Will People have a Second Chance after Physical Death to Repent and Believe the Gospel?1
This is a question I’ve been asked countless times and the answer from God’s Word remains the same: No.
Nevertheless, some have tried to argue that 1 Peter 4:6 speaks of the gospel being preached to people who have physically died, providing them with a second chance, after death, to believe and be saved. Let’s look at vv. 5-6 together:
“but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Peter 4:5-6).
When people wonder how God can judge those who’ve never heard the gospel, we should direct their attention to Romans 1:18ff. where Paul declares that all “are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20b). They are not judged on the basis of a gospel they’ve never heard but because of their unrepentant refusal to respond in worship and gratitude when confronted with the unmistakable and inescapable clarity of the revelation God has made of himself in creation. God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived” (Rom. 1:20a). No one can appeal to ignorance or the lack of opportunity to believe. God has done everything necessary to establish their moral accountability. He concludes that “although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
But might they be given a “second” chance to believe following death? If they did not repent in this life, perhaps God will give them yet another opportunity to do so in the next. Isn’t that what Peter is saying in 1 Peter 4:6? Does he not say that “the gospel was preached even to those who are dead”?
This expectation is related to a particular understanding of 1 Peter 3:19ff. Some contend that the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19b) to whom Jesus made proclamation are human beings who have died. Christ is believed to have visited them between the time of his death and resurrection at which time he preached the gospel, giving them yet another opportunity to be saved. But the “spirits” are fallen angelic beings, that is to say, demons, and the proclamation to them is one of judgment and triumph, not salvation. This proclamation was not made between the crucifixion and resurrrection of Christ but at the time of his ascension and exaltation to the right hand of the Father (see 1 Peter 3:22).
Even if it were true that Christ preached the gospel to physically dead humans in between his death and resurrection, what about all those who have died subsequent to Christ’s resurrection without hearing the gospel? If this verse is telling us what was done by Christ during the three days between his death and resurrection, when is it that he is supposed to have preached to everyone else who has died in the past two thousand years without having heard the gospel?
Furthermore, the NT nowhere envisions the possibility of someone who has died being offered yet another opportunity to be saved. See Luke 16:26 and especially Hebrews 9:27.
Also, if 1 Peter 4:6 refers to Christ preaching to all humans who have died physically, then we must embrace the doctrine of universalism, that is to say, the doctrine that all people will eventually be saved. For Peter goes on in the second half of v. 6 to say that although they experienced the judgment of physical death they will “live in the spirit the way God does.” But there are dozens of texts that disprove universalism.
Yet another reason this can’t be what Peter means in 1 Peter 4:6 is because of the overall argument of the entire letter. Peter’s aim has been to encourage Christians to persevere in the face of suffering, to endure when they are mistreated for their faith because they have a future reward of eternal life. But it would hardly motivate Peter’s readers to persevere in the face of hardship and trial if the easy road of sin and safety could be overcome after death. “It would make no sense at all,” says Tom Schreiner, “if he were to shift gears suddenly and promise a second chance to those who have rejected the gospel during this life. If Peter were promising a second chance, the Petrine readers could not be faulted for concluding that they could deny the faith now and then embrace it after death” (207).
In other words, what kind of warning would it be to say that God is ready to judge people for sin (v. 5) and then say that it doesn’t really matter how you live now because you’ll always have another chance after death to get saved?
So, it seems clear that Peter is talking about the gospel being preached to Christians who are now dead. These people had heard and believed the gospel while they were alive but had subsequently died physically.
Thus the “dead” of v. 6 are people who are physically dead at the time of Peter’s writing this letter. The preaching is that done by Christian ministers and missionaries, like us. Christ isn’t the one who preaches. He is rather the content or focus of the message we preach. These people weren’t physically dead when they heard the gospel. They are people who heard the gospel and believed and have subsequently died physically.
Thus the gospel was preached to living people who are now dead. It wasn’t preached to them while they are dead.
The pagan scoffers of Peter’s day seemed to have good grounds for their unbelief and their ridicule of Christians. The promised second coming of Christ hasn’t occurred. Meanwhile Christians are dying physically just like everyone else. Unbelievers viewed the death of believers as proof that there is no advantage in becoming a Christian, because everyone ends up dying anyway.
Was it in vain, therefore, that the gospel was preached to people who have since died? No. The gospel was preached to them in order that they might live in the presence of God even though to the eyes of unbelievers they appear to have suffered the penalty of death and gone the way of all mankind.
It may be that one of the ways that the enemies of the gospel were maligning Christians was by saying: "You say that you have such good news for us. You say that you escape judgment. You say your God is great and saves you and gives you joy. Well, all we've got to say is: you’re missing a lot of sex, alcohol, and fun, and you die just like everybody else. So if you die and go to the worms, and we die and go to the worms, we say, Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die!"
Peter's response to this slander and his effort to help us embrace suffering like Jesus is simply to say: The gospel was not preached to your dead Christian friends in vain. The reason the gospel was preached to those who have died is so that even though it looks like they have been judged like everybody else, they haven't. They are alive in the spirit. They are with the Lord. And the sufferings that they experienced here are not worthy to be compared to the glory that has been revealed to them (Romans 8:17f.).
The point of this verse is to encourage us that even though there is a judgment coming beyond the grave, and even though all of us die, nevertheless those who hear and believe the gospel will "live in the spirit according to the will of God."
There is, therefore, no evidence in this passage or any other biblical text for the idea that people who have died without Christ will have a second chance (or in the case of some, a first chance) to hear and respond to the gospel. Rather, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).