief is what kept the gulf fixed, not some arbitrary cosmic necessity. Remember, Jesus himself bridges the otherwise impassable chasm from our sinful condition to reconciliation with God. Jesus underscores this point, the point of the parable—that salvation comes only through faith in him—when he says, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
God is in the business of saving people, not torturing them. Jesus is Redeemer, and whether we believe it or not, he is awfully good at what he does. He is the Savior of the world (John 3:17), not the Savior of a fraction of the world. “God so loved the world” (verse 16)—not merely 20 percent.
God has ways, and his ways are higher than our ways. Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43). Surely we believe he loves his own enemies. (Or do we believe that Jesus hates his enemies while he calls on us to love ours, as if we are supposed to be more righteous than he is, and that his hatred accounts for why there is a hell?) Jesus asks us to love our enemies precisely because he loves them. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” Jesus prayed of those who murdered him (Luke 23:34).
Those who continue to refuse Jesus’ grace even after they understand it receive the fruit of their own stupidity. There is no place left for people who refuse to enter the Lamb’s banquet, except outer darkness (another of the metaphors Jesus used to describe the state of alienation from God; see Matthew 22:13; 25:30).
Mercy to all
Paul makes the amazing assertion in Romans 11:32 that God “has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” The Greek words here mean all, not some, but all. Everyone is disobedient, and in Christ the same everyone is shown mercy—whether they like it or not; whether they take it or not; whether they know it before they die or not.
What can you say to such a marvelous thing, but what Paul says in the next verses:
O, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (verses 33-36)
It seems that his ways are so unfathomable that many of us Christians simply cannot believe that the gospel can be that good. Some of us think we know the mind of God so well that we just know that everybody goes straight to hell if they aren’t Christians yet when they die. But Paul’s point is that the extent of God’s mercy is beyond our understanding—a mystery revealed only in Christ: God has done something in Jesus Christ that nobody would ever have guessed in a million years.
In his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul says that this is what God had in mind all along (Ephesians 1:9-10). It was the whole point of God’s calling of Abraham, of his choosing of Israel and David, and of the covenants (Ephesians 3:5-6). God is saving even the aliens and strangers (2:12). He is saving the ungodly (Romans 5:6). He really does draw all people to himself (John 12:32). The Son of God has been at work underneath all of history from the very beginning, bringing about the redemption, the reconciliation of all things to God (Colossians 1:15-20). God’s grace has a logic all its own, a logic that often seems illogical to religious-minded people.
Only path to salvation
Jesus Christ is the only path to salvation, and he draws everybody to himself—in his way, in his time. There isn’t anywhere in the universe except in Christ, since as Paul said, nothing exists that isn’t created by him and upheld by him (Colossians 1:15-17). Those who finally reject him do so in spite of his love; it’s not that he refuses them (he doesn’t—he loves them, died for them and forgave them), but that they refuse him. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says, in the end, “THY will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek, find. To those who knock, it is opened. (The Great Divorce, chapter 9)
Heroes in hell?
As I listened to Christians preach about the meaning of September 11, 2001, I thought of the firefighters and police officers who sacrificed their lives trying to rescue victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. How can Christians call these people heroes and applaud their self-sacrifice on one hand, but on the other hand declare that unless they confessed Christ before they expired, they are being tortured in hell? Their good works cannot save them, but Christ can.
The gospel declares that there is hope for those who died in the World Trade Center without yet having professed Christ. They will encounter the risen Lord on the other side of death, and he is the Judge—the one with nail marks in his hands—eternally ready to embrace and receive all his creatures who will come to him. He forgave them before they were born (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 5:6, 10). That part is done, just as it was done for us who believe now.
All that remains for them now is to throw down their crowns before him and receive his gift. Maybe some won’t. Maybe some are so committed to loving themselves and hating others that they will see their risen Lord as their archenemy. That would be a shame — no, more than that; it’s a disaster of cosmic proportions, because he’s not their archenemy. Because he loves them anyway. Because he would gather them into his arms like a hen gathers her chicks, if they would only let him (cf. Luke 13:34).
It is safe to say, if you believe passages like Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10, that by far most of the people who died in that attack will jump into Jesus’ forgiving and merciful arms like a puppy runs to its mother at mealtime.
“Jesus saves,” Christians put on their posters and bumper stickers. It’s true. He does. He is the author and finisher of salvation, the beginning and goal of all creation — including all dead people. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, Jesus said. Rather, he sent his Son into the world to save it (John 3:16-17).
Regardless of what some people say, God is out to save everybody (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9), not just a few. And guess what? He never gives up. He never stops loving. He never stops being who he is, was, and will always be for humanity—their Creator and their Redeemer. Nobody falls through the cracks.
Nobody was created for the purpose of sending to hell. If anybody winds up in hell—the tiny, meaningless, dark, nowhere corner of the eternal kingdom—then what causes them to stay there will be nothing but their own stubborn refusal to receive the grace God has for them. It will not be because God hates them, because he doesn’t. It will not be because God is vindictive, because he isn’t. It will be because 1) they hate the kingdom of God and refuse his grace, and 2) God won’t let them spoil the fun for everybody else.
The gospel is a message of hope for absolutely everybody. Christian preachers don’t have to resort to threats of hell to coerce people to turn to Christ. They can proclaim the truth, the good news:
God loves you. He isn’t mad at you. Jesus died for you because you’re a sinner, and God loves you so much he has saved you from everything that is destroying you. So why should you keep on living as though this dangerous, cruel, unpredictable and unforgiving world is all you’ve got? Why don’t you come and start experiencing God’s love and enjoying the blessings of his kingdom? You already belong to him. He’s already paid for your sins. What are you waiting for? He’ll turn your sorrow into joy. He’ll give you peace of heart like you’ve never known. He’ll bring meaning and purpose to your life. He’ll help you improve your relationships. He’ll give you rest. Trust him. He’s waiting for you.
This message is so good that it bubbles out of us. Paul wrote in Romans 5:10-11: “If while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Talk about hope! Talk about grace! Through Christ’s death, God reconciles his enemies, and through Christ’s life, he saves them. No wonder we can boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ—we are already experiencing in him what we are telling others about. They don’t have to keep on living like they have no place at God’s table; he’s already reconciled them, they can come on home. Christ saves sinners. It really is good news. It’s the best news anybody can hear.