Questions about eternity abound, but one of the most complex is the question of what happens to people who never heard the Gospel. If, the question goes, people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ are condemned, what about people who never even had the chance to decide for themselves? James Beilby’s book, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death is, in part, an answer to that question.
Put simply, Beilby here defends Postmortem Opportunity (hereafter PO in my text), which has the core claim (using his terminology) that: “those who die without receiving a genuine opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel will receive a Postmortem Opportunity to do so” (35, emphasis removed). Of course, there’s quite a bit to unpack even in this claim, such as what constitutes a “genuine opportunity.” Beilby does a commendable job of drawing out definitions and carefully moving readers through each step of the argument.
Beilby starts with a chapter that goes over common views on the destiny of the unevangelized, whether it’s universal salvation, predestination, or any number of other possibilities. In the chapter in which he defines PO, he outlines ways his version may differ from others, such as when it will occur and to whom it will be given. Throughout this and other sections, he uses thought experiments to explain situations. One example was the very helpful and challenging thought experiment regarding the fate of believers who either were on the way to disbelief or non-believers who were very close to believing before they died. It was helpful to clarify that faith and belief is not a kind of black-and-white, all-or-nothing situation, and that robust soteriology must deal with that fact.
Next, Beilby goes over arguments for and against PO, surveying both biblical, historical, and theological arguments. Beilby musters numerous verses to support each aspect of affirmative points he affirms in his view of PO, while also raising some of the objections that immediately come up in any discussion of PO. Interestingly, Beilby has a chapter to explicitly reject inclusivism as a conjunction with his PO, noting that his version basically makes affirmations that would preclude inclusivism and perhaps even make it unnecessary.
Beilby’s argument is interesting and certainly presents the most robust case for PO I have ever encountered. Though, to be fair, some of that may be my own lack of research into the topic. Nevertheless, Beilby’s modest conclusions that PO is, minimally, a possibility based on Scripture and broader theological concerns seem supported by his arguments here.
There are a few critiques I want to point out, however. First, the way Beilby treats biblical texts as data points to be collated as pros and cons for theological argument may call into question some of his interpretations thereof. For example, in the chapter entitled “Scriptural Evidence for Postmortem Opportunity,” he supports one aspect of his PO theory, that people are only condemned for explicit rejection of Christ, by mustering John 3:18, Matthew 10:32-33, and more verses to show that it is a theme found in Scripture. I am tempted to read scripture this same way, as it is what appeals most to my analytical mind.* However, I’m not convinced that this is the best way to read and interpret Scripture. Instead, I believe that the verses cited have contexts that are pointing to entirely different purposes of the entire thought happening. That doesn’t preclude that some kind of tangential points can be found in individual verses, including what Beilby argues is there, but I think more caution regarding interpretation and appealing to broader contexts for these verses would make the argument much stronger. I’m not fully convinced proof texting is a necessarily mistaken way of reading the text, but I am convinced that using the text in that way can and does frequently significantly damage the text. Such a critique can hardly be limited to Beilby, but can certainly be applied to myself and many others.
Another critique is that Beilby unnecessarily limits the scope of his argument fairly early on by saying his version of PO “assumes an explicitly Arminian soteriology” (75). His reasoning behind this appears to be that PO assumes a kind of synergistic view of salvation (75ff). However, to this reader, who is Lutheran and so neither Calvinist or Arminian in soteriology, Beilby’s self-imposed limitation is premature. I suspect this limitation was on purpose for the sake of not having to adjust his PO model to account for other soteriological views. I, however, think that his view of PO could be adjusted without losing too much to match different theological systems. From my own Lutheran upbringing, while many I know would reject PO out of hand, the teaching and affirmation about Christ descending to Hell/the dead was always explicit and strong. From there, it’s not much of a stretch to ask what Christ was doing there, and a kind of PO could flow out from an historic/credal background.
Postmortem Opportunity is a fascinating read on a number of important topics. I admit it has challenged my own views on several topics, and certainly has me going to scripture to read it more fully. I recommend the book for any readers interested in soteriological positions, and those interested in challenging their views.
*My thanks to a friend for pointing out this aspect of reading verses out of context and as data points.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.
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