Salvation 2.0: Part 3.17: David Bentley Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil,” Part 10

grace5Available Light

So this inevitably brings up the question of “available light” — the theory that God saves those who’ve never heard of Jesus, at least, those who are good people.

I debated this question with Al Maxey back in this series. (The series with Brother Al is fairly brief, and it’s followed by an extensive deeper reflection on the problems raised by the theory, also available through the same link.)

I just plain don’t agree with the available light theory — largely because it promises to save people who don’t have faith based on some supposed theory of salvation by good works.

But many of the objections go away if we suppose not salvation but a painless, punishment-free cessation of existence for those never taught Jesus. It’s still problematic but not nearly as problematic.

After all, the question really devolves into at what point is a person or a society accountable for knowledge of God revealed through Jesus? I mean, the Jews were taught the gospel by the Prophets, John the Baptist, the missionaries sent out by Jesus during his ministry, the apostles … . There weren’t many Jews who’d never heard of Jesus by the time the NT was composed, beginning in the 50’s AD.

But what about the Cherokee? They didn’t learn about Jesus until over 1,500 years later! (I’m aware of theories of white men in the US pre-Columbus — especially thanks to the fascinating writings of Patrick Mead on the subject. So maybe it was 1,200 years later.)

Why would God treat the Cherokees pre-Jesus different from the Cherokees post-Jesus? The universe changed on the cross, no doubt, but no one told the Cherokees. It would seem that they would not be accountable for knowledge of Jesus until they encountered the Western world.

On the other hand, it’s not entirely about accountability. God could still — with perfect justice — punish a dead, evil Cherokee in 100 AD based on the sins he committed that he knew to be wrong. The Cherokee had no access to the Torah, but as Paul argues in Rom 1-2, they were aware of right and wrong according to their own culture and personal value systems. And like all of us, they violated even their own limited understanding of right and wrong.

So the question isn’t really one of accountability. God can handle that when he decides what measure of punishment is just. Rather, it’s one of justice. If God chose to overlook, pass over, and forebear the sins of pre-Jesus Gentiles, why not the sins of post-Jesus Gentiles who never had a chance to learn about Jesus? It just seems a little arbitrary — even though God is under no duty whatsoever to grant grace. He is under no rule that says he must do better than justice requires.

The only reason I bring this up is the presence of some difficult verses —

(Luke 12:47 ESV) And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.

(John 3:18–19 ESV) 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

(Rom 2:6–8 ESV) 6   He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth [the gospel], but obey unrighteousness [covenant unfaithfulness ], there will be wrath and fury.

(2 Cor 2:14–16 ESV) 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?

(2 Thes 2:10 ESV) and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth [the gospel] and so be saved.

(Heb 12:25-26 ESV) See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.  26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

(1 Pet 4:17 ESV) For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?

Not always, but often, the destruction and perishing verses of the NT speak in terms of rejecting the truth (that is, the gospel), not merely becoming accountable because of the death of Jesus.

On the other hand, Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill seems to speak in terms of God calling Gentiles to account for their sin, not for rejecting the gospel but because God is no longer granting undeserved forbearance —

(Acts 17:30–31 ESV) 30 “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

In other words, it seems from this sermon that the Gentiles are damned (or else why need to repent?) but by repentance may be saved on the Day of Judgment.

Then again, it’s possible that the need for repentance only follows knowledge of the resurrection. But if that’s true, then preaching the gospel also means bringing damnation and punishment to people who would otherwise suffer nothing at all in eternity.

Now, the argument could well be made that salvation is about much more than eternity — including redemption by changing people in this age so that in this age we enjoy a more abundant life, a better way of living. And that is doubtlessly true. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that most (not all) of the world’s problems would be solved — or at least improved — the more people accept the gospel in this age. Jesus makes things better in the here and now, as well as in eternity.

So is that enough to preserve the missionary impulse? I mean, if we believe that those who’ve never heard the gospel will not be damned but will simply die and cease to exist, will we feel the need to teach them about Jesus — knowing that those who reject the message will be punished justly for their sins, whereas without the gospel, they will not be punished at all?

Or does this mean that preaching the gospel actually becomes a means of bringing God’s justice to a place where it is desperately needed? Does making those who reject Jesus accountable for their sins so that they suffer a just punishment in eternity a good reason to preach the gospel — not hoping that Jesus will be rejected but knowing that some will refuse the message and so suffer just punishment? Do we care enough to bring vindication to those who’ve been made to suffer by those who’ve never heard of Jesus?

It’s not as though justice is a bad thing. We’re so used to living in grace that we can’t help but feel that we deserve it. We don’t.

So I confess to being at something of a loss as to the souls of Gentiles post-resurrection who’ve never heard the gospel. And the problem is becoming more and more of a next-door-neighbor kind of thing, as so many Americans never hear about Jesus. And as a result, we live in a society filled with injustice.

Now, does that make us want to preach Jesus or not preach Jesus? We know, of course, what the answer is supposed to be — and we can easily see how Jesus and Paul did mission work with great zeal and at the cost of their lives.

So why don’t we see the world as they saw the world? What are we missing?

[To be continued]

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 3.17: David Bentley Hart’s “God, Creation, and Evil,” Part 10

  1. John says:

    Jay,

    I think you make a mistake in limiting “Available Light” to people trusting what they do, when the truth is there are countless non-Christian individuals who trust, not what they do, but what is greater than themselves.

    Grace has a way of forming in the life of a person that does not have to be structured within theological jargon. Christians are not the only ones who can trust the creator in full knowledge of their imperfection. Love, which finds itself entering into peoples lives through relationships with others, creates a trust that rises above personal failings.

  2. Chris says:

    Jay, I must confess that I have to pray for a greater burden for the lost. I want to see others as Jesus sees other. I want to love as He loves and have the same compassion as He does. If I were on a plane that was going down and I had the only key on board to unlock the cabin that held all the parachutes, I would certainly like to think I would do everything within my power to make sure everyone received one.

    My other options would be to put a parachute on and toss the key to whoever could catch it and sit comfortably until it was time to jump. Or, I could be in denial all together and just watch the inflight movie and ignore the plight of the plane. So, I pray, Lord help me to understand the gravity of the situation (no pun intended) and give me a burden for those who don’t know Jesus.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    John wrote,

    I think you make a mistake in limiting “Available Light” to people trusting what they do, when the truth is there are countless non-Christian individuals who trust, not what they do, but what is greater than themselves.

    You are right that I should have mentioned this approach to Available Light. I’m getting old …

    But I find this approach as unconvincing as the “good people” vs. “bad people” works salvation approach. Here’s why —

    * The notion that trusting someone greater than yourself carries weight before God is sheer Modernism, that is, it’s a product Kierkegaard and like thinkers — that we defeat the angst of life by “faith” — meaning belief in something else, something greater than us. It’s not a biblical perspective.

    * When Paul began his mission work, the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles he preached to believed in YHWH. They believed in the One True God. And yet he went to bring them salvation. Paul wrote Rom 9 – 11 in agony because he considered most of his fellow Jews damned for believing in God but not Jesus. That is, the NT defines “faith” as faith in Jesus — and there is no substitute. Even faith in God without faith in Jesus is not enough to come within God’s grace.

    (Rom. 9:1-3 ESV) I am speaking the truth in Christ– I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit– 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

    * Therefore, those who’ve never heard of Jesus but worship a Higher Being, be it Allah, Krishna, Vishnu, the Great Spirit, or even YHWH, the God of the Jews, do not have Jesus and are therefore lost in their sins.

    I mean, it’s either faith or it’s works. And you can’t read Paul and believe that works can save. So that leaves faith, but “faith” is faith in Jesus only. Or else Paul did the Jews of Asia Minor a great disservice. He should have stayed home and not told them about Jesus so they could remain saved in their faith in YHWH. And yet he took beatings, ship wrecks, stonings, disease, etc. to bring them the Good News.

    I’ve heard it argued that Paul brought them the true religion of Jesus but not salvation, but Acts says he brought salvation —

    Peter preached to the Jewish leaders —

    (Acts 4:11-12 ESV) 11 “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

    Peter also preached,

    (Acts 5:30-31 ESV) 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

    obviously meaning that they did not yet have forgiveness of sins, despite their faith in God.

    Paul preached in Antioch in the synagogue —

    (Acts 13:23-26 ESV) 23 Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ 26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation.

    (Acts 13:38-39 ESV) 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.

    Jesus himself said to Paul —

    (Acts 26:16-18 ESV) 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles– to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’

    Paul was commissioned by Jesus to bring “forgiveness of sins” to the Gentiles — even though the Greeks and Romans worshiped beings they considered greater than themselves. Aristotelians believed in a single god, the Prime Mover. Stoics believed in the Logos. They all needed to come to faith in Jesus to be saved — or why did Jesus send Paul bring them forgiveness of sins?

    * If we say that learning grace, even from someone other than Jesus, is enough, then we’ve basically created a new form of works salvation. And the Stoics were happy not to judge others and not be judged. The Epicureans were much the same. Many Greeks were very far from being judgmental or legalistic. Laissez faire would be a fair description of many Greek philosophies. I’ll not judge you if you won’t judge me. That doesn’t save.

    So I find the entire narrative of scripture opposed to Available Light, because there is no means by which those who’ve never heard of Jesus may be forgiven and saved. Works won’t do. Faith is impossible without knowledge of Jesus. And all other theories ultimately are humanistic philosophies that are contrary to scripture.

    (Rom. 10:12-14 ESV) 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

    The solution is to reject perpetual conscious torment as the penalty for having never heard of Jesus. And to trust that God’s justice will be truly just.

    Ultimately, where I part company with the Available Light advocates (which include some people for whom I have the greatest of respect) is I don’t see that God owes anyone grace. We have no right to complain when we are treated with perfect fairness and justice. And why would I charge God with being the wrong kind of God for me if he treats people exactly as is just and fair?

  4. Richard constant says:

    Better read what I sent you today
    unless you’re just too embedded in that blender of yours Oh hahaha I do think that I have a solution that we can all live by I mean live with that are faithful to God’s good

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