What happens to those who die without hearing the true Gospel?
Question: Jesus said in the Gospel of Matthew that the day of judgment would be "more tolerable" for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Tyre and Sidon, than for those who heard and rejected Jesus' message during His ministry on earth. How can this be? If all these people were judged and condemned, how can some fare better than others at the day of judgment?
Answer: God destroyed those cities, making them an example and a warning to "those who afterward would live ungodly" (2 Peter 2:6). But most people today do not realize how this fits into God's plan for mankind. When Jesus said that the day of judgment would be "more tolerable" for Sodom and Gomorrah, and for Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 10:15; 11:22, 24), He was revealing that the residents of these cities had not yet had their first opportunity to understand His message.
How can we understand this? We must recognize that, as the New Testament explains, there are three different "judgment ages" for mankind. The Apostle Peter described the first judgment age, with which most are familiar: "For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God?" (1 Peter 4:17).
This is the "Church Age"—the first period of judgment. Peter called the Church "the house of God"—true Christians whose eyes have been opened to understand Christ's message. Jesus holds His disciples accountable for this knowledge, and expects them to produce spiritual fruit (Matthew 25:14-30; 2 Peter 1:1-9; John 15:1-10). True Christians are being judged in this lifetime by their works and obedience to God's word (1 Peter 4:17; Revelation 20:12; 22:12).
The next judgment period is the "Millennial Age." Bible prophecy shows that Jesus Christ will soon return and set up His Kingdom on earth for a thousand years (Revelation 20:2-6). All nations will then come up to Jerusalem, the "world headquarters" of Christ's government, to be taught (Isaiah 2:1-4). The whole world will be exposed to the wonderful truth and perfect way of God—"for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9). During this age, God will write His holy and righteous laws in people's hearts through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 8:10-12). Just as during the "Church Age," people will be judged by their obedience to God's word.
The third and final judgment period can be called the "Last Judgment Age." The book of Revelation calls it the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-12). In that age, the billions who lived and died in ignorance of God's truth and His way of life will be resurrected to physical life (Ezekiel 37:1-14). For the first time, their eyes will be opened to the truth, and they will have their first opportunity for salvation.
The Greek word for "books" in Revelation 20:12 is biblion, showing that these "books"—the Bible—will be made accessible to the billions of human beings who lived and died before the Millennium without hearing the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ explained that in the future, the men of Ninevah and the queen of the South would be resurrected alongside the men of His day, and would condemn those of Jesus' day who rejected His message (Matthew 12:41-42). Consider the magnitude of the time of judgment that Jesus is describing! Billions of people across the millennia of human history will be alive, together, to learn God's way, and to contrast it to how they had previously lived without God.
Millions today wrongly believe either that God is capricious, sending to damnation billions who never heard His message preached, or that He is inconsistent, giving salvation to some who did not hear His gospel preached. The truth is far more inspiring. To learn more about God's plan for all of humanity, please request our free booklet, Is This the Only Day of Salvation?