What about those who have never heard? Like the problem of evil, the question of what happens to those who die without an opportunity to respond to the gospel can be a thorny issue for evangelical Christians. We wholeheartedly affirm the love God has for all his creatures. We also emphasize the exclusivity of the gospel message—that salvation is found in no one else but Christ (Acts 4:12)—and stress the need for all people everywhere to repent of their sins and turn to him.
But what happens to those we fail to reach with this good news? Theologians usually lump the answers to this question into one of three options: exclusivism, inclusivism, or universalism. Most within our ranks embrace exclusivism, claiming that those who die without placing conscious, personal faith in Christ face eternal separation from God in hell. Our unease with this tragic end serves to catalyze our missionary and evangelistic efforts.
Over the past few decades, a minority of evangelical theologians have gravitated toward some form of inclusivism, the idea that some individuals can be saved by Jesus without ever having consciously believed in him. Some inclusivists teach that God saves those who have no knowledge of the gospel on the basis of what they do with general revelation. Others in this group suggest that God saves people according to his foreknowledge of what they would do if they had the opportunity to respond to the gospel.
Some self-professed evangelicals are universalists who believe Jesus will eventually save all people, regardless of whether they believed the gospel in this life or not. Insisting that Jesus is the only Savior, these universalists go to great lengths to distinguish their position from forms of religious pluralism that claim many valid pathways to God.
In his recent book, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, Bethel University theologian James Beilby makes the case for an unconventional fourth option: postmortem conversions.
Beilby asserts that unevangelized persons will have the opportunity to respond to the gospel after death. “Unevangelized persons” may include those geographically beyond the reach of a missionary or an evangelist, those who die in infancy, and those who die without ever having the cognitive ability to understand the gospel. Beilby also believes God will extend the same opportunity to those who were proselytized by false teachers or hypocrites, a category of people he calls the “pseudoevangelized.”
Beilby’s argument for this unconventional approach proves to be relatively simple: God desires every individual to be saved, and because a person can only be saved by placing conscious faith in Christ, God will make an opportunity in this life or the next for that person to respond in faith. Because the Bible and Christian theology do not give us a reason to think God can’t or won’t do this, Beilby contends there is a strong possibility that there will be postmortem opportunities for the unevangelized and pseudoevangelized.
The book dedicates three chapters to answering biblical, theological, and historical objections raised against postmortem opportunities. He painstakingly argues that many of the biblical texts used to support a fixed salvific status at death do not necessary preclude the possibility of placing faith in Christ afterward. For example, many understand Hebrews 9:27 to clearly rule out postmortem opportunities when it states: “[I]t is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (ESV). Situating this verse in the context of Hebrews’ discussion on the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice, Beilby reasons that it says more about the permanence of death than the timeline for God’s judgment. “If this text is an argument against any particular position or belief,” he writes, “it is reincarnation, not Postmortem Opportunity.”
Beilby compiles indirect and direct evidence from Scripture to support postmortem opportunities. He places biblical statements linking condemnation to rejection of Christ in the category of indirect evidence (Matt. 10:32–33; John 3:36), alongside passages that describe prayers for the dead (Acts 9:36–44; 2 Tim. 1:16–18). For direct evidence, Beilby leans on passages from Scripture related to Jesus’ descent to the dead (1 Pet. 3:18–20; 4:6). His arguments for Jesus’ descent parallel those presented by theologian Matthew Emerson in “He Descended to the Dead:” An Evangelical Theology of Holy Saturday, but Beilby and Emerson have strong disagreements on whether these texts can be used to justify postmortem opportunity.
What I found most intriguing about Beilby’s discussion here is his theological method. He rightly admits that the Bible nowhere overtly teaches the possibility of postmortem conversion, but he also correctly states that theology rooted in Scripture doesn’t always depend on such explicit statements. Inferences from Scripture can refine our understanding of certain doctrines, so long as this process stays within the guardrails of what Scripture does teach.
As Beilby writes, “Specific theological beliefs cannot contradict what Scripture clearly teaches and should be based on reasonable inferences from what Scripture does teach.” The way Beilby builds his case for postmortem evangelism closely resembles how evangelicals like myself have made the case for an “age of accountability” when children become responsible before God for their sins, another doctrine not explicitly taught in Scripture.
Many in Reformed circles will push back on certain claims Beilby makes here, like the notion that God desires to save every individual. Reformed theologians usually approach texts like John 3:16 or 1 Timothy 2:4 rather differently than their Arminian counterparts, whose understanding of salvation places greater emphasis on human free will. (They argue, for instance, that the “world” in John 3:16 speaks only of the elect, or that “all people” in 1 Timothy 2:4 refers to “all kinds of people” instead of “every person.”) Others, like John Piper, appeal to the “two wills of God” to differentiate God’s desire to save all and his will to save only some.
The most significant difference between Beilby’s position and the Reformed tradition comes down to a theological debate between monergists and synergists. These two camps disagree about whether human beings play any active role in works of salvation. Taking a synergistic approach, Beilby presumes that “human beings participate in God’s salvific efforts by responding to the gospel and declaring allegiance to Christ.” Reformed Christians, by contrast, tend to take the monergist perspective, believing that any movement toward faith in Christ has been willed and orchestrated by the Holy Spirit. If human beings are wholly and unilaterally saved by divine fiat, as monergists affirm, then the question of when a person hears the gospel (premortem or postmortem) is somewhat moot. But if salvation is in some way contingent on a human response to the gospel, as synergists suggest, then we can at least speculate about the possibility of this response occurring after death.
Christians rarely come to their respective positions on the Calvinism-Arminianism doctrinal divide through biblical interpretation alone. Our intuitions play some role. Over the years I have witnessed Calvinistic interpreters of Scripture insist with great passion that Arminian theology diminishes the glory and sovereignty of God with its “man-centered” focus. I have also observed Arminian Christians object with equal passion to doctrines they see as belittling the love and goodness of God. Beilby’s work represents the latter intuition: that God’s sovereignty does not conflict with the love and goodness he displays for his creatures. On his understanding, the God who loves all people will not condemn them without a hearing because this is his nature and the nature of salvation. While Beilby may work from this intuition, he never resorts to sentimentalism in making his case. He is reasonable and thoughtful in each of his claims.
Like most in the Reformed tradition, I tend to put more weight than Beilby on the role general revelation plays in the condemnation of the unevangelized. A central theme, if not the central theme, of the book of Romans is the righteousness of God. Paul seems to anticipate the objection to God’s judgment on Gentiles who never receive the law when he states, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18). God is right to judge even those pagans who have never received the law because what can be known about God was clearly impressed on them through creation and conscience. They still rejected God and turned to idols. Even without a postmortem opportunity to respond to the gospel, they had the premortem opportunity to return praise to the God who made them.
Disputed texts and direct commands
As an exclusivist in matters of salvation, I find Beilby’s proposal more attractive and biblically rooted than many other attempts to rethink the destiny of the unevangelized. Beilby is careful to distinguish his position from inclusivism and universalism. Contrary to the inclusivist notion of unconscious or implicit faith, he insists that salvation is predicated on explicit faith in Christ. Against universalism, Beilby states that unbelievers who consciously reject Christ will be consigned to hell. Furthermore, Beilby does not presume that those who die and stand before God will receive the gospel message positively, even when they hear it directly from the source.
I want Beilby to be right—I earnestly hope that those we fail to reach in this life will have an opportunity to respond to the gospel in death—but I am less confident about this prospect. Without an explicit statement in Scripture promising postmortem opportunity, his argument rests on disputed texts and inferences from other disputed concepts and ideas. What we do have in Scripture is a direct command to go and make disciples. (Beilby wholeheartedly affirms this, too!) I cannot know if my lost neighbor will have another chance to hear about Jesus after he dies, but I do know God has told me to tell him about Jesus now.
As to resolving the tension created by the destiny of the unevangelized—whether God is right or good in condemning those who never heard the gospel—I fall back on the words of my dad: “We can always count on God to do the right thing, no matter what.” We take comfort in knowing God’s righteousness surpasses our ignorance.
Beilby has always been a gifted writer with the ability to express complex theological ideas in plain language. Postmortem Opportunity is a clear and compelling work with clearly stated assumptions, close attention to the relevant biblical passages, and cogent arguments. Even those, like myself, who remain skeptical about postmortem opportunity can appreciate the great effort Beilby takes to present his case reasonably and answer possible objections. Beilby will challenge readers to think about these issues in new ways, and I highly recommend his book.
Rhyne Putman is associate vice president for academic affairs at Williams Baptist University. He is the author of When Doctrine Divides the People of God: An Evangelical Approach to Theological Diversity.