It used to be common for itinerant preachers to travel from city to city across North America, setting up tent meetings, calling sinners to “accept Jesus.” Emotions would be roused as the preacher ended each gathering by making a passionate appeal for congregants to walk down the sawdust-strewn aisle and “give their heart to the Lord” while there was still time. “Jesus might not return tonight,” the preachers would warn, “but if you die as a sinner tonight, you will writhe forever in hellfire because you didn’t accept Him right now!”
With that threat hanging over people’s heads, it is not hard to understand why so many walked down the proverbial sawdust trail. But did these preachers accurately portray the God of the Bible? Is it true that the billions who have lived and died without accepting Jesus Christ—most of whom never heard His name, and even fewer who heard His Truth being preached—are all lost forever? If so, where is the fairness of God?
What about babies who died before they were old enough to understand God’s love, much less choose His way? And will people be lost forever just because they grew up in a family or a whole society devoted to atheism? What about the billions of Muslims who grew up being taught falsehoods about Jesus Christ? Will God treat them differently than the billions of professing Christians who lived and died hearing only a false message about a false “Christ”?
The Apostle John taught plainly that, “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Here, “the world” is not a reference to planet Earth, but rather to the people who dwell here. And, no matter how you count it, by any reckoning there have always been far more “unsaved” than “saved.” So, if God “loved the world,” how can this be? Is He so weak that He cannot save the majority of His creation? This leads to the question, “Is God fair? Is He a respecter of persons? Has everyone—or will everyone—have a genuine and fair opportunity for salvation?”
This vital question is one that perplexes even most professing Christians. I once visited a young man in Greenville, Mississippi who had confronted his minister with the question: “What will happen to all those millions of people who never heard of Jesus Christ?” The minister’s dogmatic reply was that these people would all go to hell for eternity. When pressed about the fairness of God, this clergyman then reasoned, “Well, I suppose that God will judge them according to what they do with what they do understand.”
Not convinced, this persistent young man then asked, “Are you saying that there is another way to salvation than through the name of Jesus Christ?” He brought up the verse, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). This young man’s minister was left speechless—he felt he had no choice other than to deny the Bible or to admit that God is unjust and unfair.
Another approach to this question is typified by a discussion I had with a repairman who came to my home. Like so many other professing Christians, this man believed that everyone will either be saved or lost at the end of his current lifetime. When I protested that billions of people have lived and died and never even heard of Jesus Christ, his reply was that if they wanted to know, God would get the word to them by some means. In effect, this man was saying that God knowingly created the vast majority of people to be lost forever.
Consider a man dying in the outback of Australia in 31ad, a week after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. No one ever told him about Christ and what He had done. Yet: “For ‘whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:13–14). So, would this man really be lost forever, never be given the opportunity to accept Christ’s shed blood on his behalf? Would this man then go to a place of unbelievable torment to writhe in pain forever? This certainly does not seem like the fair and just plan of a loving God.
Of course, we must also recognize the truth, clearly expounded in Scripture, that “as many as have sinned without law will also perish without law” because they “show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:12–16). This scripture and many others tell us that all are guilty of sin and “all the world [is] guilty before God” (Romans 3:9, 19). But does this mean that God created billions and billions of people whom He expected would burn eternally in Hell, as part of a plan to save just a relatively few? Actually, the fact that all are sinners does not point to a cruel God; it does not even address the question of whether God’s plan is to give everyone an opportunity to understand the only way to have sin removed!
Ask yourself: “If God truly loves the world, would He deny that man in the Australian outback an opportunity for salvation?” Or is God so weak that His plan requires billions to burn in Hell forever just to save a few? Indeed, if God is in a “soul-winning” contest, Satan appears to be winning. But is that what God is doing? Or does the Bible reveal some other explanation?
The truth is that, as your Bible makes clear, God is working out a plan. It is a loving and just plan, involving His desire to save all of mankind, and it involves far more than the believer saying a few “magical” words at the end of the sawdust trail, even if spoken in all sincerity. It involves more than living out one’s life on earth as preparation to spend eternity in some kind of great “candy store in the sky.” There is a reason why the Christian life is to be one of godly character development (Ephesians 4:11–16).
A Fatal Choice
When God created the first man and woman, He placed them in a beautiful garden, full of trees that bore nuts of all kinds and fruits of many colors, textures and tastes. God told these first human beings that they could enjoy the fruit of all but one of these trees—and that, if they ate the one forbidden fruit, death would be the result.
As we know, Adam and Eve chose the prohibited fruit. By this act, they declared their rejection of God and their desire to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong. For doing this, God thrust them out of the Garden of Eden and told them, in effect: “You want to do it your way? Go to it!”
Ever since, whatever mankind puts its hand to build is a mixture of good and evil. The inequity, the suffering and the heartache that we see all around us are the results of the decisions we make—yet we often have the gall to blame God! But what does God really have to do with this? He wants us to know that there are tragic consequences when we choose to do things our own way. However, at the same time, God has a plan that—when all is said and done—will have given every human being a fair and genuine opportunity to accept salvation. Sadly, some will knowingly and deliberately reject that opportunity (Hebrews 6:4–6; 10:26). And it is important to realize that, in order for someone to reject it, the “knowledge of the truth” must first be given and understood.
The Bible reveals that the vast majority of human beings in this present age have been cut off from God and the tree of life (Genesis 3:22–24). That is the reason so few understand the Bible. Sadly, many have been deceived into thinking Jesus came to save everyone now.
I remember an incident that occurred one day in my Sunday School class. A student asked: “Why did Jesus speak in parables?” And the teacher explained: “Because people at that time were fishermen, shepherds, and farmers. Jesus spoke to them in language they could understand.”
Now, to a twelve-year-old, that sounded pretty good, but I later came to understand that my teacher’s answer was totally wrong! Scripture describes Christ’s disciples asking this same question, and receiving a very different answer. “And the disciples came and said to Him, ‘Why do You speak to them in parables?’ He answered and said to them, ‘Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given’” (Matthew 13:10–11; Mark 4:11–12). Jesus also taught: “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44, 65).
So, we see that Jesus spoke in parables to hide His meaning from the general public. Only those whom God calls can come to Him—and only relatively few are doing so in this present age. But does this mean He is unfair and does not care about the vast majority of people who are now living or who have ever lived? Not at all!
An Opportunity for All
The Apostle Paul tells us that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3–4). The Apostle Peter explains that God is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). So, we can see that it is God’s long-term purpose to call everyone who has ever lived to come to Him. It is obvious, though, that He has not yet called most people. So, for those who will live and die without having been called, what will God do?
Numerous scriptures reveal there is more than one period of judgment—and more than one resurrection from the dead. Consider the implications of Matthew 11:21–22: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.” The Gentile inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon did not know the God of Israel, yet Jesus spoke of a coming day of judgment during which those cities’ people will fare better than some of the Jews of Jesus’ day. Christ made a similar statement involving the city of Sodom, known for its gross sexual perversions (Matthew 11:23–24).
Many assume that “judgment” necessarily means “sentencing”—but this is not always the case. The Bible often uses the term “judgment” to describe a period of evaluation—a time during which those being judged are to prove themselves. Scripture explains, for example, that judgment right now is on those who are of the household of God (1 Peter 4:17). Judgment is an ongoing process for the people of God, and judgment in fact begins with God’s people. The ancient peoples of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom will have their “day of judgment”—their time to prove themselves—in the future.
The Apostle John’s writings confirm there is more than one day of judgment: “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.… And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4). Now, notice carefully: “But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection” (Revelation 20:5).
How clear! Those who are Christ’s at His return will be resurrected to life in what is called the “first resurrection,” after which they will rule with Christ over the nations of this earth: “And they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth’” (Revelation 5:9–10).
But what about those who are not Christ’s at His coming? Will they be lost forever? Not at all! They will take part in the next resurrection, called the general resurrection or the “Great White Throne Judgment.”
Near the end of Jesus Christ’s thousand-year millennial rule on the earth, Satan will be loosed from his place of restraint to go out and deceive the nations once again (Revelation 20:7). He, along with those who follow him, will be defeated. But what will happen after that? “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it... 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).
Here, John describes open books. Many professing Christians jump to the conclusion that these books are filled with the salacious details of people’s lives, but this is a misunderstanding. We have already seen that the vast majority of human beings, cut off from the tree of life, will have lived and died without hearing God’s Truth. God calls only a few in this present age, and Jesus spoke in parables to hide His meanings from the masses (Luke 8:10).
In effect, the “books”—biblos, from which we get the word “Bible”—are closed to most people who live and die in this present age, and will remain closed until this Great White Throne Judgment. Yet it is by the contents of these biblos—the Bible—that they will be judged when their minds are opened and God reveals His Truth to them.
Notice also that the “Book of Life” is described as open, not closed. This indicates that the Great White Throne Judgment is a period of time during which those judged by “the books” will have the possibility of having their names written in God’s “Book of Life.” This is the time of judgment for the vast billions of people who lived and died while Satan was the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:3–4). The billions who were deceived by Satan—and, remember, deceived people do not know they are deceived—will finally hear God’s Truth preached and have their first opportunity to accept that Truth and obey Jesus Christ as their Savior.
The Valley of Dry Bones
In a remarkable passage of Scripture, the prophet Ezekiel describes this coming resurrection. He describes a valley filled with an “exceedingly great” number of dry bones, and the prophet is asked if they can live again (Ezekiel 37:1–3). Then comes a description of the dry bones being resurrected to physical life. Bones come together, then flesh, connecting tissues and skin. Finally, the breath of life enters the bodies as the people are resurrected to mortal, physical life (vv. 4–10).
This is not a resurrection to immortality or to a reward being received. These resurrected people do not think they are saved. On the contrary, they think they are lost! “Then He said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They indeed say, “Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!”’” (v. 11).
This passage describes people who did not know God during their lifetime, but who will come to know Him after they are resurrected and given His Spirit. “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it” (Ezekiel 37:13–14).
How long will these resurrected people have as their period of judgment? The Church has traditionally pointed to Isaiah 65:17–20 as a strong suggestion that people will be given as many as a hundred years of physical life during this second resurrection. Yes, God is fair, and He will give everyone who has ever lived a genuine opportunity to make an informed decision. It may be sobering to realize that many of our friends and relatives in the world are cut off from the tree of life at this time. They truly do not understand, because God has not yet opened most people’s minds to come to Christ (John 6:44, 65). The time will come, however, when they will be resurrected from the grave, and will be given a full and fair opportunity to choose God’s way.
We need to understand—and this cannot be emphasized enough—that this is not a “second chance” for people. It will be their first opportunity to hear God’s Truth with an open mind. And, even then, not everyone will accept it. Some who are called to the Truth today deliberately reject it. Similarly, even in the White Throne Judgment, God will not force anyone to be in His Kingdom (Deuteronomy 30:19).
What a reassuring truth it is to know that God is fair and that He loves all of the human beings He has created! The Bible explains God’s plan for all human beings—for the deceived, for infants and little children who died prematurely, and for those who lived and died never hearing of Christ.
This is a truth so few understand about John 3:16, and what a wonderful truth it is! God truly is reconciling the world to Himself through Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:19).