Salvation after Death
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (April-June 1995): 131-44
Millard J. Erickson
This article discusses another aspect of the question of whether those who have never heard the gospel will be saved. Perhaps, some argue, those who have never heard the gospel explicitly will yet have opportunity to hear and believe in the future, after death. Might there be an opportunity beyond death, when the message will be presented? This view--which goes by various names but will here be called ’postmortem evangelism’--has experienced something of a resurgence of interest.
This view has had a fairly long history, though only in recent years has it been popular. For much of its earlier history, it has existed virtually on the fringes of Christianity. Only recently have orthodox or evangelical Christians expressed interest in it. This view is an alternative not only to the orthodox position, but also to the implicit faith position. It agrees with the former in that faith must be explicit, that is, a person must consciously understand and accept Jesus Christ as his or her Savior. And postmortem evangelism agrees with the latter (that faith may be implicit) in that God is considered unjust and unloving to condemn anyone to eternal punishment who has had no opportunity to hear of Christ’s redemptive work.
Doctrinal and Logical Inferences Given
in Support of Postmortem Evangelism
in Support of Postmortem Evangelism
According to Bloesch, hell is part of God’s loving plan. It is exclusion from communion with God, but not from His presence. It is to be thought of as ’a sanitorium of sick souls presided over by Jesus Christ.’ Bloesch’s concept of election, which draws on Karl Barth’s doctrine, enters into the consideration, so that he contends that ’even those who dwell in unbelief are elected by God in Jesus Christ, though not to salvation as such but to the exposure to salvation.’ While hell is not seen as providing purification in the sense advocated by Nels Ferré, Bloesch does not exclude the idea that some might be transferred ultimately from hell to heaven.
We do not wish to build fences around God’s grace, however, and we do not preclude that some in hell might finally be translated into heaven. The gates of the holy city are depicted as being open day and night (Isa. 60:11; Rev. 21:25), and this means that access to the throne of grace is possible continuously. The gates of hell are locked, but they are locked only from within.
Hell, according to Bloesch, is not outside the sphere of God’s mercy or His kingdom. It is conceived of as the last refuge of the sinner. Bloesch professes something of an agnosticism about the future state of unbelievers: ’Edward Pusey voices our own sentiments: ’We know absolutely nothing of the proportion of the saved to the lost or who will be lost; but this we do know, that none will be lost, who do not obstinately to the end and in the end refuse God.’’ This way of putting the matter and the insistence that ’even the despised and reprobate are claimed for Jesus Christ in some way or other,’ leaves the impression that only eternally persistent rejection of the offer of grace excludes a person from heaven.
Probably the person who has exerted the strongest influence for this concept, even among conservative interpreters of Scripture is John Peter Lange, in his commentary on 1 Peter 3:18-20. He wrote, ’Holy Scripture nowhere teaches the eternal damnation of those who died as heathens or non-Christians; it rather intimates in many passages that forgiveness may be possible beyond the grave, and refers the final decision not to death, but to the day of Christ.’
Sanders reports several of these passages. While not identifying these as supporting his own arguments, he elsewhere says, ’I also see many strengths in the concept of eschatological evangelization, particularly theological plausibility of its account of universal evangelization.’ Since he cites several supporting texts without naming any advocates, one may safely conjecture that the argument is his:
Several texts are customarily cited in defense of this assertion: ’He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom He has appointed [Jesus]’ (Acts 17:31); ’I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day’ (2 Tim. 1:12); ’in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing’ (2 Tim. 4:8); and ’we may have confidence in the day of judgment’ (1 John 4:17; see also John 5:25-29). In addition, it is pointed out that Jesus said that ’many shall come from east and west, and recline at table with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 8:11/Luke 13:29) and that the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem will never be closed (Rev. 21:25). These texts are taken to mean that God still invites sinners from all areas of the globe and all periods of history to repentance in the afterlife.
Sanders notes the objection by many evangelicals to this concept of opportunity after death on the basis of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, which they believe to be evidence that an individual’s destiny is fixed at death. Sanders responds by stating that ’so literalistic an interpretation is by no means generally accepted in the scholarly community, especially in light of the fact that the point of all three parables in Luke 16 is to instruct us about the use of wealth, not about eschatology.’ He says the issue is which view ’makes best sense of God’s universal salvific will and the other guiding themes of Scripture.’ He says the verses typically cited in support of the view that human destiny is fixed at death can easily be answered by the advocates of postmortem evangelization, and that, at the very least, it can be argued that the biblical witness is not clearcut in this matter.
Pinnock contends that Scripture does not require the view that death closes the door of opportunity. He bases this at least in part on the idea that while the fate of some may be fixed at death, for others that is not the case. Babies who die in infancy are a major example, he says. The question then becomes whether others may qualify for special treatment. Yet having said that, he asserts that it is not so much a matter of qualification as of disposition:
Humanity will appear in its entirety before God and God has not changed from love to hate. Anyone wanting to love God who has not loved him before is certainly welcome to do so. It has not suddenly become forbidden. No, the variable is the condition of the human souls appearing in God’s presence.
What Pinnock seems to assume is that if one responded to God with love at this point, it would be accepted and would therefore result in the person receiving eternal life. But is that the case? The question cannot be settled simply by asserting that it is not a question of qualification but of disposition. What is under dispute at this point is whether God gives opportunity after death for salvation.
Pinnock adds another point, this time from logic. He contends that the logic behind postmortem encounter ’rests on the insight that God, since he loves humanity, would not send anyone to hell without first ascertaining what their response would have been to his grace. Since everyone eventually dies and comes face to face with the risen Lord, that would seem to be the obvious time to discover their answer to God’s call.’ This contention in turn rests on another feature of Pinnock’s theology, namely, that God does not know in advance what human beings will do, how they will choose, or what they will believe. This in turn is an inference from Pinnock’s view of freedom. Whereas Arminians customarily regard God as foreknowing what humankind will freely choose to do, Pinnock (rightly, in this writer’s judgment) says that for God to be able to know individuals’ actions, it must be certain what they will do. That, however, is incompatible with the usual Arminian understanding of freedom. Therefore Pinnock has abandoned belief in divine omniscience. Some theologians suggest the solution of ’middle knowledge,’ whereby God knows what human decisions would have been. But Pinnock’s view does not allow him to accept this as a resolution of the difficulty.
The View That Christ Actually
Offered Salvation to Some Dead Persons
Offered Salvation to Some Dead Persons
Several passages, especially 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6, that refer to Jesus’ descent and preaching, play a crucial role in support of postmortem evangelism. Salvation after death is related to the belief that Jesus, between His death and resurrection, descended into Hades and there proclaimed the gospel to individuals enslaved there from Old Testament times. This is supported by the statement in the Apostles’ Creed, ’He descended into hades,’ which in turn is supposedly suggested in Acts 2:31; Ephesians 4:9-10; 1 Peter 3:18-20; and 4:6. Two steps are required if one is to believe on biblical grounds that such an opportunity is given after death to all persons who have not believed during this life. First, it is necessary to demonstrate that 1 Peter 3:18-20 does indeed teach that Christ preached the gospel to individuals in hades between the first Good Friday and Easter, and that this was a genuine offer of salvation on the basis of belief. Second, one must demonstrate that the offer made to those Old Testament persons is also available to all persons who live and die after that time.
It is worth noting that the presence of the clause in the Apostles’ Creed, which undoubtedly was a major factor in inducing belief in the doctrine during the medieval period, did not occur until relatively late. It is not found universally in the creed until the eighth century, though it was found in some versions as early as patristic times. It is included in the Athanasian Creed, composed about the middle of the fifth century and accepted by both the Eastern and Western wings of the church.
The tradition of a descent of Christ into hades goes back to early church history. Interestingly, however, it was not associated with 1 Peter 3:18-20 for some time. Selwyn says that ’the outstanding fact in the Patristic evidence before A.D. 190 is that, despite the popularity of the doctrine of Christ’s ’harrowing of hell,’ I Pet. iii. 18ff. is never quoted as authority for it.’ Loofs says Irenaeus ’never quotes the passage at all, nor, in dealing specially with the Descensus, does he even allude to it,’ though Irenaeus regarded 1 Peter as an authentic epistle. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Hippolytus, however, did mention the descent in relation to 1 Peter 3. According to Augustine Christ’s preaching was in His preexistent form to the people of Noah’s day. Three of the major interpretations of the passage (i.e., Christ preaching in Hades to men, or to angels, or to those living in the days of Noah) were held by some of the church fathers.
Questions on 1 Peter 3:18-20
Several issues are involved in the interpretation of this passage. Those questions and the major answers given to them are as follows:
- Who did the preaching?
a. Jesus (most interpreters hold this view)
c. Noah, but Christ was actually preaching through him by the Holy Spirit
- To whom was the preaching given?
a. Fallen angels
b. Humans, in hell
c. Humans, who repented just before they died in the Flood
d. People who lived in the time of Moses
- What was preached?
a. The gospel, that is, the good news of the availability of salvation
b. Christ’s triumph over death
c. Judgment or condemnation
- When was the preaching done?
a. In the days of Noah
b. Between Jesus’ death and resurrection
c. After Jesus’ resurrection but before His ascension
d. At the time of an ’invisible ascension’ of Christ on Easter Sunday morning, just after His appearance to Mary
e. Throughout history, being symbolic of the universality of salvation, rather than a single literal occurrence
Six Major Views on 1 Peter 3:18-20
Taking into account all possible combinations of the above answers would theoretically allow for 180 different theories. Since, however, the position taken on one of these questions in many cases severely limits the available options, the actual number is considerably less. The number tends to reduce to the following six interpretations.
1. Christ ’in spirit’ preached through Noah when Noah was building the ark. This was a message of repentance and righteousness, given to unbelieving persons who were then on earth but are now ’spirits in prison’ (i.e., persons in hell).
2. Between His death and resurrection Christ preached to humans in Hades, giving them a message of repentance and righteousness, thus giving them opportunity to believe and be saved, though they had not availed themselves of such an offer during their time on earth.
3. Between His death and resurrection Christ went to people in Hades and announced that He had triumphed over them and that their condemnation was final.
4. Between His death and resurrection Christ proclaimed release to people who had repented just before the Flood. He led them from imprisonment in purgatory to heaven.
5. Between His death and resurrection or between His resurrection and ascension, Christ descended into Hades and proclaimed His triumph over the fallen angels who had sinned by mating with women before the Flood.
6. The reference to Jesus’ preaching is not to be taken literally. It is symbolic, conveying in this graphic form the idea that redemption is universal in its extent or influence.
Examination of the passage requires much more attention than can be given in the space of this article. Several issues need to be addressed, however, which should narrow considerably the number of viable options.
A basic question pertains to what was preached, and that centers on the meaning of the word khruvssw in 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6. According to views three and five above, this means preaching either judgment or a triumph over the hearers. In views one and two the preaching was the proclamation of the need to repent and the possibility of forgiveness. In view four it means a declaration of forgiveness and liberation. Thus in views one, two, and four the preaching was ’good news,’ while in views three and five it was ’bad news.’ Which meaning is to be understood here?
The word used here is simply the broad word for proclamation. It is not necessarily restricted to evangelization or declaration of good news, or the message of salvation. The idea of bad news here, however, seems to be problematic on one or two grounds. For one thing, it is not consistent with the rest of Jesus’ preaching. While He certainly spoke words of harsh criticism and even condemnation of the Pharisees, it is difficult to find parallels to Jesus ’lording it over’ persons who were already in prison and incapable of harming or misleading others. Further, the context does not seem to fit this interpretation well. The argument of 1 Peter 3 seems to be concerned with the matter of bearing witness, or giving an account of one’s faith. In fact verse 15 speaks of believers doing this witnessing ’with gentleness and respect.’ This hardly seems consonant with a declaration of condemnation or victory by Christ. This, then, seems to favor interpretations one or two.
Who were the recipients of the message? Were they humans or angels? Much has been made of the idea of a parallel with the Book of Enoch, in which Enoch preached to the angels who were disobedient in the time of Noah. The claim is then made that this tradition would have been familiar to Peter’s readers and that he merely modeled his argument along that line. Further, there is the claim that the ’sons of God’ in Genesis 6 were angels. Genesis 6 is then linked with 2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 6. Then 1 Peter 3:19 is associated with these several verses and with the idea of preaching to fallen angels.
There is much to commend this view, since there was considerable interest in angels at that time. Yet there are problems with it. For one thing, there is no assurance that the ’sons of God’ in Genesis 6 refers to angels. This is a highly disputed passage. Further, the idea of angels mating with humans to produce offspring seems to contradict Jesus’ statement in Matthew 22:30. (Some say Matthew 22:30 indicates that though they do not marry, they do mate. That seems to be a remote interpretation, however.)
What of the view that this was a declaration of deliverance to those who repented in the time of the Flood, but who did so too late to avoid perishing? This view faces several difficulties as well. For one thing, there is no reference to such repentance in the account of the Flood. For another, this creates a special class for these persons, as compared with the rest of those who lived and died in Old Testament times. Why should this be? Presumably, if others in the Old Testament who repented were spared spiritually, these would be spared also, though they perished physically in the Flood. Why should this preaching then focus on them?
Pannenberg holds a rather different view, namely, that this passage is to be understood symbolically. In an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed he discusses the tradition in the early church of Christ’s preaching in Hades and notes that this tradition is found in the New Testament only in 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6. That Pannenberg does not take this descent and preaching literally is indicated by his comment that the controversy between Lutheran and Reformed theologians over whether it was the crucified or the risen Lord who descended into hell could come only to the kind of mind that confuses the image with the thing itself. This is made clearer still in his book, Jesus: God and Man, in which he speaks of the ’increasingly mythological conception of Jesus’ preaching in the realm of the dead or in hell’ which attached itself to the statements in 1 Peter. He says 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6 should be thought of as referring to ’the universal significance of Jesus’ vicarious death under the curse.’
The proclamation of the missionary message of primitive Christianity by Jesus himself in the realm of the dead is not, like the crucifixion, a historical event. The pictorial character of this concept is not simply a part of the mode of expression, as is the case with the resurrection which still is a specific, historically definable event. The symbolic language about Jesus’ descent into hell and his proclamation in the realm of the dead is just what has been falsely asserted about Jesus’ resurrection, namely, a statement about the real significance of another event, his death.
It is difficult to ascertain the basis of Pannenberg’s position. In his view neither biblical nor ecclesiastical tradition per se carries authority. Thus it is somewhat puzzling to know why he considers this a viable view. He seems to say that this idea in the Scriptures is acceptable only because of extrabiblical writings.
Evaluation of Views One and Two
This leaves two major alternatives: views one and two. The second interpretation, that Christ preached a message of repentance to people in Hades, seems to be the only one that could support the idea of postmortem evangelization. Yet it faces a problem: Was the preaching given only to people in Noah’s time but not others? In other words this theory does not seem to explain the reference in the context to those in the time of Noah. In addition, this theory seeks to draw support from other references, but on closer examination those are even more ambiguous. They refer either to God not leaving Jesus’ soul in Hades or to Jesus descending to earth.
View one, that Christ preached through Noah, of course, has difficulties both with the ’spirits’ in prison and with the preaching. The latter does not seem to be without parallel, however. For example Luke wrote of the Holy Spirit speaking through the mouth of David (Acts 1:16; 4:25) and the expression ’the word of the Lord came upon me, saying . . .’ is virtually a paradigm for the Old Testament prophets. Regarding the spirits in prison, Selwyn argued that pneu’ma is never used absolutely (i.e., without a ’defining genitive phrase’) to refer to human spirits, and thus it must refer to good or evil angelic spirits. Grudem, however, has shown that this is not the case. Grudem further argues that the question of time regarding the ’spirits in prison’ may be understood from the time perspective of the writer.
Probably the most important issue between views one and two is the context. As suggested earlier, the focus of 1 Peter 3 is on faithful, gentle, respectful witnessing, giving a reason for one’s faith, even in the face of opposition. This, plus the references to those in the time of Noah, seems to favor the first view, even though it has not been greatly in favor of late. Careful defenses of this position, taking into account the usual objections to it and the weaknesses of the alternatives, have recently been advanced.
Related Doctrinal Issues
The wider contextual issue, however, concerns the question of the harmony of this teaching with broader doctrinal issues taught in Scripture. Evangelicals generally have not held to the view that Christ descended into Hades and preached there. In the late 1960s the chaplain of Wheaton College decided that a series of chapel messages on the Apostles Creed would be desirable. Members of the Bible department were asked to preach, each on a different phrase of the creed. No one, however, was willing to preach on ’descended into Hades,’ because no one believed in it. Therefore that phrase was omitted from the series.
The major reason for hesitancy about this concept stems from the conviction that the Bible teaches that death ends all opportunity for decision for Christ, so that one’s eternal destiny is sealed at death. This is defended on the basis of several passages. One is Jesus’ portrayal of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Scholars have debated whether this is a parable. If it is, it is the only parable in which one of the characters is named. Those who hold that it is a parable maintain that one cannot obtain doctrine from parables. However, even if events referred to in Jesus’ parables may not have been historical occurrences, there was nothing in the details of those occurrences untrue to life. Thus in the events referred to in the parable of the prodigal son, though such an event may not actually have happened to three specific members of one family, there is nothing in the parable contrary to the circumstances of life. There is nothing in the parable that could not have happened, and nothing contrary to the culture of that time. The same is true of the other parables. If the story in Luke 16:19-31 is a parable, Lazarus and the rich man were not actual persons and this incident did not occur. However, if this is not an accurate picture of the state of individuals following death, this parable is strongly different from others.
Some writers object that the point of the passage is not to teach eschatology. Sanders, for example, states that ’so literalistic an interpretation is by no means generally accepted in the scholarly community, especially in light of the fact that the point of all three parables in Luke 16 is to instruct us about the use of wealth, not about eschatology.’ This seems, however, to be an example of the common fallacy of assuming that the only lesson that can be drawn from a parable is the central one. That assumption is seriously in need of justification. For if the basic teaching is like the conclusion of a syllogism, then for the conclusion to follow as true from the premises and the syllogism to be valid, those premises must also be true. Therefore one may draw from the passage the premises as well as the conclusion.
Other passages as well speak to the point that death brings opportunity for salvation to an end. The thrust of much of Psalm 49 is that the sinner will go to the grave and perish there, there being no indication of any possibility of release from that place. Revelation 20:11-15 records the scene at the Great White Throne Judgment at which each person who wanted to be judged on the basis of his or her works is judged, and all are accounted guilty. No offer of salvation will be made at that time. In addition, Hebrews 9:27, ’It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment,’ seems to assume an invariable transition from death to judgment, with no mention of any additional opportunities for acceptance. To be sure, this may be labeled an argument from silence, but it would seem that the burden of proof rests on those who maintain that opportunity for salvation follows death.
In the interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 no one view is completely satisfactory. One must be content with finding the one with the fewest difficulties. The present writer finds least problematic the first of these, the idea that Christ by the Holy Spirit spoke through Noah to those of his day. In view of the context of 1 Peter 3:18-20 and when one attempts to bring all the biblical revelation together into a coherent whole, this view seems preferable.
It should be noted, however, that the argument for postmortem evangelism is not successful even on the interpretation that says that Christ descended into hades and offered salvation to the imprisoned sinners there. For even if that view is accepted, it takes care of only those few people. It says nothing about others who have lived since that time or will live in the future. To be sure, the principle of no salvation beyond the grave, or death being the end of all opportunity, has been breached, but that does not give any guarantee that others will be saved. It might have been a unique situation. It is necessary to establish an additional link in the argument, namely, that because Christ proclaimed and provided salvation for those imprisoned sinners, there will also be an opportunity for others. What is offered for this particular premise?
Here there is an amazing absence of argumentation or even of apparent awareness of the issue. Sanders, for example, does not seem to see the point, moving quickly from the former to the latter. Bloesch also seems to identify the two, stating, ’What the descent doctrine affirms is the universality of a first chance, an opportunity for salvation for those who have never heard the gospel in its fullness.’ That, however, does not seem to be the teaching of the doctrine of the descent. If interpreted in the way Bloesch interprets it, what the passage asserts is that Jesus preached to and offered salvation to those persons in Hades at that time, not that everyone is guaranteed an opportunity for salvation after death. Nor does Pannenberg offer much help here. He sees 1 Peter 3:18-20 as primarily symbolic, so that the truth is not to be identified with a particular occurrence. This, however, requires a fairly serious revision of the way one handles Scripture.
Beasley-Murray takes a somewhat different approach. He evidently regards as key to interpreting the passage the fact that the generation referred to here is also regarded as the most wicked generation in history. Thus it becomes an example, since it is an extreme case, of the truth that there is hope for all generations. He says:
The primary reference of both statements [3:19 and 4:6] is the same, and the primary lesson in the writer’s mind is to exemplify the universal reach of Christ’s redeeming work and the divine willingness that all should know it. The preaching of Christ between his cross and his Easter is intended to prove that the wickedest generation of history is not beyond the bounds of his pity and the scope of his redemption, hence there is hope for this generation, that has sinned even more greatly than the Flood generation in refusing the proclamation of a greater Messenger of God and that faces the last judgment (4.7).
One could wish for a bit more evidence and support. How does Beasley-Murray know that this was the writer’s primary intention? A plausible explanation has been transformed into a probable one, but with no further evidence than the theory itself.
For Pinnock, the argument rests on a certain logic, as he terms it. He sees scriptural warrant for the idea of a postmortem encounter in the preaching of Christ in Hades. He seems to be making an assertion similar to that of Beasley-Murray.
Could the meaning of the descent into hell be that the people who never encountered the Gospel in their lifetimes can choose to receive it in the postmortem situation? Such a possibility would make good the universality of grace and God’s willingness that all should know it. It would make clear that the most wicked of sinners are not beyond the scope of God’s mercy, and that God is patient even with them.
Could it be? Yes, most certainly that is a possibility. Is it the case, however? That is the question. Pinnock acknowledges that ’the scriptural evidence for postmortem encounter is not abundant,’ but he contends that ’its scantiness is relativized by the strength of the theological argument for it.’
Evangelicals are faced with whether to accept the notion of postmortem evangelism, a view for which there is no clear biblical teaching and which seems at points to contradict other, clearer biblical teachings. As Mounce observed, the major passage appealed to--1 Peter 3:18-20--is ’widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in all of the New Testament.’ It is strange to rest a doctrine about the eternal destiny of humans on such an obscure passage. The doctrine is based on a series of interpretations of Scriptures and philosophical and other assumptions which, by the admission of the proponents of this view, are in many cases at best possibilities, and which are scant in number. When, however, a theory is based on a series of statements and inferences, each of which has a rather low level of probability, the probability of the theory decreases. A four-step argument, each step of which was 75 percent probable, would have a probability for the conclusion of only 32 percent. The burden of proof for a view such as this, which at least on the surface conflicts with other teachings of Scripture, rests on those who advance it. And here, one must conclude, the proof falls far short of demonstration.
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