That question has intrigued philosophers and theologians for generations. While the answers proposed are as varied as the world's entire ideological landscape, none is convincing. No one, it seems, has found the answer to life's biggest question.
Yet the answer has been available for centuries. God's Word plainly tells us that man's destiny is to become the children of God, divine members of His immortal spirit family. This truth goes to the very heart of the true gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Long ago ancient Israel's King David gazed up at the infinite vastness of the night sky while he pondered the significance of man. Psalm 8:3-4 records his thoughts: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" (English Standard Version).
David understood that man is the pinnacle of God's physical creation. He went on to say: "For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor. You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet" (Psalm 8:5-6).
Human beings in God's image
Genesis 1:26 describes man as created in the image of God. This helps us understand what Paul meant when he spoke of us as God's children. "The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together" (Romans 8:16-17, King James Version).
This passage succinctly summarizes the purpose of human life—the ultimate reason for our existence. God is creating a family—His family, in His image and bearing His name, to eventually appear in His glory (see also 1 John 3:2). Every human being will have the opportunity to become a member of that divine, eternal family!
Notice what God intends to do: "In bringing many sons to glory ['glory' means divine radiance, power and perfection as members of God's family], it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation [Jesus Christ] perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy [Christ] and those who are made holy [human beings in whom God is working] are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers" (Hebrews 2:10-11, New International Version).
The unimaginably good news is that every human being will have the opportunity to enter the family of God, receive divine glory and live forever as the same kind of beings the Father and Christ now are. This, too, is part of the staggering reality of Christ's gospel and the message proclaimed by the United Church of God. (Our Bible study aid booklet Why Were Your Born? describes this future in greater detail.)
God's plan includes all who have ever lived
But how will all of humanity—every man, woman, boy and girl who has ever lived—have this incredible and amazing opportunity?
The Scriptures clearly reveal that God is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9), and He has a master plan to give everyone this opportunity. Yet a great many believe that unless one confesses faith in Jesus as personal Savior in this present lifetime he or she will have no further opportunity for salvation.
While belief in and acceptance of Christ is indeed essential for salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), there remains the disturbing question: What happens to those who have been deceived (Revelation 12:9) and, simply through ignorance, have no understanding of God, His plan or His way of life? And what about those who, in recent years or in centuries past, lived and died without ever so much as hearing the name of Jesus Christ? Are they eternally lost? What is their fate?
The Bible gives the answers to these questions—answers that reconcile all the scriptures about life and death, judgment and mercy, forgiveness and salvation. It reveals that the "first resurrection" of Christ's followers at His return is not the end of the story. Indeed, the Bible teaches that "the rest of the dead ... small and great" also are to be resurrected from the grave. They are to stand before God and, for the first time in their lives, have the full truth of the Scriptures opened to their understanding (Revelation 20:4-6, Revelation 20:11-12).
For the vast majority of mankind, this will be the first time their eyes will be truly opened to God's wonderful truth. Most will then willingly reject their sinful ways, committed mostly in ignorance when they knew little or nothing of God and His ways. If they sincerely acknowledge their errors and repent, then they also may be glorified and receive eternal life. This is not a "second-chance" theology, as some might assume, but truly their first real opportunity to fully comprehend God's truth and then act on it with genuine understanding.
An opportunity for all humanity
In Matthew 11:21-24 Jesus explained that many godless people who lived and died in ages long before His time would have repented if only they had experienced Christ's preaching and miracles the way people of His day had. Moreover, He said that it would be "more tolerable" in the coming last judgment for the men, women and children who lived and died in ignorance than for those of His day who openly rejected Him.
But how could this be if those long-dead people were already condemned without hope of redemption? The fact is they never had an opportunity, with a full comprehension of repentance, to be saved. But one day, God promises, He will give them that opportunity.
Truly "God does not show favoritism" (Acts 10:34, NIV). He has made provision for all people ultimately to have an opportunity to enter a relationship with Him that can lead to glorified, eternal life. This is why Jesus said: "Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment" (John 5:28-29, New American Standard Bible).
Judgment in the preceding passage refers to an opportunity to understand and then undergo evaluation as opposed to the act of sentencing. This time of judging or deciding the future of those who have not yet had an opportunity to understand God's plan and purpose, whether they be small or great, is mentioned in Revelation 20:11-12, cited above. This biblical resurrection to judgment (a time for sorting out and deciding, not for automatic condemnation) is a time when God's tolerant mercy will finally be evident to all who are willing to face up to and repent of their former sinful ways. Though the Bible doesn't reveal many specifics about this resurrection—once more to a temporary physical life—Ezekiel 37 provides a vivid description of it.
In our Bible study aids What Happens After Death? and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? we thoroughly explain this wonderful truth in greater detail. It is a major key to understanding God's plan to rectify all the evil and suffering that mankind has ever experienced.