Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Those Who've Never Heard of Jesus

I always enjoy getting comments on my blog entries, but most especially from Preston, who always thoughtfully and winsomely pushes back when he sees the need. Yesterday, he left a comment on my post Jesus > Heaven, part of which said:
I can almost accept sending Gandhi to Hell for not taking the step of putting his faith in Christ, a figure with whom he was obviously familiar. But what of the child in a third world country who simply never heard? This question is a tired cliche, but I'm curious where you stand. Is that why we are called to make disciples if the nations? If so, the blame for the eternal fiery torture of all the unevangelized people groups I haven't yet personally reached is on my head, making me deserve Hell more than any sin I could ever imagine committing. I can't imagine there being no tears in heaven knowing that I had been such a tragic failure yet got in because I knew the owner.
This is a great reflection on that ever-pressing question, "What happens to everybody who hasn't heard the gospel? Do they go to hell?" I'd like to tie together three passages from the New Testament that will help us on the way toward an answer to this question.

The first is John 15:22. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Because Jesus only preached the gospel to the Jewish residents of Israel (with a few exceptions), he is clearly talking about the Jewish people that rejected him--namely, the religious authorities. But there is a principle at work here: Those to whom Jesus has not spoken are not held accountable for their sin. As we stretch that out across space and time, I think it's safe to say that, those to whom Jesus has not spoken through the Church (which is his body on earth) will not be judged as those to whom he has spoken. It's common sense, really. If you haven't heard of Jesus or the gospel, then God won't hold that against you.

The second is Romans 3:25-26. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Paul seems to be saying that God has not meted out judgment upon those who lived before Jesus, which implies that, somehow, there must still be hope for them. But how?

This brings me to the third verse, 1 Peter 3:18-20. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. This is definitely one of those, "What the heck does that mean?" verses. I don't want to speculate too much, but it seems to imply that Jesus, after resurrecting from the dead, was somehow able to preach the gospel to those who lived and died before he came.

Tying these verses together, I think we can draw some conclusions:
  1. God is just.
  2. No one will be condemned to hell because they never had the opportunity to hear the gospel.
  3. Everyone will have the opportunity to hear the gospel eventually.
This is a mystery to me. What happens to the poor child in the third-world country who has never even heard of Jesus? Well, we should do everything we can to tell him about Jesus. But, if we can't reach him in time, perhaps, sometime between death and resurrection, Jesus himself will preach the good news to him. Maybe this life isn't our only opportunity to repent and turn to Jesus. It clearly wasn't for those imprisoned souls to whom Jesus preached.


Corey Brecht said...

Andy, you wrote "Maybe this life isn't our only opportunity to repent and turn to Jesus. It clearly wasn't for those imprisoned souls to whom Jesus preached." Does this kind of thinking fall in line with universalism (In light of the whole Rob Bell fiasco)? If not, what's the distinction?

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Gustin said...

Well, my interpretation of 1 Peter 3:18-20 is a bit different from yours. Jesus went and made proclamation to the "imprisoned" spirits in Hades. But we need to clarify and articulate what kind of proclamation it was because it might lead us even to the belief on existence of Purgatory like Catholics. Perhaps, you and I believe that there is no such place "Purgatory" in which people who did not hear the Gospel could hear directly from Jesus even after they die.

I think that the word "proclamation" does not mean preaching the Gospel to save the imprisoned spirits who already "disobeyed" God's warning through Noah and thereby thrown into and bound in the prison in Hades. Rather, to me the word "proclamation" in its context is more likely to mean God's justice upon their current state in Hades due to their continual disobedience to the words of warning about the upcoming judgment of God through Noah's proclamation while the ark was being built.

I also believe that God is just. Therefore, He would not just punish and sent people who have had no access to God's word (the Gospel) into the Hades and eventually Hell, the Lake of Fire.

Personally, I found Romans 2:11-16 helpful as for the question like "Those who've never heard of Jesus." First of all, as you mentioned, Paul begins with God's justice that there is no partiality with His judgment (v. 11).

(1) Paul then says "all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law." OT Israelites, NT Jews, etc will belong to this category. Their lives and behaviors will be judged by the Law which they have heard (vv. 12-13).

(2) Paul goes on to say that Gentiles who did neither know the Law nor the Gospel would be judged by their "conscience" which were the law to themselves in their hearts (14-15). The people in your post will belong to this category.

(3) Paul finally says that those who heard about the Gospel would be judged by the Gospel as to whether they truly believed in who Jesus is and what He has done and followed His guidance faithfully till the end or not. All church-goers will belong to this category.

I hope this will be somehow incorporated into your good insights about "those who've never heard of Jesus" already illuminated by the Holy Spirit.

For further information, I would like to suggest you to read the book "How shall they be saved: The destiny of those who do not hear of Jesus" written by Millard J. Erickson.

In Christ's love,


andy said...

Corey, perhaps I could have worded that better. By it I don't mean that we'll get a second chance at repentance after we die, but that those who never heard the gospel will get a FIRST chance to repent. And if we think that hearing the gospel straight from Jesus' mouth puts those folks in a better position than us, consider what happened to Jesus when he preached here on earth.

Gustin, after examining the text more closely, it appears that the timeframe in which Jesus made this proclamation was after he was resurrected by the Spirit, not before, and certainly not before he was incarnate. Thank you for your points on Romans 2, they are very helpful. I'll have to look over them more.