This is Part 2 of a series on the justice and goodness of God in hell and judgment. You can read part 1 here. I had a hard time writing this one so I hope it make sense. I’m definitely still learning and thinking about this topic and would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and feedback.
This past summer I spoke to the collegians at my church on the topic of ‘Joy in Evangelism’. Personally, it was one of the hardest messages I’ve ever had to prepare. It wasn’t that my text was particularly hard to understand; I struggled with the topic because in truth, I often viewed evangelism with discouragement and guilt, rather than joy. Evangelism called to mind the overwhelming number of people still without Christ.
If these countless men and women did not hear the Gospel and turn to Jesus in repentance, they would face an eternity under the judgement of God. I couldn’t shake the thought: there will be so many people who go to hell. How can this be, God? I agonized emotionally and intellectually about how that truth should affect my understanding of the power, justice, and goodness of God.
In this post and in posts to follow, I want to wrestle out loud with some of my own questions about the fact that so many will take the wide road to destruction. How can we have any peace as Christians while knowing this harsh reality? How can we continue to evangelize with courage and conviction? How can we uphold the goodness and justice of God?
These are tough questions that have no easy answers. But the answer I find myself returning to, both emotionally and intellectually, is the sovereignty of God. A Sovereign God is big enough to hold both salvation and judgment in his hands. A Sovereign God is just and good and in control even when many choose to turn away from him and perish. A Sovereign God strengthens us to go boldly and joyfully into a lost world.
Originally, I hoped to answer three or four questions in this post. But, after attempting to answer the first, I decided this post was lengthy enough already. Hopefully, I can return to those questions in future posts.
Question #1: Do nonbelievers know enough about God to be justly condemned to hell?
Hell is easier for our finite minds to accept when we imagine a hardened sinner raising his fist to the heavens and shouting, “I choose my sin instead of Christ!” But what about those who have never heard about Christ? What about those who have limited Gospel exposure?
Because of the sheer number of people in the world, there will inevitably be many non-Christians who have limited contact with the Gospel and faithful believers. This is true of unreached people groups and places where Christianity has a small influence, but it’s also true closer to home. In college, I would sometimes do cold-contact evangelism with students on campus. For many of those whom we met, that was their first time hearing the Gospel. I remember looking out at the crowds of students on campus and feeling hopelessly outnumbered.
How in the world were we supposed to bring the Gospel to all of these students? And if they never heard the Gospel, what did that mean for their rejection of God? How could they rebel against a God they knew nothing about? What knowledge of God could they knowingly rebel against?
It seemed to me that God would only be just to condemn those who meaningfully and knowingly rejected him. Yet, with so many non-Christians in the world, there were bound to be many without exposure to the Gospel, whether they were an uneducated villager in a remote region of the world or a nice polite collegian I met on campus. How could God justly punish those who had heard nothing or very little of him?
My Response for myself: I can rest in the sovereign witness of God which allows him to justly judge every man.
It’s easy for me to begin to think of salvation as merely sociological. That is, people become Christians by human means and methods – because they were placed in the right environment, exposed to the right information, and had the right temperament. If you were smart enough, you could measure and understand all of this logically – in the same way, for instance, you might measure why people become Democrats instead of Republicans.
If this were the case, then in order for salvation and judgment to be fair, everyone would need the same information. A disparity in information would be akin to wealth inequality. After all, belief or nonbelief isn’t spiritual; it has nothing to do with sin or rebellion against God. It has to do only with environment and exposure to the right information. For God to punish someone who didn’t have the same opportunity to hear the Gospel would be unjust.
But the sovereignty of God changes the way we see both salvation and judgment, faith and unbelief. It shows us that salvation is not merely sociological; it is a supernatural work of God. . I’m reminded of this every time I go to a baptism service. I love baptisms because they shatter my preconceptions and remind me of God’s sovereign witness in salvation. Before someone shares, I’ll often assume I know what they’ll say: “Here comes another kid who had his life changed at camp” or “here’s a lady who grew up in the church”
Yet, more often than not, I come away surprised by God’s pursuing grace. Instead of cookie cutter stories, each story is wonderfully unique. I’ll hear about how God worked through suffering and heartache; how he used chance encounters, an ordinary sermon, or a passing word from a friend. How he worked over many years, through the ups and downs of immature faith and outright rebellion, slowly exposing sin and patiently winning the affections. There is no formula that pinpoints how people become Christians. Faith cannot be explained away by human logic; rather it shows a good God who powerfully and personally pursues sinners.
The sovereignty also changes the way we understand unbelief. Without the sovereignty of God, the unbeliever’s knowledge of God would depend on human methods and power. It would depend on our ability to tell as many people about the Gospel as possible. Inevitably, we would fail and many perish not knowing about God. But, because God is sovereign, the unbeliever’s knowledge of the Divine depends on his methods and his power.
How does God bring a nonbeliever to know of him? For me, seeing God’s pursuing grace in salvation gives me a window into understanding his witness to unbelievers. That is, when we look back at our testimonies, we see the unmistakable hand of God drawing us to him through our experiences. It is not merely that we grew up in the right environment or heard the right information. It is not that we found God, but that God came and found us. In the same way, nonbelievers won’t be able to plead ignorance or injustice that they did not know God. I suspect when they look back through their lifetime, they will see the same unmistakable hand of God, drawing and pursuing them.
They will remember the moments of despair when they limped forward in their own strength, instead of looking beyond themselves for help. They will remember the moments of clarity when they saw beyond their culture and ‘rationality’ to Someone greater. They will remember the moments of sin in which they knew they needed forgiveness from a Savior. They will remember the moments where they saw the majesty of nature and felt their insignificance (Romans 1). They will remember those scattered moments when they met Christians and heard about Jesus, but ignored them as annoyances.
The unbeliever will look back at all of these moments and see that, while each moment seemed small at the time, over a life time they add up to a real and meaningful knowledge of God. He will not be able to claim innocence in his ignorance, but will see that he really did know God and that he really is guilty for his suppression of the truth in unrighteousness.
I, in my finite mind, look at the masses of unbelievers and assume that logically, someone will fall through God’s hands. Someone won’t have a fair shot and will be condemned unjustly. But God is sovereign and powerful enough to sufficiently witness to every man – whether it is through direct Gospel preaching, the testimony of a Christian friend, the ups and downs of life, the stirrings of the conscience, or the beauty of nature. And because He was there witnessing and pursuing, he is fit to judge. He is able to judge fairly according to what each man has done, not punishing anyone above what he deserves.
I don’t know exactly how he will do this. But I trust his sovereignty to pursue even the most remote and hardened sinner and because of that, I can trust his justice when they stand before him.
If you’re interested in reading more on this difficult question, I recommend reading Faith Comes from Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism. Let me end with a quote from that book, which I think poignantly captures God’s witness and pursuit to those who have never heard.
We can say that natural man is ever busy repressing or exchanging. But does he always succeed to the same degree? That depends on the strength with which God approaches him. God can at times, as it were, stop the noiseless engines of repression and exchange and overwhelm man to such an extent that he is powerless for a moment. There is, also, the silent activity of the Holy Spirit inside man, even if he resists him constantly…. When a missionary or some other person comes into contact with a non-Christian and speaks to him about the gospel, he can be sure that God has concerned himself with this person long before. That person had dealings more than once with God before God touched him, and he experienced the two fatal reactions-suppression and substitution. Now he hears the gospel for the first time. As I have said elsewhere, “we do not open the discussion, but we need only to make it clear that the God who has revealed his eternal power and Godhead to them, now addressed them in a new way, through our words. The encounter between God and that man enters a new period. It becomes more dangerous but also more hopeful. Christ now appears in a new form to him. He was, of course, already present in this man’s seeking; and, because he did not leave himself without a witness, Christ was wrestling to gain him, although he did not know it…. In the preaching of the gospel, Christ once again appears to man, but much more concretely and in audible form. He awakes man from his long disastrous dream. At last suppression and substitution cease-but this is possible only in faithful surrender. (121)