James Beilby. Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.
James Beilby is professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was written books and articles about Christian apologetics, epistemology, philosophy, and theology.
This book addresses the question of whether God will provide people with an opportunity to be saved after they die, particularly if in this life they failed to hear the Gospel, lacked the mental capacity to respond to the Gospel, or heard it in a distorted fashion. Those who heard the Gospel in a distorted fashion includes African-American slaves who heard a Gospel that promoted their oppression or people raised in abusive religious environments. Will God offer them a postmortem opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved or simply damn them to hell because they failed to believe in the Gospel in this life?
Beilby affirms that, yes, God will provide people with a postmortem opportunity to be saved. He contends that God in Scripture loves all people and desires their salvation. Within the New Testament and ancient Jewish and Christian tradition is a concept of postmortem opportunity; in the case of Christianity, Jesus went to the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection and preached the Gospel, and ancient Christians sought to account for people who lived in pre-Christian times who failed to explicitly hear the Gospel.
Beilby engages questions about postmortem opportunity. If God will save people in the afterlife, why preach the Gospel in this life? After all, God will do it better than we possibly can, since we will present the Gospel in a flawed manner! And, if God offers people an opportunity to be saved in the afterlife, will not everyone be saved? If God presents them with such an opportunity, they will know that God exists and that Christianity is true and, naturally, they would rather not go to hell. Does postmortem opportunity render our decisions in this life and the warnings in Scripture irrelevant?
Beilby, in part, responds to these questions by restricting the range of postmortem opportunity, treating it as an exception to the rule: God will offer it only to people who failed to receive a sufficient chance at salvation in this life. Beilby still believes in missionary work because God commands it and it allows believers to be part of God’s work in redeeming people and saving them from the power of the devil. Beilby is still open to inclusivism: the idea that God can save people in other cultures who may lack explicit knowledge of the Gospel but recognize their need for grace or respond in faith to whatever light of divine revelation that they have. What Beilby rejects is universalism and annihilationism as defined as God killing sinners in the afterlife. For Beilby, sinners in hell exist but with their humanity destroyed.
Regarding the question of whether anyone would say “no” if God offered them a postmortem opportunity to be saved, Beilby replies that, just because people will know God is real in the afterlife, that does not automatically mean that they will reject sin and self and embrace God, especially if they have been hardened in this life from a lifetime of sinful decisions. Beilby rejects the idea that beholding the “beatific vision” of God will result in the salvation of those offered a postmortem opportunity. Beholding God did not help Satan when he rebelled in heaven, plus Beilby disputes that what people see of God at the judgment is the full “beatific vision.”
Reading this book brought to my mind discussions I have had with people about this topic, from those in favor and those opposed. There are people in my family who take a belief in postmortem opportunity in almost universalist directions, asserting that no one can be lost in this life because they lack a genuine opportunity to be saved here and now. One argument they make is that God in the New Testament attested to the truth of the Gospel with miracles, but God does not do so today, so Christianity looks merely like one philosophy among many. Why would God damn them on the basis of that? The response I hear to that from restrictivist Christians, of course, is “Why, then, does this life matter? Why preach the Gospel to others? Where is the sense of urgency to accept the Gospel or to live it out?” Then I recall a conversation I had with a Calvinist about the topic. For him, the issue of “those who never heard” is a moot point, since, if God chose people not to be saved, what does it matter if they heard or not? This is the conclusion at which Beilby essentially arrives when he discusses whether postmortem opportunity is more compatible with monergism or synergism.
This book is a careful and judicious examination of the topic of postmortem opportunity. It is informative when it comes to ancient Christian conceptions of this, as Beilby discusses voices in favor and against. Beilby’s discussion of the beatific vision and eternal torment is enlightening as well. Regarding eternal torment, Beilby questions that God would torment people in hell, seeing the eternal torment as flowing from people’s postmortem sin and rebellion against God. As Beilby astutely asks, even if God were justified to torment sinners, why would God choose to do so?
The book falls short, in my opinion, in its treatment of Romans 1:18-20, where Paul states that God wrath is on the Gentiles because they have rejected the light of God’s general revelation. Does that not imply that all people, even those who have not heard the Gospel, are guilty before God and deserving of hell because they have rejected whatever light they have been given? Perhaps a way to get around this is to say that, even if God would be just to damn them, God in God’s mercy might offer them a postmortem opportunity to be saved.
In addition, I think that a lot of emphasis has been placed in these discussions on “those who never heard.” There are plenty of people who are familiar with the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, yet they reject them, while still living rather moral lives. Why should they be damned? I can somewhat sympathize with my quasi-universalist family members who assert that God in Scripture often confirmed God’s message with a visible demonstration of its truth before holding people responsible for accepting it. At the same time, I find problematic a notion of Christianity that renders this life, or this day and age, irrelevant. One way a family member gets around this is to suggest that this life is “ground preparation”: God, in this life, can be preparing all people to learn lessons that can make them more receptive to God in the next life. That makes some sense, and yet the continual warnings in Scripture give me the impression that the decisions we make in this life, for or against God, matter in terms of the last judgment and eternity.
Beilby’s synergism and belief in libertarian free will somewhat troubles me, since I have become rather jaded and hardened over the course of my life to conservative Christianity, towards God, and towards my neighbor. I find myself saying in response to the biblical God and his commands (as I conceive them): “Even if that God is real, why would I want anything to do with him? There are a lot of assholes who are real: them being real does not make me accept them!” I still have enough faith to continue reading my Bible, but I would hope that God would soften my heart in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the way Beilby presents the matter, me in my hardened state can easily say “no” to God in the afterlife, and that would be that!
The topic of evangelism was in my mind this week. A fellow employee asked me, “Why are you so positive?” Of course, Christians are trained to see that as an opportunity to evangelize, and perhaps the employee, who knows I have degrees in religion, hoped for something substantive and spiritual. But I chose to answer honestly: “because this is a positive place to work.” Believe me, I have had the opposite, and I was not so positive in those situations!
Beilby may have added to my repertoire on these issues, and, for that, the book was worth the read.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.