Where do the unevangelized go when they die? What happens to all those who simply never hear about Jesus? What happens about people who do hear about Jesus, but they hear a faulty gospel? What about people who hear the gospel but die before they have the chance to repent and turn their life around? Still, what about children? “Even though infants have not yet chosen to sin, they still have a sin nature that separates them from God” (7). What of those who have mental disabilities and can’t even take care of themselves?
In his new book, James Beilby, professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Bethel University, offers a defense of a version of the theory of Postmortem Opportunity, that is, “the idea that those who die without a genuine opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel will receive an opportunity after death to do so” (ix). Why should you read this wacky book? Well, for one it isn’t “wacky.” Beilby has a pair of commitments:
- He is solidly traditional: “explicit, conscious, and intentional faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation” (ix). He writes not only from within the christian tradition, but from “an orthodox strand of it…assuming the ontological necessity of Jesus Christ for salvation” (xi).
- He is “outside-the-box”: “death is not the end of salvific opportunity and that some might receive their first and only opportunity to hear the gospel and respond to God’s salvific offer after death” (ix).
Beilby has two goals for his book:
- Apologetic: he strives to provide “a good answer to the question of the destiny of the unevangelized” (ix).
- Theological: He seeks “to explain the theological commitments that underlie the commitment to Postmortem Opportunity” (ix).
His work is interdisciplinary, using theology, philosophy, exegesis/biblical studies, and historical theology to make his point.
(I look a little bit extra at chapter one but summarize the rest of the chapters.) Chapter one looks at the destiny of the unevangelized (see my first paragraph above), as well as looking at how God desires “everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pet 3:9; cf. 1 Tim 2:4). Beilby surveys the traditional answers and points a way forward:
- Restrictivism: It is necessary to respond to the gospel with faith in Jesus Christ to be saved, but this only happens in this life. Problem: not everyone hears the gospel.
- Universal opportunity: God desires all to hear the gospel and salvation does require faith in Jesus, but they believe that no one has died or will die without hearing the gospel (even if it doesn’t seem that way). Some point to supernatural dreams and visions as a way of God reaching people. William Lane Craig’s view (using middle knowledge) is that “God has providentially so ordered the world that ‘anybody who never hears the gospel and is lost would have rejected the gospel and been lost even if he had heard it'” (30).
- Inclusivism: God desires all to be saved, and it is possible to be saved even without hearing the gospel through responding to general revelation.
Chapter two explains the rationale for PO, and chapter three develops the theological argument for PO. Chapter four presents scriptural objections against PO, and chapter five addresses scriptural evidence for PO. Chapter six considers the church’s rejection of PO throughout church history, and chapter seven address the main theological objections against PO. In chapter eight, Beilby argues that the combination of inclusivism and PO is better than inclusivism alone. In chapter nine, Beilby looks at biblical evidence for and against universalism and concludes that universalism is not supported biblically. In chapter ten, Beilby, after presenting the arguments, doesn’t believe a commitment to PO requires one to be a universalist. Afterward, he discusses the concept of hell, arguing for a view of “functional annihilationism.” In annihilationism, those who go to hell are annihilated. In Beilby’s view, they stay alive but no longer image God.
I quite enjoyed this book. It is quite long (almost 350 pp), but a book like this needs to be. But I can neither summarize everything nor talk at length about the book. Beilby emphasizes God’s love for the lost. He “loves each and every person and genuinely desires to be in relationship with them” (39). Jesus’ parables (like that of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son) show that God seeks the lost, even when the lost got themselves lost (43).
In books and arguments like this, many people’s minds go to one verse in particular: Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Here is the full context, which Beilby himself provides.
25 Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, 26 for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 27 And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, 28 so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The broader context compares the difference between the old covenant’s system of atonement verses Jesus’ atoning sacrifice for sinners (109). While OT priests made many animal sacrifices, Jesus made only one sacrifice, and that of his own body. But, as Beilby writes, “just as human beings only die once, and after that face judgment (Heb 9:27), so Christ will only die once to pay the price for human sin, and after that ‘appear a second time’ to bring salvation to those who are being judged (Heb 9:28)” (109). The point here is that human beings die only once, and Jesus died only once. We face judgment after death. But even if we face judgment immediately after death, this doesn’t negate a postmortem opportunity, “for it is possible to believe that the judgment that an unevangelized person experiences includes an opportunity to hear the gospel and that they are judged by their response to that offer” (109).
Questions people might have
Wouldn’t that mean that everyone would get saved? Not at all. Beilby takes no guesses as to how many would respond by affirming Christ’s supremacy. We simply don’t know. What he is arguing is that there will be a opportunity for salvation for those who have not heard the gospel or who have heard it inadequately. End point. Only one person out of billions might respond with a “yes.” Maybe half of them will respond with a “yes.” We don’t know.
Does this get people off the hook? Does this mean that anyone who has heard about Christ can just wait until God himself gives them a chance? No, anyone who hears the gospel needs to make a decision now. There is no promise of “tomorrow.” This view does not give anyone an excuse to continue living a life of sin and rebellion against God when they have heard the gospel and heard about who Jesus is. Again, this view is for that person in Japan who never hears the gospel, or for that person in Pennsylvania who hears a seriously distorted version of it. It is God, and not you, who deems someone to be in need of a Postmortem Opportunity (51).
Beilby’s core claim is this: “those who die without receiving a genuine opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel will receive a Postmortem Opportunity to do so” (35).
Beilby’s book offers a good defense of PO, but it isn’t “case closed.” He does well at showing how Scripture doesn’t shut out the possibility of there being a PO. But the proof for it isn’t completely there either. The fact is, we don’t really know. As Derek Rishmawy wrote in a blog post, even Herman Bavinck thought such an idea was at least possible.
Beilby’s book is very accessible and clear. Even though this is a large book, it is lay-person friendly. Since he is philosophically-minded, Beilby tries to cover all his bases (as one should, especially with such an important topic like this). But because of that, sometimes it feel like that point drags on. But despite that, this is a really good book that you should get your hands on if this has been an issue that’s been burdening you. I do hope he’ll write more on this topic, and I would enjoy seeing someone provide a good, nuanced rebuttal (someone who actually takes the time to read his book and respond rightly). I’d enjoy reading that just to see what I’ve missed. Nevertheless, I really recommend this book.
- Author: James Beilby
- Softcover: 368 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (March 23, 2021)
Buy it on Amazon or from IVP Academic
Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.