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).