Those Who Died Without Knowing Jesus Christ
Death does not discriminate. The righteous and sinners all die. Jesus used two widely known tragedies of His day to acknowledge that death can be arbitrary and to draw an important lesson from it:
"There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all the other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish'" (Luke 13:1-5).
The details are unclear. Apparently some Jews were viciously slaughtered by Roman soldiers during a religious ceremony at the temple in Jerusalem. On another occasion a tower collapsed, killing some. Both incidents are examples of the random deaths of innocent people. Jesus says these people weren't any worse than others. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Similar events are all around us. We're especially disturbed when children's lives are cut short by accidents, crime or illness. We shake our heads in bewilderment when an airplane crashes, a house burns, a bomb shatters a shopping center, business or school. Victims of these tragedies were in the wrong place at the wrong time; God didn't single them out for punishment. As Solomon explained, we are all subject to the uncertainties of time and chance (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12).
Are life and death arbitrary?
In the previous chapters we discovered that God has a tremendous purpose for our temporary, physical existence: It prepares us for the eternal, spiritual life He wants to give us. Those who in this age believe in Jesus Christ and demonstrate their commitment by the way they live will receive the gift of eternal life in a resurrection that takes place as He returns to earth.
In the example we just considered, Jesus made the point (in Luke 13:3-5) that life and death are aimless unless we repent and seek the Kingdom. But what about all those who lived, did their best and died without the opportunity to make those choices and commitments? Were their lives and deaths random, without purpose? Is there no hope or promise for them? Will they not be given an equal opportunity to receive the gift of eternal life?
Scriptures include many assurances that God is serious about His promises. Peter says that God's will is that everyone will eventually repent: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). This verse assures us that God will not fail. It also implies that some were thinking that God was unconcerned and inconsistent.
Not all are called now to salvation
At times Jesus' disciples were confused and frustrated because of His teaching methods. They asked Him why He spoke to other people in parables instead of being more direct. He told them why: "Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (Matthew 13:11).
Jesus then quoted from a prophecy in Isaiah that predicted that people would have closed minds, not able to accept His teachings or understand who He was. Then He explained, "But blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear" (verse 16). We can see here a difference between the disciples, who at this point had at least some faith and understanding, and the mass of people who had neither.
The people in Jesus' time frequently tried to determine exactly who He was. Was He just a rabbi? Was He the prophesied Elijah or John the Baptist? Was He a fraud, a false messiah? Was He the one true Messiah?
At one point Jesus asked the disciples who they thought He was. "And Peter answered and said, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.' Jesus answered and said to him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven'" (Matthew 16:15-17).
God must grant understanding
Jesus taught His disciples that God must grant spiritual insight. No one can come to Jesus unless God the Father "draws him" (John 6:44).
God originally worked with the nation of Israel, establishing a relationship with the Israelites through the Old Covenant. But as a nation they continually violated that covenant and finally rejected Christ Himself. Since His own people rejected Him, the promises of the New Covenant, which Jesus came to establish, were now extended to people of all nations.
Paul had this in mind when he addressed both the religious Jews (a segment of the people of Israel) and the gentiles in his letter to the church in Rome. In Romans 11:8 Paul paraphrased Isaiah 29:10: "God has given them [Israel] a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that they should not hear, to this very day."
Paul was explaining that even the majority of the people of Israel remain spiritually blinded (Romans 11:7). In Ephesians 4:17-18 Paul shows that the gentiles equally share in this near-universal spiritual blindness.
Paul cited another Old Testament precedent (Romans 11:2-4). The faithful prophet Elijah thought he was the only man alive who had not been seduced into the worship of the false god Baal. But God revealed to Elijah that He had also preserved others who remained faithful to Him. Paul drew an important lesson from this example: "Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace" (verse 5).
A remnant is just a trace, a remaining vestige. And the "election" Paul mentioned refers only to a relatively small part of mankind. Clearly, God has revealed that He will call only a few to salvation in this age. Notice how Jesus explains this: "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14).
God doesn't take this approach so He can exclude most of mankind from His promises. In fact, God has chosen this method to extend His promises to all. "For God has committed them all to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all" (Romans 11:32).
Paul acknowledged that this method may seem illogical at first glance, but in His wisdom God knows exactly what He is doing. Our place is not to advise God on how He should accomplish His plan:
"Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! 'For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor? Or who has first given to Him and it shall be repaid to him?' For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever" (Romans 11:33-36).
A judgment to come
Because God created life, He has the authority to take and restore life. He has the power to provide the opportunity for salvation in an age yet to come.
Consider again a scripture cited near the end of the preceding chapter. "I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection" (Revelation 20:4-5, NIV).
John is writing here of the same resurrection that Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4, calling it the "first" resurrection. Since it is called the first and not just "the" resurrection, at least one more resurrection must follow. He also states that the rest of the dead will live again after the 1,000 years.
Let's consider what those in the first resurrection will be doing during this 1,000-year period (commonly called the Millennium, Latin for "thousand years").
Physical restoration follows Jesus' return
Daniel 7 gives a prophetic overview of mankind's history. Daniel briefly describes a series of great empires (Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome) that would dominate the Middle East from Daniel's time forward. Those powers are represented respectively by a lion, bear, leopard and "dreadful and terrible" beast.
Finally, Christ will return and set up God's everlasting Kingdom, which will never be usurped. "I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed" (Daniel 7:13-14).
The prophecy continues: "Those great beasts, which are four, are four kings which arise out of the earth. 'But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever'" (verses 17-18).
Christ brings restoration
Jesus Christ will return to earth with power and authority. He will establish God's Kingdom. The "saints of the Most High"—the people resurrected at His return—will reign with Jesus over the earth. Assisted by those resurrected to eternal life at His return, Christ will fill the earth with the knowledge of God "as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
The apostles taught that Jesus will return and reestablish the nation of Israel. At that time He will also offer the gift of salvation and eternal life to all of mankind. Said the apostle James: "And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written: 'After this I will return and will rebuild the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up; so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD, even all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord who does all these things'" (Acts 15:15-17).
James here quotes the Old Testament prophet Amos, who then describes the conditions that will be extant after Jesus reestablishes the nation of Israel ("the tabernacle of David").
The following passage includes the verses James cited in Acts 15. The original context concerns the physical restoration of the world after Jesus returns:
"'On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; that they may possess the remnant of Edom, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name,' says the LORD who does this thing. 'Behold, the days are coming,' says the LORD, 'when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,' says the LORD your God" (Amos 9:11-15).
In poetic language Amos describes the prosperity and peace that the nations will enjoy after Jesus returns.
Spiritual restoration follows Jesus' return
As appealing and satisfying as physical blessings are, God is working out a far greater purpose. Everything physical is temporary, including the physical prosperity of the Millennium and even human life. God has much more to offer than just a comfortable physical life.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks not just of a physical restoration (Jeremiah 31:1-4), but of the spiritual restoration that Jesus Christ will also accomplish when He returns: "Behold, the days are coming says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah-not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts: and I will be their God, and they shall be My people" (verses 31-33).
Remember James' words in Acts 15. Speaking of the physical nation of Israel, he says God promises to "rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, so that the rest of mankind may seek the LORD" (verse 17). This physical and spiritual restoration will spread from Israel and Judah to the rest of the world. God plans to use those nations to extend His promises to all mankind (Galatians 3:26-29).
The spiritual restoration is the most important work Jesus Christ will accomplish at this time, offering the gift of salvation to everyone. No more will worldly politics confuse people, because Jesus will rule over all the nations (Revelation 19:10; Daniel 7). No more will religious confusion be found on the earth, because at that time God will open the minds of all people and draw them to Jesus Christ (Ezekiel 36:26-27; Isaiah 11:9; Joel 2:27-28).
This is where those in the first resurrection play a vital part in God's plan. Those resurrected immediately at Christ's return will reign with Him on the earth, assisting in the teaching of God's truth to humanity (Revelation 5:10; 20:6).
Those who never really knew God
So far we've seen that salvation is offered to some people even before Jesus' return. We've also seen that after Jesus returns He will offer salvation to mankind in general.
But what about all those who died and were never called to salvation? This group represents the majority of all people who have ever lived. What is their eternal fate?
John said those not resurrected at the time of Jesus' return ("the rest of the dead") will live again at the end of the Millennium: "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (Revelation 20:5).
A few verses later comes a further description of the scene of this resurrection: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades [the grave] delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works" (Revelation 20:11-13).
Jesus spoke of a future time of judgment when all will understand His teachings. He described a time during which people from all generations will live and be judged at the same time: "Then He began to upbraid the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 'Woe to you Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you'" (Matthew 11:20-24).
In similar examples, Jesus refers to the long-dead people of Nineveh, to the queen of the south of Solomon's time and even to ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, the epitome of wickedness (Matthew 10:14-15; 12:41-42). He doesn't tolerate perversion and sinfulness, but He has not finished working in their lives. The people from those generations lived and died without having the opportunity to learn of God and His plan to offer the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.
Jesus described a time during which people from all past ages will live at the same time. Together they will come to understand the truth about who Christ was and the purpose of life. Those from different generations will find it remarkable that the people of Jesus' time rejected Him.
Prophecy of resurrection
From the prophet Ezekiel we learn that those who are part of this resurrection are again restored to physical life. In chapter 37 Ezekiel sees a vision concerning this astonishing future event-a resurrection in a valley of ancient bones (verses 1-7).
He watched as the dry bones appeared to reassemble themselves into skeletons, then were covered with flesh and stood as a great multitude of resurrected people (verses 8-10). The context reveals that these people will be resurrected to physical, mortal life. Their bodies are of flesh, covered with skin. They must breathe to live. God will bring them out of their graves to place His Spirit in them (verses 12-14).
At the end of the Millennium (the first 1,000 years of Jesus' eternal reign), all who have not yet been accounted for in previous steps of God's plan will stand before Him. For the first time in their lives they will correctly understand God's Word, the teachings of the Bible. God will offer them the opportunity to receive eternal life ("And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life," Revelation 20:12; see also Philippians 4:3). They, like each previous generation, will be judged by their works.
The basis for judgment
What does it mean to be judged? Will people be immediately rewarded or condemned at the time of their resurrection based on what they had done in life before their resurrection?
Judgment is more than the final decision to reward or condemn. Judgment is a process that takes place over time and ultimately culminates in a final decision.
The principle of judgment is illustrated in other scriptures. When Jesus returns He will reward each according to His works (Matthew 16:27), the positive fruits that result from an accumulated attitude and character developed over time. People of previous generations who by this time have received the gift of eternal life will have been judged according to their works. Many scriptures describe the results God is looking for in our lives (Romans 12; Colossians 3-4, Ephesians 4-6; James 2:20-24; Revelation 22:14).
God is concerned with our hearts, our innermost thoughts and motivation. He looks upon the heart, seeing what we are really like (1 Samuel 16:7). God expects us to emulate Jesus Christ in all we think and do (Philippians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:21). Someone who is Christlike is genuine. His or her outward actions-conduct and works-reflect the heart, the inward person. We all will be judged for our habitual actions, for these show what we have become (2 Corinthians 5:10). The way that we live—how we treat others and respond to God's laws—will reflect what we believe, whether we are in harmony with God's ways or not.
Judgment based on decisions and actions
God will give sufficient time to those resurrected after the 1,000 years to prove by their actions and decisions that they do indeed believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and are willing to submit to His way of life, surrendering their own will. Jesus said that the person who will receive the gift of eternal life—who will "enter the kingdom of heaven"—must be one who "does the will of My Father in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).
Those who are part of this second resurrection will have their minds opened to the truth of God's plan. They will have the opportunity to decide whether they will do the Father's will or not. After having had their spiritual eyes opened and this truth revealed to them, they will be judged according to their works, their response to their new understanding. They will be given the same responsibility that was extended to others at other stages of God's plan. They will have the opportunity to develop faith in Jesus Christ and demonstrate their belief and commitment by the way they live.
Being judged according to works does not imply that one earns the gift of salvation. It simply means that a person demonstrates by his life that he believes in Jesus Christ and is willing to do the will of the Father (Matthew 7:21). A person living that commitment will naturally demonstrate in his life the positive results of that choice and way of life (Galatians 5:22-23; James 2:14-26).
The plan of God—just as He promised—is a perfect and complete plan. Following His plan, He will ultimately offer salvation to all who have ever lived (Ephesians 1:9-10).
What is judgment?
As we saw before, Jesus addressed the fact of more than one resurrection when He said that "the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth-those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [or judgment]" (John 5:28-29).
The more common meaning of the word krisis, translated "condemnation" in this verse, is judgment, as it is usually translated. This word refers to a process of evaluation rather than an act of punishment. Krisis means "the process of investigation, the act of distinguishing and separating, . . . a judging, a passing of judgment upon a person or thing" (W.E. Vine, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1985, p. 119). Krisis is to be distinguished from krima, which refers to "the sentence pronounced, a verdict, a condemnation, the decision resulting from an investigation" (ibid.).
As we saw earlier, those who are called in this life and respond by hearing and believing God will be given eternal life; it will not be necessary for them to go through this time of judgment (verse 24). They are being judged now (1 Peter 4:17), not later. This judgment is a process, with those who are called by God responding faithfully to His truth and bearing fruit over time (John 15:2-8; Galatians 5:22-23)-or turning from that calling (2 Peter 2:20-22).
Eventually all others will be judged, "for God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:14). This judgment will also take place over time in the "resurrection of judgment" of which Christ spoke.
Timing of this judgment
When does this resurrection to judgment take place? Revelation 20:11-13 describes a time after "the thousand years were finished" (verses 5, 7). Satan is removed from influencing humankind (verse 10), then the dead are brought back to physical life and judged (verses 12-13). The Greek word translated here as "judged" is krino, meaning "to separate, select, choose" (Vine, p. 336).
"The dead, small and great," who stand before their Creator are those who died without ever having known the true God or His purpose for them. The books (biblia in Greek, from which we get Bible) are the Scriptures, the source of the knowledge that leads to eternal life. All people given physical life in this resurrection, raised from the grave (Hades) and the sea (verse 13), will have an opportunity at last to fully understand God's plan for them.
This resurrection is not a second chance for salvation; for them it is their first opportunity to really know God. Those in this resurrection are "judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books" (verse 12). This judgment will take place over time as they have the opportunity to hear, understand and grow in God's way of life, having their names inscribed in the book of life (verse 15).
There are two important principles here. First, as we've just seen, all will have a fair and equal opportunity for repentance and forgiveness so they can receive eternal life. Second, we see that some—by their choice—will not receive that wonderful gift of eternal life.
Describing their fate, John wrote: "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14-15).
Who are the ones not found in the Book of Life? Remember that by this time God will have given the opportunity to everyone to receive and accept the gift of eternal life, represented in these verses as the Book of Life. Those whose names are not written in it will themselves have chosen by their own actions and decisions to be excluded. God will not force eternal life on anyone. If a person knowingly chooses not to repent and be included in God's plan of eternal life, that person will be judged by his actions and destroyed. This is an act of mercy; such a person would bring only perpetual unhappiness to himself or herself.
Are the unrepentant tormented forever?
We have already seen that man is mortal. Death is to be compared with a deep sleep, a state of unconsciousness. One reason God gave us a temporary, physical life was that, if we choose not to accept the terms, conditions and requirements of eternal life, our lives could be mercifully but permanently brought to an end.
Many people believe in a literal, ever-burning hellfire or a condition of spiritual torment in which evil people are tortured throughout eternity. But the Bible's simple teaching conveys nothing of the kind. Our God is a loving, merciful Father who does not want to consign anyone to that fate.
In a familiar verse Paul tells us, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Eternal life is a gift that God grants to those who will be in His family forever. Death from which there is no hope of a resurrection is reserved for those who reject God's offer of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. They do not exist forever in torment. Those who choose not to receive that gift will cease to exist.
The unrepentant will be punished
We learned earlier that since human life is physical everyone will die (Ecclesiastes 3:2; Hebrews 9:27). Death is part of the natural course of life. Those who have fulfilled the purpose of physical life will be resurrected to receive the gift of eternal life. Those who were never called will be brought up by a resurrection to a physical existence and judged, given their opportunity for eternal life. Those who reject the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and eternal life that comes through His sacrifice will be cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15).
Jesus said some will fall into this category. He warned the Pharisees in Matthew 23:33: "Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?" Later Jesus said the righteous would be given eternal life, but the wicked would go into everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:41-46). Notice that Jesus does not say that the condemned will be tortured for eternity. He said the punishment is to be everlasting; that is, everlasting death, complete unconsciousness from which there is no resurrection (Revelation 20:14).
Some might conclude that such a fate is cruel. But God, after all, is the Creator of life. He has the authority and power to eliminate the life of all who choose to reject the purpose for which He created them.
Throughout the ages some have been given the opportunity for eternal life through Jesus Christ. The vast majority have not been called in their lifetimes to understand God's plan. As Jesus explained in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:3-23), others may have been called, but for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the powerful deception and influence of Satan and his demons-they have failed to fully respond to God's calling. All will be sorted out by a merciful God in the time of judgment.
The Scriptures overwhelmingly show that God's great purpose and desire are to give eternal life to His children and to keep them from failing (Jude 21-24; Romans 8:31-32; 2 Timothy 4:18; Luke 12:32). All will be given the opportunity to believe in Jesus Christ, accept eternal life through Him and prove their commitment to God by their works, the actions in their lives. Only those who knowingly, purposefully and willingly defy God and reject the sacrifice of Jesus Christ will be refused eternal life (Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:28-31; Revelation 21:8).
Even the final death of the incorrigibly wicked in a lake of fire (Malachi 4:1-3) is an act of justice and mercy on God's part. To allow the corrupt to continue to live on in unrepentant, eternal rebellion would cause themselves and others only great sorrow and anguish. Therefore God will not grant them eternal life, neither will He torture them for all eternity. Both soul (life, mind, consciousness) and body will be completely destroyed (Matthew 10:28).
After Jesus Christ returns, He will expand the process of offering salvation to all mankind. Everyone who lives during the 1,000 years immediately after He returns will receive the opportunity to accept the gift of eternal life available through Christ.
At the end of the Millennium will come a physical resurrection of all who did not receive the calling to salvation during their lifetimes. Then they, too, will have the opportunity to receive that gift of eternal life and be judged by their righteous works. However, God will mercifully destroy those who choose to defy Him, knowingly refusing to accept Jesus Christ's sacrifice and follow God's way of life.
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