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]