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What Happened to People Who Died Before Jesus’ Resurrection?


Were the people who died before Jesus’ resurrection treated differently than those who died afterwards?  However, this question naturally leads to a broader ones:  Are we humans naturally immortal?  Will we live forever, whether it be in heaven or hell?  Do the dead even go to heaven or hell right at death?  Or rather, is immortality conditional upon continued faith in and obedience to God?  What does the Bible teach about where the dead go after they die?  When the Bible's text is carefully examined, without reading preconceived ideas or interpretations into it, it reveals that the dead presently aren't alive in heaven or hell, but they remain unconscious until the day they are resurrected.  Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10 clearly teach that the dead aren't conscious:  "For the living know that they will die:  But the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.  Also their love, their hatred and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share is anything done under the sun. . . . Whatever your had finds to do, do it with your might:  For there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going."  Therefore, nobody goes to heaven or hell at death, but each person lies unconscious in the common grave of humanity until his or her resurrection, excepting for those few Christians translated or “born again” (John 3:5-8) at the first resurrection when Jesus returns (I Cor. 15:45-55; I Thess. 4:14-17). 


When the dead enter the great collective grave of mankind, "sheol" in Hebrew, and "hades" in Greek, they aren't conscious of anything.  They aren't in heaven, hell, limbo, or purgatory.  When Jesus said this (John 3:13), no man had gone to heaven (i.e., where God's throne is, the third heaven):  "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven."  Even after Christ's resurrection, King David, the man after God's own heart, hadn't ascended to heaven according to Peter (Acts 2:29, 34):  "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . . For David did not ascend into the heavens."  In the same passage, Peter cited David in the Old Testament to prove the Messiah Himself wouldn’t ascend to heaven before His resurrection, but His soul would stay briefly in the grave while He was dead (v. 27):  “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”  So when the dead enter the great collective grave of mankind, sheol in Hebrew, hades in Greek, they aren't conscious of anything. 


Can those who died unsaved still get saved?  According to Scripture, unsaved people who die aren't immediately put into an eternal hell fire.  Instead, they simply aren't judged until the second resurrection takes place (see Rev. 20:5; cf. I Cor. 15:22-24).  This would be true for both babies and adults who were uncalled in this lifetime.  Because they weren’t called during their first lives on earth (see John 6:44, 65; Acts 2:39; Matt. 13:11-16; Romans 8:28-30), they will get their first and only chance (not a “second chance”) to be saved after their resurrection at the end of the millennium, after Christ had ruled on earth for a thousand years.  Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones of the house of Israel provides the clearest passage showing the unsaved dead will be resurrected and then given an opportunity for salvation.  Now the Chosen People generally had a dismal history spiritually.  Israel was often very disobedient.  Israelites born in the pre-Exile period (not just Jewish, of the tribe of Judah only when strictly defined) commonly were violating the First Commandment by being idolaters, just as typical Hindus are today.  Most of Israel obviously was not saved back then since so many were so faithless and disobedient that they often used statues while worshiping false gods, such as Baal, Chemosh, Molech, and Dagon.  But instead of being thrown into the lake of fire after their resurrection, they are lovingly put back into the land of Israel, as God told Ezekiel (Eze. 37:11-14): 


“Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished.  We are completely cut off.'  Therefore prophesy, and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.  Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.  And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land.”’" 


These unsaved Israelites were no more saved than ignorant Buddhists, Hindus, animists, pagans, and Muslims.  Indeed, most Israelites didn't have the Holy Spirit, which conditionally gives salvation by its presence (Eph. 4:30; 1:13-14), which only became much more generally available on Pentecost in 31 A.D. after Jesus’ resurrection and later ascension to heaven (John 16:7; Acts 1:4-5; 2:2-4).  But when they were resurrected, they weren't tossed into hell, but were placed in the Holy Land!  Notice that they were resurrected to have physical bodies of flesh (verses 7-10), not bodies composed of spirit, like angels have (Hebrews 1:7) and already saved Christians will receive when Jesus returns (I Cor. 15:42-53). 


          God will not condemn any who are ignorant during their first lifetimes on earth, but only the willfully knowing wicked who refuse to repent even after their resurrection (Daniel 12:2).  After all, if God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), He has to make His will theoretically possible to fulfill.  Likewise, the Lord (II Peter 3:9) “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”  Paul also told Timothy that God “desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).  So doesn’t God want to save everyone?  Will God condemn to an eternity of torture in hell fire those who never heard Jesus' name or who never heard the Gospel preached?  Would God hurl billions of ignorant Chinese and East Indian peasants to burn in hell for endless trillions of years for a mere mayfly lifetime of sins without an opportunity to escape their dire fates?  Would God so fail so colossally to grant them a practical way to gain repentance (Acts 11:18) so they possibly could be saved?  Is it fair for God to condemn those who never had a chance to begin with?  Can the traditional view justify God's justice to humanity (i.e., construct a convincing theodicy)?  Is a brief life of (say) 20, 40, or 70 years of moderate sin fairly punished by trillions and trillions of years of burning torture?  And that's merely for starters, the barest preface to a never-ending story of agony.  Will God maintain and supervise this a plague spot in His universe for all eternity with evil angels and men suffering for their sins?  Or will God totally clean out His universe (see Acts 3:21) in order to restore the conditions that existed before Lucifer (a/k/a Satan) rebelled and Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Wouldn’t God ultimately want EVERY living creature still remaining in the created universe (cf. Rev. 5:13) to bless Him and to worship Him?

          As indicated by Matt. 12:41-42 (compare 11:21-24), most people aren't judged yet during this lifetime.  The pagan inhabitants of Nineveh aren't yet burning eternally in hell.  If the immortal soul doctrine is true, then the judgment has to occur at death.  Otherwise, the dead are being held in an unconsciousness state instead.  How else could presumably unsaved people during their lifetimes, such as the men of Nineveh who heard Jonah and the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, condemn Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah when He visited their villages and towns?  It would be most curious for God to resurrect these people who (most likely) never had the Holy Spirit, which is a requirement for salvation (Romans 8:9-11; II Cor. 5:5), and let them condemn others before tossing them all into hell.   


          Notice that Israel still has a chance at salvation despite having rejected their Messiah to date, according to Paul:  "And thus all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26; cf. verses 7, 26).  If this generalization wasn't true, how could Paul write it?  Could (say) 90% of Israel be lost to hell despite he believed they all would be saved?  Although we know some won't be saved, such as Judas Iscariot, it has to be that almost all of them will be, despite they often worshipped false gods using idols during their physical lifetimes. 


          We shouldn’t mistakenly assume that when the dead are “judged” that has to mean "sentencing" rather than “probation.”  Nor should we equate "sentencing" with "judgment."  Someone who is judged or being judged need not at that moment be condemned and sentenced to a particular punishment.  A person can have a period of judging before a final outcome is determined.  For example, Peter says "it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"  (I Pet. 4:17).  Since Christians during this lifetime aren’t yet sentenced, "judgment" here simply can't mean only "sentencing."  So we should be wary of assuming this automatically for other texts, such as Hebrews 9:27, but see what the context indicates or what other parts of the Bible teach.


So to summarize very briefly, the dead who lived before and after Jesus’ first coming are still dead.  They haven’t been judged yet.  They aren’t in hell, heaven, purgatory, or any other place in which they are conscious of their surroundings and their own selves.   As for Jesus’ return, He promised that He will come again (John 14:3) to His disciples.  Jesus hasn’t yet come again, since many spectacular signs will happen when He returns.  These are described in Matthew 24:3, 25-27.  He will be as noticeable as the lightening that flashes east to west; he won’t come secretly without the whole world knowing.  Revelation 1:7 says that every eye will see Him.  So Jesus did not return secretly in 1914 or some other year in the past.  The Messiah, who is Jesus, came in 4 b.c., died in 31 A.D., and He will return again, as per Hebrews 10:28:  “So Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.”  The dead who were called and knew and accepted God’s full truth will be resurrected to meet Him in the air (I Cor. 15:23-24; 51-54; I Thess. 4:13-17).  Notice that the last section describes those who died in Christ as being resurrected to meet Jesus in the air.


Eric Snow


Click here to access essays that defend Christianity:  /apologetics.html

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Why does God Allow Evil? Click here: /Apologeticshtml/Why Does God Allow Evil 0908.htm

May Christians work on Saturdays? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Protestant Rhetoric vs Sabbath Refuted.htm

Should Christians obey the Old Testament law? /doctrinalhtml/Does the New Covenant Abolish the OT Law.htm

Do you have an immortal soul? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Here and Hereafter.htm

Does the ministry have authority? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is There an Ordained Ministry vs Edwards.html

Is the United States the Beast? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Are We the Beast vs Collins.htm

Should you give 10% of your income to your church? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Does the Argument from Silence Abolish the Old Testament Law of Tithing 0205 Mokarow rebuttal.htm

Is Jesus God? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is Jesus God.htm

Will there be a third resurrection? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Will There Be a Third Resurrection.htm



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