What is the fate of those who die having never known Jesus Christ? Indeed, most who have lived and died have never even heard of Him! Will God only save a few in this life, allowing the many billions who’ve walked the earth without any real opportunity to be saved from their sins to simply be lost forever?
The truth we celebrate every year during the Last Great Day—the eighth day after the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles—is one of the most beautiful understandings we possess in God’s Church. Following the pattern of God’s Holy Days and their prophetic outline, we know that God has not abandoned those made in His image. Everyone who has ever lived will be given an opportunity to know Jesus Christ, and to know that the God of Creation is the God of the Last Great Day!
Yet the Church is often attacked for this belief. It has been called “Armstrong’s Second Chance” doctrine and derided as unscriptural. Is it? Can you prove from your own Bible the truth this day represents? Why do we believe in the truth of the second resurrection to life and opportunity?
Let’s review what God’s word really does say on this subject.
Access for All Who Thirst
First, why do we associate the Last Great Day after the Feast of Tabernacles with the second resurrection? The Festival—which goes unnamed in the Old Testament, beyond being called “the eighth day” (Leviticus 23:36, 39; 2 Chronicles 7:9)—takes its name in the Church from Jesus’ own pronouncement, made on that day around 2,000 years ago. As the Apostle John reports, “On the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37–38). Lest there be any confusion, John explains that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit (v. 39).
Jesus’ words on that day seem to stand in contrast to His words recorded only one chapter earlier, in which He explains that only those actively drawn by the Father can come to Christ at this time (John 6:44, 65). The Apostle Paul, as well, explains to the Corinthians that God is not calling everyone today but is focusing on the “weak things of the world” as opposed to the mighty (1 Corinthians 1:26–29). Similarly, the Apostle Peter tells the crowd gathered for Pentecost in 31ad that forgiveness and access to God’s Spirit is now available to “as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). Many have made excuses for these passages and tried to deny them, but Jesus and His apostles are clear: God simply is not drawing or calling everyone in the entire world today.
Then what do we make of Jesus’ words spoken on that eighth day—that last, great day of the Feast?
The meaning is revealed when we consider the prophetic sequence of the Holy Days, noting that the Last Great Day takes place immediately after the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles.
The Great White Throne Judgment
In Revelation 20:4-6, we learn that the saints, who will be resurrected and glorified at the return of Jesus Christ, will reign alongside Him for one thousand years—that time we refer to as the Millennium, pictured by the seven days of the Feast of Tabernacles. But we also learn so much more!
We learn in these passages that the resurrection of true Christians to eternal life is only the first resurrection and that a second resurrection of “the rest of the dead” is to follow after the thousand years are complete (v. 5)! And because they are contrasted with those in the first resurrection, over whom “the second death has no power” (v. 6), we know that those in the second resurrection are still subject to the possibility of death—are still physical and not yet eternal.
The details of this second resurrection are given later in the chapter, in which John describes the vision given to him of the Great White Throne Judgment. After describing God as seated on a great white throne, John reports:
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. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades [the grave] delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works (Revelation 20:12–13).
The Greek word here for the “books” that are opened is biblia—the Bible. God’s word is only truly understood spiritually (1 Corinthians 2:14), and we must have our understanding actively opened by God to the Scriptures in order to comprehend them (cf. Luke 24:45). For the vast collection of humanity in this second resurrection, the Great White Throne Judgment period represents the first time that the Bible will have been opened to them—truly opened—in a way that it can be fully understood and comprehended.
We must note that this description of the life of those resurrected at this time corresponds perfectly to the life of true Christians who are called now—who are now being judged as the household of God by their obedience to the gospel (1 Peter 4:17) and by the things written in the books of the Bible and the law of liberty it contains (James 2:12). The life we blessed few live now will finally become the life to which all, “small and great” are called! Everyone who has never had a real opportunity to do so will finally be able to fully understand the word of God and to be judged by it—that is, to be guided by it and to have their choices, day by day, examined in its light—just as those called in this day and age now are blessed to experience.
Why else would the Book of Life be opened also, as Revelation 20:12 declares? Scripture teaches us that the Book of Life now contains the names of the saints—those who have overcome in this life (cf. Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5). Yet they were all resurrected at Christ’s return, so why reopen the book? So that new names can be written on its pages. Truly, Jesus’ words, proclaimed on that Last Great Day 2,000 years ago, will come to pass: All who thirst will freely drink!
And, in the end, those men and women who will not yield, having full understanding of what—and Whom—they are refusing, will be thrown into the Lake of Fire and utterly destroyed (Revelation 20:15). With the last death of a human being and with all others now possessing life eternal, death itself is destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). John sees this in vision as death and the grave are thrown into the Lake of Fire, never to return to mankind (Revelation 20:14). The last human being thrown into the Lake of Fire will take death with him!
At that time, of all the human beings who have ever lived, all who are willing will possess immortality, and death will be no more. What a plan, and what a God!
But, there are many who question this understanding. In fact, few things we teach infuriate many “Christians” in the world more than the idea that those who are not “saved” in this life are not going to suffer in hell for eternity! It is worth taking the time to examine how this understanding of the second resurrection and the Great White Throne Judgment—that all who have lived and died will have an opportunity for salvation—is reflected in many other passages, as well as the vital role it plays in proving that God is true to His word.
“All Israel Shall Be Saved”
For instance, consider the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans. The Apostle clearly understood that there would be a future opportunity for the blinded of this age and found powerful, personal hope in that truth.
In Romans 9, we read of his passionate desire that his own people—the Jews and the people of Israel—would come to embrace their Savior, who, Himself, came from them in the flesh (v. 5). It broke his heart to see his people rejecting the very One sent to save them: “I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh” (vv. 1–3).
He saw that the Jews were, for the most part, blinded at this time (Romans 11:7–8, 25), and that in Israel’s blindness God created an opportunity for the Gentiles (vv. 11–12).
Yet, even as he saw them dying around him in ignorance of their own Savior, he still held out hope for them! Immediately after speaking of their blindness, Paul declares, “And so all Israel will be saved” (v. 26)! “For God has committed them all [Israel] to disobedience, that He might have mercy on all” (v. 32). How could this be true? How can “all Israel” be saved when the vast majority who have ever lived are dead, and most of those who were alive when he wrote were blinded? If God has “committed them all to disobedience” in this life, yet still plans to provide “mercy on all,” that extension of mercy must come in a future time.
But how could Paul speak of such a time of opportunity, when “all Israel will be saved”? How could he be so supremely confident that the whole of Israel would one day have access to the Spirit of God and to the salvation that, in their blindness, they then denied in this life?
Because Paul knew the Scriptures!
He would have been intimately familiar with Ezekiel 37, which describes a very physical resurrection of, indeed, “the whole house of Israel” (v. 11)—or, in Paul’s words, “all of Israel”! Read the passage for yourself in Ezekiel 37:1–14. God describes raising the bones of an exceedingly vast number of Israelites who have died without having His Spirit, giving them sinew and muscle, and restoring them to physical life! They rise believing that they are without hope and cut off from God (v. 11), but the Eternal says to them, “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” (vv. 13–14).
Truly as Paul said, “All Israel shall be saved”! God’s word taught him that there is a physical resurrection to life ahead for those who died blinded by the devil so that they may receive the opportunity they never fully had in this life!
Only for Israel?
But Ezekiel only mentions Israel. Is the promise of a resurrection to physical life only for the nation of Israel? What about the billions upon billions of Gentile people who have lived and died in ignorance? Didn’t Revelation 20 say that the dead “small and great” were brought to life?
Jesus Christ makes it plain in His own words that the dead of other nations will be brought up with Israel in the Great White Throne Judgment period. For example, consider His comments in Matthew 12, in which He castigates the Jewish scribes and Pharisees for their faithlessness and lack of response to His ministry. He says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. The queen of the South will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and indeed a greater than Solomon is here” (vv. 41–42).
Notice that He clearly says that these Gentile peoples—the Assyrian people of Nineveh and the famous Queen of Sheba—would “rise up in the judgment with this generation.” When these non-Israelites discover in the resurrection that these Jewish leaders had the very Son of God in their midst and did not repent, they will judge them as fools!
In fact, God says that the period of judgment to come for those in the second resurrection will be easier for the Gentile peoples of Sodom and Gomorrah than it will be for those Jewish cities who refused to welcome His disciples in this age (Matthew 10:15)—again, a clear indication that the entire world will come up in that resurrection, not just Israel.
So, yes, the non-Israelite dead will rise with Israel! When God says that He will raise “the dead, small and great,” He means it.
Is God Truly Fair?
This brings up another piece of scriptural evidence that those who died without a real opportunity will have such an opportunity in the future. If they did not, could we consider God just and fair? If they are doomed to destruction, having been refused an opening to avoid it, couldn’t we ask, like Abraham in Genesis 18:25, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”
Consider that God’s word is absolutely clear about His commitment to equal treatment for all. Peter says that “God shows no partiality” in Acts 10:34—or, as the King James Version has it, “God is no respecter of persons.” The exact same point is made in many passages, such as Deuteronomy 10:17, 2 Chronicles 19:7, Romans 2:11, and Galatians 2:6. The Almighty does not show favoritism or partiality. His law expresses this element of His character, commanding, “You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 24:22).
Yet, as we have already plainly seen, God is not actively working with everyone the same way at this time, and not actively calling everyone to Him in this life. For instance, Paul was specific: God is calling mainly the weak and lowly, not the powerful (again, 1 Corinthians 1:26–29). If He does not give the rich and mighty an equal opportunity in the future, wouldn’t that mean He is a respecter of persons?
Recognizing that, even today, many millions—even billions—all over the world never even hear the name of Jesus Christ spoken aloud, some theologians have tried to work around this conundrum. They propose that God is still not a respecter of persons and is still fair, because in His perfect knowledge He simply knows who will accept Him and who will not. That way, they can assume that those who have never heard of Christ throughout mankind’s history are simply those whom God foreknew would deny Him.
Not only is this insulting to people of many cultures all over the world, it also disagrees with the words of Jesus Christ, Himself.
In Matthew 11:20–24, Jesus makes it plain that if the Gentile cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have seen the same mighty works that He performed in the Jewish cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, those Gentile peoples would have repented! In fact, He says of Tyre and Sidon, specifically, “they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (v. 21)! He says that even infamous Sodom would have responded to the sight of their Savior’s miracles in its midst.
And He says they will respond, explaining to the Jews of His day that when the people of these Gentile cities are resurrected, it will be “more tolerable” for them than it will be for those Jewish cities (v. 22 and v. 24). Indeed, they will have an easier time responding, without the regrets of those cities of Judah, who will come to realize they had turned away their own Messiah.
Will He not give Tyre, Sidon and Sodom the same opportunity He gave Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum? Yes, He will! For, truly, God is fair, and He is no respecter of persons! Those who have died without their opportunity will have that opportunity. 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God longs for all to come to repentance, and He will ensure all have their chance to do so.
There is a great day of judgment coming upon all humankind—a day when all who have ever lived will have their first real opportunity to know, understand, and embrace the truth, without the deceptive veil of the Devil covering their eyes (cf. Isaiah 25:7–8; Revelation 12:9).
Among the deceptions Satan has foisted on humanity is a twisted version of Christianity that denies the beautiful truth of the Last Great Day and the Great White Throne Judgment. The Adversary would have the world believe either that God is so weak and helpless that He is unable to save most of humankind from destruction (or, in the deceived eyes of many, eternal torment in agony), or that God is so callous and uncaring that He does not mind if most of humanity is destroyed in their ignorance.
But that is not the God of your Bible.
God’s plan was never about a small group of people—the miniscule fraction of humanity privileged enough to hear the true name of Jesus Christ preached to them. He is not a God so capricious that He would allow the overwhelmingly vast majority of those He lovingly created in His very own image to be utterly destroyed forever without even an opportunity to escape such a fate and experience everlasting life!
The Bible describes, in detail, a God who is bigger than that! It describes a God who loves every human being He has ever made, and who has a plan in which not a single one of them simply falls through the cracks.
The God of the Last Great Day
If anyone could be considered someone who did fall through the cracks, my father might qualify. He died at age 73 and, for all I can tell, was clearly never called in this life to understand the truth and know his Savior. I knew him for almost 43 years, and I loved him. I long to see him again. I have many memories of him.
But when I reflect that God remembers even every sparrow that falls (Luke 12:6–7), then I have to recognize that my memories of him are nothing compared to God’s memories.
God remembers the day my father began to be formed in the womb. God remembers the day he was born. God remembers every single joy my father ever experienced. God was present during every moment my father was in anguish, or in pain, or suffering. God knows the exact sound of every laugh that sounded from my father’s throat. God knows the feel and taste of every tear my father ever cried and the exact path each one traced down his cheek.
Though my father did not know it in this life, God loved him far more than I ever did and desires to see him again and to embrace him—and to tell him that there is a better way and a new life ahead for him like nothing he had ever imagined before.
My father—and all of your lost loved ones, as well as the billions who died before them—will have that opportunity. Death and the Devil’s deceptions have not locked them away from the love of God forever. Jesus Christ, the First and the Last, holds the keys of death and the grave (Revelation 1:18), and at His command they must open and yield all whom they possess. And in the Great White Throne Judgment that comes after the Millennium, they will do just that.
When we see the beauty and scope of God’s amazing plan—a plan that reaches past the gates of the grave and includes every single human being who has ever walked this planet throughout all time, leaving no one behind—we can echo Paul’s passionate words of praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).
May we, too, give such praise to the God of the Last Great Day.