cup of wrath

Articles and Questions

Can Unbelievers be Saved?

Can unbelievers 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 unbelievers be forgiven in the age to come?

This is a question that touches us all personally. Most of us know unbelievers as well as struggling believers. The vast majority of people are unbelievers (Matthew 7.14). So then one of the most important questions in Christianity is whether unbelievers have any hope in the future. What happens to unbelievers in the resurrection of the dead?

Often times we're taught as Christians that there's no hope for unbelievers. 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. Sin can't coexist with holiness, so a person must be forgiven to be fit for heaven.

So if all unbelievers are sinners, and they're all unforgiven, then one should believe that the outcome is the same for all of them. It makes no difference whether someone dies in an act of heroism, or they die as a crook. If that person doesn't believe, they're unforgiven and going to hell forever.

This "accept Jesus or else" view of salvation is popular. The suggestion of something like a second chance seems heretical to many Christians. They see any future possibility of salvation as somehow diminishing Jesus' sacrifice. If Jesus died so you can repent now, then why would he forgive you later on?

However, there are difficulties 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 good deeds really deserve the same fate as the worst sinner? Are an unbeliever's deeds completely irrelevant in God's eyes?

As with many issues, we need to take a closer look at the scriptures. Many assume that it clearly says there's no hope for unbelievers. However, they might be surprised at what some passages say on this important subject. No one wants to be guilty of spreading destructive lies on the subject of salvation.

What's the reason for a resurrection of unbelievers?

One should recognize the biblical truth of the resurrection of the dead. The bible says that everyone, including unbelievers, will have a part in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 24:15). The bible also says that everyone, including unbelievers, 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 unbelievers. This chapter describes the future resurrection and judgment of unbelievers as part of God's plan. This passage is explicit about a future day of judgment for all unbelievers.

"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 unbeliever will stand before their Creator as an individual.

The obvious question about this passage, is whether the resurrection and judgment of unbelievers 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 unbeliever, then why judge them by their works? If being an unbeliever makes them unforgivable, then why consider their deeds?

Yet even though many Christians are aware of these scriptures, they feel there's no hope for unbelievers. They believe that the resurrection and judgment of unbelievers is only for the purpose of condemning them. In other words, there's no chance that any unbelievers will be forgiven. Being judged according to their works means that every unbeliever receives damnation.

However, doesn't God have the right to forgive anyone he wants? What precludes the idea that some lost souls will be delivered at the end? The final resurrection isn't an alternative salvation, but why can't there be forgiveness? What purpose does it serve if no one is saved?

Will there be a future age when unbelievers can be forgiven?

One mistake that's often made on this subject is that being unforgiven is confused with being unforgivable. Many assume that because the bible says unbelievers are unforgiven, they're also unforgivable. They believe that the unforgiven state of unbelievers is eternal after they die.

On the other hand, there are many passages that suggest a future time of forgiveness for unbelievers. In one of these places, Jesus speaks of a certain sin that can never be forgiven. He says that in the age to come men will be forgiven of all kinds of sin, but not this one.

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. If this one sin is unforgivable, then are other kinds of sins forgivable?

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 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).

Matthew 12 describes the unpardonable sin, but it also mentions a future time of forgiveness. We know that after Jesus returns the dead will be resurrected, and judged for their deeds. If there is forgiveness in this future age, then wouldn't it be for the people who need it?

Some unbelievers will have a better resurrection than others.

One place that gives us some insight into the resurrection of unbelievers 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 bible.

Second, Jesus tells us about the Ninevites in the book of Jonah. This is a group of gentiles who repented at the teaching of Jonah the prophet. 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 "unbelievers" 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 unbelievers 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 unbeliever 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 unbelievers as examples to his generation, if they will be equally condemned with them. The unbelievers that Jesus holds up as examples must have a better place in the resurrection.

Lastly, there is a certain irony here that churches should notice. 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 saw as sinful, will be found more righteous than them on Judgment Day.

What happens in the second resurrection?

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 unbelievers together, or just unbelievers?

The usual assumption here is that Jesus is describing a resurrection of believers and unbelievers. 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 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 unbelievers as coming from their graves.

Moving back to John 5.28-29, we can see that Jesus is describing a distant resurrection of unbelievers. Unbelievers will hear his voice and come out of their spiritual graves. Some unbelievers will resurrect into eternal damnation for their sins. However, those who have done well will resurrect into eternal life.

So by examining John 5.28-29 we can better understand Revelation 20. The great masses of unbelievers will be resurrected out of death and Hades as described in Revelation 20.13. Then they will be judged by their works, both good and evil. Some will receive a resurrection unto life, but others unto damnation, as described in John 5.29.

The sheep will be separated from the goats.

We can compare John 5 and Revelation 20 to another description of the same event in Matthew 25, "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. And before Him shall be gathered all the nations; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats...Then the King will say to those on His right, Come, the blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world...Then He will also say to those on His left, go away from Me, cursed ones, into the everlasting fire having been prepared for the devil and his angels" (Mat 25:31-32,34,41 LITV bible).

This passage describes a great gathering of the nations on Judgment Day. This mass of people is divided into two groups. One group is found to have been compassionate and merciful to least of their brethren. They will enter the Kingdom. The other group is found to have been cruel and merciless, and they will be sent to eternal damnation.

We should notice in this gathering that the people are judged by their deeds. In particular, they are judged by how they treat others. There is no mention here of serving Jesus or doing works by the Spirit. There are other places that do describe a judgment of servants, when some are cast out (see The Millennium Kingdom). However, this group of people are only judged by their deeds in the world.

Some interpret this mass of people as being both believers and unbelievers, and this is why some of them are blessed with eternal life. However, why would Jesus put his faithful servants into this group? His servants are gathered to him at his return (Mark 13.27, 2nd Thess 1.7). His faithful servants are his family, and not judged a second time among the nations.

When we read John 5, Matthew 25, and Revelation 20 we see a picture of a future judgment. This judgment is of those who are spiritually dead and in Hades. They are not the righteous or faithful servants, but unbelievers. Yet out of this group there are some who are forgiven and receive eternal life. They aren't cursed to eternal hell, but received into the Kingdom. They are dead, and yet they are forgiven.

Will unbelievers be healed in the eternal Kingdom?

Now let's look past the resurrection and into the eternity. The bible gives us a picture of the eternity that includes many unbelievers who have been saved. These people formerly did not believe, but have been delivered.

"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 unbelievers. 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 unbelievers, who will enter the city. This tells us that some unbelievers 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. They give a picture that's different from the popularly held ideas about eternal heaven. They don'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. This is the eternal Israel that's prophecied in the Old Testament.

Unbelief isn't unforgivable in the resurrection.

All the scriptures we've looked at so far tell us that unbelievers can be saved in the future resurrection. So then why is the idea of total damnation for unbelievers so popular? Many scholars believe this, and many Christians are compelled to believe this.

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 unbelievers 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 unbelievers are part of the world, they share in its evil 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, unbelievers will be spiritually broken with the world.

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).

Unbelief is a path of destruction. It's the wide gate that the nations go into. They go into the destruction of death because there is no deliverance without God (see What are we Being Saved From?). However, they will also experience a future release. They will be raised out of death and Hades in the Resurrection of the dead.

Being an unbeliever isn't unforgiveable. Unbelief is not the unpardonable sin. Unbelievers 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. Jesus will have mercy on some while others are condemned as described in Matthew 25, John 5, Revelation 20 and many other places.

Comments are Welcome...
Rules: (1)
Post on topic. (2) No slanderous or abusive posts. (3) No repetitive or continuous posting.

Articles and Questions Videos
Risen from the Dust Mission

Content and design by Doug Buckley.
Copyright, 2008-2024, all rights reserved.