Truth for Today

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One Way (Part 1)

by Rev. David Blunt

A disturbing trend observable amongst "evangelicals" today is the weakening of conviction regarding the exclusive claims of Christ as Saviour and particularly regarding the gospel as the sole means of coming to faith in Christ. Prominent figures, restless over the stark biblical declarations, are advocating a "softening" of the historic Protestant position on the unevangelised, and they are finding many "itching ears" waiting to be tickled. We begin a three-part critique of views now often found among those who profess to be "evangelical" by looking at claims for salvation after death.

This article was published in the Presbyterian Standard, Issue No. 7, July-September 1997.

T O begin we must ask the obvious question, What is meant by 'evangelical'? How much confusion there is today over this! The plain words of Bishop Ryle provide an answer:

"The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the alone rule of faith and practice, the alone test of truth, the alone judge of controversy."

The place given to the Bible in one's religion decides the matter. Loraine Boettner stated: "The most important issue between evangelicals and others is that of biblical authority."

We cannot accept the views, however sincerely held, of those who will not bow before the Word of God – least of all in this matter. Human reasoning and sentiment must not guide us, but the light of God's infallible revelation.

Today the extent of the agreement among evangelicals appears to be that salvation comes only through Jesus Christ. What are the main views on this subject found among those who make their appeal to Scripture?

The first view which we consider suggests that:


What are we to make of such a claim?

A Second Chance?

This is the most popular version of the claim. Its basis is that every individual must or will have an opportunity to hear the gospel. Some of its advocates believe that even those who have been evangelised and have spurned Christ will be confronted again with His claims in the next life. Such a view may truly be termed a "second chance." The majority however restrict this kind of future probation to the heathen, and deny talk of a second chance: these people, they say, are receiving their first chance; during their earthly life they remained in ignorance of Christ and His gospel, and now during the intermediate state, between death and the consummation of the age, they are prepared for judgment by being brought face to face in some way with Christ.

Debt or Gift?

The theological reasoning used in favour of the "explicit opportunity" is connected with the perceived terms of the Judgment. Sinners will be condemned for rejecting Christ (Mark 16:16; John 3:17-18) and not for not hearing of Him. So God, according to principles of equity and love, owes men a gospel opportunity.

Such an argument proceeds more from sentiment than from Scripture. Our Lord taught plainly that the unevangelised commit things worthy of eternal punishment, though their guilt is of a lesser degree than that of unrepentant gospel-hearers (Luke 12:47,48). Responsibility increases with the amount of revelation or light given, but even the most darkened pagan, with nothing but general revelation addressing him, is regarded as accountable for his actions.

We cannot allow either the notion that there is a sense in which men deserve from God at least one hearing of the gospel of salvation. If we are to have from God what we deserve then we shall all have condemnation (Rom. 5:18). Paul describes the Evangel as "the gospel of the grace of God" (Acts 20:24): grace is what it proclaims. While preachers may not withhold the gospel from any (Col. 1:23), God is not bound to send it to any (Rom. 9:14-17).

Apostles' Creed

When we consider the biblical arguments advanced for an "explicit opportunity," we note that this theory is connected historically with the introduction of the clause "He descended into hell (Hades)" into the so-called Apostles' Creed. William Shedd says that the clause appeared first in the 4th century, and the intention was not to add a new doctrine, but to explain an existing one: the clause "was crucified, dead, and buried" was initially omitted, and the new clause substituted, indicating that the "hell" to which Christ descended was simply "the grave." In the later forms of the Creed both clauses are retained. Very soon greater stress was laid upon the latter clause, and its contents were regarded as the indication of a special remedial activity of the Lord upon His death, as expressed by the earliest Church Fathers – Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others. When this novel doctrine became inserted in this ancient Christian formula, it became necessary to find support for it in Scripture. Many texts have subsequently been cited by those advocating a future chance by virtue of Christ's personal appearance in Hades, but by far the most significant are 1 Pet. 3:18-20 and 4:6:

1 Pet. 3:18-20 – "For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water."

1 Pet. 4:6 – "For for this cause was the gospel also preached to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."

After Christ died, it is said, He went and preached to people in hell, offering them a second chance of salvation. A German Reformed theologian commented last century:

"Jesus proclaimed to those spirits in the prison of Hades the beginning of a new epoch of grace, the appearance of the kingdom of God, and repentance and faith as the means of entering into the same....We may, therefore, suppose…that the preaching of Christ begun in the realms of departed spirits is continued there in a manner adapted to the relation of the world of the that those who here on earth did not hear at all, or not in the right way, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, shall hear it there."

Clark Pinnock, a Canadian who grew up with fundamentalist influences, was in 1976 leaving open the possibility on the basis of these texts that "death is the occasion when the unevangelised have an opportunity to make a decision about Jesus Christ." By 1990 the same author was describing in detail "the larger Biblical hope":

"It seems plausible to suppose that Peter means that the gospel comes to the dead so that they 'might live in the spirit with God' if they respond to the proclamation they hear. In this way the universality of Christ's redemption is vindicated and made effective."


Our reply to these points is fourfold:

1). The Larger Catechism Q.50 indicates the true, Reformed, understanding of Christ's descent into hell: His burial in the grave and His remaining in the state of the dead for a season.

2). It is a measure of the theory that its biblical foundation rests so heavily upon one highly-controverted passage of Scripture. The key point at issue is, who are the "spirits in prison?" In fact both texts involved may be plainly understood by introducing into them the word "now": thus 1 Pet. 3:19 has the sense "the spirits (now) in prison"; and 4:6 "them that are (now) dead." These "spirits" seem to be identified unambiguously in v.20: they were "disobedient" (Gk. απειθεω 'to refuse to be persuaded') during Noah's lifetime, as he built the ark. That God's longsuffering or patience "waited" then indicates space given for repentance before the judgment of the Flood.

What did these sinners disobey? the preaching of Christ. It was not Christ Himself who personally visited these antediluvians, but His Holy Spirit, as is plain from the opening of v.19 – "By which also": this points back to "the Spirit" at the close of v.18. This interpretation has the advantage of being backed by incontrovertible texts: Gen. 6:3 speaks of the Spirit striving with man; the Spirit strove through Noah's preaching, for he was a preacher of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5) confronting a world of carnal unbelief (Matt. 24:37-39).

So Christ "went and preached" by His Spirit through Noah. A very similar phrase is found in Eph. 2:17: "And came and preached peace to you which were afar off," where the subject is plainly Christ (vv.13,14).

3). We note the Arminian soteriology that undergirds the idea of a postmortem probation. Pinnock affirms boldly as a truth of revelation "the universal salvific will of God," i.e. His desire to save every man. This will of God however is ineffectual, for His proffered salvation is suspended for its effect upon the action of man's will. Yet Scripture teaches emphatically that this so-called free-will is a slave! (John 5:40, 6:44; Rom. 3:11).

Here then is the rotten foundation upon which the structure is erected. A.A. Hodge comments perceptively:

"From their fundamental principles as to the relation of ability to responsibility, they ('extreme Arminians') must hold that none can perish who have not in some form and degree or another had an opportunity of availing themselves of salvation through Christ. In order to avoid the obvious inferences from the broad facts of the case, some have supposed that God may extend the probation of some beyond this life."

4). We see the hesitancy and qualification with which supporters of gospel opportunity beyond the grave tend to speak. Few seem willing to affirm categorically that any who die unevangelised are in fact saved.

Plain Texts

If men wish to cite certain obscure texts and wrest them out of context then the sword of the Spirit may be employed to silence them. Regarding the suggestion that those who never hear the gospel may obtain salvation in the next world, we should notice:

(a) Scriptures which emphasise the finality or fixity of the state of those who die impenitent. There are the words of wise Solomon:

"...and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be." (Ecc. 11:3).

Charles Bridges comments:

"May not the accommodation of Solomon's figure place it vividly before our eyes – how short our time of work may be – how soon 'now' even the 'axe may be laid to the root of the tree' (Matt. 3:10) and our state unchangeably fixed for eternity?...Death changes, purifies nothing. Inexpressibly solemn will be the sentence pronounced 'He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he that is filthy, let him be filthy still; and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still; and he that is holy, let him be holy still.' (Rev. 22:11)."

Jesus said that at the last day the wicked would experience the resurrection of "damnation" as opposed to "life" (John 5:29). The prophet Daniel is even more explicit:

"And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (Dan. 12:2).

Paul says of "the enemies of the cross of Christ" that their "end is destruction" (Phil. 3:18,19): there is nothing beyond one's "end."

(b) Allied to this are Scriptures which speak unequivocally of an end of all gospel opportunity at death :

Prov. 29:1 – "He, that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy."

Matt. 9:6 – "...the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins..." (even Christ as Mediator does not have authority to forgive those who are beyond this world).

Luke 16:26 – "And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence."

John 8:21 – "I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come."

Heb. 9:27 – "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (man dies once, and the next thing before him is the Day of Judgment).


Bridges, C., A Commentary on Ecclesiastes. BoT, Edinburgh, 1985, p.270.

Hodge, A.A., Outlines of Theology. BoT, Edinburgh, 1983, p.587.

Shedd,W.G.T., The Doctrine of Endless Punishment. BoT, Edinburgh, 1990, pp.69,70 & 183,184.