What about those who haven't accepted Jesus Christ or have never heard even a word about His message? What happens to them?
The wonderful answer to that question illustrates the hope God holds out to all people who have ever lived!
God is a loving Father. We are all His creation and children. No father wants to see bad things happen to his children, although he may allow problems to come upon them.
Our heavenly Father also allows us to suffer as part of His higher and greater purpose for us. Why? Because God's whole purpose is to bring mankind into the knowledge of Him and His way for eternity.
Surely a loving Father would not doom most people to the fiery hell preached by most churches. In fact, He does not doom ignorant people to hell. He has a plan that provides all with ample opportunity to choose to live forever.
"We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: 'In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.' Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). Other translations of the Bible show that "the day of salvation" is better translated "a day of salvation." Notice Green's Literal Translation: "In an acceptable time I heard you, and in a day of salvation I helped you" (verse 2).
Paul told his fellow minister, Timothy, that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). Putting these two passages together, it becomes apparent that the Father's intent is that everyone will have a chance to learn and understand His way of life. If someone hasn't been called in this life, at another time he will be raised to physical life and learn about God's plan for him and all mankind.
More than one resurrection
Revelation 20 speaks of the return of Christ and the restraint to be placed upon Satan the devil. It also speaks of Christians, martyred for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, living and reigning with Him for a thousand years. Of those resurrected to reign with Christ, it says, "This is the first resurrection" (verse 5, emphasis added throughout).
That same verse, however, speaks of an additional resurrection too. "But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished." Since the first resurrection of those faithful to Christ occurs at His return, and "the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished," it becomes obvious that other people are raised to live again.
Why does God raise additional people after the 1,000 years? So they can learn the truth about the message of Jesus Christ and have an opportunity to accept the One they have never been taught about as their personal Savior!
How does "hell" fit into all this? The Hebrew word sheol is the word translated "hell" throughout the Old Testament. It means simply "the grave." The Greek word hades is translated the same way and has the same meaning. So in a sense we all go to hell, the grave, when we die. While we are there, we have no knowledge of anything earthly or heavenly.
But that is not the end. All the dead will be resurrected. Some will be raised to life at the return of Christ, and "the rest of the dead" not until the first 1,000 years of Christ's reign ends. At that time all those who never heard of Jesus Christ, and never learned God's way, will be given their opportunity for salvation.
In contrast to those who are resurrected to immortality at Christ's return (1 Corinthians 15:22-23, 51-54), those in this resurrection are physical and mortal (as shown by the vision in Ezekiel 37:1-14). They are given physical life and the opportunity to learn God's way of life, recognize and repent of their sins and submit to God's rule over them. This is not a "second chance" for salvation, but is truly their first opportunity to learn of God's precious truth and wonderful plan for them.
Fate of those who refuse to repent
However, some will utterly refuse to allow God to rule over them. Their fate will not be the traditional ever-burning hell in which the wicked are tortured forever. They will experience a consuming hell that will burn them up completely.
Speaking through the prophet Malachi, God describes the fate of those who willingly reject His way of life and Christ's sacrifice for them. "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the LORD of hosts, 'that will leave them neither root nor branch. But to you who fear My name . . . you shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,' says the LORD of hosts" (Malachi 4:1-3).
The Bible calls this "the lake of fire" (Revelation 19:20; 20:10, 14-15). Those who choose to reject God's way will not be allowed to continue living in the misery their choice will bring on them and others. They will die, not suffer forever. As Malachi wrote, they will be consumed in this fire, leaving nothing but ashes. Their fate is far more merciful than the popular-and unbiblical-view of the wicked suffering forever in hell.
Awesome fate foretold
All ungodly things will be ultimately purged from the earth. The physical elements will melt and disappear (2 Peter 3:7-13). What is left? The glorious Kingdom of God and His immortal glorified children remain.
"Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, 'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God'" (Revelation 21:1-3).
The cares of life will become a thing of the past. "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away" (verse 4).
What an incredible destiny for the human race! GN