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Will people get a second chance to be saved after they die? Certainly no one contemplates the idea of anyone being lost in eternity with anything but emotional pain. What could be worse than being separated from God and all that’s good for eternity? With these sobering thoughts in mind, it is a natural human tendency to want to have hope for those who die without accepting Christ. One way to try to conjure up such hope is to entertain the possibility that those who die without him will be given a second chance to accept him and be saved. In this article, we will examine the two main passages that have been used in an attempt to provide some biblical support for this comforting idea.

The two passages that are sometimes used in defense of the second chance gospel are at best complicated and debated. One of the most fundamental rules of biblical interpretation is that we must allow plain passages to shed light on difficult passages, thus directing our interpretations of them – and not vice-versa. A failure to follow this principle may allow alternate explanations for difficult Scriptures, but it will force explanations of plain Scriptures in directions that defy both common sense and context. The myriad interpretations of the Book of Revelation provide ample evidence of this interpretative fallacy.

But what about the two passages used by some to support the idea of another chance at salvation after death. Which two are they and what is their proper explanation? The two are these:

1 Corinthians 15:29

Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?

1 Peter 3:18-20

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water,

The first of these is the proof-text used by the Mormon Church in their practice of what is called proxy baptism, the baptism of living persons on behalf of those who have died unsaved (in their opinion). Admittedly, this is an unusual passage and one that has prompted many different interpretations. It should be stated that most of these various explanations are aimed at rebutting Mormon teaching and practice. Further, most of these explanations have arisen because of a refusal on historical grounds to accept the verse at its simplest face value. The most natural way to explain the passage would be to say that someone in Paul’s day was doing about the same thing that Mormons do, namely practice proxy baptism. Many (most?) modern scholars reject this view because they have not found any historical evidence that the practice existed in the first century. But is that a valid reason for not adopting the most natural view of the passage? I think not.

I rather like this explanation given in the College Press Commentary:

Since Paul’s question is stated in the third person rather than the second person, there is no need to believe that he is referring to a practice that his readership is participating in. That is, he did not ask “why are you baptized?” but “why are people baptized?” In light of the fact that there are a higher than usual number of allusions to and quotations from patently pagan materials in this ad hominem section (15:29-34), there is no intrinsic reason to doubt that Paul could be referring to a pagan practice to support his argument. This reference to a pagan practice would also make sense since paganism is the matrix of this particular misunderstanding among some of the Corinthians… Even if this were a current practice among some of the Corinthian believers (since there are allusions already in 1 Corinthians to their profound misunderstandings about water baptism: 1:13-17; 10:1-5), Paul mentions this not to endorse it, but to use this practice as an ad hominem argument to highlight the inconsistency of their beliefs.

Having read at least a dozen suggested interpretations of the verse, this one seems the most natural and requires the least interpretative gymnastics with the actual wording of the text itself.

It should also be said that even if we are somewhat unsure of the precise interpretation, we can be quite sure of what it doesn’t mean. Sometimes if we cannot explain the meaning of a passage with absolute certainty, we feel hesitant to discount another interpretation. I am reminded of the old illustration of two men commenting about a certain woman approaching them. One man said to the other, “There comes your wife.” The second man said, “No, that is not my wife.” The first man raised the question, “Well, then who is she?” Second man, “I don’t know.” First man, “If you don’t know who she is, perhaps she is your wife after all.” Now of course that is perfect nonsense, but it does make a hermeneutical point. Obviously, we shouldn’t be reluctant to reject an interpretation that contradicts an abundance of clear biblical teaching to the contrary. Whatever 1 Corinthians 15:29 means, it cannot mean that a living person can be baptized for a dead person who died as an unbeliever. Jesus could hardly have made it any clearer than he did in passages like John 8:21:  “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.”

Next, let’s examine the passage written by Peter. Two plausible explanations are most often put forth for this passage.

EXPLANATION ONE:  Jesus was put to death in the body but then raised from the dead by the Holy Spirit.  In fact, it was through the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of Christ, I Peter 1:11) that Jesus once preached (in the person of Noah) to the wicked people before the flood.  At the present time, however, these same disobedient people are in prison (hades, the bad side of it – fuller explanation below).

EXPLANATION TWO:  Jesus was put to death in the body but made alive in his   spirit (or soul).  At the point of death, his soul went to Hades (the unseen realm of the dead, composed of a good part, Paradise — Luke 23:43, and a bad part, torments — Luke 16:22-31.  Acts 2:31, translated literally, says that he was not left in Hades).  While Jesus was in the Hadean spirit world, he made a proclamation of victory to that generation from Noah’s day who had been so flagrantly disobedient. (The word preached in verse 19 is from the Greek kerusso, meaning to herald or proclaim, and not from euaggelizomai, meaning to preach the gospel.)  The lesson in this case was to show that God will always have the last word over even the worst persecutors (persecution was the context of the passage)!

While the first explanation does no damage to any biblical truths, it does not seem to adequately deal with the wording of 1 Peter 3 in a straightforward manner.  On the other hand, the second explanation does deal with the exact wording in a more satisfying way (at least in my opinion).  As with all such difficult passages, an explanation must be sought which both treats the immediate context fairly, and at the same time, does not contradict clear passages on the same subject in other parts of the Bible.  If the passage is designed to show that God always has the final say with even the vilest persecutors, the second explanation does seem much more likely.

It should be obvious that using either 1 Corinthians 15:29 or 1 Peter 3 to justify post-death salvation is to fight an uphill battle from both a logical standpoint and a biblical one. Regarding the logical standpoint, do you really suppose that any lost person undergoing the kind of suffering described biblically would not grasp at any straw offered to escape that punishment? Regarding the biblical standpoint, many passages are simply too plain to question. Consider the following: “…man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). This passage seems to indicate clearly that judgment comes immediately after death, at which time our eternal destination is set. Passages that depict the state of the dead would support that conclusion (see Luke 16:19-31). “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out–those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29). Sadly, the majority of the world is indeed on that broad road that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14), a fact that should motivate us to get and stay right with God and to help others do the same.