What happens when a non-believer dies? Discover what the Bible says about God’s plan for all who have ever lived.
[Darris McNeely] Where does an atheist go when he dies? What about your late aunt who never went to church, was not religious and died with no defined belief in God? How does Christ judge her? Is God fair?
Let’s take it further. What is the eternal fate of whole societies that practice pagan rituals, such as the various Pacific island tribes who do not embrace the Bible or traditional Christian teachings? Where do they fit in God’s plan?
Is God fair when it comes to all who have lived?
Is today the only day of salvation? I’m not going to talk to you today about my idea or anyone else’s idea of what happens when a non-believer dies. We’re going to see exactly what the Bible says and I think you will be surprised because God is fair.
What does the Bible tell us about God’s plan for all who have ever lived? Join us on Beyond Today as we examine the day When God Remembers the Dead.
When my father died I was asked by my family to give the sermon at his graveside. I’ll have to tell you it was the hardest talk I have ever given. What does a son say at the moment his father’s body is being laid in the grave?
You see, my father was not a religious man. Now he was a good man, a decent man. He provided for our family quite well. He was well respected in our community. But he did not have much to do with religion or formal churches. My father had served in World War II. He saw too much of man’s inhumanity, enough to shatter whatever faith his mother had instilled in him.
As he lay dying of cancer his brother sent a Baptist minister to my father’s bedside in hope that he would confess belief in Christ and die a Christian. My father did not make a profession of Christ. He died as he lived. There was no deathbed confession of faith.
Now I am a minister of the gospel. I have a definite belief in Jesus Christ. What did I say at my father’s funeral? Do you think that I might wonder about his eternal fate? What is my unbelieving father’s place in God’s eternal plan?
The answer can surprise you. It is not what is taught by most religions. In fact in all of my years of study of world religion and philosophy I have not found any answer that comes closer to the truth of the Bible on these questions.
I was able to speak words of truth and hope at the grave of my father. Let me take you through your Bible and show you why. Let’s start with the teaching of Jesus Christ.
First we should understand this. Christ was not trying in His day to save all who lived in His world of the first century. If He was He failed.
Jesus one day stood before a group of his own countrymen. He marveled at their unbelief. These were Jews that were looking for the Messiah and they held hope that Israel would one day be restored to its national glory. Yet they were not stirred to belief. They wanted a sign from Him proving that He was who He said He was, the Son of God.
Now Christ’s reply was the famous sign showing that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights. But He went further. Because they did not believe in Him as either Messiah or the Son of God, Christ equated them with the notorious residents of the city of Nineveh. He said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah…The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon…” (Matthew 12:41-42 Matthew 12:41-42  The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here.
 The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here.
American King James Version×).
Nineveh’s change of heart did not last though. They relapsed into idolatry within a few years of Jonah’s preaching and the city was destroyed. Yet here Jesus says the people of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with the Jews whom Christ was talking about. And further, He said, the Queen of Sheba who came to see the fabled wisdom of Solomon, will condemn the same people for their unbelief. Christ was greater than both Jonah and Solomon. What was He talking about? What is this time of judgment?
Let’s look at another example.
Earlier Jesus had been even more direct when He sent His disciples on a short mission to preach the gospel, saying that if the cities of Judea would not hear their word then they should leave without any further work. “I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment than for that city!” There’s that same phrase, “in the day of judgment.”
No one in Christ’s day would want to hear such a comparison. Sodom and Gomorrah were the symbols of immoral living that had perished in the firestorm brought by God in the time of Abraham and Lot. No people in history received such severe judgment from God. Yet Christ says they will rise in the Day of Judgment and receive mercy.
Let’s notice one more example.
The cities of Galilee were not responding to Christ’s powerful works nor His message of repentance. They had a heart of unbelief. By this time Christ’s patience was wearing kind of thin. He was frustrated at the lack of response from the people in these villages. They were seeing astounding miracles and hearing dynamic teaching. Christ’s comment on this was “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…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 11:21-24 Matthew 11:21-24  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 shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
 And you, Capernaum, which are exalted to heaven, shall be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been 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.
American King James Version×).
Here on three occasions Jesus references Gentile cities that will receive mercy on the Day of Judgment. Each of these cities represented centers of sin and received the condemnation of God in past times. Yet Christ speaks of mercy and tolerance.
Again, what is this Day of Judgment that Jesus speaks about? What is God showing us about His plan that we should understand?
At this point let’s pause here and let’s understand something. Christ in His day was not trying to save all who lived in that world of the first century. If He was, He failed.
Not everyone believed Jesus when He taught the good news of the Kingdom. On one occasion after one of His sermons many followers left Him. His teaching was too hard to accept. So they stopped coming to hear His teaching. The many who left caused Jesus to turn to Peter and He asked, “will you leave me too?”
After His death and resurrection we’re told that only 120 followers remained. That’s not too many for all the works that Jesus had done. The apostles they had success as they bore witness of Christ in the cities but they were small groups. Not all responded to the gospel message and in fact many rejected it and persecuted those who did believe.
Why did people reject the gospel from the hand of Christ and His disciples? Why weren’t the churches in that day becoming large?
The answer lies in one of His most important parables. In the parable of the sower and the seed Christ explained how the gospel was like seed that was placed in the ground by a farmer. His disciples then asked Him why are you speaking in parables to people (Matthew 13:10 Matthew 13:10And the disciples came, and said to him, Why speak you to them in parables?
American King James Version×). You see a parable is a story with symbols. The symbols tell a larger spiritual truth. But the truth is not readily evident as the parable is told. Most people did not understand the message that Christ was giving without a point by point explanation.
So when asked why He spoke to people in parables Jesus replied, “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 Matthew 13:11He answered and said to them, Because it is given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.
American King James Version×) Further Christ quoted the prophet Isaiah who said the people of His day, Isaiah’s day, did not see nor understand the full spiritual knowledge of God. Therefore Jesus said, “I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13 Matthew 13:13Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.
American King James Version×)
People did not understand the gospel even in Isaiah’s day and they did not understand and accept the gospel message from Christ.
Humanity rejected the knowledge of God way back in the Garden of Eden when they took of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God has always cloaked His truth from the masses and called and worked with only a few people from each age. The amazing fact is this; God has never intended to bring everyone from every age in humanity to salvation at that time.
So then why do church ministries today go to all parts of the world today seeking to convert peoples to their brand of Christianity? If Christ did not seek to save all in His day then why today do these ministries seek to take Christ to the nations?
One reason is this, because there’s a common belief that people have an immortal soul that departs the body at death with a conscious awareness of life apart from the mortal body. That soul they believe then is to go to either heaven or hell. If it goes to heaven after a profession of Christ has been made that’s fine in their view. But if it goes into an ever burning hell without a saving experience well that’s something else.
But the Bible does not say man has an immortal soul. That’s a teaching drawn from ancient pagan belief. Nor does the Bible teach that heaven is the reward of the saved, or that even hell exists as a place of eternal torment. It’s not in the Bible. At death a person’s consciousness stops. They no longer are alive. They don’t know anything. They do not speak. There is no conscious awareness. Death is described in your Bible as a type of sleep. God will waken the dead by a resurrection. Yes, a resurrection.
So secondly the hope of the resurrection is central to the Christian faith and it always has been.
The plain teaching of scripture is that the dead will rise to life on this earth as a part of the eternal purpose of God and there is more than one resurrection described in your Bible. The resurrection Christ was describing when He talked about these people from Sodom and Gomorrah, from Nineveh, from Tyre and Sidon, those who will rise in that day of judgment, that’s the group of people that we want to talk about in that resurrection.
This event Christ spoke about is not understood by most Bible students. If it was understood it would completely alter their view of the Bible and God’s plan for human life. It would explain why there are so many versions of Christianity. It would explain why we see the diversity of religion in the world. It would explain the cause of evil and suffering through all the war, plagues and the famines that plague mankind. It would explain the eternal fate of all who have ever lived without knowing God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.
Today is a day of salvation but it is not the only day of salvation. God’s work of salvation will extend to every human who’s ever lived regardless of race and regardless of their belief or unbelief. It is God’s will that all have a chance to accept His terms for eternal life and God will ensure that opportunity occurs. That is the beauty of His eternal purpose. God will bring all things that are in heaven and earth together in Jesus Christ.
Now let’s look at a key scripture that tells us what will happen.
This truth is revealed in the book of Revelation. Most people who study Scripture they will look at the book of Revelation as one of great mystery with all kinds of symbolism. I’ve heard some people even conclude that you really can’t understood the Book of Revelation today. It wasn’t meant to be understood. But that’s a wrong conclusion. Revelation can be understood.
The book of Revelation opens with this positive statement. It says “The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place.” God also says here, “Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy…” (Revelation 1:1-3 Revelation 1:1-3  The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave to him, to show to his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel to his servant John:
 Who bore record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
 Blessed is he that reads, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
American King James Version×) . Christ meant the book to be understood, at least in part. It can be understood.
In the twentieth chapter we have a picture of times of judgment Christ mentioned. After His appearance in the heavens and His return to earth we see described two distinct resurrections. Notice the scripture says “And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:4 Revelation 20:4And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark on their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.
American King James Version×)
Here is described a group of people who were faithful to God unto death. These are a group earlier called “the dead of Christ.” They rise in the air to meet Him at His return to this earth to begin the massive job of restoring this earth to the condition it once had. They literally reign with Christ for 1000 years in what is commonly called the Millennium.
This event is called the first resurrection. But we also see mentioned another distinct resurrection. You see in chapter 20, notice what it says, “The rest of the dead lived not again till the thousand years were finished.”
This brings us to our third main point. There is more than one resurrection described in the Bible. The resurrection Christ was describing is when those from Sodom and Gomorrah, from Nineveh, from Tyre and Sidon will rise in the Day of Judgment.
So who are “the rest of the dead?” They are those who did not know the true God in their lives. They are those of Sodom, Tyre and Nineveh. They are the unbelieving Jews of Christ’s day, those who rejected Him as Messiah. They’re also the Greeks, Egyptians, the Romans, the Assyrians of the ancient world who worshipped many gods and goddesses. They’re also the atheists of today who deny God exists and who live and promote ungodly ideas and philosophy. All these are part of this group called “the rest of the dead.”
Let’s notice a few more verses. After the events of the one thousand year period, including the last release of Satan who is allowed one last effort to deceive men and turn them from God we come to a singular event in God’s timeline. Notice what it says. “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.” (Revelation 20:11-12 Revelation 20:11-12  And I saw a great white throne, and him that 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, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
American King James Version×)
Let’s look closely at this passage. Again it is not normally understood by Bible students. But if we take Christ’s statements about the people of Sodom and Nineveh then we have to place them somewhere if we are to understand what Christ was saying.
Here in Revelation it says “the dead, small and great” stand before a great white throne which is a symbol of judgment and they are judged by the things written in the books.
These books they’re the Bible. It means they will have the words of the Bible opened to them. They will understand what is in the Bible for the first time. Where they did not know, did not care or did not understand that deception will come off and the books will be opened to their understanding. They will have a period of years to live by that knowledge by what this Book says. That’s what is meant by the word ‘judgment.’ You see judgment biblically speaking is not a sentencing but judgment is a time period when we live for many years with the knowledge of God’s truth in a relationship with Him. For those in this resurrection it will be their first time to know the true God, to know His Word.
“The dead small and great” is an all-encompassing term. It means everyone who has ever lived will be brought back to a physical life. They will have opportunity to know God and to begin the journey toward eternal life.
And so this is our fourth point to remember. All people who have ever lived, many who never heard the name of Jesus Christ, will be brought back to a physical life. They will have an opportunity to know God and to begin their journey toward eternal life.
I want you to think what this means. God says He will bring back to life, to resurrect, “the dead small and great.” The graveyards that you pass in your town that you drive by going to and from work every day, out of them will come those who are long forgotten. The small town people who lived ordinary unknown lives, the people who did not make it into the history books. They’ll come back to life.
Out of the seas will come those who perished. Out of the unmarked and forgotten graves of all time they will come back. Those whose ashes and bones have long returned to the earth from where they came, they will return to physical life. They will return to a world quite different from the one they last saw. It will be a world transformed through a thousand years of the righteous rule of Jesus Christ and His saints. A world based on God’s way of peace, love and goodwill will produce a far different world than the one they lived in and the one where you and I live today.
We have seen in the Bible three times where Jesus referenced this time of judgment. This passage in Revelation reveals specifics about this time of judgment, the same time of judgment referenced by Jesus three times as He mentioned the people of the cities that would rise at a future point.
Now let’s look at one additional moment where Jesus pointed to the profound hope contained in this period of time.
It was in Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles in the year before His death. Jesus traveled from Galilee to keep the great fall festival. He was teaching in the Temple. The crowds had gathered to hear His bold direct teaching about who He was and what He came to do. Some of the Jewish leaders sought to arrest Him but were unable.
On the last day of the feast near the end of the day Jesus stood up and He cried out saying, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-39 John 7:37-39  In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come to me, and drink.
 He that believes on me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.
 (But this spoke he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
American King James Version×).
The audience who heard those words made an immediate connection to an event that always occurred on this seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles in the Temple. On the last day of the Feast the Jews would have a special ceremony of pouring water at the altar, water that had been taken from the Pool of Siloam. The Jews had an understanding that this last day of the Feast of Tabernacles pointed to a time when all the Gentile nations would join Israel in salvation with God.
So just as this great ceremony was carried out is when Jesus stood and cried with that loud voice. His teaching about the water fits perfectly with the scriptural teaching of the Holy Spirit as water. His teaching fits perfectly with His prior teachings that the people of Nineveh and Sodom would rise in a day of judgment. He knew the plan of God had a place for all the peoples in all nations of the earth regardless of the racial descent. God’s plan of salvation calls for all people from all time to stand before God in a time of judgment, a time of salvation. It is not His will that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9 2 Peter 3:9The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is long-suffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
American King James Version×). Always remember that.
So let’s bring this forward to now. What does this mean for us today? It means that your loved ones who died with no religion, no faith, those for whom you worry about their eternal fate, well you don’t have to worry about them. Infants who died without knowing God? Countless millions of people who lived without ever hearing the name of Jesus much less confessing faith and belief in His name, all of them God will bring back to life in this day of judgment.
It means you do not have to worry about the unchurched, the unsaved, the non-religious of this world today, past or present. They are not lost. God has a place for them in His plan. In God’s infinite wisdom His mercy extends to all.
Think about what that means for the people in your life, those who you may wonder about. Everyone’s got a relative that walked to their own drumbeat.
I can tell you what it means to me. I told you about my father, about giving the sermon at his funeral. Do I worry about his eternal fate?
No I don’t.
My father will be resurrected from his grave. He will come back to life in a healed physical body. He will stand with many others and have the books of the Bible opened to his understanding. He will have his first chance to accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and enter eternal life, as a divine member of the family of God.
I preached those words at his funeral many years ago and I believe them to be true today. I do not worry about my father’s eternal fate.
There is a lot to consider with this topic today. So let me summarize for you what we’ve covered:
1. Christ was not trying to save all who lived in His world of the first century. If He was, again, He failed.
2. The hope of the resurrection is central to the Christian faith. Always has been.
3. There is more than one resurrection described in the Bible. The resurrection Christ was describing is when those from Sodom and Gomorrah, from Nineveh, from Tyre and from Sidon will rise in the Day of Judgment.
4. All people who have ever lived, many who never heard the name of Jesus Christ, will be brought back to a physical life. They will have an opportunity to know God and to begin their journey toward eternal life.
As I covered in today’s program, the unchurched, the non-religious, and even infants that died at birth are not lost forever but God has a place for them in His plan.
To help you understand more about this wonderful biblical fact we would like to send you a copy of our free Bible study aid: “God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.” This important, free, easy-to-read booklet explains how our Creator has a tremendous plan for humanity which He reveals through an annual cycle of festivals described in the Scriptures. I highly encourage you to order your free copy by calling toll-free, 1-triple-eight-886-8632. Here’s the number again. 1-triple-eight-886-8632. If a representative doesn’t answer your call shortly, please try again a little later when the lines are less busy. So please be sure to jot down the number right now. Or, you can go online to beyondtoday.tv or write to us at the address shown on your screen [Beyond Today, PO Box 541027, Cincinnati, OH 45254]
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Today is not the only day of salvation. The atheist who dies not believing in God will rise from the grave. He will have opportunity to acknowledge the God of creation. The forgotten unknown people of history, they will rise from the grave. They will come to understand the purpose for human life.
Your family members, your loved ones, who were not religious believers, they will return to life. Their lives are not finished. They will have a chance for eternal life in the family of God.
God is merciful. It is not His will that any should perish. He has a plan for all people from all ages of world history. It is a great plan and you can understand it. Be sure to get your copy of our free study guide offered on this program and start learning about that plan in your Bible.
For Beyond Today, I’m Darris McNeely. Thanks for watching.
[Narrator] For the free literature offered on today’s program, go online to beyondtoday.tv