SOME time ago, an intriguing headline appeared in The Chosun Ilbo, a Korean newspaper. It asked: “‘Wonderful Shim Cheong,’ Who Knew Nothing About Jesus—Did She Go to Hell?”
The headline was provocative because Shim Cheong is a beloved young woman in a Korean folktale who sacrifices her life to help her blind father. Over the years, much praise has been accorded her. In fact, in Korea, Shim Cheong has come to be regarded as the model of a devoted daughter.
To many, the idea that such a person would be punished in hellfire just because she was not a baptized Christian seemed unfair, even offensive. After all, the story was supposed to have taken place long before the message about the Christ was introduced in her village.
The article included an interview with a clergyman. He was asked if those who died without having an opportunity to learn about Jesus had all been condemned to hellfire. The answer? “We do not know. We just assume that there must be a way of Divine Providence [for such people].”
A REQUIREMENT FOR SALVATION
The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Baptism is necessary for salvation. As Christ himself said, unless one is born again of water and the Holy Spirit, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God (Jn 3.5).” Because of this, some believe that those who died unbaptized are thrown into hellfire or suffer in some other way after death.
There are many others, however, who consider such a belief absurd. Millions of people have died in ignorance of the Bible. Do they deserve eternal torment? What does the Bible say on the matter?
HOPE PROMISED IN THE BIBLE
The Bible clearly shows that God does not disregard people who lived without knowledge of his requirements. Acts 17:30 assures us: “God has overlooked the times of such ignorance.” What hope, then, does the Bible hold out for those who died without having an opportunity to learn about God?
The answer can be found in what Jesus told one of the criminals who died alongside him. The man said to Jesus: “Remember me when you get into your Kingdom.” What was Jesus’ reply? “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”—Luke 23:39-43.
Was Jesus promising that the man would enter into heaven? No. The man had not been “born again” from water and spirit, which was a prerequisite for entering the Kingdom of the heavens. (John 3:3-6) Rather, Jesus was promising that the criminal would live again, in Paradise. Being a Jew, the man was likely familiar with the earthly Paradise—the garden of Eden—described in the first book of the Bible. (Genesis 2:8) Jesus’ promise gave him the assured hope of a resurrection to Paradise when it is reestablished on earth.
In fact, the Bible promises “a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15) “The unrighteous” are those who did not meet God’s righteous standards because they were ignorant of God’s will. Jesus will resurrect the unrighteous criminal who spoke with him, as well as millions, perhaps billions, of others who died in ignorance. Then, in the Paradise earth, they will be taught God’s requirements, and they will have the opportunity to prove that they love God by obeying his commandments.
WHEN THE UNRIGHTEOUS ARE RESURRECTED
When the unrighteous are resurrected, will they be judged on the basis of their past actions? No. Romans 6:7 states: “The one who has died has been acquitted from his sin.” The unrighteous will have paid for their sins by dying. Thus, they will be judged on the basis of what they do after their resurrection, not what they did in ignorance before they died. How will they benefit?
After resurrection, the unrighteous will have opportunity to learn God’s laws, which will be revealed when symbolic scrolls are opened. They will then be judged “according to their deeds,” that is, whether they obey God’s laws or not. (Revelation 20:12, 13) For many of the unrighteous, this will be, not a second chance, but their first real opportunity to gain eternal life on earth by learning and doing God’s will.
This Bible teaching has helped many to regain their faith in God. Yeong Sug was one of them. She was raised as a devout Catholic. Members of her family were priests. Hoping to be a nun, she joined a convent. Later, she left because she was disappointed by what she saw going on there. What is more, she could not accept the doctrine of hellfire because she felt that to torture people in a fiery hell would be neither just nor loving.
Then, one of Jehovah’s Witnesses showed Yeong Sug these words from the Bible: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all, nor do they have any more reward.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) The Witness helped her to realize that her ancestors are not being tormented in hellfire. Rather, they are asleep in death, awaiting a resurrection.
Knowing that many people have never heard the truth from the Bible, Yeong Sug took to heart Jesus’ words found at Matthew 24:14: “This good news of the Kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come.” She now participates in preaching the good news and sharing her wonderful Bible-based hope with others.