There are three main factors that keep the majority of people (including Christians) from understanding what Scripture is actually talking about in most passages. I’m not going to get into all the details here, since I’ve done so in various other places on this site, but as a refresher, these three factors are:
1) Not understanding how to “rightly dividing the word of truth.”
2) Not being familiar with the difference between the absolute perspective and the relative perspective in Scripture, and how this means that the same word can refer to different things in different parts of Scripture.
3) Assuming that the English versions of the Bibles they’re used to reading actually correctly translated the Hebrew and Greek text that Scripture was originally written in when it comes to the passages they consider to be important, or at least not realizing that many of the terms they assume should be interpreted literally actually need to be interpreted very figuratively in the less literal translations of Scripture, not to mention the fact that the definitions of the English words themselves in their favourite Bible versions might have changed in meaning over the centuries.
Thanks to these three factors, and also because most Christians are content to assume that the doctrines they’ve been taught by their religious leaders are what Scripture actually teaches, these Christians hold on to some serious misconceptions about what Scripture says about most things in general, but especially about what it says regarding unbelievers in particular.
For example, the majority of Christians are under the impression that anyone who fails to follow every rule in the Bible, and then also fails to become a Christian before they die, is automatically destined for never-ending punishment in the lake of fire. Many of these Christians believe the chart pictured below (which is a chart belonging to the Toronto street preachers I’ve written about elsewhere) is a good diagram of what happens to people, depending on whether they choose to become Christians before they die or not.
This diagram contains so many misunderstandings of what the various scriptural passages it references are talking about, thanks to the three aforementioned factors, that it would almost be comical if it weren’t leading so many people horribly astray. Somehow, it actually did get the general timeline of certain future events mostly correct, but there are so many problems with the rest of it that I hardly know where to begin.
I suppose the first thing we need to clarify is the fact that the Bible is not a morality textbook for humanity at large. Most Christians (including the aforementioned street preachers) seem to think that the Bible is a rulebook which everyone is required to follow, and that those who don’t manage to keep every rule in it are deserving of never-ending punishment in the lake of fire, and that any humans who don’t become Christians before they die will indeed end up trapped in there (although Christians get to escape this supposed consequence of our failure to perfectly obey all the rules in the Bible, or so we’re led to believe). This couldn’t be further from what Scripture actually teaches, however.
The fact of the matter is, the various rules and exhortations in Scripture are, almost without exception, solely meant for the specific audiences of the particular books they’re written in, and not every book is written to every human to ever live. Few people are aware of this, but the commandments and rules found in the books of the Bible known as the circumcision writings — meaning the books that were not signed by Paul — were only ever meant for Israel (and the relatively few Gentiles who proselytize into the Israel of God) to follow (please read this article if you aren’t familiar with the difference between the body of Christ and the Israel of God). Between the time of Moses and the writing of Paul’s epistles, Gentiles were not given any Scriptures or teachings from God (aside from a few commands that only applied to certain individuals at very specific times, such as Moses’ command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go, for example, or such as Elisha’s assertion that Naaman should bathe in the Jordan River to cure his leprosy), and the only rules that could be said to apply to Gentiles as a whole up until that point were the so-called Noahide Laws, at least the parts that were actually recorded in Scripture, but even they had no “eternal” consequences. Even after Paul did begin writing, though, the 13 Pauline epistles were written only for people who happened to become members of the ecclesia known as the body of Christ, and the principles and exhortations Paul wrote within them were only meant for those members to follow, not for every human everywhere to follow (and even then, some of them were time-and-location-dependant and aren’t meant for those of us in the ecclesia today). The only law from God that the members of the nations could be said to have in general is the conscience God gave them and the result of their reasonings with one another, and the only exhortations from God to unbelieving Gentiles outside of that is simply to believe Paul’s Gospel and to be conciliated to God (to be at peace with God in their mind, in other words, because God is already at peace with them and has already saved them from an absolute perspective through what Christ accomplished), but even that isn’t a rule one is required to follow or else they’ll be punished without end, as most Christians mistakenly assume it is.
But aren’t those people who don’t believe the Gospel (be it Paul’s Gospel, or even the Gospel of the Circumcision) “condemned already”? The answer to that question is, indeed, “yes.” However, almost no Christian seems to know what that actually means. Most of them presume it means that the sins of these unbelievers haven’t been dealt with yet and, as such, they must pay for their own sins by being punished without end in the lake of fire (in a conscious state, it’s generally assumed, although a few Christians have enough of a conscience still to realize how horrific that would be, and also understand what Scripture actually says about death, and realize that nobody will be conscious in said lake of fire any longer than the time it takes for a body to burn up).
Basically, no Christian seems to be aware of what it is that Christ’s death for our sins, and subsequent entombment and resurrection, actually accomplished (which means they don’t know what Paul’s Gospel really means, which also means they haven’t truly believed this Gospel themselves, which ultimately means they haven’t actually been saved yet, at least not from a relative perspective — presuming they haven’t believed the Gospel of the Circumcision and been saved under that Gospel instead, of course). What the Good News which Paul proclaimed means is that nobody has to do anything to deal with their sin at all (which is good, because we couldn’t anyway) since sin has already been dealt with, once and for all, through the cross (whether one believes it or not, their sin has been completely dealt with, so nobody will have to “pay” for their own sins unless they want to insist that God double-charges). This also means that all of humanity will, in fact, eventually be made immortal and sinless (which is what salvation from an absolute perspective is) because of what Christ accomplished.
So what does it mean to be “condemned already,” then? Well, it first helps to know what that condemnation actually is. Paul explains it in various parts of Romans chapter 5, such as in verses 18 and 19 where he writes that the condemnation is our sinfulness (our inability to be perfect, to put it simply), which we inherited from one man (Adam) because of his disobedience. And if you go back a few lines to verse 12, Paul also tells us why we can’t be perfect, when he went into detail on the subject by explaining that sinfulness entered into the human world because of the action of that one man, who became mortal because of his sin, and his mortality was then genetically passed on to all of his descendants (all of humanity), and for that reason all humans have sinned (which means we aren’t mortal because we sin — only Adam became mortal because he sinned — but rather we sin because we’re mortal/dying, and we know this is true because otherwise newborn babies who haven’t sinned would never die, and it would be impossible to perform an abortion, at least once a fetus has reached the stage of being an actual person).
Simply put, while the ration of Sin is indeed death (“wages” is not necessarily the best translation of opsōnion/ὀψώνιον in that verse), we aren’t condemned because of anything we do, as Paul explained in that chapter, but because of what Adam did, and that condemnation is simply mortality leading to eventual death, and sinfulness because of that mortality.
Thankfully, he goes on to explain in that same chapter (as well as in other parts of his various epistles) that our ultimate salvation also isn’t due to anything we do (or even believe) at all, but is entirely due to the obedience of one other Man (Christ), and that everyone who is mortal (and hence sinful), because of what Adam did, will also eventually be made immortal (and hence sinless), because of what Christ did, although each in their own order or class (first the body of Christ, at the Snatching Away, then the dead members of the Israel of God, 75 days after Jesus returns to Earth, and finally everyone else, at the end of the final eon, as Scripture teaches in various places).
This all means that it isn’t following rules, or even making the right choice to “accept Christ as one’s personal Lord and Saviour,” that unbelievers need to worry about (although believing the Gospel is still a good thing to do if one is able to, but only the elect are capable of it anyway). Because of what Christ accomplished, they’ve already been guaranteed to eventually be made immortal and sinless (to be saved, in other words), even if they miss out on the “special” salvation Paul wrote about, which is getting to experience that immortality early, up in the heavens during the still-impending eons (which is what “salvation” from a relative perspective means for the body of Christ, although there are other relative forms of “salvation” written about in Scripture as well, including the salvation that believing members of the Israel of God are looking forward to, which involves getting to live in the kingdom of heaven when it begins on earth in the future — specifically in Israel — rather than having to weep and gnash their teeth in anguish because they’ve been cast out of Israel into the “outer darkness” of the rest of the world with the goat nations who have also been forced to live out there in the figurative “fire eonian” to be chastened for the eon and to be prepared for the devil and his angels to lead them to rise up against Israel one last time at the end of the fourth eon, known as the Millennium).
There are a couple other small exceptions but, by and large, the only parts of Scripture that might concern those who aren’t members of either the body of Christ or the Israel of God are Matthew 25:31-46 (and presuming that passage is even about Gentiles, which it very well might not be based on the fact that the rest of Jesus’ teachings were pretty much only to and about the lost sheep of the house of Israel, it will only apply to Gentiles who happen to live during the Tribulation, since it’s all about how certain people living in nations that aren’t Israel who don’t take care of believing Jews during that time will suffer the aforementioned consequence of not getting to enjoy living in the kingdom of heaven when it begins in Israel, but will instead have to live in less desirable parts of the planet), as well as Romans 2:5-10 and Revelation 21:8 (both of which tell us who will actually end up in the lake of fire at the end of the Millennium).
But even when it comes to those latter two passages, we have to be careful to interpret them carefully because they’re tricky passages to understand and don’t mean quite what most Christians assume they do. A careful interpretation of these passages, especially the verse and the surrounding passages in Revelation, reveals that most people who end up at the Great White Throne Judgement will actually likely get to live on the New Earth right away and miss out on the lake of fire altogether.
You see, while those who get to experience salvation early (those who experience salvation from a relative perspective, in other words) will indeed avoid ending up there, salvation itself isn’t actually about avoiding the lake of fire at all. As we’ve already covered, salvation (at least from an absolute perspective) is simply about being made immortal and hence sinless, and that will eventually happen to everyone, even those who will get die a second time by being burned up in the lake of fire, although not until quite some time afterwards, of course, after they’ve been resurrected a second time.
At this point, if they’ve actually made it this far in the article, many Christians are likely wondering how someone can be resurrected from the lake of fire if they haven’t been saved, but this is due to a misunderstanding of resurrection. Those who are thinking this are assuming that resurrection is only for those who have been saved, but if that were the case, nobody could have been resurrected for judgement at the Great White Throne to begin with (only those who haven’t been saved, relatively speaking, will be resurrected for that judgment, after all). Yes, one who has died (even a second time) needs to be resurrected in order to be made immortal, but it’s the immortality that our final experience of salvation consists of, not the resurrection itself, since everyone who has died will be resurrected at some point whether they’ve believed either of the Gospels first or not.
These Christians are likely also wondering, if sin has been dealt with, as I’m claiming it has been, and nobody has to pay the price for it again since Jesus already did so, why is it that anyone would be judged at the Great White Throne? The reason they ask this is because they haven’t read the passages about judgement very carefully. Nowhere in Revelation does it say that those who are judged at the Great White Throne will be judged for their sins, but rather they’ll be judged according to their actions, whether good or evil, as Paul explained in his epistle to the Romans (this comes down to them not realizing that “sin” and “evil” are two entirely separate concepts). Those people who don’t do the specific evil acts that Paul and John warned about will have their name written in the book of life (being included in the book of life doesn’t necessarily mean one has been saved, since nobody who has been saved will even be judged at this time, although those who have been saved from a relative perspective will still be included in said book) and will get to live on the New Earth, albeit in amortal bodies, although they presumably won’t ever die again thanks to getting to partake of the fruit and leaves of the tree of life whenever it’s needed to do so in order to remain healthy and alive.
As I said, those whose names are written in the book of life haven’t necessarily all been saved yet, because they haven’t been made immortal yet (which is what salvation is ultimately all about). But, as Paul explained, at the end of the eons even they will finally experience salvation when they’re made immortal, and that takes place at the time when death is finally abolished, and since the only people who will still be dead at that time will be those who suffered the second death in the lake of fire at the Great White Throne Judgement, or those who died on the New Earth (as we’re told in Isaiah 65, there will still be death on the New Earth for a period of time after the Great White Throne Judgement, at least prior to the conclusion of the final eon; and for those who are thinking that Revelation 21:1–8 means there won’t be any death on the New Earth, a careful study of that passage should make it clear that this only applies to those who get to reside within the walls of the New Jerusalem, at least prior to the conclusion of the final eon), this means that for death to truly be abolished they’ll have to cease being dead, which will require that second resurrection I already mentioned, at which point everyone will finally be vivified (made immortal) and get to enjoy life with God forever, which is when the final salvation will have been said to have occurred.
Now, I realize that most of this is probably completely new to most of you reading this, especially if you aren’t familiar with what it means to read Scripture “concordantly” the way those of us in the body of Christ do, and I’ve only briefly touched on each point in passing in this article, so if you are curious to learn the nitty-gritty details of how those of us in the body of Christ have come to all of these conclusions, I do go into all this in depth in my eBook, which is available for free here on this website.