If coming to Jesus Christ in repentance and trust is necessary for salvation—and I believe that it is—then the doctrine of universal redemption hinges on whether there can be repentance and salvation after physical death. Many people go to their graves without ever acknowledging Jesus as their Savior—some without ever hearing His name. If it is true that they will ultimately be redeemed, as I have contended in many articles on my blog, then there must be a way for them to attain salvation after they die.
The Bible never says, “People can be saved after they die.” Neither does it say, “People cannot be saved after they die.” The answer to the question of whether they can be saved after they die must come by examining what the Bible does say about God and His work and purposes.
Although our physical death, like our physical birth, marks a dramatic change in our lives, I believe that God sees our whole life as a continuum, and He is continuously working in us throughout. Those of us who have trusted Him as Lord and Savior understand that He knew us before we were conceived, He knitted us together in our mother’s womb, He calls us to Himself and sanctifies us in this life, and He continues His work of drawing us into deeper knowledge of Him throughout eternity. Thankfully we are not locked in to the condition we are in when we die; God keeps revealing Himself and building our relationship with Him.
Neither are unbelievers locked in to their condition when they die. Experiencing God’s judgment and seeing Jesus face to face will not leave them unchanged. Some people say that if a person resists God until the end of his life, he will continue to do so after he dies. Perhaps for a time, but can a person remain forever defiant before our magnificently holy and loving God? At the very end of his life, Muammar Gadhafi changed from an arrogant, ruthless tyrant to a terrified, whimpering child, just in the face of the wrath and judgment of men. What will he do before God Almighty?
To insist that no unbeliever would ever turn to Christ after death, even if he were given the chance, is a tacit admission that something is not right: If we say that there is no chance to repent, then we find ourselves compelled to say that no one would take it anyway, because we recognize that if some would indeed ask for forgiveness, then it is unfair not to offer it. So the standard position is to maintain that no one who has rejected God in this life would ever receive Him in the next, even if he had the opportunity.
Yet that assertion flies in the face of common sense. For one thing, there will be no atheists after death. All the philosophical questions about the existence of God will go out the window when a person stands before the living God. And any illusions a person may have about his own goodness will be dispelled when he stands before the holy God. Those who rejected Him in this life thinking He was cruel will see that He is truly a loving God. The girl who hated God, believing He was like her abusive father, may say, “Now I see who you really are; I know I can trust you, and I want to come to you.” The aborigine who sought for Him in nature will discover the Creator of the sun and moon and trees and flowers. The lost souls who have stumbled through this life in “quiet desperation” may catch a glimpse of the joy that belongs to the redeemed and long to have it. Will God say to each of these, “Sorry, pal, you’re too late”? Does it make any sense that 100 percent of those who die without Christ will forever remain in rebellion against Him?
It is unlikely that all people who have rejected Christ in this life will continue to do so forever in the next. It is even more unlikely that God will instantly change His attitude toward all unbelievers the moment they die. Virtually all Christians agree that there can be genuine death-bed conversions; God continues to call people to Himself as long as they live, and some do come to Him in their last moments. So does God woo people with His love up until the end of their lives and then turn into the God of wrath the instant they draw their last breath? Does He cut off His mercy when one dies, or does His mercy endure forever? Does His nature change radically just because an individual transitions from one state to the next? No, we may experience different facets of God’s nature at different times, but His immutable qualities are always completely present and at work in Him.
These reflections are based on what we know from Scripture about the character of God, but they are philosophical and logical, not exegetical. However, I have also presented some passages in 1 Peter that suggest that people in the place of the dead (the “spirits in prison”) have a chance to hear the preaching of the gospel. [See “Presuppositions and Interpretations, Part 1”] Peter specifically says, “the gospel was preached to the dead” (1 Peter 4:6). What was this “good news” that the dead were hearing? That Jesus had accomplished atonement on the cross and risen from the dead, but it was too late for them and they were hopelessly doomed? Or were they being given a chance to respond to the gospel “that they might live according to God in regard to the Spirit”? (1 Peter 4:6)
Before closing I want to mention Hebrews 9:27, as it is often quoted as “proof” that there is no opportunity for salvation after death. But the verse says nothing of the sort; it simply says, “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,” in other words, “you die, and then you get judged.” The fact that a person will be judged after death in no way rules out the possibility that sometime in the eternal ages to come, the person might yet come to Christ in repentance and trust.
So although Scripture does not state explicitly whether salvation is possible after death, there are sound reasons to believe that God will not withdraw His offer of salvation the moment a person takes his last breath. It is entirely consistent with His nature and purposes that He will continue to reach out in mercy until every lost sheep is found, until the cross accomplishes its complete work of redemption of every human being.
This blog is a brief answer to the question of whether a person can come to Christ after physical death. I will elaborate on this question much more when I discuss how God will bring about complete justice and how Revelation paints a picture of ongoing healing and restoration.