Recently I listened to a podcast of a pastor who tried to answer the question, “How can a loving God condemn to hell people who have never heard the gospel?”
His answer used Romans chapters one and three and their discussion of the godlessness of humankind to make four statements:
- Everyone is guilty before God.
- No one is saved apart from faith in Christ.
- Everyone has a knowledge of God. (Romans 1:19-20 says God is revealed in creation.)
- Anyone who wants further knowledge of God will receive it. God will send them the gospel.
To these four statements I want to say I don’t necessarily disagree. We are all guilty. Everyone has sinned. Jesus is the only way to God. Everyone can see God in creation. God will send the message of the gospel. He pursued us by sending us Christ and so He will continue to draw people to Himself. I agree.
However, from these four statements it doesn’t necessarily follow that some people will be separated from God for all eternity. You could conclude that not only does everyone has a knowledge of God, but eventually everyone will want further knowledge of God, which means God will send them the gospel, they will respond in faith to Christ, and will be saved. It is at least possible for everyone.
If I disagree with something, it would be the pastor’s explanation of point number 3). The pastor said everyone has a knowledge of God through creation and that this “natural revelation,” while not enough to save a person (faith in Jesus is required) it IS enough to condemn a person. He said, “If God sent every human being who ever lived to hell, He would be completely justified in doing so.”
Let’s say he’s right. Maybe that’s true. God is just and therefore He must punish sin, so He would be justified in sending everyone to hell.
However, while the pastor may be right in His statement about God’s justice, He did not make an equally necessary statement about God’s mercy. If we say humanity deserves death, and because God is just He would be completely justified in sending every human being who had ever lived to hell, WE MUST ALSO SAY that, while humanity deserves death, because God is merciful He would be completely justified in redeeming every human being who had ever lived.
The question then becomes, “Who is God?” Is He just in the way we believe Him to be just? Is He merciful in the way we believe Him to be merciful? Is God, God?
The answer to all those question is, Yes! God is just and God is merciful. He has to be. He is God.
Therefore, in dealing with humanity’s sinfulness, God had to have an option that allowed Him to be consistent with who He is, that allowed Him to be both just and merciful. The fact of the matter is that the ONLY way God could be both just and merciful was to take humanity’s punishment on Himself, which He did in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, sin has been dealt with, taken away, removed. The punishment for sin has been made; God’s justice has been satisfied. God executed His justice on Himself on our behalf so that He could be merciful to us.
So, whatever hell is – whether literal or metaphoric, whether darkness or fire – its purpose is not to punish sin. In Jesus, GOD HAS ALREADY PUNISHED SIN! The purpose of hell, then, must be redemptive, must be to push people toward statement number 4), to help people acknowledge their own sinfulness and need of redemption through Christ.
Jesus has taken our sin – my sin, your sin, the sin of the person who has never heard the gospel. He took our punishment for us, so all that’s left for us – for all of us – is mercy. Maybe it’ll take hell for some people to received that mercy, but I believe God will never give up on anyone. He will never stop pursuing us that, in the end, all may respond in faith to Jesus.
Even if through the mechanism of the pastor’s four statements, I believe:
- God loves everyone.
- Gods wants to save everyone.
- God is able to save everyone, and therefore,
- God will save everyone.
And that is really good news, really.
I know we need to get back to the book of Matthew. We will.