God’s plan of salvation revealed in Scripture is quite different from what most Christians believe. Having true understanding of it eliminates the need to worry over the fate of those who died not knowing Christ.
To explain, we must first dispel with the notion that the dead live on after they go to the grave. The Bible teaches that the dead are asleep in the grave and are awaiting a resurrection.
A marvelous reality of Scripture is that all who never knew or understood the gospel will have an opportunity to inherit eternal life. We do not need to be perplexed about their fate.
For example, consider Ecclesiastes 9:5 Ecclesiastes 9:5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
American King James Version×, which states, “The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.” Further, here are words from King David about death: “In death, there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5).
In other Bible passages we read of death referred to as sleep, such as Daniel 12:2 Daniel 12:2And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
American King James Version×, Acts 13:36 Acts 13:36For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid to his fathers, and saw corruption:
American King James Version×and 1 Corinthians 15:51 1 Corinthians 15:51Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
American King James Version×. Scripture teaches the dead are unconscious and know nothing. It also teaches they wait in the grave for a resurrection.
Jesus said, “Do not marvel at this; for 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” (John 5:28-29 John 5:28-29 28 Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, to the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, to the resurrection of damnation.
American King James Version×). This is a remarkable saying of Christ. Our Savior tells us there is a coming resurrection for everyone who has ever lived and died.
Notice the apostle Paul’s teaching about the resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15 he writes: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Corinthians 15:22-24 1 Corinthians 15:22-24 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
23 But every man in his own order: Christ the first fruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming.
24 Then comes the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power.
American King James Version×).
Paul explains here an order of resurrections. Christ is “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18 Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
American King James Version×) who has already risen. Then at the return of Christ, “the dead in Christ will rise” (1 Thessalonians 4:16 1 Thessalonians 4:16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
American King James Version×). The Bible teaches that those who are Christ’s at His coming are resurrected to live and reign with Him “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×).
Finally, the end comes, and Scripture explains what happens to the rest of mankind who are not Christ’s at His coming. Obviously, not all will be Christ’s at His coming, so what happens to them? When will they be resurrected?
Here is what the Bible says: “The rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished” (Revelation 20:5 Revelation 20:5But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
American King James Version×). At the end of the thousand-year reign of Christ and His saints, the rest of the dead will come to life. This includes all who have ever died without knowing or understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The apostle John describes what happens to these dead who will live again: “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” (Revelation 20:12 Revelation 20:12And 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×).
Notice the “Book of Life” is opened to these dead who had not before known Christ! This means the offer of eternal life with God is opened to all these resurrected dead. The truth is that all who have not heard or understood the gospel will have a chance to believe it. God will resurrect them to physical life and give them the opportunity to believe and inherit eternal life! Our study aid Heaven and Hell: What does the Bible Really Teach? offers an in-depth study of this great biblical truth.
Thankfully, we serve a fair and just God “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4 1 Timothy 2:4Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
American King James Version×). A marvelous reality of Scripture is that all who never knew or understood the gospel will have an opportunity to inherit eternal life. We do not need to be perplexed about their fate. It is very comforting to know God’s great plan to offer salvation to all the dead who never heard about Jesus!