If salvation is only available by turning to Jesus of Nazareth, now ruling as Cosmic King in heaven, then how can God judge those who have never heard about Jesus? If people go to hell for rejecting Jesus Christ, wouldn’t God be unfair to condemn to eternal punishment people who have never had a chance to trust Jesus? The Christian God is an evil God, the argument goes, if God is an exclusivist. God would be wrong to condemn those who never had a chance. It’s unjust of God to save exclusively those who follow Jesus. How can the Christian answer this accusation against our Lord?
Were there an innocent native somewhere, he would be perfectly able to receive salvation without Jesus. Jesus came to save sinners only—those who are perfect and completely righteous don’t need forgiveness. Those who already have a good relationship with God don’t need to be adopted as sons and daughters. It was the Savior himself who said that well men don’t need a physician.
Unfortunately, no one is well. Look at the world. Do you honestly think that everything is okay? Do people treat others as well as themselves? Do we treat our environment well? Do we only do what we believe will bring God the greatest honor? Do we even think about God’s honor when we’re making decisions? Look at the world. It’s sick, and it’s a sickness unto death.
Perhaps those who have never heard about Jesus have never sinned against Jesus. But they have heard of God, and they’ve sinned against him. To sin against Jesus is serious, but to sin against the One who sent him is no better! R.C. Sproul notes the presumption hidden within the innocent native question. “The unspoken assumption at this point is that the only damnable offence against God is rejection of Christ” (Reason to Believe, 50).
Remember the greatest commandment? Jesus said that the greatest commandment—the thing that God wants more than anything else, is for us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. Think about that. The German reformer Martin Luther thought about it during his years as a monk. He realized that if this was the Lord’s greatest commandment, then the world’s most intensely evil sin must be to disobey it. The most depraved, hell-worthy transgression must be to love God with half our hearts, with 75% of our souls, with a third of our strength. Sin is a serious thing. We have all committed the worst sin, and we do so constantly. Consider sin against God...
All sensible people agree that there is a difference between virtue and vice, and that virtue should be rewarded and vice punished, all the more when there is a victim involved. Bear in mind the victim of our sin. All sin is ultimately sin against God. This means that God is every sin’s victim.
AUTHORITY: Think about God’s authority. If I were to lie to you, I’d be worthy of punishment. If I were to lie to a police officer, though, I’d deserve more punishment. Why? Because I’m lying to one with authority. If I were then to lie to a judge in a law court, I would deserve an even stiffer sentence, since the judge has even more authority than a police officer. What then should we think of lying if it’s directed against God, as all sin is? God has infinite authority, so sin is therefore worthy of infinite punishment, whether you’ve heard about Jesus or not.
PURITY: Also consider God’s purity. We think a criminal worthy of punishment if he shoots a drug dealer in a deal gone bad. We think it’s worse if a criminal shoots a nun who’s feeding hungry children. Why? Because it’s a crime against greater purity. A crime against the infinite purity and holiness of God the Father himself is worthy of infinite punishment.
Think of God’s goodness. Often people naively assume that God’s goodness will somehow keep him from damning us. To the contrary! What hath darkness to do with light? It’s precisely God’s goodness that drives him to condemn people who carry sin. Consider the story of The Good Policeman.
The Good Policeman was walking down Main Street one day when he saw a little old lady with a walker trying to cross the street. As he watched the little old lady, he saw a large Buick fly past him and come to a screeching halt next to the little old lady. Three young men hopped out of the car, laughing. One of them pushed the old lady to the ground, while another started kicking her in the abdomen, then the legs, then the face. Another of the men smashed his heel into the old woman’s face while she screamed in pain. Even from a distance, the Good Policeman could hear bones crack. Finally, one of the young men did the unthinkable. He pulled a knife out of his belt and slit the woman’s throat. But the Good Policeman witnessed these events. So as the men walked back toward their vehicle, he rushed up to them and thrust his hand out in front of them and said, “Hi. I’m the Good Policeman. And I want you to know that I LOVE you.”
What’s wrong with the story? Is it a ‘good’ policeman? Of course not! A good policeman would have run up to the men, arrested them, and taken them to court to be punished! This is not a good policeman, but an evil one! If he were good, his goodness would require the guilty to be punished! Yet we expect God to be like the Good Policeman—all love and mercy and grace, with no punishment, no justice, no vengeance, no anger, no wrath. We expect him to see our sin and rebellion and just say, “I love you!” God cannot be good unless he punishes evil. The difficult question is not why God condemns sinners to hell, but why he doesn’t condemn all sinners to hell! For that, we have to understand the cross, where Jesus was punished in our place, so that all who seek him might stand before God blameless, the punishment for their sins already paid in full by our willing scapegoat Jesus.
We deserve nothing but contempt from God. I’ve known people who haven’t been converted to Christ until they heard people who seemed more “religious” and more “righteous” than they were confessing that they themselves were worthy of hell. That’s when it hits home. People think, “Wow, if this holy-roller thinks he deserves to burn in fire, then what chance have I got?” I’ve found the reality of it really hits home when I very soberly confess, “You know, I think God is really angry with humanity. He’s really mad at us. Things aren’t okay between us and God”
People think that somehow being religious makes one immune from judgment for sin. But the picture God gives us in the Bible is just the opposite. Religious people are some of the worst, because their religion is not an attempt to seek God, but a sophisticated way of rejecting God. Paul lays this out for us in Romans 1-3.
God has communicated to us in nature, but we’ve responded with idolatry—Romans 1:18-32.
Human religion is evidence not of seeking God, but of replacing him. Religion actually increases guilt rather than diminishing it. To corrupt that which is holy is worse than ignoring it altogether.
God has communicated to us in our hearts, but we’ve used this to judge others—Romans 2:1-16.
God has written his moral law on every human heart, but no one has obeyed him. This law, called natural law by philosophers, the Tao by C.S. Lewis, condemns us rather than saving us. We see others sin, and judge them in our hearts, only to sin ourselves on another occasion.
Those who have God’s laws in the Bible are also unrighteous—Romans 2:17-29; 3:9-20.
The Jews in Paul’s day—including Paul himself, the Pharisee of Pharisees—failed to benefit from God’s law because they saw it as a means of self-righteous achievement and pride.
Even if it could be demonstrated that someone had lived a life without committing any specific sinful act, God would still be perfectly just in condemning that person. Even as tiny babies in the womb, we are sinners who bear the guilt of our corporate human rebellion against God. Our lawful representative and family head, Adam—what theologians call our “federal” head—declared our rebellion against God on our behalf when he sinned against the Lord in Eden.
Remember—Adam’s children didn’t start off in the Garden all over again. The judgment God placed on Adam comes to all his descendents, all his constituents—all those he represented. Adam’s children received Adam’s curse, the expulsion from the Garden, the thorns and thistles, the pain, the death, and the hell. “Surely I was sinful at birth,” the Psalmist laments, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). “From birth the wicked go astray, from the womb they are wayward and speak lies” (Psalm 58:3). Paul deals even with the possibility of those who didn’t have a clear commandment against which they sinned, “Nevertheless death reigned... even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam.... The result of one trespass was condemnation for all men” (Romans 5:14).
Sound unfair? This is how representative government works, even today. Are you an American? Why aren’t you a subject of the British crown? Because a group of men chose for you to rebel against England in 1776. When Thomas Jefferson declared his personal independence from Britain two centuries ago, he was placing you in rebellion against the British crown as well.
Seem unfair? Shouldn’t you have had the right to personally choose your national status? Sorry. That’s not how federal government works—federal, based on the people’s representatives. And our representative Adam (even his name being the Hebrew for man) blew it for us. We are conceived and born in rebellion against God even before we’ve had a chance to sin.
If God were to damn us just because of Adam’s sin, he would be just. But we don’t stop with Adam’s sin, returning to God begging for mercy, promising never to sin ourselves. We rebel against our Creator constantly in word, thought and deed. Sin has so affected us as to become our natures. We can’t not sin—we are sinners. Firefighters fight fires; candlestick makers make candlesticks, and sinners sin. It’s what we do because it’s what we are. “There is no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:11).
I don’t like the thought of tornados. They scare me, and I don’t want to believe in them. But I can’t say that tornados don’t exist. I can’t tell you, “Oh, you’ll never get hurt in a tornado.” I can’t say that because tornados do exist. We’re talking about reality, not preferences. Facts, not opinions. I don’t want to believe in death either, but I do because it’s real. Similarly, I believe in hell because it’s real. Everyone goes there unless Jesus changes his or her destiny.
Why do I believe it? I believe in hell because Jesus instructs me to believe it. He warns me about hell. Indeed, over half the references to hell in the entire Bible come from the lips of Jesus himself—Jesus, friend of sinners, compassionate toward those enslaved to sinful hearts. Jesus above all others has the right to warn us about hell. Jesus took upon himself the hell of God’s wrath when he hung upon the cross. The true terror of the cross was not capital punishment, but the fact that God poured out his wrath upon his Son, judging Jesus in my place. Jesus experienced God’s hatred, felt the Father’s love turning from him. Jesus was forsaken by God so that we who are so ripe for God’s judgment might never be forsaken.
This is a point that C.S. Lewis made. We are naturally drawn toward our delights. In a poll of Hollywood celebrities, most said they believed in heaven. But when asked to describe heaven, not one of them mentioned God. While the Bible tells us very few details about heaven, the one thing the Bible is clear about is that in heaven we will see God. The brilliance of God’s perfections will light up the city. People who aren’t looking for God have no business entering the gates of heaven. They wouldn’t enjoy it. If their joy isn’t in the Lord, but in other things, they could never be happy in heaven. Joseph Stiles observed that misery lies in the opposition between the mind and its object. He writes, “[The] unholy heart feels, and must ever feel, the deepest aversion to everything that exists or transpires in holy Heaven” (Future Punishment, 4).
Think about these discussion questions over the next week. You may want to jot down your thoughts.
1. If you were to die tonight, how certain are you that you’ll go to heaven?
2. If you were to stand before God and he were to ask you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” how would you respond?
3. These above two questions are diagnostic questions. Like a test an auto mechanic runs to discover a car’s problems, these questions can help our hearers diagnose the state of their soul. How do you think an unbeliever is likely to respond? How would you then use these answers to explain the gospel of Jesus Christ?
4. An acquaintance of yours tells you he thinks Jesus is a great spiritual leader. You know your friend is not a believer. How could you make the most of this situation? He tells you he can’t accept that Jesus is God’s Son. How would you map out an answer?
5. “Christianity is dangerous for human society—just look at the Crusades and the Inquisition.” What positive evidence could you offer to show that Jesus has had a good effect on human society?
6. “I could never believe in a God who damns people to hell without giving them a chance. The Christian God is so unfair.” Respond.
7. A cousin tells you she’s not worried about his soul, because she believes in a God of Love. What points might you want to develop in your ongoing conversations with her.
8. Study Romans 1-3 carefully. Paul begins the section in 1:18 by saying that God is showing his wrath against all sin. What specific points would show the guilt of the pagan, who worships a God other than Yahweh? The Moralist, who criticizes the sins of other people? The religious Jew, who claims that he is superior to others because of his religion? What different phrases does Paul use to summarize his conclusion in 3:9-18? What ought our response be to this revelation of God’s wrath (3:19-20)? What message does Paul then introduce to his readers who by now realize they have no righteousness of their own (3:21-4:8)? Was this a new message, or was this same gospel taught in the Old Testament?
9. If we’re eternally drawn to what we delight in, then what light does this shed on your own walk with God? Is your faith more about not doing the wrong things, or about seeking and enjoying the Lover of your soul?