What about postmortem evangelism?

Can those who have never heard the gospel in this life, hear and receive it after death? Grace Communion Seminary (GCS) faculty member Dr. Gary Deddo answers by explaining how Grace Communion International (GCI) approaches the topic of postmortem evangelism and conversion.

"The Good Shepherd," stained glass window (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

First, let's be reminded that the nature, character and purposes of our Triune God, as revealed to us in Jesus Christ, are foundational to our faith. We believe that all people are created according to the image of Jesus Christ. Further, we believe Jesus is Lord and Savior of all---he died for all and God does not want any to perish. These foundational truths are explicitly declared in the New Testament by Jesus and his appointed witnesses. On the basis of these truths, GCI teaches that God will do everything to draw all to himself and enable them to receive all he has for them through Jesus Christ.

Understandably, some wonder about seemingly insurmountable barriers to this drawing and receiving. What about babies who die before birth or when very young? What about people with disabilities and other circumstances that prevent them from hearing the gospel or outwardly responding? What about those who have never heard the gospel? It is GCI's conviction that none of these barriers stand in the way of God getting through to these people. Moreover, GCI believes that by his Word and Spirit, God works in ways beyond what we can conceive of to give all people the opportunity to hear the gospel, then humbly receive God their Savior and all that he has for them.

On that basis, GCI is hopeful concerning those people whose lives are limited by circumstances that, to us, create seemingly insurmountable barriers in this life. We are hopeful even though we do not know exactly how or when these people will hear the good news of their salvation in Jesus Christ.

GCI does not have a doctrine that specifies exactly when or how God will draw individuals in limiting circumstances. Why? Because Scripture does not specify such detail, and it does not say that God will necessarily work in any specific way or time. For GCI to say otherwise would be speculation, and doctrine should never be based on speculation, even when it is linked to Scripture. Such speculations typically are linked to verses that do not directly address how or when God will work, and so make use of what theologians call "logical inferences." But that practice is not a valid way to establish church doctrine.

We need not speculate concerning how or when God will draw people to himself in circumstances that seem to us to be limiting or even impossible. Instead, we can rely on what has been clearly revealed in many biblical passages, including the words of Jesus himself, concerning the nature, heart, character and purposes of God to bring people into right relationship with himself. By his Word and Spirit, God can and does work in many ways, even ways we cannot imagine, to call people to himself so that they might respond, receive and humbly trust in him as their Lord and Savior. By his power and in his grace, God can deal with any and all situations, including every limitation and barrier. That’s what we believe, and our doctrinal statements focus on that, not on speculations.

In looking at the timing of when God will work with some groups of people, GCI has at times pointed to Revelation chapters 20-22, noting the possibility raised there that some may have a chance to have a change of mind/heart after death and even after the general resurrection of the dead. However, it should be noted that when such possibilities have been mentioned by GCI, it was also noted that it was a matter of speculation, not doctrine. The book of Revelation is written as apocalyptic, a literary genre that makes heavy use of metaphorical, symbolic language. It is a misuse of Revelation to turn its metaphors and symbols into literal teachings, and then use them to establish church doctrine.

Revelation 21:25 speaks of the gates of the Temple in the new Jerusalem never being shut. This is a metaphor---a symbolic image that is not to be understood as necessarily true. To speculate as to its literal meaning and import using logical inferences, and then to use those conclusions to make dogmatic (doctrinal) statements concerning postmortem evangelism, would be unwarranted and a breach of the rules of logic.

The metaphorical/symbolic imagery of the book of Revelation must be interpreted in light of what is explicitly and directly taught, both in that book and in the context of what the rest of the New Testament explicitly declares. Passages like Rev. 21:25 do not provide a basis on which to establish a doctrine that God’s mercy will necessarily involve after-death conversions (via postmortem evangelism). God can work his mercy out in ways that don’t require such means.

What Revelation does declare is that God is a just, merciful and gracious God who is eternally opposed to evil, and who will overcome all evil so that, in the end, it will be no more. God assures us in Scripture that evil has no future and that he will rescue from evil all who turn to him in repentance and faith. Revelation warns against unbelief and a lack of repentance and serves as a basis for patient hope, awaiting God’s ultimate victory over evil and the vindication of those who put their trust in Jesus, their Lord and Savior, the Alpha and Omega.

- Dr. Gary Deddo