Do the Un-Evangelized Dead Automatically go to Hell?
Many Christians believe this is the teaching of the Bible. But many of them are also uncomfortable with this doctrine because it sounds so very unfair. Regardless, they believe they would be breaking faith with the scriptures to believe anything else, so as a mainstream doctrine it continues to persist.
But is that what the Bible really teaches? Maybe.
But maybe not.
There are other views that also address the question of what happens to people who die without ever hearing the Gospel, and those views also claim to have Biblical evidence. This study paper will consider only two of the following four views:
Four Different Views
1. Restrictivism, 2. Postmortem Evangelism, 3. Inclusivism, 4. Universalism.
Restrictivism is the view that this life offers the only opportunity for accepting the Gospel and that death slams the door. This is the default teaching of many Christian churches.
Postmortem Evangelism (or “Divine Persistence”) is the view that God intends to confront the unevangelized dead, those who lived and died without ever hearing about Jesus, with the Gospel after death, and allow them to accept or reject it at that time.
Restrictivism and Postmortem Evangelism are the only two views that will be reviewed in this study paper.
Inclusivism is the view that God will grant salvation to the unevangelized dead based on how well they lived their lives according to what truth they knew, even though they never heard the Gospel. This is classic salvation by works, and will not be considered here.
Universalism, the belief that everyone is destined to be saved, no exceptions, will likewise not be considered.
Where is it Written?
This study paper will show that the scriptural case for Restrictivism is unexpectedly weak. It’s weak because while the NT certainly commands and urges the preaching of the Gospel to the world, surprisingly and very curiously it does so without the panic and desperation language typical of much Restrictivism preaching.
(“Time is running out!”
“We have to reach the lost before they die and go to Hell!” etc.)
The case for Restrictivism is also weak because the scriptures that are claimed to teach that death slams the door don’t clearly say that “death slams the door” in so many words.
On the other hand, there are scriptures that are said to support Postmortem Evangelism, verses that strongly hint that God intends to confront the unevangelized dead with the Gospel after death and allow them to accept or reject it at that time. But curiously those scriptures also stop short of clearly saying so in plain unmistakable words.
What the Scriptures definitely and clearly say about death and the afterlife and Judgment is that sooner (or later) everyone is going to be judged and wind up either in Heaven or in Hell. But this does not help us resolve the question we’re looking at here, because this binary outcome is the assertion of both Restrictivism and Postmortem Evangelism.
The difference between the two views (a very significant difference) is whether or not the scriptures leave room for the unevangelized dead to be confronted with, and allowed to accept or reject, the Gospel after death. Below are some scriptures that are often cited to support Restrictivism.
1. Lazarus and the Rich Man.
A well-known proof text for Restrictivism is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16, in which a Rich Man dies and wakes up in Hell. The Rich Man did not repent during his lifetime, and now death has slammed the door.
It’s a well-known story, but it’s not proof. It’s a fictional story – not an actual literal account. To use this story to prove people in Hell can actually talk to people in Heaven, or even that there was a real person named Lazarus who had his open sores licked by dogs, would be to take the details too seriously.
Note the context. The preceding verses in this chapter show that the intended purpose of this story was not to reveal details and facts about afterlife events. Rather, Jesus told it to take the Pharisees to task about their attitudes towards money and the poor.
Luke 16:13-14. “No one can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him. NLT
The Pharisees believed that for one to be rich was proof one was blessed and loved by God, and to be poor proved the opposite.
So Jesus painted them into a corner with an upside-down story about a Poor Man who goes to Heaven and a Rich Man who goes to Hell.
It was an effective, graphic story, and the listening crowd would've lapped it up. But it was a fictional story, and by itself can’t be considered proof.
2. King of Babylon
Another proof-text offered for Restrictivism is found in Isaiah 14:9-10. In this passage, Isaiah describes a vision in which the King of Babylon dies and goes down to Hell (or, as various translations render it: the grave, Sheol, the realm of the dead, the place of the dead, etc.).
There this king meets a lot of other dead people who greet him with spooky variations on the theme of “Well, well, look who's here.”
It's a scene that sounds consistent with Restrictivism. Death has slammed the door and a wicked (unevangelized) king goes straight to Hell. But the language in this chapter, like many other portions of Isaiah, is poetic and figurative. It's a vision, and not necessarily literal.
3. Judgment Day
Another text often cited is Hebrews 9:27-28.
Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. NIV
If this passage is read with automatic damnation already in mind, the Restrictivist view may subconsciously add such words as: “..., and to slam the door on those who died without hearing the Gospel.”
But if those extra words aren't added, all Hebrews 9:27-28 says is that judgment follows death. And it also says that those who have accepted the Gospel during this lifetime will be saved. And these points are common to both Restrictivism and Postmortem Evangelism.
4. Out from their Graves
John 5:28-29 is another example sometimes offered as evidence for Restrictivism.
"Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. NIV
Judgment Time details are lacking in this bare-bones comment because the issue being argued in this chapter was about something else. Jesus was not trying to tell us everything there is to know about future Judgment and End Time events. John 5:28-29 is simply a passing comment in an argument about whether or not Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
The main issue in this chapter is that Jesus had crossed a line by calling God his Father, and in response, the Pharisees had resolved to kill him (verses 17-18). Jesus didn't back down but instead crossed that same line again and again.
“I'm the one Moses wrote about.” (verse 46)
“The Scriptures are all about me.” (verse 39)
“It's my voice the dead will hear at the time of the resurrection.” (verse 25)
Taking the context into account, the issue being argued in this chapter was whether or not Jesus was the Son of God. The detail about whose voice the dead will hear when they're called out of their graves is part of that argument. Jesus said the voice they were going to hear was his.
5. Sheep and the Goats
Another scripture some might suggest supports the Restrictivist view is found in Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable, Jesus returns and in one big mega-judgment event separates everybody into two groups (sheep and goats). Those who have done good works (fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, visited people in prison, etc.) are directed as “sheep” to Jesus’ right hand. Everybody else (the “goats”) misses out.
Apparently, time is up, and the goats are hearing a slamming door.
But Jesus is using this parable to teach something about the Christian Life. That doesn’t prove He’s using it to clarify or provide a detailed timeline or outline about the Judgment.
If we approach this parable with strict, rigid literalism, we’ll be in trouble. Because there are a lot of important missing words here. Faith isn’t mentioned, for example. And neither is Grace. Neither is confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior and accepting the Gospel in order to be considered a “sheep”.
If this scripture passage were the only sacred text we had in our hands today, we would have to be teaching salvation by works.
This is important to keep in mind when reading any and all of Jesus’ Parables, many of which end with End of World Judgment Day scenarios. The Parables teach important lessons, but we have to be careful about taking the details too literally.
"Parable" = "a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (From "Parables of The Kingdom" by C.H. Dodd, p. 16.)
The crowds listening would’ve understood this. When Jesus talked about someone burying a talent in the ground, for example, men in the crowd didn’t start sneaking out to get shovels and go find it.
The above examples are the strongest supporting scriptures that can be cited for Restrictivism, and as far as proof for Restrictivism goes they’re weak. The more detailed examples are figurative, and the less detailed examples don't say as much as the Restrictivist view assumes. They only appear to teach Restrictivism if they’re read with Restrictivism already in mind or if readers unconsciously add some extra words.
Below are some scriptures that support or at least strongly suggest Postmortem Evangelism.
6. The Great White Throne Judgment. Revelation 20:11-15.
11. Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. ...
12. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.
13. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.
14. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.
15. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (NIV)
Restrictivists may find it tempting to claim this passage as support for the Restrictivist view. It sounds like a very clear-cut, binary end-result. Christians have their names in the Book of Life. Everybody else goes to Hell.
But a key phrase in this passage is “the dead, great and small” (verse 12). And the question that needs to be asked is: who's included in that phrase “the dead, great and small”? Who are the people in that group? Are there any Christians in that group?
The Restrictivist answer might be “Yes, some of them must be Christians because not everyone gets thrown into the lake of fire”.
But the correct answer is “No”. There are no Christians in that group of people (“the dead, great and small”) in verse 12.
Why? Because all Christians from this age will have already been resurrected 1000 years before this point in time at the Return of Christ, at the beginning of the Millennium.
Revelation 20:4. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. KJV
All Christians from this age will have already received eternal life. They will already have been judged and rewarded, or how could they be reigning with Christ for the previous 1000 years?
[Some teach that this resurrection is only for a limited subset of all Christians: those that have been beheaded, and those alive during the time of the Beast.
[But this is reading the KJV translation of Revelation 20:4 too literally. That teaching is undermined by other major translations of this verse, including the New KJV, the NIV, the NLT, and the RSV and other authoritative translations.
[And it would contradict 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 and I Thessalonians 4:16-17, which tell us that all Christians, dead or alive (including Christians who died with their heads still on) will rise at the time of the Last Trumpet at Christ’s Return.]
Notice verses 5 in this same chapter. Speaking of Christians of this age:
“They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.” NIV
But if no Christians are included in this group (“the rest of the dead”), why does verse 15 begin with the word “if'”?
Why will only some of “the dead, great and small” will be thrown into the Lake of Fire, while others will not?
The only way any people in that group in verse 12 can have their names added to the Book of Life is by being confronted with and by accepting the Gospel. (Note that the Book of Life is said to be “open”, not closed tight, locked and shut.)
Step by step descriptions of the unevangelized lost being confronted with the Gospel at this point in time, accepting it and thereby having their names added to the Book of Life, aren’t spelled out in detail in this chapter.
But why would they need to be? Believing the Gospel and accepting Jesus as Savior is the only way to be saved. This is nailed down by other scriptures. There is no other way for one’s name to added to the Book of Life. And this doesn’t need to be written down in every single chapter in every single book of the Bible in order to be true.
Acts 4:12. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." NIV
John 14:6. Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. NIV
Does this mean that Revelation 20 nails down and proves Postmortem Evangelism is the teaching of the Bible? As tempting as it might be to resolve the tension and settle this once and for all, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea. The apocryphal style in which the book of Revelation was written, (heavy with symbols, metaphors, figurative language) means we have to be careful about taking details in Revelation too literally.
But the main overall story thread that runs through Revelation 20 is consistent with Postmortem Evangelism. And that main overall story thread is not consistent with Restrictivism.
If the Restrictivist view were correct, then for the unevangelized lost (all those not included in the First Resurrection, verse 4) there should be no word “if” in verse 15. Everybody, 100% of the people in that group “the dead, great and small” (verse 12) should be missing out. They should all be hearing a slamming door.
7. “All Israel will be saved...”
Romans 11:25-26. Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved…. NIV
Paul’s words in Romans 11 puzzle people today. What did Paul mean by “all Israel will be saved”? It seems evident as we read this today that all Israel is not being saved.
Was Paul referring prophetically to a yet future success story, writing off all the Jews living at the time he wrote this, as well as all Jews who had lived in the past? Was he saying “Well, the Jews we're not reaching now are all going to Hell, but someday (when we have enough Gentiles), then all those Jews living at that future time will become Christians and join the Church”?
Restrictivism simply consigns everyone who dies unsaved to Hell. Most Jews have not been persuaded to accept the Gospel and become saved.
So why doesn’t Paul sound in despair? Instead, it sounds like Paul has confidence that there's Good News ahead for the people of Israel. Why might that be? Did Paul know something that gave him hope for his fellow countrymen – past and present, as well as future Israel?
And speaking of Israel “past” see next Ezekiel 37:11-14.
8. The Valley of the Dry Bones.
Ezekiel 37:11-14. "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. ... I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.'" NIV
In this vision of scattered bones coming together and reforming into living people, these Israelites who have been brought back to physical life are clearly not resurrected Christians from the New Testament era. They’re OT Israelites who lived and died centuries before Jesus was even born. They're pictured as bewildered and in despair. They’re saying, “We're doomed.”
Some scholars explain this vision as a metaphor of the children of Israel returning to their homeland from exile, i.e. a political explanation.
But what if it’s more than that? What if this vision is a hint of how God is going to open the “Book of Life” for OT Israel? What if this is a clue about how all people who lived before Christ will be resurrected and be confronted with and given a chance to accept or reject the Gospel after death?
God is saying in this vision that He’s going to give them his Spirit. He’s going to give them hope.
How can that be? How can they have any hope? It can’t be because they were “good” people and earned salvation. They can’t have hope because they deserve it. It can’t be because they offered animal sacrifices for their sins.
Hebrews 10:4. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. NLT
Salvation is only possible by grace and faith in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins. To be saved they will need to accept the Gospel.
Acts 4:12. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." NIV.
And to be able to accept the Gospel, they will need to be confronted with and given a chance to understand and accept or reject the details of the Gospel, even if this confrontation only happens after death.
Even if these steps to Salvation aren’t described in detail in this vision, they don’t need to be. The Gospel is the core message of the Bible. It’s the only way anybody will ever have any hope.
However, it needs to be kept in mind that this chapter, like much of Ezekiel, is a vision written in poetic and figurative language, and, just like the examples in Luke 16 and Isaiah 14 cited above, can’t be treated as strictly literal. But the implication of this vision is consistent with Postmortem Evangelism, and so also is the implication of Paul’s comments in Romans 11:25-26.
A Coin Toss?
Both the Restrictivist and Postmortem Evangelism views have their supporters, but as we’ve seen, the scriptures cited above do not nail down a clear-cut, dogmatic, impossible-to-be-misunderstood conclusion either way. We’ve reviewed scriptures that strongly hint that Postmortem Evangelism could be true, but these are only strong hints and not strong proof.
And we’ve looked at scriptures that traditionally have been said to teach Restrictivism but which don’t actually say as much as the Restrictivist doctrine claims.
Additionally, we’ve cited the absence of desperate panic in the New Testament, the absence of frustration that while Jesus was walking the earth, and while Paul was planting and nurturing churches, around the world the door was slamming on people who were dying without ever hearing the Gospel, never having a chance.
There's one more remaining scriptural support for Postmortem Evangelism that needs to be reviewed, and it’s the strongest and most important one of all. But here are some other points to be covered first.
Objections, and Wrap Up.
The Restrictivist view is deeply entrenched in many churches and one rarely hears it openly challenged. When Postmortem Evangelism is mentioned, Christians who support the Restrictivist teaching generally express some objections. One objection is that Postmortem Evangelism negates every reason for missionaries and ministers to evangelize and spread the Gospel.
But no, it doesn't. Jesus tells us to share and spread the Gospel. That should be enough.
But which is better? To preach the Gospel out of love, but with a nagging fear that every person the missionaries narrowly fail to reach is doomed to Hell? Or to preach it out of both love and joy because it's such thoroughly wonderful Good News?
For those who give up so much to reach the world with the Good News, God will not forget or fail to reward and honor what they’ve done.
Another objection is that Postmortem Evangelism, in some peoples’ minds, amounts to a “second chance”. There are people who have been confronted with the Gospel in this life and have rejected it. They've had their chance. If those people think they can live as they please now and then change their minds and accept the Gospel after death, that will be cheating.
Of course, many people never have a first chance in this lifetime, but aside from that, this objection is bogus because it presumes the very untenable idea that God is stupid and can be fooled into letting people into Heaven who shouldn't be there.
A further concern is that Postmortem Evangelism essentially amounts to Universalism. After all, won't everyone who dies without being confronted with the Gospel in this lifetime be so dazzled by the prospect of Heaven that they'll automatically say Yes because it's such an easy no-brainer? Their choice will be too easy compared to those who take up their cross in this lifetime and live the Christian life against sometimes harsh opposition.
Too easy? Maybe not. This presumes people will be resurrected in the Judgment without all their negative baggage, without all their lifelong accumulated memories, hatreds, fears, hurts, prejudices, cynicism and bitterness, pride, wrong beliefs and deeply held convictions, hard-heartedness, etc. intact.
If they’re going to be resurrected without all of that, they won’t be the same people at all. And it also presumes God won't know how to confront each of them with the Gospel in a way that makes it a valid choice.
We can fervently hope that a great many people will accept Jesus as Lord and Savior when that time comes. But after a lifetime of accumulating the above “negative baggage”, accepting Jesus at any time may, for some, turn out to be asking too much.
These are some commonly expressed objections to Postmortem Evangelism. On the other hand, there are some objections to Restrictivism that those who support it have never been able to satisfactorily answer.
For example: If God is all-loving and all-powerful and is trying to save everyone before they die, why aren't a lot more people getting saved?
And what about infants, mentally handicapped or damaged people who can’t accept or reject the Gospel because they’re unable to do so?
Also, why can a death-bed conversion be considered valid, but an after-death conversion cannot? In both cases, conversion and salvation can only be possible by grace.
And grace may be a tipping point in this whole question. Grace is where Postmortem Evangelism gains its most traction. Because grace is always at all times – by definition, whether before or after death – a gift. Grace is always at all times undeserved, unmerited, unearned, unjust, unreasonable, outrageous, crazy and unfair. Those who die unevangelized and therefore unsaved don't deserve to be confronted with the Gospel and offered grace after death. And, in this present lifetime, neither do we.
The story of the Bible is at its deepest level a story of grace. It's a story driven by the unlimited love of a God who would rather be tortured to death than give up on us, even though what's exactly what we deserve. The scriptures tell us that's actually and literally what He did. Postmortem Evangelism is consistent with this story. And the story isn't over yet.
Christians for centuries have taken comfort from Paul’s words in Romans 8:35-39.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake, we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. NIV
Paul was convinced that God’s love was so great that nothing could get in its way. And we know from John 3:16 that God loves everybody, that He gave his “only begotten Son” because he “so loved the world” and every person in it, every last sinner.
The Restrictivist view teaches that physical death in this life slams the door, and that death does indeed separate the unevangelized dead from the love of Christ. The Restrictivist view teaches that God’s love can be thwarted by an isolated location or an untimely death.
Postmortem Evangelism, on the other hand, teaches that nothing, not even an isolated untimely death, can separate any people from the love of Christ. And it teaches that without taking anything away from the Gospel. It teaches that salvation is possible only through grace and faith in Jesus Christ, through acceptance of Jesus as Lord and Savior, whenever that acceptance might occur.
Restrictivism as a core belief remains deeply entrenched in many Christian churches. But does the Bible, in fact, teach Restrictivism? Does the Bible say that all people who die without hearing and accepting the Gospel automatically go to hell?
But maybe not.
Anuther Pilgrim. Study Paper, 1-6-2013.