What is the ultimate fate of the almost 300,000 men, women and children who lost their lives in the Indian Ocean tsunami?
Many who died were Buddhists who accept neither God nor the Bible. The majority of those who perished were Muslims whose religion teaches that Jesus was a prophet, but explicitly denies that He is the Son of God and Savior of mankind.
The Scriptures clearly state that belief in and acceptance of Christ is the only route to salvation—that "there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12 Acts 4:12Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.
American King James Version×, New International Version; compare John 14:6 John 14:6Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me.
American King James Version×).
So what is the fate of these thousands who died in this disaster, many of whom knew little or nothing about Jesus Christ during their lifetime? Does the Bible give us any answers?
Confronting a quandary
The Scriptures clearly reveal that God is "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (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×). Yet a great many believe that unless a person confesses faith in Jesus as personal Savior in this present lifetime, he or she will have no further opportunity for salvation.
So we are faced with a quandary: What happens to those who have been deceived (Revelation 12:9 Revelation 12:9And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceives the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.
American King James Version×) and, simply through ignorance, have no understanding of God, His plan or His way of life? And what about those who, in this disaster 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. However, we need to pay close attention to what it says, because the truths that it actually reveals directly contradict what most people have been told that it says!
The Bible speaks of several different resurrections of the dead. It reveals that the "first resurrection," the resurrection of Christ's true followers, will take place at His return to earth (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 1 Corinthians 15:51-52  Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,
 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.
American King James Version×; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16  For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain to the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep.  For 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×; Revelation 20:4-6 Revelation 20:4-6  And 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.  But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.  Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
American King James Version×).
But it also teaches that "the rest of the dead . . . small and great" also are to be resurrected from the grave. Who are they? These are the majority of humankind, all those who have ever lived and died over thousands of years of human history never knowing God's truth. 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 20:4-6  And 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.
 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection.
 Blessed and holy is he that has part in the first resurrection: on such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.
American King James Version×, 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. This will be the first time they will come to know mankind's Creator, His Word and His way of life! 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 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×, 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 Acts 10:34Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
American King James Version×, 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 John 5:28-29  Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice,
 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×, New American Standard Bible).
"Judgment" in this passage refers to an opportunity to understand 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 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×, 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, the famous prophecy of the valley full of dry bones, provides a vivid description of it.
The wonderful truth of the Bible is that all those who perished in this enormous tragedy are not lost to God. They are His children, and in His own time and according to His plan, He will give them (and the billions more like them) the opportunity to learn His wonderful truth and receive His priceless gift of salvation. He truly is a God of love, "not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance."
(Adapted from the free booklet This Is the United Church of God. For a more complete explanation of what happens to the billions who have died without ever knowing about God, Jesus Christ and the Bible, request our free publications What Happens After Death? and Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? We thoroughly explain this wonderful truth in greater detail in both booklets.) GN