In a recent interview with Sally Quinn of The Washington Post, Rob Bell again muddied the waters over the question of the fate of those who’ve never heard about Jesus. In doing so he also greatly misrepresented the evangelical answer to this question. Here are his words:
“If, billions and billions and billions of people, God is going to torture them in hell forever – people who never heard about Jesus are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of – then at that point we will have far bigger problems than a book from a pastor from Grand Rapids.”
Bell is responding to evangelicals who purportedly believe that people “are going to suffer in eternal agony because they didn’t believe in the Jesus they never heard of.” Let me say this as clearly as I can: No one will ever suffer for any length of time in hell or anywhere else for not believing in the Jesus they never heard of. Should I say that again or is it enough to ask that you go back and read it again?
Bell and others who make this sort of outrageous claim have evidently failed to look closely at Romans 1:18ff. Here we read that the wrath of God revealed from heaven is grounded in the persistent repudiation by mankind of the revelation God has made of himself in the created order. In other words, there is a reason for God’s wrath. It is not capricious. God’s wrath has been deliberately and persistently provoked by man’s willful rejection of God as he has revealed himself.
The revelation is both from God and about God. Therefore, in this case if the pupil does not learn it is not because the teacher did not teach. The phrase “evident to them” (v. 19, NASB), is better rendered either in or among them, probably the latter; i.e., God has made himself known among people (and thus, in a manner of speaking, to them, in their minds and hearts) in his works of creation and providence.
Observe Paul’s paradoxical language in v. 20: he refers to God’s invisible attributes (1 Tim. 1:17) as clearly seen (oxymoron). Paul’s point is that the invisible is made visible via creation or nature. Divine wisdom, power, eternity and goodness, for example, are not in themselves visible, but their reality is undeniably affirmed and apprehended by the effects they produce in nature. That there is a God, supreme, eternal, infinite in power, personal, wise, independent, worthy of glory and gratitude, is clearly evident in the creation.
How are these truths about God made known and where may we see them? Paul’s answer is, “through what has been made” (v. 20). God has left the indelible mark of his fingerprints all across the vast face of the universe.
Theologian Robert Dabney put it this way: “They who have no Bible may still look up to the moon walking in brightness and the stars watching in obedient order; they may see in the joyous sunbeams the smile of God, and in the fruitful shower the manifestation of his bounty; they hear the rending thunder utter his wrath, and the jubilee of the birds sing his praise; the green hills are swelled with his goodness; the trees of the wood rejoice before him with every quiver of their foliage in the summer air.” Herman Bavinck put it succinctly in declaring that “there is not an atom of the universe in which God’s power and divinity are not revealed.”
Paul’s point here in Romans 1 is that this revelation is sufficiently clear and inescapable that it renders all without excuse (see Rom. 1:20). Consequently, there is no such thing as “an innocent native in Africa” any more than there is “an innocent pagan in America.”
What does Paul mean when he says that all humanity is without excuse? “The excuse that is banished,” notes R. C. Sproul, “the excuse every pagan hopes in vain to use, the excuse that is exploded by God’s self-revelation in nature is the pretended, vacuous, dishonest appeal to ignorance. No one will be able to approach the judgment seat of God justly pleading, ‘If only I had known you existed, I would surely have served you.’ That excuse is annihilated. No one can lightly claim ‘insufficient’ evidence for not believing in God” (Classical Apologetics, 46).
The problem is not a lack of evidence. The problem is the innate, natural, moral antipathy of mankind to God. The problem is not that the evidence is not open to mankind. The problem is that mankind is not open to the evidence.
Note well Paul’s words: “For even though they knew God” (v. 21a). Again, “that which is known about God is evident within them” (not hidden, obscure, uncertain, but disclosed, clear, and inescapable). There is no such thing as an honest atheist! All people know God. There is a distinction, of course, between, on the one hand, a cognitive apprehension of God, i.e., knowing that there is a God and that he is worthy of obedience, worship, gratitude, and, on the other, a saving or redemptive knowledge of God. All people experience the former whereas only the redeemed experience the latter. Thus the problem, again, “is not a failure to honor what was not known, but a refusal to honor what was clearly known” (Sproul, 51).
Paul believed the unbeliever’s knowledge of God was “real” though not “saving”. They have more than an “awareness” of God. They know both that he exists and that he is of a certain moral character and that they themselves are accountable to him. In other words, their knowledge of God brings “subjective” understanding, but not “saving” understanding. The God they truly and “really” know, they hate and refuse to honor. Their response, however, is not borne of ignorance but of willful rebellion and self-centered sinfulness.
But Paul is equally clear that all persistently suppress this knowledge (see vv. 21-32). He does not say they began in darkness and futility and are slowly but surely groping their way toward the light. Rather, they began with the clear, inescapable light of the knowledge of God and regressed into darkness. More on this below.
The reference to them as “futile” and “fools” (vv. 21-22) does not mean all pagans are stupid. It is not man’s intelligence that is in view but his disposition. The problem with the unsaved isn’t that he can’t think with his head. The problem is that he refuses to believe with his heart. The unsaved man is a fool not because he is of questionable intelligence. He is a fool because of his immoral refusal to acknowledge and bow to what he knows is true.
What is the response of the human heart to this revelatory activity of God? Paul describes it in vv. 21-23. What he has in mind involves a distortion or deliberate mutation when one substitutes something artificial or counterfeit for that which is genuine. Clearly, then, when man rejects God he does not cease to be religious. Indeed, he becomes religious in order to reject God. He substitutes for God a deity of his own making, often himself.
This leads to three important conclusions.
First, the revelation of God in creation and conscience is sufficient to render all men without excuse, sufficient to lead to their condemnation if they repudiate it, but not sufficient to save. No one will be saved solely because of their acknowledgment of God in nature, but many will be lost because of their refusal of him as revealed there. In other words, general revelation lacks redemptive content. It is epistemically adequate but soteriologically inadequate. It makes known that there is a God who punishes sin but not that he pardons it.
Second, and please note this well, the so-called heathen are not condemned for rejecting Jesus, about whom they have heard nothing, but for rejecting the Father, about whom they have heard and seen much. Whatever about God is included in Paul’s words, “his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom. 1:20), the knowledge of such is universal and inescapable and renders all mankind without an excuse for their unbelief, without an excuse for their failure to honor God, without an excuse for their refusal to thank God, and without an excuse for turning from the one true God to the worship of idols.
Third, general revelation is the essential prerequisite to special revelation. And special revelation is that which redemptively supplements and interprets general revelation. Therefore, if by God’s gracious and sovereign enablement and enlightenment, any unbeliever responds positively to the revelation of God in nature (and conscience), God will take the necessary steps to reach him or her with the good news of Christ whereby they may be saved.
What we have seen from this brief look at Romans 1 is that God has made his existence and attributes known to all mankind in every age: people of every religion in every nation on earth. These people may never hear the name of Jesus. They may never hear the gospel proclaimed. They may never hear of the cross or the resurrection. They may never hold in their hands a Bible in their own language. But they are totally and justly and righteously “without excuse” before God for their failure to honor him as God and their subsequent idolatrous turn to created things as a substitute for the Creator.
They will not be judged for their rejection of Jesus, of whom they have heard nothing. For Rob Bell or anyone else to suggest that we believe people will suffer eternally in hell for not believing in a Jesus of whom they know nothing is a distortion of what we affirm, and worse still is a distortion of what Paul clearly taught. People will be held accountable and judged on the basis of the revelation that God has made of himself to them. And this revelation is unmistakable, unavoidable, and sufficiently pervasive and clear that the failure to respond as well as the turn to idolatry renders them “without excuse.” They will be righteously judged for rejecting the Father, not for rejecting the Son.