The evangelical work of missionaries in countries around the world and through the duration of the Christian era has focussed upon this goal. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved" was the theme of St. Peter's teaching on the Day of Pentecost. It has continued to be the major theme of Christianity ever since.
The question of everlasting life is entwined with God's purpose in creation. The idea that men have been brought into existence as part of a grand plan is incomprehensible to men in their present condition just because of its very immensity. Nevertheless, this plan is one in which man will ultimately find his individual place.
Reason tells us that there must be some preparation for the future life. All human experience demonstrates the way in which man learns and develops from the cradle to the grave. Our minds tell us that Man must develop further, through various experiences until he is willing, in wholehearted surrender of self to God, to accept all of God's laws and ways. This is where conversion and belief enter the story of man's history. Before man can understand the nature and characteristics of the life to come it is necessary to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Fortunately, we are not left without explanations as to why this is so. God is not "arbitrary" in his arrangements for man. God is the source of all life. Hence, everlasting life can be the possession of man only when that life comes from God.
We do not understand the mystery of life, what it is, how it activates our minds and our bodies. We only know that as earthly beings we are conscious of our environment and can exercise our faculties of reflection, of remembrance and of anticipation because we are alive. The Scriptures make it plain that the life we now have is defective because of sin; it is not everlasting, and of itself must expire in death. We are also told that there is a way to restore the communion with God that was broken by sin, a way that will allow his life to flow uninterruptedly into us. That, says the Divine Word, is "everlasting life".
Because life originates in God, men can receive it only through Christ. "In him was life; and the life was the light of men" (John 1:4). "God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life: and he that hath not the Son hath not life" (I John 5:12). "I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread he shall live for ever" (John 6:51).
It is important that this be understood. Our Lord Jesus Christ is God's way of manifesting himself to men. "The Word was made flesh and we beheld his glory, as of an only begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). "He is the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person" (Heb. 1:3). All that comes to man from the Father comes only through the Son; the Son is the vehicle of life to man on earth. Life can only come to us whether spiritually (being "born again", John 3) or physically ("in him we live and move and have our being" Acts 17:28) through Christ. Thus, this everlasting life which comes to us because of our belief in Christ is not the result of mere intellectual assent to the fact of his reality or acceptance of his claim to lordship.
This life is the result of linking our lives with him so that we are, as it were, in tune with the Son, and hence with the Father, hence with the Father's laws of creation. Voluntarily, we become adjusted to the place in that creation for which he has created us. This in turn implies the elimination of all that is out of accord with the divine will from our hearts and lives so that we can take our places in an order of things from which all sin and evil has vanished and the promise is fulfilled "...as truly as I live, the whole earth shall be filled with my glory" (Nu. 14:21; Isa. 11:9; Rev. 21:3-6).
There is no escaping the acceptance of this position; when Jesus said "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth on me, though he were dead yet shall he live, and he that liveth and believeth on me shall never die" (John 11:25-26), he was stating in the plainest of terms that because he himself is the channel of life and the source of resurrection power there is only one means by which there can be a resurrection from the dead and an entry into everlasting life, and that is through him. Intelligent and definite acceptance of Christ is the only means to obtain life; on this the Christian faith takes its stand. There is no other way.
If, in the outworking of the divine purposes, every human being does at some time in life come into contact with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and is clearly able to perceive the issues at stake, the position is clear. But, this is not the case. Even though John said of Jesus "That was the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (John 1:9), the fact remains that up to the present time that statement is not true.
Consider the mass of the human race which lived and died during all the generations before Jesus was born in Judea. Not one individual of all those teeming millions ever so much as heard the name of Christ or had his gospel preached to them. Not one of them, no matter how upright and moral their lives, or in the case of a very small proportion, how much they may have known and served the God of Israel, have had the opportunity of accepting the death of Jesus Christ as the basis of their redemption from sin and their entry into life.
Among those who have lived since our Lord's First Advent many millions in "unevangelized" lands have lived and died without hearing of the "...only name". Of those who were born into the nominally "Christian nations" there have been and are infants who die before reaching years of discretion, the mentally deficient, those who grow up in irreligious families and even today live their lives through without ever having the claims of Christ presented to them in such fashion that they obtain a true perception of Christianity. Of those who hear and learn something of the Gospel, many are so handicapped by their weaknesses and failings and the influence of the godless world around them that they cannot truthfully be said to be in a position to dispassionately understand the call to discipleship of Christ.
When all that can be said has been said, the glaring fact remains that in this life only a minute proportion of the souls which in the providence of God have come into existence can possibly have had the opportunity to hear the gospel and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
But such are not fit for heaven! The premise ignores the fact that in many cases good and moral conduct in one primitive community would be considered immoral or horribly cruel by modern standards. In some societies when parents are no longer able to care for themselves or to contribute to the welfare of the tribe, the young are obliged to kill off their parents or to expose them to be eaten by wild animals. Similarly, in some cases, the incurably ill child or the insane child are thought to enter the realms of life at death even though they have not professed Christ because of the immaturity or incapacity.
None of these expedients have scriptural backing. They deny the teaching that life can only come through Christ and that there can be no entering into everlasting life without accepting him. They are adopted and even held by theologians because the heart rebels at the thought of condemnation without opportunity. Men seem, instinctively, to feel that there must be some way in which such disadvantaged ones can at least come into sight of eternal life.
Indeed, few stop to consider that if eternal life could be obtained by pleading ignorance then it would have been better had Jesus Christ not come, for then, all would have been ignorant and all would have been saved. If the uncultured native can attain salvation without the Cross, then is the Cross as essential to the overcoming of evil and death as the Scriptures claim? These are the inconsistencies to which men are lead in their efforts to bolster their erroneous idea that belief and character are fixed at the end of this life and that there can be no change of mind and repentance after death.
Once it is realized that experience, development and change of mind goes on after death as well as before, the position clarifies. It is widely believed that the "day of grace", or opportunity for repentance and conversion, ends at death and that afterwards there can be nothing but judgment. This is not true. The Scriptures define a day of grace at the end of which is the last judgment, when the question of individual life or death is decided for each individual. But that is not the close of the individual's present life upon this earth, but at the end of the entire period of time which God has ordained for his work with the human race. Before the Messianic kingdom, presided over by our Lord Jesus Christ, then to be present in the glory of his second advent. That kingdom is also part of the day of grace.
First, God is visiting the nations to take out of them a people for his name - the Christian Church. That is the work of this age.Jesus anticipated the expectation of this latter time when he told his disciples that "in the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit on the throne of his glory ye also shall sit..." (Matt. 19:28). There the term "regeneration" has the meaning of "giving new life".
Next, God will restore the polity and privilege of Israel as a literal nation sanctified to God's service and purpose. Scripture teaching elsewhere abundantly associates this with the end of this age and the premillennial coming of Christ.
Third, the remainder of mankind - those not included in the Church or Israel - will be urged to convert to the Lord and have his name called upon them. This is evangelical work and it is associated with the "Millennial" or "Messianic" Age, the time following the commencement of the Second Advent and up to the last judgment.
Before any are condemned as incorrigibly impenitent they must experience resurrection to the Millennial world and come under the administration of the Prince of Peace and the evangelical appeal of his kingdom. This is the time of which Paul speaks when he says that the "..,saints shall judge the world" (I Cor. 6:2), and when the resurrected church "live and reign with Christ a thousand years" (Rev. 20:9). A few generations ago this understanding of the Divine purpose was slightingly referred to as the "gospel of the second chance". Those who coined the phrase failed to consider that nothing in Scripture forbids the idea of a second chance or of multiple chances for life if there is any likelihood in the sight of God that the result will be repentance and conversion.
Many men have had second chances in their lives, in that they have first refused and then chosen the gospel. These, like the Prodigal Son, benefit by their second chance. Peter was instructed to give his offending brother not only a second chance or seven chances, but seventy times seven chances (Matt. 18:22).
Christians have held that "death bed" repentance, if sincere, is honored by God. Why then should not repentance after death, if equally sincere, be likewise honored? The churchman, Canon R. H. Charles stated:
"The idea that forgiveness is impossible in the next life has only to be stated in order to be rejected; for till absolute fixity of character is reached, repentance and forgiveness, being moral acts, must always be possible under a perfectly moral being."When Paul said of Jesus that he "...gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" (I Tim. 2:6), he laid down the principle that all men are included in that which was achieved by the death of Jesus. What was included? Freedom from adamic condemnation, release from adamic death, and a full and comprehensive opportunity to heed the lessons of this life's experiences and take advantage of the call to discipleship in the next age. When the end does come and the world enters into the last judgment, there may be those to whom the king says in the language of Matthew "Come, blessed of my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (chap. 25).
The teaching of future probation is not new. It has been held by Christians since the days of the Apostles and although superseded in the Middle Ages by the Romish doctrine of purgatory, it has never died. In the year 1562, the Houses of Convocation of the Church of England, supported by all the bishops, struck out the 41st and the 42nd Articles, which up to that time declared unorthodox the doctrines of the Millennium and of Future Probation. After that date, these matters became the items of optional belief in the Church.
In 1864, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, sitting in judgment upon a case of ecclesiastical discipline within the Church, ruled, with the consent of the then Archbishops of Canterbury and York, that nothing in the Confession of Faith (the "Thirty-Nine" Articles) precluded a clergyman from holding or preaching the possibility of repentance and pardon after death.
Many Christian thinkers of this and the last century have endorsed this position and declared their belief that it is not the end of the present life, but the Last Judgment which brings the day of grace to an end. Beyond the portals of death, there is still hope for the unregenerate - if he will repent. Perhaps this is nowhere more eloquently put than by Dean Farrar of Westminster Abbey at the close of his book "Mercy and Judgment" (1881).
"I believe that man's destiny does not stop at the grave and that many who have not known Christ here will know him there. I believe that in the depths of divine compassion there may be opportunity to win faith in the future state. I believe that hereafter - whether by means of the 'almost sacrament of death' or in ways unknown to us - God's mercy may reach many who, to earthly appearance, seem to us to die in an unregenerate state. I believe that without holiness no man can see the Lord and that no sinner can be pardoned and accepted until he has repented, and till his free will is in unison with the Will of God. I cannot tell whether some souls may not resist God forever, and therefore forever may be shut out from his presence.
For according to the Scriptures, though I know not what its nature will be or how it will be effected, I believe that in the restitution of all things, and I believe in the coming of that time when - though in what sense I cannot pretend to explain or to fathom - GOD WILL BE ALL IN ALL."