Monday, September 22, 2014

What about those who have never heard? (part 1)

One of the most common objections to the exclusivity of the Christian gospel goes something like this: "God must surely be forgiving toward those who never have heard of Him."

There are a few reactions that I have to this retort. 

First, it's a very loving thought. Anybody that makes a statement like this probably isn't trying to win a debate as much as they are trying to appeal to the love of God, in which they most certainly believe. To think of people in the world who are less advantaged and, in some cases, at a complete disadvantage in life, is absolutely commendable and appreciated. 

The next couple of thoughts I have about the above statement are less emotion-based and more theological/philosophical in nature. These two thoughts will make up parts one and two of this blog topic.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

I just got done reading the first six chapters of Leviticus today -- God commands a lot of animal sacrifices -- and a common phrase kept appearing. The saying had to do with the unintentional sins of the people. The Lord seemingly does not care whether or not someone sins on purpose. He says that sin is sin.

"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them, if it is the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people, then he shall offer for the sin that he has committed a bull from the herd without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering."
Leviticus 4:1-3

“If the whole congregation of Israel sins unintentionally and the thing is hidden from the eyes of the assembly, and they do any one of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt, when the sin which they have committed becomes known, the assembly shall offer a bull from the herd for a sin offering and bring it in front of the tent of meeting."
Leviticus 4:13-14

“When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the Lord his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish..."
Leviticus 4:22-23

“If anyone of the common people sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring for his offering a goat, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has committed."
Leviticus 4:27-28

"...if anyone touches an unclean thing, whether a carcass of an unclean wild animal or a carcass of unclean livestock or a carcass of unclean swarming things, and it is hidden from him and he has become unclean, and he realizes his guilt; or if he touches human uncleanness, of whatever sort the uncleanness may be with which  one becomes unclean, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and realizes his guilt; or if anyone utters with his lips a rash oath to do evil or to do good, any sort of rash oath that people swear, and it is hidden from him, when he comes to know it, and he realizes his guilt in any of these; when he realizes his guilt in any of these and confesses the sin he has committed..."
Leviticus 5:2-5

“If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord, he shall bring to the Lord as his compensation, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued in silver shekels, according to the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering."
Leviticus 5:15 

Notice the words in bold highlighted above. God did not make any exceptions regarding sin or guilt. Even if someone was unaware that the things they were doing were sinful, the Lord still regarded them as guilty and they needed to make an offering in order to atone for those sins. Their ignorance did not exempt them from God's requirement of a sacrifice that would appease His wrath.

But why would God have wrath about their conduct?

Abraham gives an answer to this in the early days of mankind. While God was proposing to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their great sin, Abraham petitioned Him by appealing to His justice. He asked if God would destroy those cities even if just a handful of righteous people were living there among the evil ones. In the middle of his petition he asks God, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?"

Abraham declared God the Judge of the earth. The Lord is the one who is able to discern what is truly right and truly wrong. He created the entire system of life and has outlined appropriate behavior and punishments for rebellion. 

Psalm 7:11 says that God is "a righteous judge" and Psalm 9:8 says that He "judges the world with righteousness." Psalm 50:6 says, "The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!"

Isaiah affirms, "For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king," (Is. 33:22).

Jesus also says, "Yet even if I do judge, My judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent Me," (Jn. 8:16). 

So God is the rule-Giver and the rule-Enforcer. He has all authority to outline truth and He has all authority to deal with those who push against it. He is the Judge, and a good judge will always affirm the law.

If you're caught speeding, ignorance of the speed limit sign does not excuse you. If you cut down your neighbor's tree, not knowing that it was actually on his side of the property line, that ignorance does not excuse you. The only thing that can excuse you in those cases is grace, and that is not a quality that a judge has to exercise. And, for now, that is beside the point, as the only thing that needs to be established here is that man is, in fact, guilty.

So the first thing to realize when considering the fate of those who have never heard of God, Christ, or the Bible is that they are guilty just like everyone else. Before anything else is considered, it must be realized that sinful men are sinful regardless of their knowledge level. They have broken the rules and, according to the rule-Giver, they are guilty. 

That's my first thought. Stay tuned for my second.

God bless!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hi Beth, thanks for the reply. I answer the question about children here:

      My initial response for those with mental disabilities is that if the disability renders their thinking to that of a small child, the same answers apply. Of course, there are varying degrees of disability so those would have to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. In Romans 1, God says that there is enough evidence in creation for men to know that He exists. Psalm 19 says the heavens declare the glory of God. In Ecclesiastes He says that He has set eternity in every man's heart. Men know that God exists and that they're far too imperfect to be Him. They know that there's more to life than the "now."

      If they respond to that in faith, seeking God, He is faithful to save them. If they respond by suppressing the truth and replacing God with idols (the case of Romans 1), He is just in condemning them.

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    1. Here are a few points to mull over:

      *Not all people are children of God. We are separated from God at the moment of conception (Psalm 51:5, Ephesians 2) and we only become God's children when we believe in Christ ("adoption" in John 1 and Galatians 4).
      *Man certainly has enough evidence to seek God. If you don't see that in Romans 1:18-23, I'd be interested to hear what your interpretation of those verses is.
      *Ignorance or circumstance doesn't damn a person, sin does. The whole argument of Romans 5 is that sin has spread to all men and death through it. We all die because we have all sinned. We can only receive eternal life by having that sin removed -- something we can't do ourselves -- and having life given to us. It's imputation, most succinctly explained in 2 Corinthians 5:21.
      *I am understanding more and more about the LDS perspective and I've quickly become aware that this issue is what causes Mormons to wince at evangelicalism. The problem with this position is that it comes from human feeling/reason and not from what God has said. I don't say that in a condescending way; what I mean is that I have yet to see a biblical argument for that position.
      *I do not have a disparaging opinion of any person, including Mormons. Many of my friends are Mormons these days. :) I do, however, have a disparaging view of heresy and, unfortunately, traditional LDS doctrine is heretical.
      *We can certainly talk more here or you can feel free to email me:

      Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful comments!

    2. "...this issue is ONE OF THE THINGS that causes Mormons to wince at evangelicalism..."

      As I re-read my comment I realized I worded it poorly.