Since I was very young, I’ve been taught what happens after death. At a basic level, I understood what our faith teaches and believed it — those who die in faith will be resurrected when Christ returns and live and reign with Him for 1000 years, then those who did not believe during their lifetime will be resurrected and given a chance to learn before the final judgement. I could not, however, give anyone who asked about my beliefs a more thorough explanation than the brief outline I just gave here.
Recently, I’ve been spending most of my study time in Romans as I work on a paper about Old and New Covenants — the differences and similarities, what was changed/updated by Christ’s sacrifice, what stayed the same, things like that. I think my prayers for guidance in studying this topic are being answered, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn more about other aspects of my faith as well. I’m sure my understanding is still shallow, but I feel like I can finally start writing about both the covenants (the subject of future blog posts, I’m sure) as well as today’s subject, which is an aspect of the question, What happens after death?
Going to hell?
One thing I’ve always wondered about groups I would call “mainstream Christianity” is how they are comfortable believing that God would condemn people to hell simply for never having heard the truth. I know some wonderful people who do believe this, but it puzzles me. Think how many people that includes throughout history. There were people in the years before Christ who never even heard of the God of Israel, much less understood Him. There were people beyond the reach of the early Christian church who never heard the gospel preached. There were people whose first encounter with “Christianity” was a forced baptism before they were enslaved to mine gold or work plantations. There are children who were aborted or killed as infants who never had a chance to live at all or learn anything.
Why would a God who loved the world so much “that He gave His only begotten Son” and Who “is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” condemn people who have never understood His truth? (John 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:9).
Those who “perish without law”
Ever since creation, all human beings have sinned (Rom. 3:9). No one is inherently righteous, not matter how closely they adhere to the letter of the law — “by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). In other words, the law given in the Old Testament lets us know we are sinning, but until Jesus Christ’s sacrifice there was no way for us to be cleansed of sin.
So, what about people who never understood or heard the law which gives “knowledge of sin”? In Romans 5:13, it states that “until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” This hearkens back to a statement made in Romans 2:12: “For as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”
These verses give us key insight regarding how God will judge the world. He is not unrighteous or cold-hearted, and does not delight in seeing people perish because of ignorance. For many, this means He will be patient beyond their deaths and give them a chance to know Him in the resurrection.
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 (Rev. 20:11-12)
Reason for hope
The incredible grace that God and Jesus offer includes not condemning people who don’t have a clue what they are doing. While Their righteousness does demand a penalty for sin, They are also defined by love (1 John 4:8, 16) and allow for repentance once people acknowledge the truth and turn from their sin (2 Tim. 2:25). For some, that is happening now or will happen in their physical lifetimes. For others, this will not be until the resurrection.