What will happen to people who are not Christians after they die? What about those who never even had a chance to hear about Jesus Christ and His message of the Kingdom of God? And what of those who never so much as saw a Bible, much less read one?
One school of thought puts them in an ever-burning hellfire, where they are tortured forever. Is this the case? What would this say about God, allowing people to suffer forever just because they were born into such circumstances through no fault of their own?
These are tough questions that require answers. Thankfully, the Bible reveals the wonderful future awaiting all people who have never been led by God to understand His truth—including those who have never heard of, much less accepted, Jesus Christ as their Master and Savior. He is in fact the only One through whom we can receive salvation (Acts 4:12).
The apostle John in Revelation 20 records his vision of a "great white throne" and a resurrection to life of "the dead, small and great [rich and poor, famous and infamous], standing before God" (Revelation 20:11-12). This passage goes on to say: "And the books were opened . . . And the dead were judged by the things which were written in the books" (Revelation 20:12).
As God the Father is still in heaven at this point in the vision, and since all judgment has been committed to Christ (John 5:22), it is evident that the One on the great white throne here is Christ (see also Romans 14:10; 2 Corinthians 5:10).
Just what does the future hold for those who will appear before this throne of judgment?
Doomed to an eternity of torture?
While there are various interpretations regarding the last judgment among those who profess Christ, it is widely believed that a judgment day is coming in which most of humanity will meet their Maker, who will be seated on this throne.
However, a common misconception is that on that day God will condemn all unrepentant sinners (meaning most who have ever lived) to ever-burning hellfire—and that everyone who did not accept Jesus Christ as personal Savior in their past lifetime will suffer in torment for all eternity.
Following this argument, we would have to conclude that all non-Christians who died before Christian missionaries reached them are now burning in hell.
It would mean that men, women and children who have professed religions other than the Christian religion, or no religion at all, will be tortured without end. This would include billions of Africans, Asians and others who lived and died without coming to know Christ. In this scenario, most people who ever lived will suffer eternally in an ever-burning hellfire, while only a few will be saved.
"Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"
To illustrate this view, let's look at what was taught by Jonathan Edwards, a famous 18th-century American preacher. Here is a quote from his famous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," preached on July 8, 1741:
"It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery . . . and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all.
"You will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance . . . So that your punishment will indeed be infinite" (emphasis added throughout).
He even started out his sermon by specifically referring to the Old Testament Israelites. Of them he says, "They are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell." He further states that God is "very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath."
Who knows how many millions—perhaps billions—of people have gone to their graves quite convinced that their loved ones, or perhaps they themselves, would meet a wrathful God who would condemn them to an eternal hellfire!
An ever-burning hellfire is not biblical
But Jonathan Edwards was wrong. First of all, sinners do not face an angry God the moment they die. They go to their graves with no consciousness in death. Solomon stated this clearly in Ecclesiastes 9: "The dead know nothing . . . There is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" Ecclesiastes 9: 5, Ecclesiastes 9: 10).
And in Psalm 6:5 we read this statement to God: "For in death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?"
The dead will wait in their graves, unconscious and unaware, until at some time in the future they rise when Christ commands. In John 5:25, we read, "Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live."
A second area in which Edwards was wrong was in his acceptance of an eternally burning hellfire. This concept is not biblical. He did not properly consider such scriptures as Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death [not eternal torment in an ever-burning hellfire], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Malachi 4:3 tells us that the unrepentant wicked "shall be ashes under the soles of your [righteous people's] feet." In other words, the fate of those who ultimately won't repent is to be burned up—totally consumed by fire that leaves only ashes.
Jesus Christ will judge all in mercy
Now let's return to Revelation 20: "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.
"The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20: 11-15).
Again, the typical misunderstanding of this passage is that an instant judgment is coming on humanity and that the majority will burn forever and ever in hell. As Edwards put it, "There are but few saved, and . . . the greater part of men that have died heretofore are gone to hell."
But a close reading of the Bible gives a completely different picture. For one, we must understand that the initial judgment here is not an instant condemnation but an evaluation period over the new lifetime of those resurrected—just as God's people today are undergoing a time of judgment (see 1 Peter 4:17).
Also, God judges mercifully. Both God the Father and Jesus Christ share the character of having great mercy—the Father giving His Son and Jesus giving His own life that we might be forgiven of sin.
Let's focus on the word "throne" in Revelation 20:11, considering that the throne of Jesus Christ, as with His Father, is a throne of mercy: "For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:15-16).
Please note carefully the words here: "throne of grace . . . obtain mercy and find grace." Any time we come humbly before the throne of grace, we come through a merciful High Priest to a merciful Father. And the Bible further shows that the billions of people cut off from God in the past will in the future resurrection actually be given an opportunity to fall on this great mercy, repent and, for their first time, be able to obey God and live by His laws!
Facing an angry God or a merciful God?
When the small and great awaken to find themselves facing Christ's throne, they will not at first realize they are standing before the throne of grace and mercy. They will actually feel hopelessness and doom. They will feel what is described in Ezekiel 37, a passage that parallels Revelation 20. There the prophet Ezekiel describes what the masses of humanity will think when they are resurrected.
In this chapter we see a picture of the destiny of the Israelites completely different from what Edwards preached. In this amazing prophecy, God is shown to be a very merciful God. This passage explains that for these long-dead people there is coming a physical resurrection to future life.
In vision, God places Ezekiel in a vast valley, essentially a massive graveyard: "The hand of the Lord came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones" (Ezekiel 37:1).
The next verse indicates these bones were from people dead a very long time: "Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry" (Ezekiel 37:2).
God asks the prophet if he thinks these bones will ever live again: "And He said to me, 'Son of man, can these bones live?'"
Ezekiel admits he simply doesn't know! "So I answered, 'O Lord God, You know.'"
God plainly prophesies that a resurrection to physical life is about to happen: "Again He said to me, 'Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! Thus says the Lord God to these bones: 'Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.'"'"
A resurrection of the unfaithful
Here is a group of people who had lived all their lives without a saving knowledge of God the Father and Jesus Christ. However, instead of being condemned to hellfire, let's notice what happens:
"So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.
"Also He said to me, 'Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, "Thus says the Lord God: 'Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.'"' So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army" (Ezekiel 37:7-10).
These verses clearly show a resurrection to physical life. Even the breath of life is given to them! Now let's read Ezekiel 37:11: "Then He said to me, 'Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, "Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!"'"
These resurrected human beings are referred to as the Israelites. They are depicted in a state of hopelessness and self-condemnation. But read what God says to them: "Therefore prophesy and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves.
"'"I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then [in this future resurrection] you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it," says the Lord'" (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
All of mankind offered repentance
Just imagine: Instead of eternally burning in hellfire, we read here of an enormous number of people who are brought back to physical life! For the very first time, they will come to see Jesus Christ as He really is. Jesus will point them to God the Father. And they will be offered the most precious gift of all, God's Holy Spirit.
In declaring that He will give them the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 37:14), God in effect is saying that they will be repentant over their sins and will be offered the opportunity for salvation! So again, a close reading of this passage yields quite a different picture from what we hear in "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God."
Furthermore, if God is going to save ancient Israel, He will also offer all of mankind salvation as well. We know this because the Word of God says repeatedly that God does not play favorites (Acts 10:34; 1 Peter 1:17). Regarding salvation, all peoples have an equal opportunity. Paul wrote: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
Those who hold to the view that the majority of humankind is doomed forever simply do not understand the merciful plan of God. They have not clearly understood that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). How can the same God who desires all men to be saved hold you "over the pit of hell," as Edwards' sermon put it?
We also read that God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). In the end the evil works of Satan, the enemy of humanity, will be defeated by the power and mercy of God. Human beings will come to understand the depth of the mercies of the Father and Jesus Christ as they at last learn God's truth, repent and choose to obey Him.
This will be the first opportunity for salvation for all those who had never, in their lifetimes in this age, even heard the name of Jesus Christ—the only name, as mentioned earlier, through which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Men and women who had lived in the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be offered their first opportunity to repent and accept Christ (Matthew 10:15). The inhabitants of the ancient pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon will see and learn about Jesus Christ for the very first time too (Matthew 11:22). These puzzling passages become clear when we finally understand the timing of God's great plan.
Where do you stand?
Do you consider yourself even a beginning reader of the Bible? Do you know enough to realize that God is a merciful God, yet One who will require us to "give account" to Him? (See Romans 14:12.) If so, then now may be your day of salvation. Now may be the "acceptable time" (2 Corinthians 6:2) for you to learn about God and commit your life to Him!
God may be calling you to a closer relationship with Him than you have ever had in your life! God may be calling you now to repentance of past sins and acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Perhaps God is speaking to you the same words He spoke through Peter: "Be saved from this perverse generation" (Acts 2:40).
A time is coming when all people, regardless of race, religion or gender, will stand before Jesus Christ and have the choice to follow His righteous rule. Jesus will extend His loving hand to them and offer them repentance—a true change of heart and life to living by His every word.
But for those of us alive today whose minds God is opening to His biblical truths, there is no better time than right now to repent of our past ways of life and start following His ways. Now is the time to repent and call on Him through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior!