Theology Unplugged – The Destiny of the Unevangelized

9 Responses to “Theology Unplugged – The Destiny of the Unevangelized”

  1. Another perspective on the Destiny of those unable to believe

    A university student who worked in a home for children with profound mental disability asked me about, “the salvation of people with severe mental retardation.” “How much can they understand about their need for forgiveness and salvation?” ”Will God hold them accountable for the things they don’t understand?” she asked. Expressing concern, she said, “I love these children and hope they will go to heaven when they pass away.”

    The question about the eternal destiny of these people is close to my heart. I had a cousin with similar problems whom I loved and spent considerable time with when I was young. Several years ago he passed away, causing me to reflect again on this question. It is also a question with immense pastoral significance because it equally applies to young children who have died before being able to exercise faith.

    Over the years, a number of answers have been suggested. Those who believe in the universal salvation of humanity would say, “Of course these people will be in heaven!” “All people will be saved!” But the problem with this explanation is that it has no basis beyond the imagination of man. This is one of those things we would like to believe because it is emotionally appealing. But we need to have a more reliable basis for our beliefs than emotions.

    Others would consider God obligated to the grant these people eternity in heaven. “After all,” it is argued, “it wasn’t their fault that they were born this way!” Yet who are we to obligate God to do anything? Sinners cannot hold God accountable.

    In some traditions, the answer is found in baptism—the washing away of original sin. This view, however, attaches more significance to baptism than warranted by scripture. Baptism is not a requirement for salvation nor does it impart saving grace.

    Then there are those who can only say that it is a matter of election. If these folks were elected by God to eternal life, then they will be in heaven. If not, they will be under God’s eternal judgment in hell. Scripture does teach that God elects some people for salvation. For example, it says that, “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).

    Yet what should be said of those who were not able to believe? Although scripture does not explicitly address the eternal destiny of those unable to respond to God’s offer of salvation, there are biblical truths that would lead us to believe that such people will be in heaven and will not come under God’s eternal judgment.

    The OT passage often applied to this subject comes from the life of King David. When David’s illegitimate baby became seriously ill, he was grief stricken. When the baby died, David took heart and said, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). This was more than David acknowledging that one day he too would die. David was speaking about being reunited with the child.

    In the NT, some see an answer in Jesus’ invitation for the children to come to him, and his subsequent statement that, “…of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14-15). Jesus also said that whoever does not receive theKingdom of God as a little child simply will not enter it (see Luke 18:16-17). More significantly, in three different places scripture indicates that there is an age of accountability (Deuteronomy 1:39;Isaiah 7:15-16;Jonah 4:11). Although an exact age is not established, it would be a time when a person is capable of being held morally accountable before God.

    Since scripture repeatedly appeals to people in a way that recognizes their moral responsibility for the choices they make, those incapable of making such choices have not reached an age of accountability. Although such people are born with an inherited sin nature, they never consciously choose to act upon that nature. Therefore, it is reasonably concluded that through Christ’s sacrificial death, God can forgive and receive them to be with him in heaven.


    Steve Cornell

  2. I agree with you Steve.

    This is a good sermon that corroborates what was said above.

  3. Our men’s Sat. morning Bible Study is from a Calvinistic point of view, and this question is going to come up soon. I may use portions of your article, but with their view of Total Depravity and Election I can hear the heated debate now.

  4. Steve

    Thanks for your impassioned, informed and compassionate post.

    I don’t want to make it soound too simplistic but for me this is a not far off being a “no-brainer” as the saying goes. (I don’t mean to insult your intelligence or demean you question, just using a phrase)

    If the God who, in his soverignty allowed these children to live and have/endure lives where they are not fully able to understand about salvation, surely he is All-Just and All- Merciful and will judge accordingly.

    I am not a universalist by any means…anyone who believes that they will meet Adolf Hitler in heaven has a lot to answer for in my book, but I for one have no doubt that children such as these will be in heaven, and what is more they will be gloriously healed and transformed and won’t it be a wonderful prospect for that university student with such a great heart to be able to embrace in heaven and see them in their full and glorious eternal state.

    I don’t know about ou, but I would go as far as to say that if God were to consign these people to hell, I’m not so sure that He is a being I would want to serve, love, follow and worship with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind and all my strength. I guess that is the position your student friend found herself in.

    I think that when we are faced with questions as to why God allowed such suffering to happen, we can be consoled and enencouraged that, in his soverignty, love and wisdom God raises up people such as your friend, to love, care, serve and pray for them, and to act as an advocate on their behalf when some question their right to a place in heaven.

  5. I’m inclined and compelled to understand salvation based on election. I think to fact that St Lk 12:47-49 addresses plainly the issue of those who do not hear the gospel message and die.

    47″That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

    Not Peace but Division
    49″I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!

    Compare Romans 2:12-16:

    12All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 13For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. 14(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.) 16This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

    I think that eternal election whether to the praise of God’s grace and eternal damnation to the praise of God’s justice are prior to and not contingent upon the general call of the gospel.


  6. My previous post was more pastoral. Here I offer some deeper theological perspective. Beyond my own comments, I include several helpful summaries of the complexities related to God’s sovereign election and the moral responsibility of humans.

    The Westminster Confession of Faith offers a most helpful summary:

    “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably, ordained whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”

    Election is solely conditioned upon the character of God. God will never do anything contrary His character (see: Ex. 33:19; 34:5-7; Deut. 32:3-4; Jn. 3:16-17; Rom. 2:11; II Thess. 1:6; I Tim. 2:3-4; Ja. 1:13,17; I Jn. 1:5; 4:8,16). There is a necessary link between God’s character and his treatment of his creation. God’s anger for example is his right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil. Atonement through Christ was the only way God could forgive sinners without acting against his own justice.

    Along these lines, from another side of the theological spectrum, John Wesley wrote that, “…it is certainly inconsistent with the justice and goodness of God to lay any man under either a physical or moral necessity of committing sin, and then to punish him for doing it.”

    It is true that “whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in the earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6 w/Rev. 4:110). The sovereignty of God is unlimited, but it operates in consistency with God’s character (Titus 1:2). In this regard, it would not be proper to view God as a judge who arbitrarily picks some for heaven and some for hell. Nor does Scripture present God as one who deals with people without consideration of their responses to Him. God holds all people accountable for their deeds (Rom. 2:4-9; Rev. 20:15-20). Scripture appeals to men in a way that recognizes their moral responsibility for the choices they make (Josh. 24:15; I Kings 18:21; Romans 1:21-28; Jn. 11:26; Acts 7:51; 17:30).

    But, one might ask, “If God controls everything that happens — is he not a cosmic puppeteer pulling our strings when he wants us to dance?” This is simply not the way the Bible describes God. Scripture will not tolerate any view of God’s sovereign control that diminishes human responsibility. New Testament scholar, D.A. Carson wrote, “At no point whatsoever does the remarkable emphasis on the absoluteness of God’s sovereignty mitigate the responsibility of human beings who, like everything else in the universe, fall under God’s sway. We tend to use one to diminish the other; we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. But responsible reading of the Scripture prohibits such reductionism.”

    Jesus spoke of both the sovereignty God of and the responsibility of man in relation to salvation (Jn. 5:40; 6:44). Commenting on Jesus’ “will not/cannot,” John R. W. Stott wrote, “Why is it that people do not come to Christ? Is it that they cannot, or is it that they will not? Jesus taught both. And in this “cannot” and “will not” lies the ultimate antimony between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. But however we state it, we must not eliminate either part. Our responsibility before God is an inalienable aspect of our human dignity. Its final expression will be on the Day of judgment. Nobody will be sentenced without trial. All people, great and small, irrespective of their social class, will stand before God’s throne, not crushed or browbeaten, but given this final token of respect for human responsibility, as each gives an account of what he or she has done” (John Stott, pp. 95-96, The Cross of Christ).

    Others helpful comments:

    “The unbeliever has preferred to be by himself, without God, defying God, having God against him, and he shall have his preference. Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give men what they choose, in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that His attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty . . . what God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom He visits have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow” (J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 139).

    We can be sure of this, “No one will ever be able to stand before God and say, ‘I wanted to be saved but was unable to do so because I was not elected’” (John Walvoord, Major Bible Themes, P. 234,).

    Like God’s sovereignty, human responsibility is soberingly inclusive. “I say to you,” Jesus declared, “that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).

    According to Scripture, our decisions constitute real causes that produce real effects — for which we will be authentically held accountable. The wise teacher wrote, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).

    Sorry for the length of this contribution.

    Steve Cornell

  7. A dear friend, who has long been part of our church family (I would classify our church as Evangelical and Seeker Sensitive) recently withdrew from membership because he was plagued by doubts over this issue of the destiny of the unevangelized and those who do not accept Christ as Savior. This concern was no doubt intensified by the fact that his son has rejected Christianity.
    The following is a quote from his letter withdrawing from church membership:

    “For a couple of years now I have been struggling with feelings of hypocrisy and dishonesty for my continued involvement at {church}. If boils down to me burying my head in the sand (so to speak) and ignoring some of my deepest unsettled spiritual questions that have loomed like a dark cloud in the background for many years. . . long before we became a part of the {church) family.
    I went to bible college right out of high school in hopes that my questions would be answered. Questions like why would God create an entire race of beings, whom he says loves, yet with full knowledge that the vast majority would spend eternity suffering unspeakable torture in hell. I spent much time discussing this and other questions with my professors whom I looked up to and respected for their deep understanding of theology. Alas, I left with more questions than answers and went forward knowing by faith only that God loves me, that he is trustworthy and ultimately good. This however only swept the questions under the carpet, and they were always looming in the background as this ugly dark cloud that never really went away.
    I came to the conclusion long ago that doctrines, systems and traditions are fallible, man made and the cause of so much strife, argument and divisiveness. They have left the global church handicapped as we have allowed ourselves to be segregated into our little pet kingdoms, pridefully declaring that our particular group has the market cornered on truth and believing only we have the right interpretation of what to believe and how to do church. I think we have totally missed the priorities Christ taught us to focus upon.
    I was able to push my “dark cloud” questions into the background for many years until my son began to raise the same questions that I had never myself fully come to terms with. The difference between him and me was that he did not, and still has not gone to the point of accepting that God is good and just, but rather has chosen to reject faith in toto.
    I have confessed to family and friends for a long time that I feel like a closet heretic at {church}. I have felt myself becoming more and more an outsider, and consequently have moved myself out of positions of public ministry.”

    This individual was raised in the church, was the son of a pastor, and attended Bible College before going on to University. He was active in many ministries over the years, and was one of the last individuals I would have expected to leave. He and his family are now attending an emergent church with an open theistic view of salvation.

    Obviously, I have been stunned and shocked by his departure, and what previously had been an interesting theological discussion has now become much more personal and closer to home. Michael and Rob, I appreciate you taking on this sensitive topic on Theology Unplugged, and I look forward to the second installment. I have listened to the two part series on this same subject that RMM aired two years back, and found it balanced and very well done. I really appreciate the ministry of RMM, and would ask for your prayers for this individual as he seeks the Lord’s leading in his life.

  8. Michael,

    We want to hear the second half of the talk with Robert Bowman!

    Have you called him yet?

    Did I miss it?

  9. I’m a product of cultural Christianity that says salvation equals a prayer, a raised hand, a walk down the aisle, a knee at the alter.

    For ten years.

    It was when I slid into a sin that nearly cost me my marriage that I woke up and saw the desperate situation I was in. In fact, it was sermons by Ray Comfort, MacArthur, Edwards and Piper that that indicated the trouble I was in. And a deep study of 1 John.

    I fully appreciate the healthy tension you now describe. And think clarity on the current situation can only come by a clear, graceful articulation of the biblical Gospel. Complete with the danger, as you pointed out.

    Thank you for the race story.

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