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Monday, October 7, 2013

The Eternal Fate of those who have Never Heard the Gospel

            Dawson McAlister has answered the anxious phone calls of teenagers for almost 40 years.  In his career, he has seen youth ministry go from record albums to cassettes to CD’s to MP3 files.  He has been on radio shows and run hotlines where teens can call when they are in crisis.  But sometimes the calls are questions, not emergencies. 
He received this letter:
“Dear Dawson, I know the Bible says that knowing Jesus is the only way to get to heaven. But there are people in remote parts of the world who may never get a chance to hear about God or Jesus. What happens to them when they die?”[i]

            Popular pastor and author John Piper received a similar contact and he responded with the following words.
Dear [Sarah], You asked what happens to people who live far away from the gospel and have never heard about Jesus and die without faith in him.[ii]
            It’s really an age-old question.  These are examples of teenagers posing this question to Christians leaders.  But the same query might come to you or me.  How we would respond were we sitting in the seat of Dawson McAlister or John Piper?  What do we say when we are asked what is the eternal state for someone who dies having never known about Jesus?
            We might think of the uneducated peasant in North Korea, someone who never goes to school, never has access to media, knows nothing about the west and is told by oppressive government forces that religion is evil.  Or, perhaps we think of a woman in an extremist country where women are not permitted to get education and are not allowed to know about the world.  How could individuals in these situations know they are to surrender their hearts to Jesus?
            There are adults who have such extreme mental disabilities that they are not able to care for themselves.  Do they stand before God accountable for themselves?  Our courts take a person’s mental state in mind when rendering a verdict.  Is God as merciful as that?  Or, what about children?  We don’t like to say it, but sometimes, children die.  If a child dies and has never expressed faith in Jesus and never been baptized, does that child go to Hell?  I have heard people say a child is not guilty until the age of accountability.  I don’t know where that thinking comes from and I certainly don’t know what the age of accountability is.  I know I received my first spanking by the time I was 2 year old and I certainly knew when I was being naughty. 
            One other category of person I consider here are those who have been taught by abusive pastors or parents.  If the person who tells you to love Jesus is the same person who hits you or violates and rapes you, repeatedly, are you going to be interested in the Jesus that person is offering?
            This is a conundrum for Christians trying to come up with a neat salvation formula.  There are some who don’t fit the categories.  Or, if they do fit the model, then they fit on the side of those who don’t have the gospel, have not responded in faith, and are thus bound for a godless eternity.  Another way we refer to a Godless eternity is Hell.  But if someone never has the chance to receive Christ, then that’s horribly unfair. 
            When we admit that there are a lot of people, probably in the billions, that have no opportunity to know Jesus, then we have a problem with our salvation model. 
            There is a video on You Tube in which Pastor David Platt sticks with the model.  He’s standing in India and he talks about being surrounded by hundreds of millions of Buddhists who are lost for eternity because they don’t know Christ.  His angle is that because we know so many are destined for Hell, we must evangelize with urgency.  Now before I disagree with Platt, I will say a couple of things.  First, I agree evangelism is of the highest importance and we are called to it.  Second, I think he does some good work and I recommend his book Radical.  It is excellent.
            However, on the notion that if we don’t evangelize then billions will go to Hell, I have to disagree.  First, it makes God look bad.  I know Platt and numerous Christians who believe as he does will respond by saying that all people are sinners and all people deserve Hell.  I know Romans 3 says all have sinned (v.23).  Romans 6 says the wage of sin is death (v.23).  Note it says death, not “Hell.”  I know those passages and I absolutely believe all are sinners.  Yet, to take that and say it is by grace that God saves some is still grossly unfair and unjust. 
What kind of tyrant is God to say He’s going to punish us all in Hell because we deserve it, but then He’ll rescue a few if they respond to Jesus correctly?  But to the rest, they don’t even get that chance.  This makes God look callous.  The God of this scheme is not a God of perfect love; limited love, maybe, but not selfless, agape love. 
This thinking is an assault on God’s character.  It also calls into question God’s power.  As we read in 2 Peter 3 two weeks ago, God wants everyone to be saved (v.9).  Is David Platt saying that God is depending on the success or failure of evangelistic Christians to achieve his desire of salvation of people?  Platt may forcefully deny that his is implying this.  Most of the time pastors who take such an approach find the implications distasteful.  But it is unavoidable.  To say we must evangelize because people will go to Hell if we don’t is to put the eternal life of others on our shoulders.  My shoulders aren’t that strong.  God wants me to work with Him – but not like this.
Paul never reduced salvation to a formula or a scheme.  Paul says salvation is worked out with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).  Salvation is something we discover and rediscover throughout our lives.  It is 100% Jesus-dependent, but it is not built on us reciting a creed or having a great testimony.  Salvation is about the work He does on the cross and the places He occupies in our lives.  It is about receiving his forgiveness. 
Having said and having critiqued David Platt’s position, and let me re-emphasize how much respect and appreciation I have for Platt, I have to acknowledge we are still left with the question.  What about people who don’t know Jesus and never hear about him or lack the capacity to express what some call “saving faith”?  What about those who want nothing to do with church because they have only heard Jesus’ name come from the mouths of those who deeply wounded them? 
I reject the idea that we can be assured that they are Hell-bound because such a process makes God look callous and puts too much emphasis upon our evangelistic success.  But, I reject it for an even bigger reason.  This scheme is a failure to trust God’s goodness. 

In Romans 1, Paul identifies people who have never heard any scripture.
18 From heaven God shows how angry he is with all the wicked and evil things that sinful people do to crush the truth. 19 They know everything that can be known about God, because God has shown it all to them. 20 God’s eternal power and character cannot be seen. But from the beginning of creation, God has shown what these are like by all he has made. That’s why those people don’t have any excuse. 
            Within us, part of being created in God’s image, is an innate sense of the holy.  We see this in Psalm 19.
                The heavens keep telling the wonders of God,
    and the skies declare what he has done.
Each day informs the following day;
    each night announces to the next.
They don’t speak a word,
 and there is never
    the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches all the earth,
    and it travels around the world.

            Through nature, through the whisper of the Holy Spirit, and through the hard work of evangelists and missionaries and Christians sharing their stories, God reaches people.  But it is not only through missionaries.  Missionaries do not “take God” to the lost.  God has always been with the lost.  Missionaries and evangelists and witnesses, you and me, we help people understand the truth about the God who has always been with them, speaking through the created world around them.
            When Jesus speaks about the end, the final judgment, he says,
13 But if [we]keep on being faithful right to the end, [we] will be saved. 14 When the good news about the kingdom has been preached all over the world and told to all nations, [then] the end will come (Matthew 24:13-14).

I take this to mean that the Gospel is going to reach the world.  I don’t believe anyone will die and be sentenced to Hell without a chance to respond to God’s grace. 
            In his response to the girl who asked about the eternal fate of people who don’t know Jesus, John Piper said people would not be condemned for knowledge they did not have.  They would not go to Hell for rejecting Jesus.  He also said they would not be saved without knowledge of Jesus.  His conclusion to the letter writer?  He invited her to pray for missionaries and consider becoming one when she got older.
            His answer is not bad, but I like Dawson McAlister’s better.  Like Piper, he invites the questioner to pray for missionaries and consider becoming one.  However, he adds,
We can be assured that God, who is loving and just, is in control. God is sovereign, and he will always do what is right. God is an awesome God, and nothing will stop him from getting the good news to even the most remote parts of the world.[iii]

It may sound too simple, but there are times when we are called to trust God.  He will accomplish salvation. 
            Jesus offers a somewhat stern example of the principle of trusting God after the resurrection.  Peter had denied knowing Jesus prior to the trial.  After the crucifixion and resurrection, three times Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?”  Three times he says, “You know I love you, Lord.”  Three affirmations come for Peter’s three previous denials.  He is reinstated as an apostle, but then Jesus intimates that he will die a martyr’s death. 
            Uncomfortable with this, he wants to know if the same fate will befall the Apostle John.  Listen to the dialogue between him and Jesus:
20 Peter turned and saw Jesus' favorite disciple following them. He was the same one who had sat next to Jesus at the meal and had asked, “Lord, who is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw that disciple, he asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “What is it to you, if I want him to live until I return? You must follow me.” 
            Follow me.  That is His command to us.  It is not for us to know who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell.  As I said earlier, I enthusiastically support David Platt’s stance that there Christians must evangelize and do so with urgency.  But the reason I feel this way is not because God needs us to rescue people from Hell.  I am an advocate for evangelism because people are living without Jesus.  I cannot imagine that. 
            If you don’t think Jesus is so awesome you could not imagine life without him, then your biggest need is to discover how wonderful Jesus is.  Not a far off, hopefully-we’ll-see-Him-in-Heaven-someday-Jesus; that is not what I mean.  I mean Holy-Spirit-in-my-life-right-now.  In the Great commission, Matthew 28:19-20, he sends us.  We are to go to the world to make disciples.  We’re not on a mission to rescue people from Hell.  We are out inviting people to life.
            As for those who never hear the Gospel, I don’t know.  I am agnostic, without knowledge regarding their fate.  That is up to God and I am glad it is.  For a second week in a row I have said to you, I don’t know.  Last week, I admitted I do not know if Hell is eternal torment or temporary torment followed by annihilation.  I don’t know and I do not know what happens in eternity to those who do have never the opportunity to hear the Gospel.  I am grateful to leave that to God.  I know God is good.  I am happy to share the words of Anglican Bishop Rowan Williams.
We’re very reluctant, we Christians, to leave things to God to sort out.  We have, often, a vague feeling that God hasn’t read the right books.  And we need to be rather protective toward him and make sure he knows the right policy. 
I find [Williams continues], and I speak only for myself, that I am very content to let God be the judge of how far anyone outside the visible family of faith is related to Jesus or has turned toward the Father. 
Bishop Williams speaks for me also.  I am very content to let God judge people and determine their eternities.  God is fair and better yet, God is merciful.  God’s mercy is far superior to my sense of fairness.  
            I do have a job to do.  We all do, as Christ followers.  We are to announce His Kingdom in the world.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  And we are to make disciples.  He does the work and in His mercy, God invites us to join Him at work in the world.

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