Was the Gospel really preached to every creature which is under heaven?
Before Christ created the world, He wrote down the names of several people in His [i.e. the Lamb’s] “Book of Life” (Luke 10:20, Ephesians 1:4, 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14, Revelation 17:8, 20:15). It turns out that this book contains the names of all those who are ‘elect.’ Elect is a term which refers to those persons whom God has chosen ahead of time to inherit salvation. In Bible verses such as 1 Peter 1:2 and Romans 8:29, the bible tells us that God’s choices were based upon His foreknowledge or His knowing-ahead-of-time.
(Also see What Does The Bible Mean By Election?, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God & Fore knowledge is a Condition)
Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2)
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate [i.e. elect] to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
But what exactly did God know ahead of time and how did this information affect His rationale for choosing one person but not another? The Bible tells us that God is not a respecter of persons so we know that God’s foreknowledge has nothing to do with one’s physical appearance, nationality nor one’s efforts of any sort. The the only logical and biblical conclusion regarding the criteria which God used when choosing His elect is faith (i.e. whether a person would obey the gospel). Salvation comes by believing or obeying the Gospel (1 Peter 4:17, Hebrews 5:9, Romans 6:17, Act 5:32) therefore if certain persons were deemed saved ahead of time, it must be because God knew of their obedience ahead of time. No other criterion will work. The fact that belief and obedience are used interchangeably in the Bible is an indication that a sincere belief is always accompanied by obedience. These two terms are therefore inseparable when it comes to any discussion about the Gospel. The Gospel must be obeyed! Hebrews 3:19 tells us that “they [i.e. the unbelieving Jews] could not enter in [to the promised land] because of unbelief.” In a similar fashion, the name of unbelievers could not be entered into God’s Book of Life because of their foreknown unbelief.
That election is based upon foreknowledge has several implications. One implication is that God must already know everything that will happen in the future. Yet, because the Elect also include persons whose earthly lives have been permanently cut short (i.e. aborted infants) another implication of God’s foreknowledge is that He must already know the things that would have happened in the future if given the chance. For example, because of His foreknowledge, even if everyone died prior to hearing the Gospel, God would still know who would have believed the Gospel. His election is therefore based upon an exhaustive and infallible understanding of what will or would have occurred. This remarkable type of foreknowledge expresses itself in numerous verses of Scripture (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:51-57, 1 Samuel 23:8-14, Ezekiel 3:6-7, Jeremiah 38:17-18, Matthew 11:23, Matthew 12:7, Matthew 23:27-32, Matthew 26:24, Luke 4:24-44, Luke 16:30-31, Luke 22:67-68, John 15:22-24, John 18:36, John 21:6, 1 Corinthians 2:8 etc). One pertinent example is Mark 13:19-20 where we are told that the complete annihilation of those living during the Great Tribulation will not occur but would have had a certain condition been met (i.e. if those days were prolonged). Another good example is Matthew 11:21 where we are told that the cities of Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes had a certain condition been met (i.e. if Christ’s mighty miracles had been performed in those cities). Therefore, God’s omniscience is not only limited to the actual events described in history but also includes an exhaustive understanding of potential scenarios which will never be realized.
That God foresees the unknowable is not a novel idea. In fact, there is a minority view in Soteriology (i.e. the study of Salvation) known as Molinism which also recognizes from the Scriptures that God has an exhaustive comprehension of potential scenarios (a.k.a. “middle knowledge” in Molinism). However, it seems that in the Christian world whenever anyone dares to attribute to God’s omniscience the versatility outlined in the Scriptures, that person is usually branded as a Molinist. Well, if this essay be Molinism then lest us make the most of it. For whereas Calvinism curtails God’s foreknowledge in order to achieve a view of God’s sovereignty which ends up painting Him as this irrational being Who is genuinely and frequently upset at the very things that His own will has ordained, at least Molinism, with all its contrived terminology, seeks to embrace all modes of knowledge which are afforded the Almighty in the Scriptures. Therefore, in as much as this essay is to be associated with Molinism this author will not cease to remind its detractors that, as a theological principle, Molinism demolishes its peers in respects to its appreciation of God’s all-encompassing omniscience. Yet some critics of the idea that God can infallibly know all potential outcomes argue that God cannot infallibly know the future unless He fatalistically ordains it. But this charge is neither logical nor scriptural. The mechanism which powers man’s free volition is the same mechanism behind propositional revelation. Hence, the propositional revelation of all thoughts to the minds of men could itself become the justifying mechanism for God should it be deemed necessary that He needs one.
That God operates based upon foreknowledge is not a new concept that is foreign to the Scriptures. For example, in Genesis 18:17-19 we read of God blessing and disclosing to Abraham His future plans based upon His foreknowledge of Abraham obedience. Perhaps of even greater significance is the example of Galatians 3:8 which states that, “the Scripture [i.e Christ] foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached beforehand the Gospel unto Abraham.” It is therefore clear from the Scriptures that God often uses foreknowledge as a basis for His decisions.
Another expression of God’s foreknowledge is found in an instructive and insightful Hebrew term called ‘achărı̂yth. It means “that which comes after” or the “final end.” In using this term Psalms 37:37-38 says:
Mark the blameless man, and behold the upright: for the achărı̂yth of that man is peace. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the achărı̂yth of the wicked shall be cut off.”
In God’s view, the ‘achărı̂yth is always there. When thinking of God’s foreknowledge, some Christians have a caricature of Him in their minds where they picture Him looking down the so-called corridors of time in order to calculate all the myriad of potential outcomes that each person’s life could possibly lead to. Yet, this representation does not reconcile with the notion of the biblical God to Whom our ‘achărı̂yth is always present. No matter what God looks at, be it persons or their actions, He immediately sees their final end [‘achărı̂yth]. In this sense, there is no difference between an aborted child and a 90 year old woman, both of their fates (soteriologically speaking) were already adjudicated before time based upon God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of their achărı̂yth as it pertains to obeying the Gospel.
Yet, the Bible gives us reasons to believe that no one will stand before God on the day of judgment without having actually heard the Gospel. After all, if Christ really died for every single descendant of Adam as we are told in John 3:16; Isaiah 45:21-22; Luke 2:10; John 1:29; John 4:42; John 6:51; John 12:47; Romans 3:21-23; Romans 5:18; Romans 11:32; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Hebrews 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:4,6; 1 Timothy 2:11; 1 Timothy 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14 etc. then why would He not tell everyone for whom He died about the good news of the Gospel? I mean, who would die in the place of a condemned man in order to secure his freedom (Romans 5:7-8) and then neglect to inform the man that this free gift had come upon him (Romans 5:18)? No merciful person would do so, yet in their flawed attempts to explain what the Bible says about the Gospel, many theologians have ended up accusing God of doing this very thing! Isn’t it understood from reading Psalms 98:9 that God will judge the world with equity? Yet, by refusing to affirm the claim that all souls will hear the Gospel, many Christian leaders are effectively accusing God of being inequitable. They are telling the world that the biblical God condemns to Hell those who have never heard nor rejected the Gospel in spite of the fact that several Scriptures actually militate against such a premise. For example, Paul in Colossians 1:23 says,
… be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister
According to the 19th century Methodist theologian Dr. Adam Clarke, the Colossians 1:23 phrase “every creature which is under heaven” is a Hebraism for “the whole human race.” If Clarke is right then this Hebraism must include those who (due to some unfortunate circumstance) never made it out of the womb but are still descendants of Adam and are therefore human. Moreover, Colossians 1:23‘s use of the past tense “was preached” is an indication that Paul here is speaking prophetically—i.e. he envisions a time when it will be true that the Gospel was preached to every member of the human race. The Gospel of Luke asserts a similar proposition in its summary of Isaiah 40:5, & Isaiah 52:10, for Luke 3:6 declares that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Moreover, like Colossians 1:23, Psalm 98:2-3 also employs the past tense when asserting that “the LORD hath made known His salvation” and that “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
This means that it is a logical certainty that every descendant of Adam will have an opportunity to hear the life-saving Gospel. This includes all those living before the New Testament era. In fact, many who lived and died during Old Testament times (e.g. children of Israel) had already heard the Gospel “but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2, Romans 10:19-21). However for those who have not heard, they shall hear, “for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.” (Isaiah 52:15, Romans 15:21) Otherwise, on Judgment Day, how can it be maintained that they have neglected so great a salvation if it was all the while inaccessible (Hebrews 2:3)? In fact, so certain is God’s intention to preach the Gospel “to every creature which is under heaven” that He plainly reveals this plan through His teachings. For example, one important conclusion from the parable of the Sower and the seed (Mathew 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, Luke 8:5-18) is that every person will be exposed to the Gospel message. For though the Scriptures do not directly identify the parable’s Sower, that the Sower is God seems certain. For only God is able to communicate “in any manner to the minds of people—by the Scriptures, by preaching, by acts of Providence, or by the direct influences of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, according to Mark 4:14 & Luke 8:11, the seed being sowed by the Sower is the word of God. In fact, Matthew 13:19 calls it “the Word of the Kingdom” which further identifies the seed as the Gospel. There are four types of ground (i.e. people) upon which the seeds fall and these four grounds clearly and collectively represent all of mankind. Yet, only one of these four groups of people will believe the Gospel unto salvation. Incidentally, assuming that each ground type is proportional, then this parable also becomes a sad confirmation of Christ’s claim in Matthew 7:13-14 that most people (i.e. wayside-ground people, stony-ground people, thorn-infested-ground people) are on the wide road which leads to Hell. However, the key point to grasp in this parable is that all ground types were recipients of the Sower’s seeds. In other words, there was no ground in the parable upon which the seed did not fall. Therefore, of the three different types of unbelievers mentioned, no one in any of these categories is ignorant of the Gospel. Because all people (i.e grounds) receive the Gospel (i.e. seed), this parable then becomes a resounding confirmation of Colossians 1:23 and it reminds us that the biblical record does not anticipate the judgment of men who have never heard the Gospel.
Otherwise, how can it be said in John 3:19 that the hell-bound (i.e. those who are not elect) are condemned for loving “darkness rather than light” if the condemned have never actually seen the light? Isn’t this the same reason why Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 tell us that the Gospel “must be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations?” Isn’t it this witness that the light has indeed come which will condemn those who reject the light? But this condemnation will be meaningless to one who has never heard the Gospel. This is why it is crucial to understand that according to John 3:17-18 the light which is rejected in John 3:19 is not just the innate knowledge of God which Romans 1:18-20 talks about, but is actually the light of the Gospel (see Romans 2:16). This point is important because within the highest levels of Christian leadership there exists a surprising confusion about why the condemned are sentenced to Hell. For instance, the pioneering Christian ministry, Focus on the Family, employed the writings of Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson in order to assert that those condemned to Hell are there because they were born sinners. In their book Faith Comes by Hearing, Morgan and Peterson contend that it is a “faulty assumption” to maintain “that our condemnation is based on a rejection of the gospel. Scripture teaches that our condemnation is based on the fact that we are sinners, not because at some point in time we rejected the gospel.” Yet, as we have seen in Bible verses such as Mark 16:16, John 3:18-19, John 8:24, John 5:24, John 12:46-48, Acts 3:23, Romans 2:16, Hebrews 2:3, Hebrew 3:19, Hebrews 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, 1 Peter 4:17, etc. the only thing which separates the heaven-bound from those who are condemned to Hell is whether or not they have obeyed the Gospel.
Therefore, based upon the Bible’s clear teaching that the sinner’s salvation is predicted upon his or her obedience of the Gospel (1 Peter 4:17, Hebrews 5:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:8), it seems to go against the teachings of Scripture for an aborted baby’s name to appear in the Lamb’s Book of Life if that infant has never heard nor had a chance to believe the Gospel (See Is He BIASED). This same conclusion is reached in Romans 10:14 where Paul asks: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” Incidentally, by they, it is apparent that Paul has all of mankind in mind, for in Romans 10:13 he says that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The obvious answer then to Romans 10:14‘s rhetorical question is that one can’t believe in Christ if one hasn’t heard the Gospel! This is the predicament of the aborted baby or of anyone else who like the infant has not heard the Gospel. Yet, Paul’s answer to this predicament matches what we just read in Colossians 1:23, for in Romans 10:18 he says:
But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their [i.e. the preachers] sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.
The question is: Didn’t they hear the Gospel? God’s reply is: Yes, they have heard, in fact, “their sound (i.e. the voices of the sent preachers) went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” As in Colossians 1:23, Paul here also seems to put forth the notion that everyone has “heard” (paste tense) the Gospel. The language used here (e.g. “went into all the earth” & “the ends of the world”) seems to indicate that the preaching of the Gospel is universal and exhaustive. The “beautiful feet” (Romans 10:15) of the preachers sent by God to proclaim the Gospel is not just limited to those of the apostles or the church but also includes the feet of angels. For Revelation 14:6 describes an angelic messenger sent to preach the “everlasting Gospel” to all of mankind. In that verse we read:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people
Revelation 14:6’s assertion that the Gospel is to be preached to “every nation, kindred, tongue (i.e. language) and people” is also in line with the message of Colossians 1:23. This remarkable claim therefore occurs at least thrice in the Scriptures and is the necessary consequence of verses like John 3:19, Hebrews 2:2-3 and 1 Peter 4:17.
It is common to hear Christians say that those who die without hearing the Gospel are going to hell. Yet, when we encounter verses like Colossians 1:23, Matthew 13:3-23, John 3:19, Romans 10:18, Hebrews 2:2-3, 1 Peter 4:17 and Revelation 14:6 which all rely upon a similar inference, we recognize that the bible is very consistent in putting forth the proposition that no one will be able to say that they have never heard the Gospel on Judgment Day.
There are some questions that one could raise in light of this doctrine. For instance, how will the aborted baby get a chance to hear the Gospel and even if the the baby were presented with the Gospel how would he or she understand since, after all, the person doing the hearing is merely an infant? On the other hand, Revelation 7:9 which describes the great assembly of believers in Heaven states that all those in this multitude were standing. Since infants can’t stand, does this then mean that none of them were infants? Also, one seemingly insurmountable difficulty rests in the fact that Bible verses such as Deuteronomy 1:39 and Isaiah 7:15-16 seem to indicate that babies have “no knowledge between good and evil,” so without this essential faculty how can they understand the Gospel? Do the spirits of deceased infants age? We must also remember that though infants may lack discernment they will still sin because they are still indwelt with Sin. Yet, sinners cannot reside in God’s presence without believing the Gospel. In spite of these enigmas, the bible reveals almost nothing regarding what happens to dead infants. God has chosen to keep their situation a secret and all that we can do is to respect His prerogative to do so. For in Deuteronomy 29:29 we read “The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” So, to such questions, though there does not seem to be an answer that wouldn’t involve some sort of a divine solution, based upon the unmistakable principles found in the Scriptures we can still confidently assert that everyone will hear the Gospel.
The bottom line is that when God is involved, every rational option is inbounds even the ones that do not occur to us in the limited knowledge that we have been given. For example, if 1 Peter 3:18-20 was not included in the Bible how many people would have dared to even think or say that God can or has preached to the dead (1 Peter 4:5-7)?
Was the Gospel really preached to those who are dead?
Well, it happened at least once according to 1 Peter 3:18-20 & 1 Peter 4:4-6:
(3:18) 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:
(3:19) By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
(3:20) Which sometime (i.e. in time past) 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
(4:4) Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you:
(4:5) Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick [i.e. the living] and the dead.
(4:6) For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
The following dialogue is a conversation on this topic that occurred during a recent bible study:
Guys, I think this (1 Peter 4:6) is saying the gospel was preached to them that are now dead not that it is being preached to the dead. That interpretation [i.e. the preaching of the gospel to those that are dead] leads to a lot of other concerns (i.e. why evangelize if The gospel will be preached to the dead and after death comes judgement). Either way, was thinking about this and we can discuss at the next Bible Study.
So why didn’t Peter actually say that the gospel was preached to them that are now dead especially if this is what he meant? I mean, is it implied and if so how? Why doesn’t Peter use the phrase “now dead” and more importantly, what made you arrive at this interpretation? Perhaps this is the right interpretation but an explanation would help. I should note that the same writer, nine verses earlier, gives a more definitive proof text for the phenomenon that you suggest is not in scope in this verse, namely, that the dead are preached to (1 Peter 3:18-20). So, in light of this other verse, are you saying that the bible does not support the dead being preached to or are you only saying that 1 Peter 4:6 does not support this phenomenon?
Also, I disagree [that my interpretation is worrisome], since the interpretation I suggested doesn’t necessarily lead to any concerns, least of all, the one you suggest. Keep in mind that I’m not putting forth the idea that there are second chances after death, I specifically added this disclaimer when I put forth the 1 Peter 4:6 verse during the study. If you have heard the gospel and rejected it then there is no more hope after death. The question that we were dealing with arose from the verse that Derrick introduced, Colossians 1:23. It was asked whether the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven and there was doubt expressed at the table so I introduced the 1 Peter 4:6 verse as a way to broaden people’s understanding of how God could fulfill His truth in Colossians 1:23. There are obviously other ways that God can fulfill this truth but we did not discuss them. However, since the concern was hypothesized that there are those in this life who haven’t heard the Gospel (i.e. aborted infants, Old Testament persons etc.) my point was that perhaps 1 Peter 4:6 addresses this concern. So you can see that the gospel wouldn’t be automatically preached to every person that died as your concern implies; only those who fit the hypothesis.
Still, let us say that each person DID get another chance to hear the gospel after death, this would not obviate evangelism, it would only make it redundant. We evangelize because Christ has commanded us to do so, not because it is the only way that God can get his Word to the unbeliever—even if this turns out to be the case. Yes, we should strive to be rational as this is an implied command from God but there is a difference between saying that God can’t do something because to do so would make Him irrational versus God can’t do something because I have never seen Him do that before. The prior is called being prudent while the latter is called being presumptuous. My question is: does God have the prerogative to preach the gospel to a dead person who has not yet heard or is it the case that doing so would make God contradict Himself? If He does then we must not shut the door on this possibility especially if it is mentioned in the Scriptures.
I am only saying that 1 Peter 4:6 is not talking about preaching to the dead and not that Jesus did not preach to the dead during the 3 days He was in the tomb. 1 Peter 4:6 says the “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.” I think “was” is referring to past tense. Peter did not say for this cause is the gospel being preached also to them that are dead. Verse 5 says that God is ready to judge the quick and the dead. Verse 6 is saying God can judge the dead because the gospel was preached to them. Although they died in their flesh (judgment), they will live according to God in the spirit because they (verse 2) live according to the will of God. [The other stuff you have mentioned is] not the main issue, so no need to discuss.
I understand your point. Mine is, why can’t 1 Peter 4:6 refer to the account Peter gives nine verses before? Not only does this seem to make good sense but it allows Peter’s audience not to fret about the abrupt introduction of a new doctrine especially since Peter (in 1 Peter 3:19) has just given an example of the dead being preached too. In addition, the past tense of the grammar fits perfectly with the notion that 1 Peter 4:6 refers to 1 Peter 3:19. So to restate the events, Peter talks about Christ preaching to the dead (i.e. the dead BEING preached unto) and then nine verses later he concludes that the dead were preached unto. Where is the supposed concern?
If we allow the above to go uncontested then one must admit that a precedent exists in Scripture for the dead to be preached unto. This precedent is all that is needed to buttress the Colossians 1:23 proposition. If God has in the past preached to the dead then it follows that God can in the future (or at anytime prior to judgment) preach unto the dead.
The point of this all is that when people talk about persons that have perished without hearing the gospel must we rule out the possibility that the dead can be preached unto?
I suspect that this conversation between my friend and I is not an original discussion. In fact, it is probably the case that many if not most of the bible-believing Evangelicals in Christendom would militate against the idea that God would preach the Gospel after death to those who had never heard. Yet, the same magnitude are probably also of the mindset that God adheres to an age of accountability and that He automatically allows dead infants into heaven though they have never heard nor believed the Gospel. Of course, the irony with this stance is that the Gospel which the dead infant is now no longer required to believe is the only thing that can actually get him or her into Heaven. And there are other problems with this idea. For instance, any rule or law that would automatically allow all persons under a certain age unconditional entrance into Heaven would necessarily trigger the unthinkable implication of Galatians 2:21 & 3:21—i.e. that Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was done in vain.
Moreover, biblically speaking, infants have never been spared divine judgment merely because of their age. For example, were the infants who died in the world wide flood of Noah’s day spared judgment because of their infancy? (see Genesis 7:21-23) Were the infants of Sodom and Gomorrah whom God destroyed with fire and brimstone spared judgment because of their infancy? (see Genesis 19:24-25) Were the Midianite infants of Numbers 31:1-18 or the Amalakite infants of 1 Samuel 15:1‑3 spared judgment because of their infancy? Some Christians have speculated that during the Rapture God will remove all infants from the earth in order to spare them from the Great Tribulation which will follow. But this too is an idea that is not supported by or consistent with the biblical record. What is conceivable and consistent is that elect infants will be raptured just like all other believers because God foreknew that they would believe the Gospel as He did with the others whose names are also written in the Book of Life. God’s foreknowledge of every person’s decision is why the names of those who will believe the Gospel were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). But we must see that it is inconsistent to suppose that because of their infancy, God would forgo the judgment due all infants and simply allow them into Heaven without the Gospel prerequisite. God’s mercy to all men is manifested in the good news of the Gospel message and this message tells us that though all will die the First Death (Hebrews 9:27), because Christ’s sacrificed His life for the sins of the world, no one who believes in Him needs to die the Second Death (Revelation 20:14-15). That is why it is imperative that all of mankind hear the Gospel. Eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire should only be to those who have forsaken the Gospel thereby calling God a liar (1 John 5:10).
Yet many are against the notion that God would allow the deceased who were ignorant of it to become aware of the Gospel’s good news. For instance, my favorite commentary, the Defender’s Study Bible by Dr. Henry Morris, denies the idea that 1 Peter 3:19 & 1 Peter 4:6 are about dead people hearing the Gospel, even though that is exactly what these verses seem to so clearly put forth. Specifically, regarding both verses Dr. Morris states:
While in Hades in the Spirit, He [i.e. Christ] “preached”—that is, “proclaimed”—His victory over death and Hades (Mat 16:18; Col 2:15; Rev 1:18; Luke 4:18). Note that “hell” in these verses is the Greek hades, the great pit at the center of the earth where lost souls and many rebellious angels are confined. Before Christ’s resurrection, the souls of believers were also resting there, but these captives were delivered by Christ when He rose from the dead (Eph 4:8-10). The Greek word for “preached” here is not the word for “preached the gospel” (eyaggelizo) as in 1 Peter 1:12, 1 Peter 1:25; 1 Peter 4:6, but rather kerusso, which means “proclaimed” (Luke 12:3) or “published” (e.g., Luke 8:39). Christ was not giving a second chance, as it were, to those who had died in unbelief, for there is no second chance after death (Hebrews 9:27). Rather, He was proclaiming victory over Satan and his hosts. These “spirits in prison” almost certainly were the evil spirits who had sinned in the days of Noah by trying to corrupt and control all flesh (Gen 6:1-4, Gen 6:12). Whenever the word “spirits” is used in the plural and not clearly indicated otherwise (as in Heb 12:23 and 1 Co 14:32), it always refers to supernatural beings, or angels. In support of this meaning, note that there are thirty such occurrences in the New Testament, with only two, as noted above, referring to spirits of men. At least twenty-six of these thirty occurrences refer to evil spirits, which strongly indicates that to be the meaning here. The “prison” where these evil spirits are confined is identified elsewhere by Peter as tartarus, the Greek name translated “hell” in 2 Peter 2:4. This is evidently a special compartment of Hades where these “angels that sinned” are confined in “chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.” They are also described in similar terms by Jude (see Jude 1:6). It was “in the days of Noah” when this flagrant disobedience of the angels took place, resulting in this severe punishment. [In 1 Peter 4:6] The gospel was not preached to the physically dead after they died but to those spiritually dead in trespasses and sins.
There are several ideas in Dr. Morris’ commentary that must be challenged. For instance, according to the King James Concordance, the predominant interpretation for the Greek word kērussō is not “proclaimed” or “published” as Morris indicates, but “preached.” In fact, close to 90% of the time (54 out of 61) when kērussō appears in the Scriptures, it is interpreted to mean preached. Also, of the few times when kērussō is interpreted to mean published, there exists at least one occasion when it was the Gospel being published (e.g. Mark 13:10). Neither is euaggelizō (which Dr. Morris prefers) immune from having an alternate meaning. In fact, there are several occasions in the Scriptures when even euaggelizō is interpreted to mean something other than preached. For instance, in Luke 1:19, Luke 2:10, 1 Thessalonians 3:6 and Revelation 10:7, euaggelizō is not interpreted as “preached.” Therefore, we must disagree with Dr. Morris when he declares that “the Greek word for “preached” here is not the word for “preached the gospel.” Clearly, the bible uses multiple words to indicate the preaching of the Gospel and kērussō is certainly one of them. This is why Colossians 1:23, a verse which we just examined in a previous section, rightly employs kērussō when declaring that the Gospel was preached to every creature under heaven. Ironically, in his notes on Colossians 1:23, Dr. Morris also agrees that kērussō when employed there, does actually mean the Gospel.
Another problem with Dr, Morris’ explanation of 1 Peter 3:19 is that it breaks the obvious symmetry with 1 Peter 4:6 which occurs just nine verses later and which reminds us that “the Gospel was also preached to them that are dead.” If Peter’s conclusion in 1 Peter 4:6 does not refer back to 1 Peter 3:19 but instead refers to the “spiritually dead” as Dr Morris seems to think, then Peter here is equivocating on the word dead and has therefore committed a logical fallacy. For one verse earlier, Peter juxtaposes the physically living with the physically dead but then in the very next verse (i.e. 1 Peter 4:6) he is said to rely upon a meaning for dead which differs from that of the verse’s premise in 1 Peter 4:5. By the way, I find it instructive that in 1 Peter 4:6 it is euaggelizō (and not kērussō) which is used to indicate the preaching of the Gospel to the dead. Since Dr. Morris has previously certified euaggelizō as the only acceptable verb capable of conveying gospel-preaching, its fortuitous presence in this verse allows us to appeal to Dr. Morris’ own standard when asserting that 1 Peter 4:6 is definitely a demonstration that the dead were preached the Gospel. But more importantly, 1 Peter 4:6’s relation to 1 Peter 3:19 also shows us that the words euaggelizō and kērussō are interchangeable thereby destroying the idea that kērussō is not intended to mean “preached the Gospel.“
Finally, regarding the identity of the “spirits in prison,” Dr. Morris’ argues that the majority of the time “spirits” is used in the New Testament it does not refer to men but “to supernatural beings, or angels.” He adds that on the few occasions in the N.T. when “spirits” does refer to men, it is always “clearly indicated” in the text. Actually there are more than just a few occasions when “spirits” refer to men (e.g. 1 John 4:1, Hebrews 12:23, 1 Corinthians 14:32, 1 Corinthians 12:10, Proverbs 16:2, Numbers 27:16 etc.) But of course, Dr. Morris argues this way so as to impress upon the reader that whenever the New Testament uses “spirits” in a verse where contextual clues are sparse, then “supernatural beings, or angels” should be preferred as the referent. Yet, the most glaring flaw with this interpretive approach is that it assumes there are actually passages in the Bible where the context of “spirits” is ambiguous and yet the meaning is still “supernatural beings, or angels.” However, in every N.T. verse where “spirits” is said to refer to “supernatural beings or angels” that it does so is also “clearly indicated” by the context. Therefore if 1 Peter 3:19 turns out to be the exception, then we must find some other way of determining which referent is meant, since this verse would then become the precedent. Hence, we must abandon Dr. Morris’ argument and continue to strive with the given context until the true referent reveals itself. Fortunately, in this case, it turns out that not much striving is needed. For if Christ did preach to the “spirits in prison” as 1 Peter 3:19 clearly suggests, then this action would seem to precisely coincide with what Isaiah prophesied that He would do. For in Isaiah 61:1-2 we read:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings [i.e. the Gospel] unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn…
This passage in Isaiah is the same one Christ reads in Luke 4:18-19 when He—to a synagogue full of shocked listeners—identifies Himself as the fulfillment of this Messianic prophecy. Specifically, in Luke 4:18 Christ says He was sent to “preach deliverance unto the captives” yet the verse He quotes from in Isaiah 61:1 uses the phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives.” This shows us that contrary to Dr. Morris’ assessment, there is no distinction between the preaching or proclamation of the Gospel. And who are the captives to whom Christ was sent to proclaim liberty? Who were bound in the prison which Christ opened? Could these captives be the same folks as 1 Peter 3:19‘s “spirits in prison”? This would seem to make good sense. For though this act of deliverance has been argued to generally apply to all sinners set free by the truth of the Gospel (John 14:7), the emphasis on the word prison not only in Isaiah 61:1 but also in Isaiah 42:7 and Isaiah 49:9 seems to better (though not exclusively) suit the words of 1 Peter 3:19. Incidentally, another passage in the Bible which unassumingly seems to point to the conclusion of the dead hearing the Gospel is John 11:25-26. For more information on this verse’s applicability see “Though he were dead” – A Controversial Understanding of John 11:25-26.
It should again be noted that I am not putting forth the idea that persons who have already rejected the Gospel were also among the dead who Christ preached to in 1 Peter 3:19. That would be akin to claiming that God grants second chances after death which is firmly unbiblical. I am merely affirming that 1 Peter 3:19 gives insight into how God could get the Gospel to those who have never heard it. And if God is willing to preach the Gospel to the dead who were ignorant of it then why couldn’t He also devise a way for infants to hear and understand the Gospel?
There must be numerous other questions which accompany the idea that God chose to preach the Gospel to those who died without ever hearing it, but what has been said thus far must suffice for now.
A final point worth mentioning is that when one considers the many judgments record-ed in Scripture which God has enacted upon deserving sinners down throughout the centuries, the fact that the Holy Spirit in 1 Peter 3:19-20 chooses to focus on the most devastating of them all (i.e. the world-wide flood) is probably instructive. By applying the a fortiori argument which Christ so frequently employed in the Gospels, we could reason that if God endeavored to preach the Gospel to the ignorant who perished in the most devastating judgment yet known to man, then He will also provide the same courtesy to the ignorant who perished in less-devastating judgments such as the fire and brimstone storm on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course, the soundness of this argument is also based upon the premise that God shows mercy to the ignorant.
God’s mercy during the times of ignorance.
Does God ever show mercy because of ignorance? The Bible clearly suggests so. In Acts 17:30-31, Paul tells his pagan audience that God in times past overlooked the long period of ignorance in which He “suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.” For in Acts 14:16 & 17:30-13 we read:
Who [i.e. God] in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways…And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 14:16, 17:30-31)
What does it mean that God winked at “the times of this ignorance?” Does this mean that God was merciful because He could have—but did not—wipe out the ignorant idolaters of those times? Does this mean that God has been extremely patient in withholding deserved worldwide judgment? Yes, these are certainly some implications of Acts 17:30, but there are still more profound inferences to be drawn. For it should not be said that God overlooked the times of ignorance if He also held the ignorant accountable for the ignorance of not hearing and therefore believing the Gospel. After all, if those who lived during these times of ignorance were condemned without hearing the Gospel then it is also true that God did not overlook nor wink at their ignorance. Moreover, it seems to be the case that part of the good news of the Gospel is the “assurance given unto all men” that Christ was raised from the dead (Acts 17:31). For this fact also appears in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which is perhaps the clearest enunciation of the Gospel in the Scriptures. Yet, if this assurance was not communicated to those living during these times of ignorance then how could it ever be concluded that they have heard and rejected the Gospel? There is after all, a difference between the innate knowledge of God which Romans 1:18 tells us is given unto all men versus the greater light of the Gospel. In other words, the propositions of Romans 1:18-20 are not coextensive (i.e. of equal scope) with the propositions of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Yet, according to Romans 2:16, it is the later and not the former which both saves and condemns all men. Please do not misunderstand my point. It is agreed that in Romans 1:18-20 there are certain innate truths about God which He has shown unto all men. These truths are grouped under the phrase “what may be known of God.” It is these indwelling propositions which render men inexcusable and make them deserving of God’s heaven-revealed wrath. However, it is the neglect, denial or disobedience of the Gospel which condemns men to Hell (1 Peter 4:17, Hebrews 2:3, Hebrews 5:9, John 3:18-19, 1 John 5:10). Therefore, the most apparent and compelling inference of Acts 17:30 is that God did not condemn the ignorant who had not yet heard the Gospel. But if so, then where are these people right now? Have they still not heard the Gospel? Perhaps some of them were part of the “spirits in prison” to whom Christ preach the Gospel and were therefore in the number of the captives who were set free (Isaiah 61:1-2, 1 Peter 3:19). But what about any ignorant persons who died after Christ arose? What happens to them? No matter how rare the predicament, the only solution to dying without ever hearing the Gospel is to hear the Gospel after death. “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)“
For this author, such a solution (especially as it pertains to infants) is easier to say than to conceive of, yet this solution is no problem for God provided that He wills to do it. Since Acts 17:30 declares that God has in the past overlooked ignorance, it is apparent that God wills and does show mercy to the ignorant. This mercy is not a free pass into Heaven, but is the inalienable chance to hear and believe the Gospel of Christ.
Finally, Paul’s own account of his state as an unbeliever gives us additional insight into how God’s mercy is manifested to the ignorant. For in 1 Timothy 1:13,16; he says:
[I the apostle Paul] was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief…Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.
Paul says that God’s mercy and forbearance (i.e. longsuffering) toward the ignorant is a “pattern.” It is therefore the nature of God to show mercy unto those who have not believed solely due to ignorance. This is also the lesson that we learn from Jonah 4:11 where God declares unto Jonah:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six-score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand…?
God shows mercy to the unbeliever who is only in unbelief due to ignorance. Therefore, one important implication of the many verses we have surveyed is that God will not send to Hell a person who would have believed the Gospel if given the chance to hear it.
“But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand…for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (Romans 15:21, Isaiah 52:15, 1 Peter 4:6)“
Other things to consider:
- The Gospel saves persons guilty of all manner sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Luke 23:42)
- Though all will hear the Gospel, how many will believe (Matthew 7:13-14, Luke 13:24-25)?
Objection 1 – The state of David & Bathsheba’s dead infant in 2 Samuel 12:21-23 proves that all infants go to Heaven
For the answer to this objection see Is He Biased – Objection 3. Actually, a less-discussed passage with similar implications is Job 42:10 which implies that all of Job’s dead children were in Heaven. Regarding Job 42:10, Dr. Morris states:
Job only acquired the same number of children as before, but his earlier family still belonged to him, safe in the Lord, awaiting a reunion with their new siblings when all later would be together with the Lord.
However, in as much as this passage is a prediction of the final state of Job’s deceased children, or in as much as 2 Samuel 12:21-23 is a prediction of the final state of David’s dead child, we must remember that any argument that would seek to take a specific case and generalize an authoritative rule going forward will invariably engage in the Fallacy of Induction. Remember, inductive reasoning is always invalid regardless of whether it is deemed a weak induction or strong.
Objection 2 – Christ’s utterance in Matthew 11:20-24 about Tyre, Sidon & Sodom demonstrates that those in times past who died without the Gospel are doomed!
20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
The objection of Matthew 11:20-24 (Luke 10:12-15) argues that in God’s sovereignty (and for His glory) He did not allow His mighty works (e.g. miracles) to be done in the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom knowing all the while that people who would have otherwise repented ended up perishing as a result. That this occurred is then said to bolster the claim that not all people will get a chance to hear the Gospel. Whenever I encounter this objection, I am reminded of a somewhat similar argument which Dr. James White put forth during his debate with Dr. Michael Brown on the topic of Calvinism. White claimed that God in His sovereignty allowed for the destruction of certain peoples who could have otherwise been spared by some sort of timely intervention (e.g. Jeremiah could have been allowed to offer intercession for Israel in Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 16:5, or the Apostle Paul and his companions could have been allowed to take the Gospel to Asia and Bithynia in Acts 16:6-7). Specifically, White says:
Jeremiah, at one point, once God has made the decree “This people is going into destruction” what does He then say to Jeremiah? “Do not intercede for this people.” So the question then becomes, is God only saying these things on the basis of passively taking in knowledge of “Well I know what’s going to happen, I know what these people are going to do. So now it is time to say that I am going to destroy them because I am know they are going to be destroyed anyway.” Is that the kind of sovereign decree that is going on here? Again, we want to allow Scripture as a whole to speak. There were times when God forbade people from doing things, such as, he forbade the disciples from going into Asia to preach the word, people died without Christ as a result. He forbade Jeremiah from interceding for the people. Jesus in His high priestly prayer says, I do not pray for the world. We have to allow those texts into the discussion…
In another debate against Dr. Michael Brown on the subject of Predestination, Dr. James White also said:
Was the Amorite high priest preached the Gospel? No, he wasn’t! There have been millions who died without ever hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and God knew it when He created this world and placed them in that position and knew that they would be lost.
When one considers the similarities between Dr. White’s argument and the one derived from Matthew 11:20-24, one wonders why Dr. White has (presumably) never appealed to this passage when trying to convince folks that God, without any thought for their recla-mation, irremediably decrees the plight of the lost. Perhaps Dr. White deems this pass-age unsuitable because Matthew 11:21 implies that something apart from regeneration can lead to repentance. After all, such a verse would not be helpful to a Calvinist. Nevertheless, it is apparent from these excerpts that Dr. White does not believe in Colossians 1:23. For had he believed this verse, he would not have claimed that the consequence of God forbidding Paul from taking the Gospel to Asia was that “people died without Christ.” Moreover, by asserting this unbiblical consequent White commits a logical fallacy. For while it is certainly possible that because of Acts 16:6 some Asians died without hearing the Gospel, it does not follow necessarily. Since God is the only Omniscient being, what follows is that He alone is capable of reaching that conclusion. By the way, it turns out that according to 1 Peter 1:1, God ended up getting the Gospel to Asia though another means, namely, the Apostle Peter. Therefore, Dr White’s implication that Asia was purposefully deprived of the Gospel (in order to secure the damnation of the non-elect) is a non sequitur. Nor does it follow that any Asians who died without Christ are now “lost” merely because the Gospel might have been delayed from arriving in Asia. After all, before Christ was born in Bethlehem, the Gospel was delayed from arriving in many more places than just Asia. For when speaking about the advent of the Messianic era, Isaiah 42:4 & 51:5 tell us that the Isles (i.e. the pagan nations) shall await Christ and His (coming) law. Were the inhabitants of these pagan nations who died while awaiting the Gospel condemned as well? Not necessarily, at least not according to the implications of Acts 14:16, 17:30-31. Likewise, the fates of those who had not yet heard the Gospel in Tyre, Sidon or Sodom and were yet destroyed in judgment are not known to us. We must therefore allow for the possibility that God will do whatever He deems best for their situation. Based upon the record of Scripture, it is not inconceivable to think that God would mercifully overlook the ignorance of those who had never heard the Gospel by preaching to them as Christ did in 1 Peter 3:19. In fact, recalling what Christ said in John 15:22-24 may help the reader understand why the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, on the day of judgment, were headed for a different outlook than the obstinate (i.e. gospel-rejecting) cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. For in John 15:22-24 Christ says:
If I had not come and spoken unto them [e.g the obstinate cities], they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them [e.g. the obstinate cities] the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.
Obviously the sin which Christ refers to in this passage is not just any ordinary sin but is a particularly egregious type of sin. In fact, it turns out that it’s the most significant sin as it pertains to the day of judgment, for it is the unforgivable sin mentioned in Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29 and John 3:19. This sin involves being confronted with the light of the Gospel and the internal conviction of the Holy Ghost and then rejecting both for the duration of one’s life. The only thing that separates those going to Heaven from those going to Hell is whether or not they have committed this life-long sin of John 15:22-24. I believe that the pervasiveness of this one sin in the obstinate cities allowed Christ to deem them worthy of more woe on the day of Judgment than the three destroyed cities mentioned. For though these three destroyed cities were certainly guilty of all types of wickedness and idolatry (e.g. Amos 1:9-10, Joel 3:4-6, Jeremiah 23:14), they had probably never heard the Gospel and were therefore incapable of committing the unforgivable sin of John 15:22-24. According to Christ, the obstinate cities would have “not had sin” had they not heard and rejected the Gospel, for His “mighty works” being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy bore witness of the Gospel (John 5:36; John 10:25; John 10:37-38; John 14:11, Hebrews 2:3-4). Therefore it follows that the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom must also hear and reject the Gospel before one can consign them to the flames of the Second Death. Hence, Jesus argues that because the inhabitants of these destroyed cities would have repented if confronted with His mighty works, it will be more tolerable for them on “the day of judgment” than for the obstinate cities of Chorazin, Bathsaida and Capernaum.
But here in Matthew 11:20-24 we have exposed something that raises a question. What does it mean that it will be “more tolerable?” Is the tolerability which Christ refers to concerned with the intensity of each city’s penalty or with the differential success of each city as it pertains to how many of their inhabitants will escape the Second Death?Since these two positions are not mutually exclusive, then perhaps both of them factor into the meaning of “more tolerable.” However, only one of these positions is pertinent to the point being made. So again, does Christ mean that the degree of punishment for the inhabitants of the obstinate cities will be greater than for those of the corresponding destroyed city? For instance, will the intensity of the lake’s fire (Revelation 20:15) be greater for the inhabitants of Capernaum than for Sodom? Or, does Christ have the outcome of the entire city (e.g. “more tolerable for the land of “) in mind when He speaks of tolerability? For instance, will the obstinate city of Capernaum end up with more of its population in Hell than the destroyed city of Sodom?
If on Judgment Day it turns out that the hell-bound individuals from the obstinate cities are of a significantly greater proportion than those of the destroyed cities, then God’s judgment would have indeed been more tolerable for the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom and this would then confirm that Christ’s view of tolerability deals with how many of each city’s inhabitants will face the Second Death. But more importantly, this would also imply that the Gospel was preached to the inhabitants of the destroyed cities prior to the day of judgment.
So what do you think about the issue?
- Albert Barnes, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Matthew 13:18-23
- Day 4 – Arminianism (Dr. Michael Brown) vs Calvinism (Dr. James White), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vix2SVES4Wo, Time Marker: 45:53
- Predestination debate: For whom did Christ die?, Dr James White & Dr Michael Brown, Revelation TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzbJccGEk5I, Time Marker: 01:19:16
- Robert Velarde, What About Those Who Have Never Heard?http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/becoming-a-christian/is-christ-the-only-way/what-about-those-who-have-never-heard
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Faith Comes by Hearing (InterVarsity, 2008), 241.
- Henry Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible, Colossians 1:23