I don’t want to give anyone false hope. It is more damaging than the truth. I have had to work through this problem as well. Many of my family, and ancestors died as Roman Catholics, and are now condemned. They will experience the wrath of the holy, and just God for all eternity. This should be, and is a sobering notion. It should spur us on to boldly share the true good news with all of the lost people God brings into our lives.
The elect of God will hear the gospel, repent, and believe, in this life. There is no doubt of that. God does not try to save someone and fail. The lost who die outside of the true Christ, will not be in Heaven. They will not have an opportunity to repent once they are dead. Even if they did, they would not truly repent. They would only be sorrowful over their condition much as the rich man was when he begged Lazarus for water, and instead of asking to be forgiven of his sinful life, he wanted his brothers to be warned. There is no way out of hell.
Here are the sections of scripture that people usually use to support, what I, and approximately 2000 years of orthodoxy, consider the aberrant view of those who are dead repenting in Hell. Please note these verses are presented out of context by the proponents of the heterodox view.
1 Peter 3:18-20 NASB “18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.”
1 Peter 4:6 NASB “6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God.”
Now I will present what I believe is the Biblical position on the topic. God extends every opportunity to those outside of Christ to repent of their sins. Every moment of every day is another chance. All the way until their death, when it is too late. First we have to understand that people who are in their sins, and are not elect. They don’t care about God one way or another, or they are outright hateful of Him. People who are in works righteousness religions are gods unto themselves. They trust in their own righteousness as earned in their particular system. The notion of being a wretched worm of a sinner so bad that he could never merit favor with God is reprehensible to them, because they don’t think they are bad people. They might see themselves in relation to other people as flawed perhaps, or an occasional sinner, but they don’t see how they look in God’s judgment. Someone who dies a lost sinner also has the testimony of the natural revelation against them. If their conscious telling them they are sinners, isn’t enough, and the testimony of creation isn’t enough, and the prophets, and the Bible aren’t enough to convince someone neither will the incarnation of God. People who lived during the time of Christ, who met Him, and listened to His teachings wanted Him dead. Those who are not among the elect will hate God even more in Hell, they will only be sorry for their state, but not for their crimes against God because they have never been born again. Their sinful nature is no longer restrained by the Holy Spirit from being as evil as it could be. Common grace is over at that point.
The thieves being crucified with Christ are a good example of this. One believed, and was promised by Christ to be with Him that day in paradise. The other had no promise, and did not repent, and mocked Christ as they all died.
God has ordained only one way for people to be justified to Him, and that is the good news of Jesus. A person goes to hell, not solely because they had never heard of Jesus, or His good news, but rather because they are sinners. All people born after Adam, are said to be in Adam. They are all born under the curse, and have a sin nature. We don’t become sinners by sinning, we sin because it is our nature. We all deserve death and hell. The good news is that God being rich in mercy saves some. Most will be in hell. Matthew 7:13-14 (NASB Strong’s) “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Romans 5:12-14 (NASB Strong’s) Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned— for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22 (NASB Strong’s) But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
Let’s break down the scripture that people erroneously use to support the notion that God will give the dead an opportunity to repent. To do that we must read it in context, so I will be citing the entire chapters.
|1 Peter Chapter 3, & 4:1-11|
New American Standard Bible
1In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, 2as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.3Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; 4but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. 5For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; 6just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. 7You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. 8To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; 9not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing. 10For,
“THE ONE WHO DESIRES LIFE, TO LOVE AND SEE GOOD DAYS,
MUST KEEP HIS TONGUE FROM EVIL AND HIS LIPS FROM SPEAKING DECEIT. 11“HE MUST TURN AWAY FROM EVIL AND DO GOOD;
HE MUST SEEK PEACE AND PURSUE IT. 12“FOR THE EYES OF THE LORD ARE TOWARD THE RIGHTEOUS,
AND HIS EARS ATTEND TO THEIR PRAYER,
BUT THE FACE OF THE LORD IS AGAINST THOSE WHO DO EVIL.” 13Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? 14But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, 15but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; 16and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame. 17For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong. 18For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water.21Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him. 1Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; 5but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. 7The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. 8Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins. 9Be hospitable to one another without complaint. 10As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 11Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
The first 12 verses are obviously about Christian praxia in holy living. Then in next few verses Peter is exhorting the Christians to persevere in holiness, in Christ, during slander and suffering for righteousness sake, and to be prepared to practice apologetics. That entails knowing God through His word, and what you believe, so that you can relay it to others. In v. 18 when Peter says that Christ died once and for all, he wasn’t saying that He died to expiate the sins of all people, he was saying that He accomplished the penal substitutionary atonement, and there is no more to do. This is in stark contrast to the sacrificial system of the Jews in the Old Testament. By His violent death on the cross, the flesh was put to death. He was dead for three days. Christ’s spirit (deity) was alive, not the Holy Spirit, but by His own inner life as God.
In v. 19 Christ in His spirit proclaimed to the demonic forces that were imprisoned in chains since the time of Noah His victory over them. These fallen were the ones that were most rebellious and evil, and needed to be restrained for the sake of mankind, and God’s plan of redemption. Lesser demons still remained on the Earth. The word prison in Greek is, “φυλακή” (phulake) which is more at prison, or under guard, but in no way is it, “ᾍδης” (Hades) the realm of the dead or the grave.
In v. 20 you see the direct statement that these were the rebellious demons that caused so much evil during the time of Noah. The demons were so evil convincing mankind to engage in all manners of sin, that none of them would listen to the preaching of Noah, and repent. God only saved Noah, and his family by bringing them through the flood in the ark.
In v. 21 some people may get confused and think that baptism justifies you to God, but it does not. All you need to do to know that it is actually by the work of Christ is to read the entire verse. The baptism is a symbolic appeal to the God by the atoning work of Christ and His resurrection.
In v. 22 Peter is demonstrating Christ’s triumph over the demonic by pointing our His ascension, and how everything has been placed under His authority.
This section of scripture doesn’t end with Chapter 3. You can tell by the first word of v. 1 of Chapter 4, “Therefor” and as always you must as what is it, “there for?” As Christ suffered on the cross and was victorious, we should be willing to suffer for our faith, and doing what is right, with the knowledge that we will be with Christ for eternity. There is an exhortation to not behave like they did before they were saved.
Here is what Pastor Dr. John MacArthur has to say about v. 6 in his notes, “ 1 Peter 4:6 (MacArthur Study Bible Notes (ESV)) 1 Pet. 4:6 to those who are dead. The preaching of the gospel not only offers a rich life (3:10), a ceasing from sin (4:1), and a good conscience (3:21), but also an escape from final judgment. Peter had in mind believers who had heard and accepted the gospel of Christ when they were still alive, but who had died by the time Peter wrote this letter. Some of them, perhaps, had been martyred for their faith. Though these were dead physically, they were triumphantly alive in their spirits (cf. Heb. 12:23). All their judgment had been fully accomplished while they were alive in this world (“in the flesh”), so they will live forever in God’s presence.”
Psalm 6:5 NASB “For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?”
Augustine says, in regards to Psalm 6:5,
“For in death there is no one that is mindful of Thee. He knows too that now is the time for turning unto God: for when this life shall have passed away, there remaineth but a retribution of our deserts. “But in hell who shall confess to Thee?” That rich man, of whom the Lord speaks, who saw Lazarus in rest, but bewailed himself in torments, confessed in hell, yea so as to wish even to have his brethren warned, that they might keep themselves from sin, because of the punishment which is not believed to be in hell. Although therefore to no purpose, yet he confessed that those torments had deservedly lighted upon him; since he even wished his brethren to be instructed, lest they should fall into the same (Commentary on the Psalms 6:6).”
Here are some links to good articles on the topic;