Are you worried about non-Christian friends and loved ones who have died? Are they condemned forever to an ever-burning Hell? Your Bible reveals a hope-filled truth that few today understand!
Most of us have experienced the loss of a loved one, a friend or a neighbor through death. Death sobers us. When someone around us dies, we take the time—or we should take the time—to consider the deeper questions of life. What happens after a person dies? Will we ever see our loved ones again?
Death sometimes comes unexpectedly. The German insurance firm Munich Re reported that in 2008, more than 220,000 people died in disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar accounted for 130,000 of those deaths—the largest death toll from a single natural disaster since the Sumatra earthquake and tsunami took the lives of nearly 230,000 in December 2004. When the Yellow River flooded from July through November 1931, more than a million Chinese drowned, and some estimates of total flood deaths approach four million. Truly, we live in a dangerous world, where unforeseen hazards can take us by surprise and change our plans forever.
Some disasters are man-made, like the disaster of war. Estimates of World War II deaths vary, but sources concur that well over 50 million died during that terrible conflict—including tens of millions of civilians. In the 20th century, when we combine state-sponsored genocides, political purges, and war-related deaths, the figure approaches 300 million!
Death is tragic whenever it comes, but it is also routine. World population researchers report that in 2008, about 8.2 out of every thousand people died—more than 55 million men, women and children! Many died of natural causes, at the end of long and productive lives, but their deaths were no less painful to their loved ones.
Most people try to console themselves by believing in some kind of life after death. The Barna Research Group in 2003 released a study documenting Americans' ideas about the afterlife. Barna found that 81 percent believe in an afterlife of some sort. Only 10 percent said they are certain there is no afterlife; another 9 percent said there might be an afterlife. Barna found that 76 percent of those surveyed believe Heaven exists, and 71 percent believe in the existence of Hell.
Barna found that Eastern religious concepts are gaining popularity in America; 18 percent of those surveyed said they believe in some kind of reincarnation, and 34 percent believe they can communicate with others after death ("Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death," October 21, 2003).
What confusion! We need to search the Bible for the truth about life and death!
If you are like most of the people Barna surveyed, you believe in an ever-burning Hell where people are being tortured right now. Perhaps you think some of your own relatives are suffering unbearable torment at this very moment, while you are reading this article.
Where did you get your beliefs about Hell? Many would be surprised to learn how many of today's stereotypical ideas of Hell come not from the Bible, but from the writings of a 14th century Italian poet. Dante Alighieri, author of La Divina Commedia (or, in English, The Divine Comedy) wrote his lengthy poem as an allegory, to comment on the social and political problems of his nation. His depiction of Hell featured nine descending regions of ever-greater eternal torment for sinners. In one section of Dante's poem, titled Inferno, we find that lustful sinners receive the mildest punishment in the first circle of Hell; the lowest realms of Hell are reserved for those whom Dante considers history's most repugnant traitors—not only Judas Iscariot, but also the Roman traitors Brutus and Cassius, who were implicated in the murder of Julius Caesar.
Sadly, many Bible students just accept an idea of Hell like Dante's, and ignore the plain meaning of familiar scriptures. Perhaps they learned about Hell from their parents, or from a pastor, and never saw for themselves the plain truth of God's word.
Notice: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Dante portrays sinners enduring eternal life in the flames of Hell, but your Bible says something different—that sinners earn death—the absence of life!
Remember what Jesus said in what may be the Bible's most famous verse: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Our Savior described a contrast between life and death. On the one hand, everlasting life; on the other hand, to perish. To "perish" means to be destroyed, or "to come to nothing." Jesus came that we might not be destroyed forever. He came to give us the possibility of eternal life, which we do not now inherently have.
Are you surprised to learn that we do not have immortal life now? Can the human soul be destroyed? Yes, God says it can! Notice what our Creator spoke through the prophet Ezekiel: "Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine; the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4).
Yes, your Bible reveals that there is a lake of fire, into which unrepentant sinners will be thrown—and destroyed (Revelation 20:14–15; 21:8). Dying in the lake of fire, they will experience the "second death" (v. 8), from which there is no resurrection.
Some religious thinkers, like the Protestant reformer John Calvin, have taught that God created billions of souls whom He has knowingly predestined to suffer in Hell for eternity. Others say that God wants to save all souls, but that it is up to Christians to reach the world with His message—and, if they fail, the souls who have never even heard the name of Jesus Christ will spend eternity being tormented in Hell.
Would a loving God really be so cruel and unfair? Some theologians say that since they know God is fair, even those who never hear Christ's name or message can be saved. But that is not what the Apostle Peter taught. He proclaimed the name of Jesus Christ, and warned that "there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
How can we reconcile Peter's plain words with the truth of a loving and just God? Jesus berated the peoples of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum who had rejected His message. Notice what He said to the people of Capernaum: "And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you" (Matthew 11:23–24).
God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire (Genesis 19). Yet Jesus Christ said it will be "more tolerable" for Sodom in the day of judgment than for Capernaum. How can that be? Christ said that if Sodom had seen His works, its people would have repented, and God would have spared that wicked and perverse city.
So, what will happen at the day of judgment? As we will see, Scripture describes a great resurrection to judgment after the Millennium. Notice how your Bible describes the first group of people being resurrected, and the pivotal words at the end of that description: "And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection" (Revelation 20:4–5).
The first resurrection will include "those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God" (v. 4). These saints included in the first resurrection will be raised to immortality and will reign with Jesus Christ for a thousand years (v. 4). Yet, during this time, "the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished" (v. 5). Obviously, the dead of Sodom will not be in this first resurrection.
Let us understand. If there is a first resurrection, there must be a second resurrection! The people of Sodom will be raised to physical life in the second resurrection, which will occur after "the thousand years were finished"—after a thousand years of Jesus Christ's millennial reign on planet Earth. Why will they be raised to physical life? To be judged, as we will soon see.
Does this surprise you? Many today have forgotten that from its very beginning, God's true Church has proclaimed the reality of Jesus Christ's coming millennial reign on Earth (to learn more about this wonderful time, please read "God's Kingdom Is a Real Government," on page 4 of this issue). Noted historian Edward Gibbon wrote the following, in his famous book, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: "The ancient and popular doctrine of the Millennium was intimately connected with the Second Coming of Christ. As the works of the creation had been finished in six days, their duration in their present state, according to a tradition which was attributed to the Prophet Elijah, was fixed to six thousand years. By the same analogy it was inferred that this long period of labour and contention, which was now almost elapsed, would be succeeded by a joyful Sabbath of a thousand years; and that Christ, with the triumphant band of the saints and the elect who had escaped death, or who had been miraculously revived, would reign upon earth till the time appointed for the last and general resurrection" (chap. 15, sec. 2).
Yes, as Gibbon points out, the first century Church—the apostolic Church—understood that the saints would rule with Christ for a thousand years, preceding a "general resurrection."
What will occur at this "general resurrection"? The "rest of the dead" (Revelation 20:5) will be resurrected to physical life. You can read a description of that time in Ezekiel 37. Who are the "rest of the dead"? They are the masses of humanity who never genuinely converted to Christianity. They include the peoples of Tyre, Sidon, Sodom and Gomorrah, whom Christ said will receive favor and tolerance, upon repentance, at their time of judgment. They include even the peoples of Israel whom God spiritually blinded (Romans 11:25).
God wants us to learn important lessons as preparation for eternal life in His family. So, sometimes God spiritually blinds people so that they can learn lasting lessons. Then, when these people are finally called in the White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11–13), they will eagerly respond to God's calling and will be converted. Remember, the Apostle Paul said that God had blinded Israel in part. The Apostle writes: "For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob; for this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins'" (Romans 11:25–27).
When will "all Israel" be saved? At the Great White Throne Judgment, a time when all the spiritually blinded who have died will have their eyes opened to the word of God. If God wanted to save everyone right now, do you really believe He would be incapable of doing so? Of course not! God's plan, as revealed in your Bible, is that those who are blinded today are included in His plan—so He can save them later!
The Apostle Paul pointed out that God had called some Gentiles, and some from Israel. But the rest, he wrote, were spiritually blinded. "What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Just as it is written: 'God has given them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear, to this very day'" (Romans 11:7–8).
Does that surprise you? Jesus did not call everyone in His day to conversion. Remember, at the end of His 31/2-year ministry, He had just 120 disciples (Acts 1:15). Jesus said, "Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand" (Matthew 13:13).
What will happen at this resurrection to judgment? Books—biblia in the original Greek—will be opened (Revelation 20:12). What are those books? The books of the Bible! For the very first time in their existence, billions of human beings will have their eyes opened, and they will have their opportunity for salvation!
Please understand. This is not a "second chance." This is the time Jesus foretold, concerning the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, Tyre and Sidon. The Apostle John wrote: "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" (Revelation 20:11–12).
Yes, the dead will live again! Billions whom God spiritually blinded will have their eyes opened in the Great White Throne Judgment. These resurrected people will learn God's way and put it into practice, drawing closer to their Savior as they prepare to become eternal and immortal children of God. This process will take place over a lifetime (Isaiah 65:20), just as members of the Church today—the "house of God"—are now being judged over our lifetimes (1 Peter 4:17). Some of your friends and loved ones may be part of that future judgment. As the Apostle Paul wrote, "All Israel shall be saved" (Romans 11:26). Indeed, God is not keeping salvation for just a relative few; He desires that all human beings be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
Most human beings have lived and died without even hearing the name of Jesus Christ. Others may have heard only a false gospel about Jesus. These people will have their opportunity for salvation during the Great White Throne Judgment. To learn more about that wonderful time, write for your free copy of our informative booklet, Is This the Only Day of Salvation? It will help you understand the plan a just and loving God has established to save the vast majority of human beings after they respond to His Truth.
But what will you be doing when Christ returns? Will you be in the first resurrection? Notice: "This is the first resurrection" (Revelation 20:5). If God is calling you, you need to respond. You need to seek God with all your heart, so you can be in the first resurrection when Christ returns. You can read about that inspiring time in the resurrection chapters of your Bible: 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4. Faithful Christians are resurrected to rule with Christ here on earth! As it states, "they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years" (Revelation 20:6).
The resurrection that will take place when Jesus Christ returns is a resurrection to immortal life. God will give faithful Christians the awesome gift of eternal, immortal life at that time. This is called a "better resurrection" (Hebrews 11:35). Why? The second resurrection will give life to those who had been blinded, but the first resurrection is a resurrection to immortality! Faithful Christians of our present age who take part in that first resurrection will be born into the Kingdom of God as immortalized, glorified children of God. We will inherit the earth, and rule with Christ on this earth for a thousand years, as kings and priests (Revelation 5:10). During the Millennium, Satan will be bound and unable to influence humanity (Revelation 20:2). Those whom God is calling today must overcome Satan's influence—something those in the Millennium will not need to contend against until Satan is again released at the very end. Today's faithful Christians will help Jesus Christ guide the world to a peace and prosperity it has never before known, where Satan's influence will be removed, and God's Spirit will be available to everyone. Unlike today, when only a relative few are called, in the Millennium, all will know and be able to live God's way (Isaiah 11:9). This thousand-year period of peace and prosperity and spiritual abundance will prepare the earth for the Great White Throne Judgment, in which the rest of mankind will be taught and judged.
But what will happen to those who reject God's way—who are not blinded, and are spiritually aware and accountable? What will happen to those who refuse to repent of their sins and who reject the sacrifice of Jesus Christ? God will punish them. Yet He will not allow human beings to suffer for all eternity. He will destroy them in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13–15). This extinction in the lake of fire, the "third resurrection," delivers eternal punishment for the incorrigibly wicked. The wicked will be tormented as they stand before the lake of fire. Then all the wicked will be cast into the lake of fire and burned up. They will live no longer. Remember: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23).
God has an awesome plan for all humanity. There is hope for our deceased loved ones, whom we may have feared were lost forever! Billions who have died will live again, and will have their minds opened to God's plan of salvation, which they had never before understood. We can take comfort in knowing that our deceased friends and loved ones will not be punished unfairly by a capricious God, but will be part of His magnificent plan to save them in His time, so they can hear the true Gospel, surrender to their Savior, Jesus Christ, and be a part of God's family for eternity.