March 4, 2011

More Thoughts on Hell

I know; it's kind of a depressing title for a blog post. But the reality is that with the ongoing back-and-forth over Rob Bell's forthcoming book, like many other Evangelical Christian types, I've been thinking a good bit about Hell for the last couple of days. So, here goes.

I have, from time to time, found myself sitting around with friends having theological discussions in which the topic turns to the destiny of the unevangelized. At times I have decided to bite the bullet, lay my cards on the table, and admit that I actually do believe that a person has to hear the Christian gospel about Jesus of Nazareth and respond in faith in order to gain the Heaven that is eternal life in God's new creation. My declaration sometimes receives a mixed response and has been met with some surprise that I believe a loving God would actually condemn untold multitudes of people to Hell simply for having never heard the gospel. Let me say that I appreciate it when friends and colleagues press me to think carefully and biblically about issues like this, and that I typically find such conversations to be stimulating and refining.

But the question remains: Why would I believe that God would consign people to everlasting Hell? In short, my answer is: As best as I can tell, that is what Paul thought. And if the apostle to the Gentiles thinks it, then I'm basically committed to it. But what exactly does Paul say?

One of the key texts that shapes my view on this is Romans 10:9-17, in which Paul basically says that justification and ultimate salvation come through confessing with the mouth that Jesus is Lord and believing in the heart that God raised him bodily from the dead. He goes on to substantiate his and all Christian mission through a series of rhetorical questions which are intended to make the point that the default position of all people is unsaved; therefore we need to send out preachers so that they can hear the good news, believe in the Lord, and call upon him for salvation, because "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (10:13). Paul is substantiating Christian mission with his belief that those who never hear the good news will never be able to call on the Lord and experience his salvation, which means they remain unsaved, which, for Paul, is a bad thing and is the same as condemnation.

I know someone (probably lots of someones) will disagree with this interpretation, but it really seems to me to be the plain reading of this text. Paul takes it as a given that the default human position is unsaved, by which he means condemned. He took the better part of the first three chapters of the letter to make the point that the common human condition, for Jew and Greek, is condemnation; falling short of the glory of God, and falling short of the glory of God is the Hell from which we need to be saved.

Here's the key point I want to make, and it is a response to the common suggestion that a loving God would not send billions of people to Hell just for never hearing the gospel. For Paul, people are not condemned because they never hear the gospel; they are condemned because they are unrighteous and have committed idolatry by worshipping created things rather than the creator who has made himself known in what has been made (see Rom 1:18ff.) People are not born in some sort of neutral default mode only later to become saved or condemned based on their response to the gospel. The default mode is condemnation; the possibility of salvation for even a few (or only one) is grace upon grace and mercy in abundance. And if we cannot see that, we would do well to spend some time reflecting biblically on the purity and holiness of God and his absolute hatred for sin, which is not inconsistent with his love.

One more thing, and I'm not the first to say this, if people will ultimately be saved having never heard the gospel, then, by all means, stop evangelizing! If hearing the gospel establishes responsibility where before there was none, then stop doing missions! If people are by default on their way to Heaven and telling them about Jesus opens the possibility of Hell, then never speak his name again! If people actually have to hear the gospel and reject it before they are condemned, then just keep quiet! You see; the very notions of evangelism and mission are inconsistent with an inclusivistic theology. People are better off never hearing.

So, let me sum up by saying that I don't believe that God will send anyone to hell just because they never heard the gospel. Rather, I believe that those who are ultimately lost will be lost because they have fallen short of the glory of God in their refusal to give glory to God instead giving the glory that, as Creator, he alone deserves to created things. There will be no scenario where an unevangelized person stands before God and hears him say, "You never heard the gospel; you're going to Hell." Scripture seems to clearly indicate something more along the lines of: "You exchanged my glory for a lie, and the consequence is that you may have no share in my glory."

4 comments:

Shamby said...

A lot of stuff here. I appreciate what you are saying, because the popularity of inclusivist or sincerity doctrines really seem to fail at heeding Christ's claim to exclusivity. If we truly abide to the Reformation standard, it is in "by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone" that we confess our soteriology.

That being said, the doctrine of Hell is a somewhat different matter to me. Confessing how we can be saved does not by negation translate into how one goes to Hell. It might mean that, but many Christians allow for provisions or just say, "I don't know" to various scenarios.

The common evangelical scenarios are that babies, for instance, do not go to hell. The mentally handy-capped also do not go to hell. Well, do they or don't they?

What about those in the OT? Abraham's faith was counted as righteousness, but it was a proleptic sort of faith--only after millennia realized in Jesus Christ. "Not fair, Old Covenant"--I know, but we've made a soteriological exception nonetheless.

So what about those who are unevangelized? We can say on what grounds they are not saved as you have pointed out (Rom. 10:9) but I am not sure that we can say on what grounds they will go to hell. Does Paul really say in Rom. 9-10? Perdition is not really Paul's topic here and so at most, we come away with inferences. What is so striking is that Paul is persuading his audience that the mission to the Gentiles (the unevangelized) is legitimate because it is God's will to have mercy on them. In Rom. 10:14-15, Paul acknowledges (I infer) that the unevangelized being unevangelized is a bad thing because they are not able to call on the Lord or respond to the Gospel. But he stops short of ruling on their consignment to hell, before transitioning into "What about Israel?"

In short, I'm not sure what God will do with the unevangelized, but I can say unequivocally that none are saved without the precious atoning blood of Jesus Christ to make them righteous. Who goes to hell is a question of judgment about which I think Christians should be conservative, and leave to God. The Gospel does not threaten us with hell it saves us from sin and death. That is enough reason for me to go and evangelize the Good News.

Thank you and feel free to correct me. I know I'm crossing swords with one who's studied Romans more than I have. Cheers.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Hi Shamby,

Thanks for your comments. You raise some good questions. First, let me say that I'd be happy to be wrong on this one. If it turns out to be the case that everyone is ultimately saved, then I'll be first in line to celebrate and admit I'm wrong. I would love it if I'm just missing what Paul is saying on this. I'd love to be wrong, but I don't think I am. Second, whatever happens in terms of God's judgment, it will be just, right and good.

Now on to the issues you raise. You are right that Paul is not here developing a full theology of perdition here. But he is talking about what is necessary for salvation, which leads us to ask the question: salvation from who/what? The answer to that question came earlier in the letter in chaps. 1-3. And the answer is saved from God and his wrath (1:18). Paul develops this concept of God's wrath in terms of anguish, fury, and distress (2:6ff). This language is also developed in contrast to the reward of glory, honor, immortality, and eternal life. The eternal nature of the reward might suggest the eternal nature of the condemnation.

Here's the point: Paul doesn't have to say on what grounds the unevangelized are condemned in chapter 10 because he has already said just this in chapters 1-3. The presupposition of chapter 10 is that all stand condemned already. He says in chapter 1 that everyone has enough revelation to condemn them. There will be no one who can stand before God and say that they didn't know; Paul says they know and they suppress the truth in wickedness (1:18ff). This is why there is so much urgency in sending missionaries to preach to them. Chapter 10 is about getting the gospel to those who have suppressed the truth in the hope that they will hear and call out in faith.

So, when you read 10:9ff in the context of the letter as a whole, while that specific passage is not about condemnation, it is about escaping condemnation, which Paul said is the common and just consequence for everyone already. The evangelism in chapter 10 is urgent because of the predicament in chapters 1-3

Tom 1st said...

A couple honest questions...

"General Revelation" is enough to condemn a person, but not enough to save them?

Is it possible for someone to respond positively to general revelation?

Heck - I even wonder, in light of Romans 1-3 if General Revelation is a real, biblical category. What do we lose if we drop it? What I mean is, in Romans 1, creation doesn't just testify that A GOD exists, but that our specific God exists. Is it possible, then for someone to come to have faith in our specific God through creation...even if they haven't heard the name 'Jesus'?

Matt O'Reilly said...

Paul doesn't seem to be addressing the question as to whether someone can be saved through general revelation in Rom 1. He seems to be making two points: 1. that the rejection of God's self-revelation in creation is worthy of condemnation and 2. that God is entirely just to condemn humanity. He deals with how one is saved in other places (Rom 3, 4, 5, 10).