For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 ESV

Does God love everyone? Many Christians would say He loves only those whom He chooses to love… and He doesn’t choose to love everyone (limited atonement). Furthermore, those whom He loves are forced (irresistible grace) to “believe in him,” so all of them have eternal life. If “world” in John 3:16 really means “world” and not “some of the world,” then the above interpretation seems incorrect.

The Apostle Peter makes this even clearer:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 2 Peter 3:9

Does that mean that everyone who has ever lived, no matter when or where, is loved by God and may be saved from the punishment they deserve?

Some Christians would say no, that before Jesus came and paid the price of sin by dying on the cross, only the Jews could be saved by following the Law. They would also say that, since Christ’s time, only those who hear the Good News and accept it can be saved. With that viewpoint we would have to say that the non-Jews of B.C. time and those whom missionaries do not reach during A.D. time are not loved by God… or at least not to the extent of making salvation available to them.

That doesn’t sound like “loved the world” or “not being willing that any should perish” to me. Are we therefore left only with the belief that everyone will be saved, no matter what? No, John 3:16 makes it clear that only those who believe in Jesus will have eternal life; it is not enough to have been born.

The teaching of the Bible indicates that “believing in Jesus” means recognizing Him as the divine Son of God who took on human flesh and by dying on the cross, paid the penalty for the sins of the world. It also means accepting that we need that payment or we are doomed. Finally, it means the acceptance of the paid-for gift of eternal life and the recognition of Christ as our Lord and Master.

So how can it be possible for everyone, no matter where or when they have lived, to have eternal life available to them? I can’t prove it from Scripture, but if the Gospel were preached after death to those who did not hear it before death, then it seems that all would have the opportunity of receiving God’s forgiveness. There are two Scriptures that suggest this possibility:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. 1 Peter 4:6

and

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, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison. 1 Peter 3:18-19