Can nonbelievers be saved from their sins in the resurrection? Do these people have any hope after they die? If they don't receive Jesus in this life, can nonbelievers be saved in the resurrection of the dead?
This is one of those questions that touches us all personally. Most of us know nonbelievers as well as struggling believers. The vast majority of people are nonbelievers (Matthew 7.14). So then one of the most important issues in Christianity is whether nonbelievers have any hope in the future. Specifically, what happens to all the nonbelievers in the resurrection of the dead?
Often times we're taught as Christians that there's no hope for nonbelievers. We're told that Jesus loves us all very much, but we must make a choice. We're told that we must make the right choice and accept him, or we're doomed. We're told that if we reject him we're going to hell forever, and there's no hope for us.
After all, a sinner is a sinner. It doesn't matter how much a person has sinned, because any amount of sin defiles a person. No sinner is fit for heaven.
So if all nonbelievers are sinners, and they're all unforgiven, then one might believe that the outcome is the same for all of them. One might believe that it doesn't matter whether someone dies as an heroic veteran, or they die as a crook. If that person doesn't believe in Jesus, they're going to hell forever.
This "accept Jesus or else" view of salvation is the party line. The suggestion of something like a "second chance" is a nonstarter for many Christians. They see any future possibility of salvation as somehow diminishing Jesus' sacrifice. If Jesus died so you can repent for your sins now, then why would he forgive you later on?
To many of us something seems wrong with this mainstream view. Yes, we agree that all men are sinners, and none are deserving of eternal life. But is disbelief truly a rebellion against God? Does someone who has done many good deeds really deserve the same fate as an evil doer? Are a nonbeliever's deeds completely irrelevant in God's eyes?
As with many issues, this one can only be resolved in the scriptures. Many will thump their bible and say that it clearly says there's no hope for nonbelievers. However, the issue isn't as simple as they think it is. Further, if they are wrong, then much of Christianity has been tainted by a destructive heresy.
First, one should recognize the biblical truth of the resurrection of the dead. The bible says that everyone, including nonbelievers, will have a part in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:15). The bible also says that everyone, including nonbelievers, will be judged by their works (2nd Corinthians 5:10).
This leads to Revelation 20, which is the most important scripture on the resurrection of nonbelievers. These verses describe the future resurrection and judgment of nonbelievers as a key part of God's plan.
"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. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works...And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:12-13, 15 KJV bible).
What's being described here is the end of the world, and the start of the eternity. At this time, all of the dead in death and hell will be raised up and judged by their works. This means that all the souls that are in these places will be evaluated, and those who aren't written in the book of life will be cast into the Lake of Fire. Without a doubt every nonbeliever will stand before their Creator as an individual.
The most obvious question about this passage, is whether the resurrection and judgment of nonbelievers will be a chance at salvation for them. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of resurrecting and judging them? If the outcome is always damnation for each and every nonbeliever, then why go through such a process? If being a nonbeliever by itself makes them unforgivable, then their deeds are irrelevant.
Yet even though many Christians are aware of these scriptures, they still declare that nonbelievers can't be saved. They say that the resurrection and judgment of nonbelievers is only for the purpose of condemning them. In other words, there's no real chance that any nonbelievers can be saved in the resurrection.
For many, the question remains whether any nonbelievers will be make it into the eternity. Some say no, because no one's good deeds can pay for their sins. However, doesn't God have the right to forgive anyone he wants, even if they haven't earned it?
One mistake that is often made on this issue is that being unforgiven is confused with being unforgivable. Many Christians assume that because the bible says nonbelievers are unforgiven, they're also unforgivable. They believe that the unforgiven state of nonbelievers means that they have no future hope of mercy.
On the other hand, there are many places in scripture that suggest a future time of forgiveness for nonbelievers. In one of these places, Jesus speaks of a certain sin that can never be forgiven. He says that men will be forgiven of all kinds of sin and blasphemy, except for this one. If this one sin is unforgivable, then other kinds of sins must be forgivable.
The bible says there is only one unforgivable sin, "Because of this, I say to you, Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven to men, but the blasphemy concerning the Spirit shall not be forgiven to men. And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, not in this age nor in the coming one" (Matthew 12:31-32 LITV bible).
Here Jesus says that every type of sin and blasphemy will be forgiven to men. However, the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. He then says something peculiar, which is that this sin won't be forgiven in the age to come either.
We all know that there is forgiveness for sin in this age, for those who repent and believe in Jesus. However, what does Jesus mean by forgiven in the "age to come"? If we consider Jesus' words, he seems to be saying that forgiveness of sin is possible in the age to come (except of course for those who have committed the unpardonable sin).
A lot of scholarly discussion about this verse centers on what Jesus means here by "age" [Greek: aeon]. Many have tried to say that Jesus is talking about an age other than the time of his return and the resurrection. However, every other time in scripture that Jesus speaks of a coming age, he is referring to the future time of his return, at the end of the world (see Matthew 13.40, Mark 10.30, Luke 20.34).
While this passage by itself is far from proving a second chance, it does suggest a future time of forgiveness. We know that when Jesus returns the dead will be resurrected, and judged for their deeds. If there is forgiveness in this future age, then it would apply to the masses of nonbelievers who will be in need of it.
One place that gives us some insight into the resurrection of nonbelievers is Luke 11.31-32, "The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn them: for she came from the utmost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here" (Luke 11:31-32 KJV bible).
Here we have a lot of teaching to consider about the resurrection. First, Jesus refers to the Old Testament story of the the queen of Sheba. The Queen of Sheba was neither an Israelite or a Christian, yet she was inspired to travel a great distance to hear the wisdom of Solomon (1st Kings 1.1-10). She was an unchristian pagan woman, yet she has a place of importance in the scripture.
Second, Jesus tells us about the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. This is a group of gentiles who repented at the teaching of the prophet Jonah. The Ninevites were neither Israelites or Christians, but they have a place of importance in scripture, partly because of their great repentance (Jonah 3.4-10).
Jesus says that all these gentiles will "resurrect" in the final judgment, and condemn his own generation. What's clear is that these people resurrect "with" or among the same people that crucify Jesus. They rise up with the generation that betrayed him, and condemn them as being wicked.
Here Jesus presents certain "nonbelievers" as having been more righteous than his own generation. None of these people mentioned here were Israelites, much less men of God. Yet, Jesus presents them as examples of righteousness. At the very least, Jesus draws a distinction between them and the depravity of his own generation.
If all nonbelievers are completely condemned, and have no chance of forgiveness, then why does Jesus present some as being superior to his own generation? Why would Jesus put any nonbeliever in a position to condemn his generation, if they will be sentenced to eternal damnation with the ones they are condemning?
It would seem terribly misleading to hold up some nonbelievers as examples to his generation, if they will be equally condemned with them. For some nonbelievers to be better off than the ones who crucified Jesus, they must in some way have a better place in the resurrection.
Lastly, there is a certain irony here that churches should take note of. Jesus' generation had great trust in their own righteousness and salvation. They believed that unlike other peoples, they were holy and blessed by God. Yet Jesus says that many of the people his generation considered unworthy of mercy, will be found more righteous than them on Judgment Day.
To better understand what will happen in the final resurrection, we should look at another description of it, "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, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:28-29 KJV bible).
This passage says that a great group of people will be resurrected from their graves. We need to consider who these people are. Are they believers and nonbelievers together, or just nonbelievers? If Jesus is only talking about nonbelievers here, then we know that some nonbelievers will resurrect into eternal life.
The usual assumption here is that Jesus is describing a resurrection of believers and nonbelievers. However, this is problematic. We need to consider who these people are that are being called out of their "graves".
In the gospels, when Jesus talks about the grave, he often uses it in connection with sin and death. Jesus uses the grave as a metaphor for sin and separation from God (Matthew 23.27). It takes on a deeper meaning as a place of spiritual death and decay (see Sleeping in the Dust).
Therefore it doesn't make sense to describe believers, as hearing Jesus' voice from within their graves. Believers already have eternal life (John 6.54), and aren't in spiritual graves. It's more consistent to describe nonbelievers as coming from their graves.
When we look at a similar verse, we see that Jesus describes those who believe as being already set free from death, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5:25 KJV bible).
Moving back to John 5.28-29, when we follow Jesus' language in these verses we see that he is describing a distant resurrection of nonbelievers. Nonbelievers will hear his voice and come out of Hades and death, as described in Revelation 20.13. Some nonbelievers will resurrect into retribution and punishment for their sins. However, those who have done good by comparison, will resurrect into life.
To really show that there is a second chance for nonbelievers, we have to fast forward. We have to look past the resurrection and into the eternity. The bible gives us a picture of the eternity that includes many nonbelievers who have been saved.
"And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it [Jerusalem]: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it...And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Revelation 21:24,27 KJV bible).
The question this passage provokes in us, is who are these people called "the nations" that enter the city? These people have obviously been written in the book of life. Many would assume that they're Christians who've been saved by faith.
However, these people can't be Christians. Looking at the context of Revelation, we find that "the nations" refers to nonbelievers. The nations are the masses of people who don't have faith in Jesus.
The nations aren't followers of Christ, "And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God" (Revelation 19:15 KJV bible).
Neither are God's people considered part of the nations, "And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints..." (Revelation 11:18 KJV bible).
One of the reasons that the nations aren't believers, is that God promises believers authority over them. Therefore any person who's an overcomer in Christ won't be equal with the nations. Any believer will be separate and unique from the nations.
Jesus promises his people authority over the nations, "And he that overcometh, and keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give power over the nations: And he shall rule them with a rod of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken to shivers: even as I received of my Father" (Revelation 2:26-27 KJV bible).
When we look at the last chapters of Revelation, we see that God's promise is eternal. His servants will remain unique and blessed above the nations. "...and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads...and they shall reign for ever and ever" (Revelation 22:2-5 KJV bible).
Revelation tells us that no evil person or sinner will enter the eternal city. Yet it also depicts a remnant of the nations, or nonbelievers, who will enter the city. This tells us that some nonbelievers will be saved in the resurrection described in Revelation 20. Some of them will be found written in the book of life, and have a place in the eternal Kingdom.
The last chapters of Revelation are often ignored and misunderstood. This is partly because they paint a picture that is different from the popularly held ideas about eternal heaven. Scripture doesn't depict Christians living together forever with Jesus in heaven. Rather Jesus and his servants will reign together over many kingdoms and nations that have been saved.
All the scriptures we've looked at so far tell us that nonbelievers can be saved in the future resurrection. So then why is the idea of total damnation for nonbelievers so popular? Many scholars believe this, and many Christians are compelled to believe this, even if it doesn't sound right to them.
Part of the reason is that many verses in the New Testament seem to support this view, "The one believing and being baptized will be saved. And the one not believing will be condemned" (Mark 16:16 LITV bible), "He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God" (John 3:18 KJV bible).
Taken alone, most people would conclude from these verses that nonbelievers can never be saved. However, there is a lot of context here to consider. What is the condemnation Jesus is referring to, and does it last forever?
John 3.19 helps explain the condemnation of unbelief, "And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19 KJV bible).
The world prefers darkness to light, and sin to righteousness. Because nonbelievers are part of the world, they share in its sinful and unclean nature. They're captive to the darkness of the world, and so their condemnation is part of the condemnation of the world. As described in Revelation 19.15, nonbelievers will be broken when Christ treads down the world (see also Saved from God's Wrath).
There is a season of wrath for the world, "And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come" (1 Thessalonians 1:10 KJV bible).
However being a nonbeliever isn't ultimately unforgiveable. Nonbelievers will be resurrected, and their good and evil deeds will be revealed. Out of them will come a clean remnant who will be the nations of the eternal age.
The truth of this hope doesn't negate the peril of sin. Nor does it diminish the sacrifice of Christ. There remains no other path of life and salvation besides Jesus. He will certainly deliver those he chooses, and also hold guilty those who have defamed him.
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