(Cross posted at the 4Simpsons blog)
See below to see the latest installment of my friend Nicholas’ interview with me about Christianity or click here for the whole thing.
Nicholas wrote: What happens to those who, through no fault of their own, never experience the Gospel of Christ? Have entire populations been hell-bound from birth having never had a chance to experience the Bible?
That is a difficult and important question that many Christians wrestle with, including me. I can explain my theological views but still wonder on occasion just how it caches out in real life. I’ll lay out what I see as the Biblical, orthodox case while conceding that some Christians take a different view. I’ll be wordy, as usual, and come at it from a clinical standpoint then from a couple other angles.
Once I became a Christian I kept thinking about how I had rejected the Gospel for so many years even with all the advantages I had – growing up with Christian parents, going to church, having a Christian wife and living in a country with religious freedom. (I didn’t commit my life to Christ until my late 20’s). Why did I get so many chances when others may not hear the Gospel at all? Then it hit me one day: That’s why it is called grace. I didn’t deserve anything from God, regardless of when and how I came to believe. No one else deserves it either, though in our human reasoning we may rationalize that we do. We deserve judgment. God is merciful in not judging us immediately. Grace is unmerited favor.
It is important to point out something basic to ground the discussion: A righteous, ethical judge has no moral obligation to pardon a guilty and justly convicted person. God is a perfect and righteous judge. He is the epitome of love and mercy, but He is also perfectly Holy and He loves justice. We are all sinners in thoughts, words, actions and lack of good actions. Just 10 sins per day for 50 years would add up to 182,500 sins. Now what righteous judge could overlook that?
So how does the Bible address this? Chapters 1-3 of the book of Romans (as well as the rest of the book) lay out much of the reasoning. In Romans 1 we see some of the most important “big picture” passages in the Bible, showing how God reveals himself to us in his creation:
Romans 1:18-20 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
So in that passage and others the Bible teaches that God has made his existence plain to us and that we are “without excuse.” If anyone thinks they’ll stand before God and deny that He revealed himself to them in creation they are mistaken. So every person in every culture for all time has had the light of creation. Still, countless people reject the existence of God or make up their own gods.
Chapters 2 and 3 of Romans deal with how God revealed himself to us in our consciences. Some Christians hold that if we accept what God has revealed to us in his creation and our consciences, then He will reveal himself to us in Christ. Others think that He only opens the eyes of some whom He chooses to give grace to. I won’t try to resolve that here.
I have heard many stories where God reaches people with the Gospel through unusual or even miraculous means. One example was of a Muslim Imam who was told in a dream to go to a certain location. Once there, some police forced some Christians to give the man a ride. They had a car full of Gospel tracts and videos, so they were certain that they were going to get caught and punished in that Muslim country. But the man told them he had a received a vision that he would meet them and should listen to what they said about God. He became a Christian.
God is not limited in the way we are. He can work through dreams and visions if He likes. If someone is earnestly seeking the one true God they will find him. Jesus promised the following in Matthew 7:7-8
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
Another important theme is that we are saved by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Romans 4:3 says, What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, had faith in God and gained salvation through that. Hebrews 11:6 says, And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
God doesn’t want people to perish, but as C.S. Lewis pointed out, He won’t force someone to be in Heaven who doesn’t want to be there. 1 Timothy 2:3-4 says, This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
Here are the three main things I tell Christians who are concerned about those who haven’t heard of Jesus:
1. God is in control of every molecule in the universe and over every moment of history. You can trust that He will be perfectly just and reach anyone who is open to the Gospel. I encourage everyone to be familiar with this passage where Paul is speaking to the Athenians (The whole section in Acts 17 where the Apostle Paul addresses Athenians who worship all kinds of gods plus an unknown god is worth a read).
Acts 17:26-27 From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
God knows where you are, where the native on the Island is and where everyone else is as well. And he knows exactly how long you’ll be there. He has put us all in the best possible place to come to know him.
2. Ensure you have made the right decision about Jesus. It is like being on an airplane when the oxygen masks come down. You can’t help others until you’ve taken care of yourself. If you haven’t committed your life to Jesus, today would be a good day to take care of that.
3. If you are sincerely worried about those who haven’t heard the Gospel, that is great. Be sure you are doing something about it. Pray for the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (Matthew 9:38). Go tell people about Jesus. Work on your evangelism skills. Go on a mission trip if you can. Fund missionaries. Contribute to organizations that get the Bible out around the world. But whatever you do, don’t use this question as an excuse not to share the truth of Jesus.
Some people think that those who haven’t heard of the Gospel are saved but those who reject it are not. But that leads to some pretty bizarre theology. It would mean that we would never want to share the Gospel, because we could be taking someone from a saved state to a potentially unsaved state. That hardly lines up with the Great Commission given by Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
While we’re on the topic, here are some random thoughts on Hell:
- Some people won’t consider Christianity because it contains the doctrine of Hell. But Hell either exists or it doesn’t; we don’t get to vote on it.
- There are degrees of punishment in Hell so that the punishments fit the crimes.
- Hell is punishment, not torture.
- One doesn’t need the whole Bible to be saved – just authentic faith in Christ. The criminal crucified alongside Jesus attained salvation though he probably had little, if any, Bible training (and of course the New Testament hadn’t even been written).
In summary, there is a little mystery to it (in my opinion), but God will reach who He will reach, his judgment is perfectly fair and no one will be able to claim ignorance of the law. God created us such that we “would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”