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What happens to those who, because of when and where they were born, have never had an opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ and God's Word? Are they doomed forever?
God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). But considering the masses of humanity who have never even heard the name of Christ, many Christians have wondered if or how they would have a chance for salvation. We believe the Bible teaches that all will have a real chance through the often neglected doctrine of "resurrection of the dead" and God's judgment (Hebrews 6:2).
Is there hope for the unbelieving person who rejected God's calling and spurned His way of life? No, a person who has knowingly refused God's calling and the way of life He reveals has only the lake of fire to look forward to, which will end his or her existence for eternity (Hebrews 6:4-6; Hebrews 10:26-29). However, there is another type of unbeliever—one who never had the opportunity to choose or reject God's way of life. Many sincere people believe that we must "accept Jesus" in this life or we are lost forever. But what about the billions of people who have lived out their lives without ever hearing the name of Christ and therefore had no chance at salvation (Acts 4:12)? Is it fair for God to destroy them forever when they never really had an opportunity to understand His truth?
Many know that God will resurrect the saints at Christ's return (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52), but most read right over Christ's teachings about a second resurrection. He spoke of people from different ages coming face-to-face in "the day of judgment" (Matthew 11:20-24, Matthew 12:41-42; Luke 10:12-15). God will bring back to life the people of Sodom, Tyre, Sidon and Ninevah along with the queen of Sheba at the same time as those people who heard Christ speak these words in the first century. The only way for this to be possible—for people who lived literally many hundreds of years apart to live again at the same time—is for God to resurrect all of them at the same time.
As we saw in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-29, the Scriptures are plain about the fact that all people have only one chance at salvation. However, a second chance at life is not the same as a second chance at salvation. Coming to life again will enable those brought to life in the second resurrection to have their only chance for salvation.
The apostle Paul implied a second resurrection in his writings (Romans 11:26-27), and the book of Revelation speaks of it as specifically as Christ did (Revelation 20:5, Revelation 20:11-12). These references are not about the resurrection of the saints spoken of in 1 Corinthians 15:52, for the people in the above references are called enemies (Romans 11:28) and are contrasted with the saints (they are called "the rest of the dead" in Revelation 20:5).
In Revelation 20:5 the expression "This is the first resurrection" refers to the resurrection of the saints. We know from the above reference in 1 Corinthians that God does this at Christ's return and the beginning of His 1,000-year rule on the earth, not at the end. The first part of the verse ("But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years are finished") is a parenthetical statement that speaks of dead who will not live again until the thousand years are over. Clearly, the first part of the verse isn't speaking of the resurrection of the righteous dead, but rather of those who died without a chance at salvation.
Why do we say that Revelation 20:11-12, where God judges from a "great white throne," refers to a second resurrection? If these people understood and obeyed the truth in their lifetime, God would have resurrected them a thousand years before—at the return of Jesus Christ (the first resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15:52). Or, if they understood the truth and rejected it, the only unfinished part of God's judgment would be the death sentence. No further judging would be necessary in either case.
What's the difference between judgment and sentencing? Judgment is part of an ongoing process. God is in the process of judging Christians today (1 Peter 4:17). Drawing a parallel with human courts, judgment involves the gathering of evidence, weighing or evaluating that evidence and the passing of a final sentence. Anyone, living or dead, whose mind God did not open to spiritual understanding hasn't begun the judgment process that ends with a decision (sentence) of eternal life or of death.
Of those to be brought to life in the second resurrection, Jesus said it would be "more tolerable" for some than for others (Matthew 10:15). If God resurrects these people only to sentence them to death, Christ's comments wouldn't make any sense. If all were to die, judgment would not be "more tolerable" for one than for another. But clearly, their judgment is incomplete, and hence, God brings them back to physical life.
Ezekiel 37:1-14 describes the second resurrection in colorful detail. It speaks of an entire nation that died without hope of life and without the knowledge of God that could lead to their salvation. God promises them two things—to resurrect them to physical life and to give them spiritual understanding (Ezekiel 37:10, Ezekiel 37:14). The gift of the Holy Spirit will enable them to live the Christian way of life.
Most people in the grave did not know the only name by which salvation is possible (Acts 4:12), and God wills that all humankind have an opportunity for salvation (2 Peter 3:9). If there were no second resurrection, the majority of people down through history would suffer unfair condemnation to death in the lake of fire without ever having a chance at conversion. But God is fair, just and merciful.
If God is opening your mind to understand His truth, now is the time to act! There are no second chances. But it is comforting to know that He will mercifully give everyone a first chance.