Many Christians have been taught that the question where we will spend eternity is solely determined by whether we have believed the Gospel, and said yes to Jesus, or not – during our lives on earth.
First, let me clearly point out that I believe that it is very important for each and every one to receive Jesus during our earthly lives – if possible. This, for a number of different reasons, which I will not address in this article. (For more about this subject, read the end of the article “Will God’s ultimate desire be fulfilled?”) However, not all get the chance to hear the Gospel during their earthly lives. Does this mean that they will be tormented in hell for all eternity – without any hope of a change or a way out of this misery?
Nowhere does the Bible directly say that it is not possible to get saved after our physical death. We should remember that God is Almighty and that everything is possible for Him. If God wishes to save someone after his/her earthly life, He is fully capable of doing so. It is Jesus who has the keys of Hades and death (Rev. 1:18) – not the devil. If only Jesus wants to, He can use His keys to unlock the door! The question is not whether God is capable or not. The question is what He wants to do, and what He – according to His eternal purpose and counsel – already has predetermined before the beginning of time.
Below, I am going to present 4 different testimonies from the Holy Scriptures of the Bible, that indicate that it could actually be possible to be saved, and receive eternal life, even after death.
Testimony 1: The Gospel was preached to those who died in the flood of Noah
If it is impossible to be saved after death, we must conclude that all of those who died in the flood in the days of Noah, are presently in the “sinners department” in Hades, and later – as Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire (see Rev. 20:14) – will end up in what we normally call “hell”.
However, the Apostle Peter explains that Jesus went down to Hades and preached the Gospel to those who died in the flood during the time of Noah:
19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah… (1 Pet. 3:19-20)
If what Peter says is correct, we should ask ourselves: Did Jesus descend to Hades to preach a message of, “I won the victory by reconciling the world to God, but you are all doomed to spend eternity in Hades/Hell”? Or did He proclaim His victory in order to seek out and to save the lost? I cast my vote on the second alternative, which is also indicated by the scriptural context:
6 For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Pet. 4:6)
It is obviously possible to be judged “according to men in the flesh” (by perishing in the flood), and in spite of this to be made alive “according to God in the spirit” – even after having died physically. These verses are a strong indication that those who perished in the flood are saved today – if they chose to believe in Jesus when He came and preached to them in their prison, or if they otherwise called upon His name on a later occasion.
Testimony 2: The surrender of a sexually immoral man to the devil so that he could be saved in the day of the Lord
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! 2 And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. 3 For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. 4 In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. (1 Cor. 5:1-5)
Paul surrendered a sexually immoral church member to Satan (i.e. expelled him from the fellowship of the believers). It is very interesting to note that Paul did not surrender the man to God to be punished by Him. God does not punish people after the cross, since He through the cross has reconciled the world to Himself. The purpose of Paul’s dealing with the man was good. It was to make a strong example of the man, so that his immoral behavior would not make other believers indulge in the same sinful lifestyle. The reason why Paul with a good conscience could deliver him to the devil, “for the destruction of the flesh” – i.e. until he had died physically – was that Paul was convinced that the man’s spirit would eventually be saved – in “the day of the Lord”.
A common interpretation of this Scripture, is that God sometimes allows Christians who live in sin to die prematurely, so that their sinful lifestyle will not harden their hearts to the point that they no longer trust in Jesus for their salvation, and thereby are eternally lost. However, note that Paul says the man’s spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord. If the man was already saved, wouldn’t he then be brought to Paradise/heaven immediately? Why wait until the day of the Lord for the spirit to be saved – if the spirit had been saved all along?
Thus, the context indicates that it is possible for a person’s spirit to be saved, after physical death.
(Some believe that “the day of the Lord” in this context refers to the day the person in question hopefully repents and calls on the name of the Lord – during his earthly life. This could be partly correct, since the outcome in the specific case was that the man repented and was allowed to rejoin the church fellowship, see 2 Cor. 2:1-8).
Testimony 3: The practice of baptism for the dead
In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, we come across something very strange. As Paul talks about that the final outcome of everything will be that God will become “all in all”, he also mentions that it must be possible for those who have died without knowing Christ to be raised from the dead – and be included into this “all in all reality”. Otherwise, Paul reasons, it would have been meaningless for those who get baptized for the dead to do so. Let us look at this Scripture:
28 Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. 29 Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Cor. 15:28-29)
The only logical reason as to why people practiced baptism for the dead must have been that they had a hope that it was possible for people who had died as unbelievers to be saved – even after death! However, note that Paul never admonishes or recommends us to get baptized for the dead(!) Neither Paul nor any other Apostle encourages us as believers to do so. The reason why Paul mentions the ongoing practice of baptism for the dead, is that he wants to point out that it is actually possible to be saved after death! If so were not the case, according to Paul, those people would be way off – which they obviously were not!
Testimony 4: Every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord
The Apostle Paul says in Philippians that every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – in heaven, on earth, and under the earth:
9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11)
This is a quote from Isaiah chapter 45, from the Old Testament:
23 I have sworn by Myself; The word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, And shall not return, That to Me every knee shall bow, Every tongue shall take an oath. 24 He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength. To Him men shall come, And all shall be ashamed Who are incensed against Him. (Is. 45:23-24)
All those who are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (in Hades) – which should include everyone who has ever lived – will not only confess Jesus as Lord. They will also say that they have their righteousness and strength in Him. This strongly indicates that they now have been saved! Hardly will sinners, who are about to spend the rest of all eternity in hell, confess that they have their righteousness and strength in Christ! Only people who have been saved – and have received Jesus as their righteousness – would make such a statement.
The notion that God would force everyone who did not receive Jesus during their earthly lives to make such a confession – only to send them straight to hell for all eternity, comes across as very unlikely. God is a good God and has no pleasure in punishing or tormenting sinners. God’s judgments always have the ultimate purpose of bringing people to a place of repentance and restoration.
By the way, what happens whenever someone confesses Jesus as Lord? The shocking answer is: they end up getting saved!
9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Rom. 10:9-10)
”For ’whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’.” (Rom. 10:13)
A final clarification: There is a clear distinction between the believers and the non-believers
Finally, I would like to emphasize the following: In no way do we take the question of eternity and the final judgment lightly. On the day of judgment there will be a significant difference between those who have received Jesus, and those who have not. There is a clear distinction between the sheep and the goats. Not everyone will be invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb. Eternal life is only found in and through Jesus Christ.
However, we do not believe that the Lake of Fire – which is normally called “hell” – is the final end point of those who did not believe the Gospel while they lived on the earth. (For more about this subject, read the article “Is hell eternal?”.) The book of Revelation does not necessarily describe everything that will take place in chronological order. Paul, the man who was given the assignment to fulfill the word of God (see Col. 1:25), describes what the final outcome is in 1 Cor. 15:28: God will become “all in all”. And before this can take place, every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – in heaven, on earth, and even under the earth (Phil. 2:9-11).