Although not all Christians believe it, a central dogma of the Christian religion is that all human beings who have ever lived and died without believing in Christ are doomed to eternal damnation. All Christian denominations hold to this fundamental doctrine, believing it to be firmly rooted in the Word of God.
Ironically, Christ himself did not believe it.
One day, when he was being interrogated by some religious leaders, Jesus, whom we call Yahshua,1 spelled out very clearly and simply the basis of the judgment of all men, and where they would spend eternity. Obviously, he did not expect these Jews to see things the way he did, for before telling them the most controversial part, he warned them emphatically, "Do not be surprised at this..."
This is what he said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
Do not be surprised at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation. (John 5:24-29)
If you are a Christian, you may have read this a hundred times without catching what he is saying here, because you also, like the Jews that day, were not expecting him to say what he said. You have been conditioned to read the Bible according to a certain doctrinal mindset, so it is hard to just embrace its simple meaning.
Let's take it verse by verse.
First of all, in verse 24, he tells how someone becomes his disciple. He hears his word and receives it as the word of God. Since he is willing to do God's will,2 he obeys what he hears3 and thereby passes from death to life. Then he will not have to be judged along with all those who never believed in Christ,4 since the gift of eternal life which he receives is based on faith, not on works.
Verse 25 simply says when the miracle of salvation described in verse 24 takes place: in the days of Christ and his apostles ("and is now here"), and in the future, when the gospel is again preached on the earth ("an hour is coming"). In both of those time periods, the "dead" who hear his voice are the spiritually dead, not the physically dead (those "who are in the tombs" in verse 28).
In verse 26, he says where his authority comes from to grant the eternal life he spoke of in verses 24 and 25.
In verse 27, he says where his authority comes from to make the judgments he describes in verses 28 and 29.
Verse 28 is the resurrection of all who have lived and died without ever having believed in the Son of God. In fact, many of them will have lived and died without ever having heard of him. Yet they will hear his voice and come out of death in order to stand in the judgment of verse 29.
So now we come to the surprising part in verse 29. Remember, none of these people who are being judged are believers in Christ, so according to orthodox Christian doctrine, there is really no need for a judgment, but only a sentencing — to eternal damnation. But that is not what Yahshua says will happen.
He says that those who have "done good" will have a "resurrection of life," while those who have "done evil" will have a "resurrection of condemnation."
What then is a resurrection of life? Clearly it is not eternal damnation. Consider that Yahshua, the Son of God, knew the mind and heart of his Father more than anyone else. So we ought to believe him when he says there will be people who will stand in the judgment, who are not his disciples, but who will be counted worthy of a second life (rather than a second death5) based on having done good.
Our Master Yahshua told a parable that sheds light on what he meant by done good and done evil:
31 When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."
37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?"
40 And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."
41 Then he will say to those on his left, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.
44 Then they also will answer, saying, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?"
45 Then he will answer them, saying, "Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)
There is a common misunderstanding that the "sheep" in this passage are Christians and the "goats" are unbelievers, but in fact, this judgment is based on a person's character, not his religion. In first-century Palestine, almost everyone had sheep and goats, and knew quite well their contrasting natures, which is why Yahshua chose these animals to make his point. Furthermore, he was talking about a judgment of the people of the nations,6 not of his own disciples who were saved by his grace from the destiny their deeds may well have deserved.7
First, Yahshua tells the "sheep" their destiny, praising them for the kindness they showed to him. They are astonished because they have no memory of ever having done those deeds. He explains that it was the kindness they showed to his brothers, meaning his disciples, which he took personally. Clearly these "sheep" were not also his disciples, for his disciples all know that however they treat one another is how they treat him,8 for they together comprise his Body on earth.9
No, these people showed their true character by caring for his disciples even at great cost to themselves, for Yahshua's disciples are always hated by the established religion, and it is never politically correct to show kindness to them.10 That is why Yahshua had promised that whoever gave even a cup of cold water to a disciple of his would not lose his reward.11
This does not mean that only those who actually showed kindness to Yahshua's disciples would be approved in the final judgment, for countless millions of people over the ages have lived and died without ever having seen one of Yahshua's disciples. But it shows the character of those who will be accepted by their Creator,12 for they will have recognized and valued his image in their fellow man. For this reason, their lives were characterized by faithfulness in their marriages, honesty and diligence in their occupations, kindness and mercy in their relationships, humility and accountability in the face of their failures, and a willingness to suffer without growing bitter. Such people God will welcome into his eternal kingdom,13 over which Yahshua and his brothers14 (collectively called his bride15) will rule.16 That is the "resurrection of life" Yahshua spoke of in John 5:29.
But what about the "goats"? With indignation, they protest, "It's not fair! When did we ever see you in need and fail to help you?" (even after they heard him explain to the "sheep" how he took personally their care for his disciples). In contrast to the "sheep," their lives were characterized by callous disregard for the suffering of others and anxious concern for their own comfort, pleasure, and position. They also will go to the eternal destiny they have chosen by their deeds.
These two teachings of Yahshua clearly distinguish the three eternal destinies of man, each according to the choices people make over the course of their lives. Revelation 22:11 puts it in a nutshell:
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. (Revelation 22:11)
The righteous, whose king was the voice of their conscience (God's vice-regent within them), will spend eternity in the kingdom prepared for them,19 over which the holy will rule with their Master Yahshua, forever and ever.20
The holy, whose king was Yahshua, the Messiah, will spend eternity with him as his bride, figuratively called the Holy City, the New Jerusalem.21
So there are three kinds of people and three eternal destinies of man, and a righteous Judge who will render to each person as his character deserves.
Are you surprised at this?