Available Light: A solution

We are considering a post by Al Maxey and another post by Leroy Garrett arguing that, for those who’ve never heard the gospel, their salvation will be determined based on their response to what they know of God from other sources.

Let’s go back and reflect on the problem we are wrestling with. Traditionally, in both Catholic and Protestant churches, it’s been taught that those who never hear the gospel are eternally damned. And “eternally damned” means that these people will suffer never-ending, conscious torment for their sins.

In one sense, this is entirely fair. They did, after all, sin. In another sense, it’s entirely unfair. After all, who (other than Jesus) can fully meet the requirements of God’s law?

The solution, I think, is found in Al’s post of several days ago — the very post that advised me of his views on “available light.” Al writes,

The wages of sin is declared to be death, not torture, although the second death will most assuredly not be pleasant, and will be far more unpleasant for some than others, depending upon the nature of their rebellion against God and crimes against humanity.

Al takes the same position taught by Edward Fudge in The Fire that Consumes and endorsed by Leroy. And I agree (it’s good to at last find myself in agreement with these heroes of the faith). My defense of this position will be found at “Surprised by Hell.”

Let me explain this view briefly. The vast majority of scriptures refer to the fate of the damned as “death” or “destruction.” For example —

(James 4:12)  There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you–who are you to judge your neighbor?

“Destroy” here clearly refers to damnation. Most would read this as a reference to living forever in perpetual torment. But James uses the same word to mean “cease to exist” —

(James 1:11)  For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich man will fade away even while he goes about his business.

Just so, Jude writes,

(Jude 1:5)  Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.

Jude uses “destroyed” to mean dead. He certainly doesn’t mean “kept alive to be tormented forever.”

This doctrine is known as “conditionalism” or “annihilationism.” The term “conditionalism” comes from the verses that teach that immortality is conditioned on salvation —

(Rom 2:7) To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.

Thus, the only ones who live eternally are those to whom God gives eternal life.

(1 Cor 15:42-44) So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

(1 Cor 15:53-54) For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

Eternal life is a gift that not all receive. We aren’t born immortal (that’s a Platonic idea, not Jewish). We are born perishable and mortal. But some are given immortality and imperishability.

(Rom 8:11) And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

(2 Cor 5:4) For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.

Both passages say much the same thing. We are by nature mortal, but God will give his children immortality.

Now, there are many more arguments in favor of this teaching, and there are thoughtful objections that have to be considered, which I’ve dealt with at “Surprised by Hell.” Better yet, buy and read The Fire that Consumes (I found The Fire that Consumes more persuasive after having read N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, on which I wrote a series of posts by the same name).

Therefore, if Edward, Al, Leroy, and I are right, when a lost person dies, he is judged and then he dies the second death — that is, he is destroyed. The painfulness of that destruction varies depending on how sinful he was. And I figure a man who never heard the gospel but attempted to live by as much of God’s law as he knew will not suffer much at all (Luke 12:47-48, as explained by Al in his post of September 20, 2009).

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8 Responses to Available Light: A solution

  1. Zach Price says:

    I think really you are looking more into the nature of sin and hell here. If sin is that which separates us from the love of God (knowingly or unknowingly) and hell is the ultimate separation from God, the the most ultimate separation would be uncreation that I can think of, that is annihilation. The only thing that could save us from annihilation and give us a new life is salvation of Jesus.

    Seems pretty straightforward to me, though to someone who knows the love of God, complete annihilation and thus complete separation from God, is the scariest thing by far I can think of.

  2. Dan says:

    Wow! Sorry, Jay, but eternal death that doesn't hurt much does not really sound like a terrific answer to the hypothetical "what if one never hears about Jesus?". maybe you are right, but in any case , we certainly have our work cut out for us in spreading the gospel message.

  3. Jay Guin says:

    I quote Paul —

    (Rom 9:1-3) I speak the truth in Christ–I am not lying, my conscience confirms it in the Holy Spirit– 2 I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race,

    (Rom 10:12-15) For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile–the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." 14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

    Paul pretty clearly says you can't call on the name of the Lord unless you believe in Jesus — which can only come from mission work. These and many other scriptures seem pretty plain to me that faith in Jesus is essential to salvation. We could do a month's worth of posts saying the same thing.

    Yes, we'd better get busy doing mission work. The price for failure is not as severe as eternal, conscious torture, but it's still awful.

    Imagine an honorable unbeliever awakening on Judgment Day, seeing God, being judged, becoming aware of what glory could have been his, and then being destroyed — with the pain and duration reflecting his sinfulness as perfectly judged in the eyes of a just but loving God.

    Now imagine being a saved person watching this happen – knowing you could have done something about it.

  4. Kyle says:

    I'm in complete agreement with what you're saying here Jay and it's also how I read Scripture. But I would be lying if I didn't say I was a little sad to see this end without a really controversial conclusion that we could all rant and rave against….oh well, guess truth is more important than my own selfish need to fight =).

    So let me see if I can sum up what you're saying about available light:
    1) It is entirely possible for God to reconcile and redeem those who have not heard the gospel story
    2) People who die seperate from God die because of their sins and not some unfair, mean God who picks and chooses salvation on a whim
    3) The good news is meant for all and thus as part of being followers of God's kingdom we should be more concerned with reconciling the world with all that we do and let God decide other's future in the next life.

    That pretty much it?

  5. Larry Short says:

    I feel like Gary Freeman in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven" a book in mid 60s. In one chapter Gary has an argument with another about the untaught savages, with Gary arguing for grace. When he loses the argument, he feels devastated by allowing millions to be lost. [My apologies in advance if name, title, or story is misquoted. Its 30+ years since I read the book.]

  6. Chris Buxton says:

    Jay,

    I really appreciate your conversation here. The issues of eternal torment as well as the issue of what happens to those who never hear of Jesus has troubled me deeply since late childhood. As an adult, however, I have come to peace with what I believe to be the truth on these issues.

    First, I agree with annihilationism. From the very beginning, God said that on the day man committed sin that he would die (not that he wold burn forever). Important distinction! Throughout Scripture, death is always the penalty for sin, and it seems unfair to read "eternal torment" anytime Scripture says "death." Your point that we are not ontologically eternal beings is an important part of this as well. Further, if eternal torment is the just reward for sin, then how did Jesus pay the price for our sin by staying in a grave temporarily?

    The second issue, however, is where we disagree. I do believe in the "available light" view. In Romans 2, Paul states that it is not those who have the law but those who OBEY the law who will be saved. He then goes on to say this: "When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do BY NATURE things required by the law, THEY ARE A LAW FOR THEMSELVES, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are WRITTEN ON THEIR HEARTS, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."

    It seems to me that Paul argues for available light here. Those Gentiles who obey God based on the law written on their hearts are saved along with those Jews who obey the written code. I believe the same applies today. If a person obeys the moral/ethical code available to him (i.e. the imprinted morality of God), even though that person has never heard of Jesus, God may decide to save that person.

    Is it not fair to say that Adam and Eve are saved by Jesus just like we are, even though they never knew of Jesus? Could not the same be true today for those who have never heard the Gospel?

    Of course, some will respond by saying missionary works are then unimportant. But nothing could be further from the truth. Those who have the "law" possess a distinct advantage over those who do not. Knowing the written code–the heart of God in print–is a huge advantage in every way.

    But for those who have never heard, I do believe there is a way to salvation, albeit a tenuous path.

  7. Zach Price says:

    Chris,
    You just reminded me of my favorite translation of the holy spirit–advocate. Those who never have heard of Jesus do not have the Holy Spirit helping them fight for their souls. Tenuous would be an understatement at the least.

  8. Chris Buxton says:

    That's very true, Zach. My thoughts were focusing on the written code vs. the law written on the heart, but, you're right, the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit represents a massive difference between the believer and the one who has never heard.

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