Election According to Foreknowledge is the Key!
Was the Gospel, as the Bible claims, really preached to every creature which is under heaven? Or should we, like many other Bible teachers, conclude that these words spoken by Paul are merely hyperbole? Curiously, one way to confirm the seriousness of this claim lies in one’s understanding of the doctrine of election. According to the Bible, before Christ created the world, He wrote down the names of several people in His [i.e. the Lamb’s] Book of Life (Revelation 13:8; 3:5; 17:8, 20:15; Luke 10:20, Ephesians 1:4; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14). It turns out that this book contains the names of all those who are considered ‘elect.’ Elect is a term which refers to those persons whom God has chosen ahead of time to inherit salvation. In Bible verses such as 1 Peter 1:2 and Romans 8:29, the Bible tells us that God’s choices about who to elect were based upon His foreknowledge or His knowledge-known-ahead-of-time. This is what is known as the doctrine of election.
(Also see What Does The Bible Mean By Election?, Elect according to the foreknowledge of God & Fore knowledge is a Condition)
Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied. (1 Peter 1:2)
For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate [i.e. elect] to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29)
But what exactly did God know ahead of time and how does this foreknowledge fit into God’s rationale for choosing one person but not another? The Bible tells us that God is not a respecter of persons (Deuteronomy 10:17; Romans 2:11, Acts 10:34) so we know that God’s foreknowledge has nothing to do with one’s physical appearance, nationality or one’s efforts of any sort. If Hebrews 11:6 is right regarding the claim that God rewards those who diligently seek Him, then the only logical and biblical conclusion regarding the criteria which God used when choosing His elect is faith (i.e. whether a person, if given the chance, would obey the gospel). Salvation comes by believing (Romans 1:16, Ephesians 1:13) and obeying the Gospel (1 Peter 1:22, 4:17, Hebrews 5:9, Romans 2:8; 6:17; 10:16; Act 5:32: 2 Thessalonians 1:8); therefore if certain persons were deemed saved ahead of time, it must be because God knew of their obedience ahead of time. No other criterion will work. Unsurprisingly, Paul confirms this conclusion in 2 Thessalonians 2:13 when he says:
“God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through…belief of the truth.“
Yet, some Christians teach that election in Scripture is not unto salvation, but only unto special blessings . As students of Scripture we agree that election is indeed unto special blessings, but we must also affirm what we have just read in 2 Thessalonians 2:13—that God has from the beginning chosen us to salvation through belief of the truth (1 Thessalonians 5:9). The fact that the Bible uses belief and obedience interchangeably (e.g. Romans 10:16) is a strong indication that a sincere belief is always accompanied by obedience. These two terms are therefore inseparable when it comes to any discussion about the Gospel. To say that we must believe the Gospel is to say that the Gospel must be obeyed! Hebrews 3:19 tells us that “they [i.e. the unbelieving Jews] could not enter in [to the promised land] because of unbelief” (see also Jude 1:5). In a similar fashion, Christ could not enter the names of unbelievers into His Book of Life because of their foreknown unbelief. In Acts 13:46, the Bible instructively describes those who do not obey the Gospel as those who “judge themselves unworthy of everlasting life.” Speaking of these unbelievers, 2 Thessalonians 2:10 adds that they “received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” That God’s mercy was at one time accessible to them is evident for Jonah explains in his prayer that “they who observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy” (Jonah 2:8). Therefore, in His prerogative to have “mercy upon whom He will have mercy” (Romans 9:18) God foresaw this disobedience and as a result withheld their names from the Book of Life so “that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thessalonians 2:12, Jude 1:5).” Hence, through the process of election, God merely ratifies our decision to either obey or disobey the Gospel, having seen it ahead of time. And if so, then one implication of the doctrine of election is that the Gospel must be preached to every creature under heaven.
The Attack on God’s Foreknowledge
Yet, in spite of 1 Peter 1:2‘s wording, some Christians refuse to believe that God uses foreknowledge as the basis for Election. For instance, Calvinism, the theological system popularized by John Calvin, denies that Election is according to foreknowledge and instead relies upon the claim that God must fatalistically preordain the future (including each person’s final destiny) in order for Him to know it infallibly . Some Calvinists will undoubtedly deny the charge of fatalism but since John Calvin’s own words betray this position , it is an objection without merit. Calvinists claim that God cannot be sovereign over the salvific fate of his creatures if His decisions incorporate theirs. In such a view, obedience and belief become irrelevant as these are both granted by God to whomsoever He pleases without regard to anything they have done or will do. In other words, the concept of election according to foreknowledge is completely eliminated. It’s not that the Bible does not speak of certain events which have been preordained or predestined. It does—and on several occasions! (e.g. Jeremiah 1:5, Acts 2:23; 4:28, Romans 8:29-30, 9:23, Acts 17:26, Ephesians 1:5,11, Jude 1:4, Revelation 13:8). But there is no one verse which tells us that God predestined all of history, nor can one devise a general rule from the specific accounts of predestination found in a dozen or so verses without committing the logical Fallacy of Induction. To be fair, the Bible does teach that even though we each have free will (1 Corinthians 14:32), the expressions of that will (e.g. our speech, actions) are implemented by God (Proverbs 16: 1,9; 20:24, Psalm 37:23, Jeremiah 10:23). This means that, as Proverbs 16:9 states, though the mind of a man plans his way, the LORD directs his steps. Yet this observation too is insufficient for one to insist that God has, without human input, foreordained every single event throughout eternity. For even if we allow that God has predetermined all of history, because God holds each person accountable for their own contributions to history, and because those contributions are the outworking of what man has devised in his heart, then we would be required to infer that God’s counsel (Acts 2:23, 4:28) employs man’s foreseen decisions as the impetus for what is predetermined. In other words, man’s thoughts would not just be influential but also indispensable in any attempt to exhaustively preordain the world’s events. Otherwise, we are left with the unpalatable notion that our Righteous Judge (Genesis 18:25, 2 Timothy 4:8) finds fault with those who are incapable of willfully rejecting the light of the Gospel (Romans 9:19, John 3:19). Nevertheless, whether God partially preordains history or whether He does so fully, the take-home message is that there is no logical requirement for God to predestine history in order for Him to foreknow or declare it.
The unbiblical idea that God’s elect were not chosen according to God’s foreknowledge directly contradicts 1 Peter 1:2 and yet it serves as the basis for Calvinism’s doctrine of Unconditional Election. To the Calvinist, election is considered unconditional because it is supposed that here is nothing about the Elect which influenced God’s decision to choose them unto salvation, certainly not their foreseen belief. As one Calvinist says,
The uses of the term foreknowledge…in Romans 8:29; 11:2; I Peter 1:2, 20; Acts 2:23…all have God as their subject and do not refer to simple intellectual knowledge (“know before”), but rather indicate[s] a specific relational knowledge and indeed mean “enter into a relationship before” or “determine before.”
Yet, in order to achieve this view, Calvinists must ignore the Greek noun prognōsis (i.e. foreknowledge) which appears in 1 Peter 1:2 and instead rely solely upon the Greek verb proginōskō (i.e. to foreknow) which appears in verses like Romans 8:29. Even then, the semantic range of proginōskō must be curtailed without warrant so as to never entertain the possibility that foreknow can mean knowing some thing ahead of time. Calvinists have to employ this strategy in order to maintain that God foreknowing his elect is not the same as God having foreknowledge of His elect. In other words, in Calvinism, to foreknow is merely treated as a synonym for the idea that God preordains someone to salvation. This interpretive approach causes Romans 8:29 (which employs the words foreknow and predestinate) to now contain unnecessarily redundant clauses. However, from 1 Peter 1:2 (which to some degree parallels Romans 8:29), it is clear that to foreknow is simply to know in advance; and to know in advance is obviously not the same as to foreordain. Yet, according to Calvinist James White, “foreknowing…is an active verb and every time God uses it, the object is personal (i.e. a person) . Of course, one of the problems with insisting that proginōskō is only ever used of a person is that sometimes proginōskō can also refer to information that is known ahead of time. For example, when 2 Peter 3:17 renders the verb proginōskō as “ye know…before,” the object that was known before is not a person but is instead the information in the verses which precede 2 Peter 3:17. Moreover, if as Calvinists teach, God’s choosing of His elect has nothing to do with the individual, then why does God care to foreknow that person? What is the Bible’s purpose for informing the reader that God foreknew His elect, if in the Calvinist’s understanding, foreknowing a person has nothing to do with knowing anything about that person? What is the essence of a person if not the propositions which describe that person’s soul? Therefore, if 1 Peter 1:2 is to be taken seriously, then we must agree with the verse’s Author that the elect are chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God.”
Some Calvinists seem to recognize that their conception of a God who “fixed and determined” the lives of “every individual” without respect to anything except His own unexplained purpose, does not reconcile with a God who holds each of these same individuals responsible for those divinely-predetermined acts which they did not originate . That is why Calvinists are quick to inform us that only God can harmonize these two contradictory behaviors. However, if one simply adopts the most natural meaning of the word foreknowledge then there is nothing left to harmonize.
The Implications of God’s Foreknowledge
That election is based upon foreknowledge has several implications. One implication is that God must already know everything that will happen in the future. Yet, because the elect also include persons whose earthly lives have been permanently cut short (e.g. aborted infants) another implication of God’s foreknowledge is that He must already know the things which would have happened in the future if given the chance. For example, because of His foreknowledge, even if everyone died prior to hearing the Gospel, God would still know who would have believed the Gospel. The determination of His elect is therefore based upon an exhaustive and infallible understanding of what will or would have occurred. This remarkable type of foreknowledge expresses itself in numerous verses of Scripture (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:51-57, 1 Samuel 23:8-14, Ezekiel 3:6-7, Jeremiah 38:17-18, Matthew 11:23, Matthew 12:7, Matthew 23:27-32, Matthew 26:24, Luke 4:24-44, Luke 16:30-31, Luke 22:67-68, John 15:22-24, John 18:36, John 21:6, 1 Corinthians 2:8 etc). One pertinent example is Mark 13:19-20 where we are told that the complete annihilation of all those living during the Great Tribulation would have occurred had a certain condition been met (i.e. if those days were prolonged). Another relevant example is Matthew 11:21 where we are told that the cities of Tyre and Sidon would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes had a certain condition been met (i.e. if Christ’s mighty miracles had been performed in those cities). Therefore, God’s omniscience is not only limited to the actual events recorded in history but also includes an exhaustive understanding of potential scenarios which will never be realized.
That God foresees the unknowable is not a novel idea. In fact, there is a minority view in Soteriology (i.e. the study of Salvation) known as Molinism which also recognizes from the Scriptures that God has an exhaustive comprehension of potential scenarios (a.k.a. “middle knowledge” in Molinism). However, it seems that in the Christian world whenever anyone dares to attribute to God’s omniscience the versatility outlined in the Scriptures, that person is usually branded as a Molinist. Well, if this essay be Molinism then lest us make the most of it. For whereas Calvinism curtails God’s foreknowledge in order to achieve a deterministic view of God’s sovereignty; at least Molinism, with all of its contrived terminology, seeks to embrace all modes of knowledge afforded the Almighty in the Scriptures. Molinism also avoids Calvinism’s flawed conception of God’s sovereignty. A sovereignty which ends up painting God as this irrational Being Who is genuinely and frequently upset at the very things which His own will has ordained. Therefore, in as much as this essay is to be unwillingly associated with Molinism, this author will not cease to remind its detractors that, as a theological principle, Molinism demolishes its peers in respects to its appreciation of God’s all-encompassing omniscience.
But again, critics of the idea that God can infallibly foreknow all potential outcomes argue that God cannot know the future with certainty unless He completely preordains it. Yet, this charge is neither logical nor scriptural. For we have already encountered several Bible verses which demonstrate God’s infallible knowledge of alternate and unattainable future outcomes. Nor is it rational to suspect that God ordains the very occurrences which He claims had never entered His mind (Jeremiah 7:31). Besides, in order for their argument to be intelligible, critics of “middle knowledge” must ignorantly presuppose that God’s mind knows things in the same way that man’s mind knows them. In spite of our inability to understand how the incorporeal mind works (Proverbs 20:24, 1 Corinthians 2:11), the Bible indicates that God’s mechanism for powering man’s free volition (Proverbs 21:1, Psalm 105:25) is the same mechanism behind the Propositional Revelation which He grants to men (Matthew 16:17). The doctrine of Propositional Revelation presents the idea that all humans are indebted to God for the content of their thoughts and for their epistemic warrant (i.e. how it is that you know what you know). Hence, the Propositional Revelation of all thoughts to the minds of all men could itself become the justifying mechanism for God’s resilient foreknowledge should it be deemed necessary that He needs one.
That God makes decisions based upon His foreknowledge is not a new concept nor one that is foreign to the Scriptures. For example, in Genesis 18:17-19 we read of God blessing and disclosing to Abraham His future plans based upon His foreknowledge of Abraham obedience. Perhaps of even greater significance is the example of Galatians 3:8 which states that, “the Scripture [i.e. Christ] foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached beforehand the Gospel unto Abraham.” In these examples of foreknowing, it is information about future events that is said to be known to God ahead of time. It is therefore clear from the Scriptures that God often uses foreknowledge as a basis for His decisions.
Another expression of God’s foreknowledge is found in an instructive and insightful Hebrew term called ‘achărı̂yth. It means “that which comes after” or the “final end.” In using this term Psalms 37:37-38 says:
Mark the blameless man, and behold the upright: for the achărı̂yth of that man is peace. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together: the achărı̂yth of the wicked shall be cut off.”
In God’s view, the ‘achărı̂yth is always there. When thinking of God’s foreknowledge, some Christians have a caricature of Him in their minds where they picture Him looking down the so-called corridors of time in order to calculate all the myriad of potential outcomes that each person’s life could possibly lead to. Yet, this representation does not reconcile with the notion of the biblical God to Whom our ‘achărı̂yth is always present. The 18th century pastor, John Wesley, in one of his sermons put it this way:
When we speak of God’s foreknowledge we … speak … after the manner of men. For … there is no such thing as either foreknowledge or after knowledge in God. All…being present to him at once, he does not know one thing before another, or one thing after another; but sees all … from everlasting to everlasting. As all time, with everything that exists therein, is present with him at once, so he sees at once, whatever was, is or will be to the end of time. But observe; we must not think they are, because he knows them. No; he knows them, because they are.
No matter what God looks at, be it persons or their actions, He immediately sees their final end [‘achărı̂yth]. In this sense, there is no difference between an aborted child and a 90 year old woman, both of their fates (salvifically speaking) were already adjudicated before time based upon God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of their achărı̂yth as it pertains to obeying the Gospel.
Everyone will hear the Gospel
Yet, the Bible gives us reasons to believe that no one will stand before God on the day of judgment without having actually heard the Gospel. After all, if Christ really died for all and is the Savior of every single descendant of Adam as we are told (in Isaiah 45:21-22; Luke 2:10; John 1:29; John 3:16; John 4:42; John 6:51; John 12:47; John 12:32; Romans 3:21-23; Romans 5:18; Romans 11:32; 2 Corinthians 5:14-19; Hebrews 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:4,6; 1 Timothy 4:10; Titus 2:11; 2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14 etc.) then why wouldn’t He tell everyone for whom He died about the good news of the Gospel? I mean, who would die in the place of a condemned man in order to secure his freedom (Romans 5:7-8) but then neglect to inform the condemned man that this free gift had come upon him (Romans 5:18)? No merciful person would do so, yet in their flawed attempts to explain what the Bible says about the Gospel, many bible teachers have ended up accusing God of doing this very thing! Isn’t it understood from reading Psalms 98:9 that God will judge the world with equity? Yet, by refusing to affirm the claim that all souls will hear the Gospel, many Christian leaders are effectively accusing God of being inequitable. They are telling the world that the biblical God condemns to Hell those who have never heard nor rejected the Gospel in spite of the fact that several Scriptures actually militate against such a premise. For example, the apostle Paul in Colossians 1:23 says,
… be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister
According to the 19th century Methodist theologian Dr. Adam Clarke, the Colossians 1:23 phrase “every creature which is under heaven” is a Hebraism for “the whole human race.” If Clarke is right then this Hebraism must include those who (due to some unfortunate circumstance) never made it out of the womb but are still descendants of Adam and are therefore human. Moreover, Colossians 1:23‘s use of the past tense “was preached” is an indication that Paul here is speaking prophetically—i.e. he envisions a time when it will be true that the Gospel was preached to every member of the human race. The Gospel of Luke asserts a similar proposition in its summary of Isaiah 40:5, & Isaiah 52:10. For Luke 3:6 declares that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” and partially ascribes this prophecy to John’s ministry of repentance. If “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” then how can it be maintained that there are some who may never hear the Gospel? Or if “the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men” then how can there be men on Judgment day who will have never encountered “the Gospel of the grace of God?” (Titus 2:11, Acts 20:24) And if as Romans 5:18 claims, the free gift of salvation has truly come upon all men, then how can it be maintained that there are some who will face God in judgment without ever hearing of this free gift? Like Colossians 1:23, Psalm 98:2-3 also employs the past tense when asserting that “the LORD hath made known His salvation” and that “all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.” These verses are not to be taken as hyperbole; they are literal promises which God intends to fulfill. This is why Christ promised in John 12:32 that after He was crucified (i.e. lifted up from the earth) He would “draw all men” unto Himself. Since Romans 1:16 tells us that “the power of God unto salvation” is the Gospel of Christ, then we can surmise that it is through the preaching of the Gospel that Christ draws men unto himself. So when Paul, in Romans 2:16, speaks of a day (i.e. Judgment Day) when God will use the Gospel to “judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ,” we understand why it is one’s belief in the Gospel which is used as the basis for either accusing or excusing the sinner. But if some have never heard the Gospel then how can the Gospel be a legitimate standard of Judgment? Won’t the fact that some have never heard the Gospel call into question the seriousness of God’s desire to “have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth?” (1 Timothy 2:4) Thankfully, the bible makes it is clear that the unbeliever will be inexcusable because he has rejected the Gospel with which he was confronted (John 3:19, Romans 2:7-8; 10:14; 16:26, Hebrews 2:3, 12:25, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, 1 Peter 4:17)
This then means that it is a logical certainty that every descendant of Adam will have an opportunity to hear the life-saving Gospel. This even includes all those living before the New Testament era. In fact, many who lived and died during Old Testament times (e.g. children of Israel) had already heard the Gospel in one form or another “but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2, Romans 10:19-21). However for those who have not heard, they shall hear, “for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider” (Isaiah 52:15, Romans 15:19-21). Otherwise, on Judgment Day, how can it be maintained that they have “neglected so great a salvation” if it was all the while inaccessible (Hebrews 2:3)? In fact, so certain is God’s intention to preach the Gospel “to every creature which is under heaven” that He plainly reveals this plan through His teachings. For example, one important conclusion from the parable of the Sower and the seed (Mathew 13:3-23, Mark 4:3-20, Luke 8:5-18) is that every person will be exposed to the Gospel message. For though the Scriptures do not directly identify the parable’s Sower, that the Sower is God seems certain. For only God is able to communicate “in any manner to the minds of people—by the Scriptures, by preaching, by acts of Providence, or by the direct influences of the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, according to Mark 4:14 & Luke 8:11, the seed which the Sower sows is the word of God. In fact, Matthew 13:19 calls it “the Word of the Kingdom” which further identifies the seed as the Gospel. There are four types of ground (i.e. people) upon which the seeds fall and these four grounds clearly and collectively represent all of mankind. Yet, only one of these four groups of people will believe the Gospel unto salvation. Incidentally, assuming that each ground type is proportional, then this parable also becomes a sad confirmation of Christ’s claim in Matthew 7:13-14 that most people (i.e. wayside-ground people, stony-ground people, thorn-infested-ground people) are on the wide road which leads to Hell. However, the key point to grasp in this parable is that all ground types were recipients of the Sower’s seeds. In other words, there was no ground in the parable upon which the seed did not fall. Therefore, of the three different types of unbelievers mentioned, no one in any of these categories is ignorant of the Gospel. Because all people (i.e grounds) receive the Gospel (i.e. seed), this parable then becomes a resounding confirmation of Colossians 1:23 and it reminds us that the biblical record does not anticipate the judgment of men who have never heard the Gospel.
Otherwise, how can it be said in John 3:18-19 that the hell-bound (i.e. those who are not elect) were condemned for loving “darkness rather than light” if the condemned have never actually seen the light? Isn’t this the same reason why Matthew 24:14 and Mark 13:10 tell us that the Gospel “must be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations?” Isn’t it this witness that the light has indeed come and the witness of the sinner’s conscience in Romans 2:15 which God will use to condemn those who reject the light? But this condemnation will be meaningless to one who has never heard the Gospel. This is why it is crucial to understand that according to John 3:17-18 the light which is rejected in John 3:19 is not just the innate knowledge of God which John 1:9 and Romans 1:18-20 talk about, but is actually the “great” light of the Gospel (see Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:12-17 & Romans 2:16). This point is important because within the highest levels of Christian leadership there exists a surprising confusion about why the condemned are sentenced to Hell. For instance, the pioneering Christian ministry, Focus on the Family, employed the writings of Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson in order to assert that those condemned to Hell are there because they were born sinners. In their book Faith Comes by Hearing, Morgan and Peterson contend that it is a “faulty assumption” to maintain “that our condemnation is based on a rejection of the Gospel.” According to their understanding: “Scripture teaches that our condemnation is based on the fact that we are sinners, not because at some point in time we rejected the gospel.” Yet, we can be certain that this idea is not based upon a careful examination of Scripture. For as we have seen in Bible verses such as Mark 16:16, John 3:18-19, 3:36, 5:24, 8:24, 12:46-48, Acts 3:23, 13:46, Romans 2:8, 2:16: 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9, 2:12, Hebrews 2:3; 3:19; 4:11: 1 Peter 4:17, etc. the only thing which separates the heaven-bound from those who are condemned to Hell is whether or not they have obeyed the Gospel. The First Death’s condemnation of which we must all partake is indeed due to the fact that we are sinners. However, the condemnation of the Second Death (i.e. the Lake of Fire) is solely based upon the answer to one question: Have you obeyed (i.e. believed) the Gospel? So, while it is correct to say that the particular punishment of each Lake of Fire participant will be commensurate to his or her sins (i.e. works in Revelation 20:12-15) it is important to realize that these condemned unbelievers are only partakers of the Second Death because they have chosen to neglect God’s great salvation (Hebrews 2:3). To understand more about the First and Second Death see “Though he were dead” – A Controversial Understanding of John 11:25-26
Therefore, based upon the Bible’s clear teaching that the sinner’s salvation is predicated upon his or her obedience of the Gospel (1 Peter 4:17, Hebrews 5:9, 2 Thessalonians 1:8), it seems to go against the teaching of Scripture for an aborted baby’s name to appear in the Lamb’s Book of Life since that infant has never heard nor had a chance to believe the Gospel (See Is He BIASED). Of course, God’s foreknowledge of whether or not the dead infant would have believed if given the chance could alone justify the entry or omission of the infant’s name in the Book of Life. But a divine provision which somehow enables the aborted sinner to be confronted with the Gospel seems far more likely in light of the many passages of Scripture which we have examined thus far. For the culmination of these verses is that all children of Adam must (and will) actually hear the Gospel. This same conclusion is reached in Romans 10:14 where Paul asks: “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?” Incidentally, by “they“, it is apparent that Paul has all of mankind in mind, for in Romans 10:13 he says that “whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The obvious answer then to Romans 10:14‘s rhetorical question is that one can’t believe in Christ if one hasn’t heard the Gospel! This is the predicament of the aborted baby or of anyone else who like the dead infant has not yet heard the Gospel. Yet, Paul’s answer to this predicament matches what we have just read in Colossians 1:23. For in Romans 10:18 he says:
But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their [i.e. the preachers] sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.
The question is: Haven’t they heard the Gospel? God’s reply is: Yes, they have heard, in fact, “their sound (i.e. the voices of the sent preachers) went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” As in Colossians 1:23, Paul here also seems to put forth the notion that everyone has “heard” (paste tense) the Gospel. The language used here (i.e. “went into all the earth” & “the ends of the world”) seems to indicate that the preaching of the Gospel is both universal and exhaustive. The “beautiful feet” (Romans 10:15) of the preachers sent by God to proclaim the Gospel are not just limited to those of the apostles or other members of Christ’s church but also includes the feet of angels. For Revelation 14:6 describes an angelic messenger sent to preach the “everlasting Gospel” to all of mankind. In that verse we read:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people.
Revelation 14:6’s assertion that the Gospel is to be preached to “every nation, kindred, tongue (i.e. language) and people” is also in harmony with the message of Colossians 1:23. This remarkable claim (of exhaustive gospel-preaching) therefore occurs at least thrice in the Scriptures and is the necessary consequence of verses like John 3:19, Hebrews 2:2-3 and 1 Peter 4:17.
Does God’s threat to the watchman in Ezekiel 3:17-21 indicate that some sinners will be condemned to Hell without hearing the Gospel?
It is common to hear Christians leaders claim that those who die without hearing the Gospel are going to Hell. In fact, when I recall the lyrics of James Rowe’s moving hymn You never mentioned Him to me:
When in the better land before the throne we stand,
How deeply grieved our souls will be;
If any lost one there should cry in deep despair,
“You never mentioned Him [i.e. Jesus] to me.”
Chorus: You never mentioned Him to me,
You helped me not the light to see;
You met me day by day and knew I was astray,
Yet never mentioned Him to me.”
they remind me of just how widespread this notion is. Rowe’s hymn depicts a lost soul on Judgment Day who having learned his fate, cries out to those redeemed souls who knew him on earth with the accusatory words: You never mentioned Jesus to me! Some have wondered whether the tears God wipes from our eyes in Revelation 21:4 are tears shed from watching our unsaved friends, neighbors and others with whom we were acquainted, being cast into the Lake of Fire for all eternity. For those familiar with the writings of the prophet Ezekiel, the words of Rowe’s hymn may remind them of God’s warning to the watchman of Ezekiel 3:17-21 (c.f. Ezekiel 33:8) where God says:
Son of man [i.e. Ezekiel], I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. (18) When I say unto the wicked, Thou shalt surely die; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. (19) Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. (20) Again, When a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. (21) Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul. — Ezekiel 3:17-21
One pertinent question which could arise from this passage is:
If Ezekiel does not warn the wicked man and then the wicked man ends up dying in his iniquity, does he become an example of someone who has been condemned to Hell without hearing the Gospel? After all, why would Ezekiel need to be held accountable if the unwarned wicked man will somehow hear the Gospel after death anyway? Of course, this question presumes that the content of Ezekiel’s warning is functionally equivalent to the gospel-preacher’s warning to repent and believe (e.g. Mark 1:15). One would need to establish this presumption in order for the question to make sense. For now, we will assume that the watchman’s warning is akin to the Gospel’s preaching of repentance.
Does Ezekiel’s culpability in the death of the wicked man demonstrate that those who die without the benefit of being warned (to repent) are headed for the fires of Hell?
Before we delve any deeper into this question it should be noted that there is nothing written in the Bible which would indicate that Ezekiel ever failed in his duty to warn the people to whom he was called. Therefore, in the absence of a real example from Scripture, this question must remain a hypothetical one. However, the fact that God seeks to hold someone accountable for such a scenario seems to convey that this could really happen. On the other hand, that God would hold someone accountable for failing to warn his or her fellow man of impending danger is not a threat which is unique to Ezekiel 3:17-21, but is actually a general principle in the Scriptures (Acts 18:4-6; 20:17-22; 20:26-27). For instance, Proverbs 24:11-12 says:
If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; If thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that ponders the heart consider it? and he that keeps thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?
Earlier, we asked if the watchman’s culpability necessarily meant that the deceased was a casualty of Hell. But after reading Proverbs 24:11-12 it is clear that culpability is tied to the negligence of failing to warn our fellow man of any type of death-inducing danger. At this point, whether disbelieving the Gospel qualifies as a death-inducing danger remains unclear because we have not delineated between the different types of death which the Scriptures touch upon. Once we do so, we will revisit this question. In the meantime we will seek to understand just how robust God’s warning apparatus is.
Does God always warn the wicked?
Does God risk His reputation as a just Judge by leaving the fate of His warnings in the hands of a particular watchman? What if a watchman reneged on his duty to warn those vulnerable in spite of being faced with punitive consequences for doing so? Interestingly, the Bible does give us an account of a prophet who sought to fail in his duty to warn the wicked. In Jonah 1:1-3 God sends the prophet Jonah to warn the Ninevites to turn from their wickedness or face God’s impending judgment. However, because Jonah did not like the idea that God might show mercy to Israel’s enemies the Assyrians (Jonah 4:1-2), he decides not to warn them but to flee from the presence of God (as if such a thing were possible). Yet, what I find intriguing—if not instructive—is how God both disciplines Jonah and foils his attempt to abdicate his duty as a watchman. For God persuasively employs a big storm and a big fish to motivate Jonah into reconsidering his stance. In other words, the merciful God of the Bible ensured that His warning to the wicked would take place in one way or another. Normally our conscience is all the warning we need to realize that we are doing something wrong. This is why Romans 2:15-16 reveals that on Judgment day our conscience will function as a witness which will either accuse or excuse us. Yet, 1 Timothy 4:1-2 indicates that due to rampant ungodliness, it is possible for one’s conscience to become unresponsive as if it were seared with a hot iron. It would seem that such a conscience would require the services of a watchman. But if it is always the case that the wicked are warned in one way or another, then there would be no reason to think that the deceased wicked man of Ezekiel 3:18 had never been warned. In other words, if God always warns, then Ezekiel 3:18 contains a scenario that is strictly hypothetical because no one is going to stand before God unwarned on Judgment day.
Did the wicked man of Ezekiel 3:18 already hear the Gospel?
But what if the deceased man, though unwarned to repent of his wicked ways, was already presented with the Gospel? After all, it would not be hard to argue that to be an Israelite in Ezekiel’s day was to be a person who was already acquainted with the Gospel. For in their law was entrenched the good news howbeit in the form of promises concerning a coming Messiah (i.e. messianic prophecies). This is confirmed by Peter in Acts 3:22 and Stephen in Act 7:37 when both preached that the promise recorded in Deuteronomy 18:15-19 of a future kinsman Prophet pertained to the person of Jesus the Messiah. In fact, Romans 10:4 tells us that Christ is the goal of the Law. One of the Mosaic Law’s purposes was to engender faith in the promises of God, which is why Christ in Matthew 23:23 taught that faith was one of the weightier matters with which the Law was concerned. Paul repeats the same verdict in 1 Timothy 1:5. Since the Hebrew Scriptures were rife with forward-looking references to the Gospel (Romans 3:21) the apostle Peter, in Act 10:43 could proclaim that:
To him [i.e. Christ] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believes in him shall receive remission of sins.
In light of these proof-texts, would it be correct to assert that the Jews had in some form already heard the Gospel? Yes! For Hebrews 4:2 and Romans 10:19-21 also testify that Israel had indeed heard the Gospel. This all then leads to an important question: Is it possible that the content of the watchman’s warning was entirely different from the Gospel? Again the answer is yes! In fact, it’s more than just a possibility—it’s a certainty! For when Ezekiel 3:18 says that the wicked man will die in his iniquity, this means that he will die as a direct consequence of his iniquity. In other words, it will be his wicked way that does him in. Conversely, if he turned from the wickedness of his iniquity then this change of heart would preserve his life. Therefore the substance of the watchman’s warning does not pertain to the Gospel but instead to the threat of an impending death due to ongoing wickedness. All of these points are mentioned in order for the reader to understand that while there are indeed similarities between the Gospel and the watchman’s warning (e.g. repentance), there is also a significant difference between a person who has never heard the Gospel and the unwarned wicked Israelite of Ezekiel 3:18. For we see that the latter is a person who was expected to have already been familiar with the Gospel.
The watchman’s warning is only concerned with the First Death
There’s yet another problem with the idea that the wicked man in Ezekiel 3:18 is a hell-bound person who was unwarned of the Gospel. According to that verse, if the watchman’s warning was heeded, it would end up saving the wicked man’s earthly life. And three verses later, this same warning, if heeded, would prevent God from inserting a death-causing stumbling block into the transgressor’s earthly life (Ezekiel 3:20-21). Therefore, it appears that the primary goal of the watchman’s warning was to prevent an untimely realization of the First Death. The First Death merely refers to the bodily death which all men are appointed to face (e.g. Genesis 2:16-17, Genesis 3:19, Psalms 89:48, Hebrews 9:27). However, unlike the watchman’s warning, the Gospel’s goal is not concerned with preventing the inevitability of the First Death. In fact, according to John 11:25-26, its chief purpose is to prevent the sinner from having to die the Second Death. The Second Death refers to the act of experiencing everlasting destruction from the presence of God in the Lake of Fire as described in Matthew 25:41: 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 and Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8. The Second Death applies to those who have disobeyed the Gospel and have thereby had their names excluded from the Lamb’s Book of Life (Revelation 20:11-15, 21:8). So, for example, in John 3:16 which is a popular presentation of the Gospel, the word “perish” which appears therein is really a synonym for the Second Death. Hence, the realization that the watchman’s warning does not primarily pertain to avoiding the Second Death raises additional doubts as to whether this warning is actually equivalent to the Gospel.
But why would the watchman need to warn someone who had effectively already heard the Gospel? That a watchman would need to warn someone who was already familiar with the Gospel should not take the reader by surprise. For the Scriptures have already touched upon such a scenario. For in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 the Scriptures record the apostle Paul issuing a stern warning to a believer in the Corinthian church who had committed an abomination by sleeping with his father’s wife (c.f. Leviticus 20:11-12). Paul warned that God’s judgment on the matter was to “deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” In other words, Paul warned that though the believer’s deadly sin will cause him to prematurely die the First Death, it would not subject him to the Second Death since he had already obeyed the Gospel.
Therefore, the conclusion of this matter is that, since the watchman’s warning only pertains to the First Death and not the Second, then Ezekiel 3:17-21 can have no bearing on the Bible’s claim that all descendants of Adam will hear the Gospel.
In the lyrics of Rowe’s song, You never mentioned Him to me (especially in the 2nd and 3rd stanzas) , are words which encourage evangelism and evangelism is something that we should never disregard. However, the song’s take-home message still conveys the idea that there could be folks on Judgment day who have never heard the Gospel. Yet, when we encounter verses like Colossians 1:23; John 3:19, Romans 10:18, Matthew 13:3-23, Hebrews 2:2-3; 1 Peter 4:17 and Revelation 14:6 which all rely upon (or project) the inference that the Gospel will be exhaustively and universally disseminated, we recognize that the Bible is very consistent in putting forth the notion that no one will be able to say that they have never heard the Gospel on Judgment Day.
Are there some who are exempt from the Gospel prerequisite?
There are some tough questions which one could raise in light of this doctrine. For instance, how will the aborted baby get a chance to hear the Gospel and even if the baby were presented with the Gospel, how would he or she understand? After all, the person doing the hearing is merely an infant. Also, one seemingly insurmountable difficulty lies in the fact that Bible verses such as Deuteronomy 1:39 and Isaiah 7:15-16 seem to indicate that babies have “no knowledge between good and evil.” Without this essential faculty how can they be expected to understand the Gospel? What about imbeciles who are alleged to lack the basics of rationality? Or what about those who are deemed mentally incapacitated? Surely these are special cases which would require an exemption from the need to obey the Gospel. Right? Because of these kind of questions, some have devised a special class of exempt persons who are surmised to be irrational and therefore incapable of apprehending the Gospel. The name I have coined for this exempt class of people is the HE’S-BIASED group. The acronym HE’S-BIASED stands for the Hell Exemption Solely Based upon Infancy, Age or Special needs. It is a contrived but useful word which serves two purposes: when explained, it captures in one sentence all those who are deemed eligible to be exempt from God’s justice; and when enunciated, it reminds the reader of the doctrine’s consequence, namely, that contrary to the words of the biblical record (Proverbs 24:23-24, Acts 10:34-35, 2 Chronicles 19:7, Job 34:19, 1 Peter 1:17) God is made to be biased. According to proponents of the HE’S-BIASED doctrine, God gives special treatment to individuals who happen to fall into certain categories, categories which are ultimately irrelevant to His criteria for choosing the elect and categories which do not address the indwelling sin that these eligible persons have by virtue of being Adam’s descendants. These eligible persons end up going to Heaven in spite of whether or not they would have chosen to obey the Gospel. For instance, according to the words of Lon Solomon, the senior pastor of McLean Bible Church:
Now there is an exception, the exception is for people who are incapable mentally of responding to the gospel. Children who die in infancy, children who die in the womb, people like my daughter Jill who’s severely mentally retarded, and simply incapable of integrating and understanding the facts of the gospel and responding. In those cases the bible says, yes, God in His mercy does credit the blood and the death of Christ to these people.
Certainly, there is a problem with this biased approach to judgment. The problem lies not in our sovereign God’s prerogative to choose whom He lets into Heaven, but rather His purported decision to let in those who will potentially hate Him and have no desire to surrender their will to His Gospel or Holy commandments.
Whatever we deem to be the cognitive shortcomings of infants or imbeciles or the mentally incapacitated, it is safe to say that it is not irrationality. According to the Bible it is impossible to be both human and innately irrational. Nor can one through injury acquire a state of irrationality. This is not a denial of an infant’s cognitive immaturity nor the imbeciles apparent inability to grasp or respond to trivial tasks. Nor is this conclusion a denial that the mentally retarded seem incapable of “integrating and understanding the facts of the Gospel and responding” intelligibly. Since we as humans are made in the image of God and since that image is His breath a.k.a our endowed spirit, then it is not possible to maintain that those made in His image are incapable of reasoning. As the Presbyterian philosopher Gordon Clark put it:
In order to describe the nature of the image [of God] one can immediately assert the principle that any interpretation that identifies the image with some characteristics not found in God must be incorrect.
As we interact with the broken bodies of those who appear to suffer from cognitive disabilities we must remember that inside that broken body is an immaterial soul who is made in the image of God. That invisible soul or spirit or mind was created to be rational in accordance with his or her Creator’s defining characteristic. And when that broken body dies and deteriorates, what is left standing is that ever rational soul which declares God’s image. Even we whose bodies appear healthy and normal, for various reasons, often defy our own firmware (i.e. the internals of God’s design for the human mind) by incorrect thinking; yet it is in man’s nature to be rational. This is one of the reasons why God holds men accountable for irrational decisions such as atheism, idol worshiping or rejecting the Gospel. This means that members of the HE’S-BIASED group, though disadvantaged, are not exempt from the expectation of rationality. Nor are they exempt from indwelling sin or its consequences such as death. For we must also remember that though infants may lack discernment, they are still sinners because they are still indwelt with Sin from conception. For example, though Jeremiah 19:4-6 uses the phrase “blood of innocents” to describe infants who were slaughtered to idols in the valley of the sons of Hinnom, counter verses such as Psalm 51:5 clearly indicate that these innocents were “shapen in iniquity” and therefore possess bodies which harbor indwelling Sin. Yet, it is clear from Scripture that sinners cannot reside in God’s kingdom without believing the Gospel (John 3:3 then 1 Peter 1:23-25). Therefore, if God meant to exempt members of the HE’S-BIASED group it would have been better to simply preclude them from indwelling sin until the so-called age of accountability or until they had acquired an acceptable state of cognitive maturity. However, since the Bible declares that all men are sinners (Romans 3:10-19) then it is apparent that no such exemption has or will occur.
Though it lacks biblical support, many Christians are still of the mindset that God adheres to an age of accountability and that He automatically allows dead infants who have never heard nor believed the Gospel into Heaven. Of course, the irony with this stance is that the Gospel which the dead infant is now no longer required to believe was the only thing which could actually get him or her into God’s kingdom. After all, if Christ’s righteousness is indeed “the righteousness of God which is by faith” then this means it can only be applied to those who by faith have obeyed the Gospel (Romans 3:22). Nor is it possible to activate “the power of God unto salvation” without believing the Gospel; for the righteousness of God cannot be revealed without faith, nor can the just be justified without faith (Romans 1:16-17). Romans 3:25 says that God has “set forth [Christ] to be a propitiation (i.e. an atonement for sin) through faith in His blood” which means that the blood of Jesus cannot be applied to anyone without faith. Regarding this verse, Albert Barnes, the revered 19th century Presbyterian theologian from Princeton Theological Seminary states:
The offering [i.e. Christ’s blood] will be of no avail without faith. The offering has been made; but it will not be applied, except where there is faith. He has made an offering which may be efficacious in putting away sin; but it produces no reconciliation, no pardon, except where it is accepted by faith.
Romans 3:26 confirms this commentary by declaring God to be “the justifier of him who believes in Jesus.” This is why Hebrews 11:6 declares that “without faith it is impossible to please Him [i.e. God].” Nor is it possible for the infant to be purified (Acts 15:9, 1 Peter 1:22) or sanctified (Acts 26:18) or justified (Romans 5:1) without faith. Nor is the grace of God toward the infant even accessible without faith (Romans 5:2). If 2 Timothy 1:10 is to be taken seriously, then the heavenly “life and immortality” which is sought as a consolation for the dead infant can only be realized “through the Gospel.” In 1 John 2:2 we read that Christ is the payment for the sins of the whole world but according to Acts 26:18, there are prerequisites which must be met before one can “receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in [God].” Before the Gentiles to whom Paul was sent could “receive forgiveness of sins” God instructed Paul that he must first use the preaching of the Gospel “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God” (Romans 15:16, Ephesians 1:13, Acts 26:16-18). One should also notice that according to John 3:3, a man cannot see the kingdom of God unless he is first born again, and according to 1 Peter 1:23-25 we (as believers) are “born again…by the Word of God…which by the Gospel is preached unto [us].” That is why Ephesians 1:13 reminds us that it is only AFTER we believe that we then receive the Holy Spirit. Therefore, according to Scripture, faith must precede regeneration. This means that it is impossible for infants to be born again without hearing the Gospel.
Besides, there are other problems with the idea that infants (or other members of the HE’S-BIASED group) are automatically declared righteous. For instance, Galatians 2:21 & 3:21 teach that if righteousness could come about by any other means then Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross was in vain. Using the same reasoning, we can likewise argue that if God bypasses the Gospel prerequisite and automatically allows all persons under a certain age entrance into Heaven this would mean that faith, belief and obedience are unnecessary and have been required of us in vain. After all, if God can merely pardon an entire class of people without addressing the demands of justice (e.g. the just shall live by faith) then why did Christ have to die? On the other hand, if all that was needed for our salvation was Christ’s death then why does anyone need to believe? No, God’s forgiveness is only available unto us because of Christ’s blood which was sacrificed on the cross for our sins; and Christ’s blood can in no way be applied to the sins of those who have not believed the Gospel. This is how God set it up!
Moreover, biblically speaking, infants have never been spared divine judgment merely because of their age. For example, were the infants who died in the world wide flood of Noah’s day spared judgment because of their infancy? (Genesis 7:21-23). Or were the infants of Sodom and Gomorrah whom God destroyed with fire and brimstone spared judgment because of their infancy? (Genesis 19:24-25). Or were the Midianite infants of Numbers 31:1-18 or the Amalakite infants of 1 Samuel 15:1‑3 spared judgment because of their infancy? Some Christians have speculated that during the Rapture, God will remove all infants from the earth in order to spare them from the Great Tribulation that will follow. But this too is an idea which is not supported by, or consistent with the biblical record. What is conceivable and consistent is that elect infants will be raptured just like all other believers because God foreknew that they would believe the Gospel as He did with the others whose names are also written in the Book of Life. God’s foreknowledge of every person’s obedience is why the names of those who will believe the Gospel were written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8). But we must see that it is inconsistent to suppose that just because of their infancy, God would forgo the judgment due all infants and simply allow them into Heaven without the Gospel prerequisite. God’s mercy to all men is manifested in the good news of the Gospel message and that message tells us that though all will die the First Death (Hebrews 9:27), because Christ’s sacrificed His life for the sins of the world, no one who believes in Him needs to die the Second Death (Revelation 20:14-15). This is why it is imperative that all of mankind hear the Gospel. Eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire will only be to those who have forsaken the Gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8, Romans 2:16) thereby calling God a liar (1 John 5:10).
Revelation 7:9 which describes the great assembly of believers in Heaven states that all those in this multitude were standing. Since infants can’t stand, does this then mean that none in this assembly were infants? Do the spirits of deceased infants mature or age? In spite of such enigmas, the bible reveals almost nothing regarding what happens to dead infants. It appears that God has chosen to keep their situation a secret and all that we can do in response is to respect His prerogative to do so. For in Deuteronomy 29:29 we read:
“The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever…”
So, to such questions, though there does not appear to be an answer which doesn’t involve some sort of a divine solution, if we merely embrace the unmistakable principles found in the Scriptures, we can still confidently assert that everyone will hear the Gospel.
The bottom line is that when God is involved, every rational option is inbounds; even the ones that do not occur to us in the limited knowledge which we have been given. For example, if 1 Peter 3:18-20 was not in the Bible, how many people would have dared to think or say that God can preach to the dead (1 Peter 4:5-7)?
Was the Gospel really preached to those who are dead?
Well, it happened at least once according to Scripture. For before Christ was crucified He promised in John 12:32 that afterwards He would draw all men unto Himself. According to 1 Peter 3:18-19 He didn’t waste any time either. For in 1 Peter 3:18-20 & 1 Peter 4:4-6 we read:
(3:18) For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
(3:19) By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison;
(3:20) Which sometime (i.e. in time past) were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water
(4:4) Wherein they think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you:
(4:5) Who shall give account to him that is ready to judge the quick [i.e. the living] and the dead.
(4:6) For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.
The following dialogue is a conversation on this topic that occurred during a recent bible study:
Guys, I think this (1 Peter 4:6) is saying the gospel was preached to them that are now dead not that it is being preached to the dead. That interpretation [i.e. the preaching of the gospel to those that are dead] leads to a lot of other concerns (i.e. why evangelize if the gospel will be preached to the dead and after death comes judgement). Either way, was thinking about this and we can discuss at the next Bible Study.
So why didn’t Peter actually say that the gospel was preached to them that are now dead especially if this is what he meant? I mean, is it implied and if so how? Why doesn’t Peter use the phrase “now dead” and more importantly , what made you arrive at this interpretation? Perhaps this is the right interpretation but an explanation would help. I should note that the same writer, nine verses earlier, gives a more definitive proof text for the phenomenon that you suggest is not in scope in this verse, namely, that the dead are preached to (1 Peter 3:18-20). So, in light of this other verse, are you saying that the bible does not support the dead being preached to or are you only saying that 1 Peter 4:6 does not support this phenomenon?
Also, I disagree [with the idea that my interpretation is worrisome], since the interpretation I suggested doesn’t necessarily lead to any concerns, least of all, the one you suggest. Keep in mind that I’m not putting forth the idea that there are second chances after death, I specifically added this disclaimer when I put forth the 1 Peter 4:6 verse during the study. If you have heard the gospel and rejected it then there is no more hope after death. The question that we were dealing with arose from the verse that Derrick introduced, Colossians 1:23. It was asked whether the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven and there was doubt expressed at the table so I introduced the 1 Peter 4:6 verse as a way to broaden people’s understanding of how God could fulfill His truth in Colossians 1:23. There are obviously other ways that God can fulfill this truth but we did not discuss them. However, since the concern was hypothesized that there are those in this life who haven’t heard the Gospel (i.e. aborted infants, Old Testament persons etc.) my point was that perhaps 1 Peter 4:6 addresses this concern. So you can see that the gospel wouldn’t be automatically preached to every person that died as your concern implies; only those who fit the hypothesis.
Still, let us say that each person DID get another chance to hear the gospel after death, this would not obviate evangelism, it would only make it redundant. We evangelize because Christ has commanded us to do so, not because it is the only way that God can get his Word to the unbeliever—even if this turns out to be the case. Yes, we should strive to be rational as this is an implied command from God but there is a difference between saying that God can’t do something because to do so would make Him irrational versus God can’t do something because I have never seen Him do that before. The prior is called being prudent while the latter is called being presumptuous. My question is: does God have the prerogative to preach the gospel to a dead person who has not yet heard or is it the case that doing so would make God contradict Himself? If He does then we must not shut the door on this possibility especially if it is mentioned in the Scriptures.
I am only saying that 1 Peter 4:6 is not talking about preaching to the dead and not that Jesus did not preach to the dead during the 3 days He was in the tomb. 1 Peter 4:6 says the “For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.” I think “was” is referring to past tense. Peter did not say for this cause is the gospel being preached also to them that are dead. Verse 5 says that God is ready to judge the quick and the dead. Verse 6 is saying God can judge the dead because the gospel was preached to them. Although they died in their flesh (judgment), they will live according to God in the spirit because they (verse 2) live according to the will of God. [The other stuff you have mentioned is] not the main issue, so no need to discuss.
I understand your point. Mine is, why can’t 1 Peter 4:6 refer to the account Peter gives nine verses before? Not only does this seem to make good sense but it allows Peter’s audience not to fret about the abrupt introduction of a new doctrine especially since Peter (in 1 Peter 3:19) has just given an example of the dead being preached too. In addition, the past tense of the grammar fits perfectly with the notion that 1 Peter 4:6 refers to 1 Peter 3:19. So to restate the events: Peter talks about Christ preaching to the dead (i.e. the dead BEING preached unto) and then nine verses later he concludes that the dead were preached unto. Where is the supposed concern? If we allow the above to go uncontested then one must admit that a precedent exists in Scripture for the dead to be preached unto. This precedent is all that is needed to buttress the Colossians 1:23 proposition. If God has in the past preached to the dead then it follows that God can in the future (or at anytime prior to judgment) preach unto the dead.
The point of this all is that when people talk about persons that have perished without hearing the gospel must we rule out the possibility that the dead can be preached unto?
I suspect that this conversation between my friend and I is not an original discussion. In fact, it is probably the case that many if not most of the bible-believing Evangelicals in Christendom would militate against the idea that God would preach the Gospel after death to those who had never heard. It is heartbreaking that many sound Bible teachers are against the notion that God would allow the deceased who died ignorant of the Gospel to become aware of it’s good news. For instance, my favorite Bible commentary, the Defender’s Study Bible by Dr. Henry Morris, denies the idea that 1 Peter 3:19 & 1 Peter 4:6 are about dead people hearing the Gospel even though that is exactly what these verses seem to so clearly put forth. Specifically, regarding both verses, Dr. Morris states:
While in Hades in the Spirit, He [i.e. Christ] “preached”—that is, “proclaimed”—His victory over death and Hades (Mat 16:18; Col 2:15; Rev 1:18; Luke 4:18). Note that “hell” in these verses is the Greek hades, the great pit at the center of the earth where lost souls and many rebellious angels are confined. Before Christ’s resurrection, the souls of believers were also resting there, but these captives were delivered by Christ when He rose from the dead (Eph 4:8-10). The Greek word for “preached” here is not the word for “preached the gospel” (eyaggelizo) as in 1 Peter 1:12, 1 Peter 1:25; 1 Peter 4:6, but rather kerusso, which means “proclaimed” (Luke 12:3) or “published” (e.g., Luke 8:39). Christ was not giving a second chance, as it were, to those who had died in unbelief, for there is no second chance after death (Hebrews 9:27). Rather, He was proclaiming victory over Satan and his hosts. These “spirits in prison” almost certainly were the evil spirits who had sinned in the days of Noah by trying to corrupt and control all flesh (Gen 6:1-4, Gen 6:12). Whenever the word “spirits” is used in the plural and not clearly indicated otherwise (as in Heb 12:23 and 1 Co 14:32), it always refers to supernatural beings, or angels. In support of this meaning, note that there are thirty such occurrences in the New Testament, with only two, as noted above, referring to spirits of men. At least twenty-six of these thirty occurrences refer to evil spirits, which strongly indicates that to be the meaning here. The “prison” where these evil spirits are confined is identified elsewhere by Peter as tartarus, the Greek name translated “hell” in 2 Peter 2:4. This is evidently a special compartment of Hades where these “angels that sinned” are confined in “chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment.” They are also described in similar terms by Jude (see Jude 1:6). It was “in the days of Noah” when this flagrant disobedience of the angels took place, resulting in this severe punishment. [In 1 Peter 4:6] The gospel was not preached to the physically dead after they died but to those spiritually dead in trespasses and sins.
Unfortunately, there are several ideas in Dr. Morris’ comments that I must challenge. For instance, according to the King James Concordance, the predominant interpretation for the Greek word kērussō is not “proclaimed” or “published” as Morris indicates, but “preached.” In fact, close to 90% of the time (54 out of 61) when kērussō appears in the Scriptures, it is interpreted to mean preached. Also, of the few times when kērussō is interpreted to mean published, there exists at least one occasion when it was the Gospel being published (e.g. Mark 13:10). Neither is euaggelizō (which Dr. Morris prefers) immune from having an alternate meaning. In fact, there are several occasions in the Scriptures when even euaggelizō is interpreted to mean something other than preached. For instance, in Luke 1:19, Luke 2:10, 1 Thessalonians 3:6 and Revelation 10:7, euaggelizō is not interpreted as “preached.” Therefore, we must disagree with Dr. Morris when he declares that “the Greek word for “preached” here is not the word for “preached the gospel.” Clearly, the bible uses multiple words to indicate the preaching of the Gospel and kērussō is certainly one of them. This is why Colossians 1:23, a verse which we just examined in a previous section, rightly employs kērussō when declaring that the Gospel was preached to every creature under heaven. Ironically, in his notes on Colossians 1:23, Dr. Morris also agrees that kērussō when employed there, does actually mean the Gospel.
Another problem with Dr, Morris’ commentary on 1 Peter 3:19 is it’s disruptive effect on Peter’s theme that Christ is the Judge of both the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:5). Morris’ explanation severs the obvious symmetry between 1 Peter 3:19 and 1 Peter 4:6 which occurs just nine verses later. 1 Peter 4:6 reminds us that “the Gospel was also preached to them that are dead.” If Peter’s conclusion in 1 Peter 4:6 does not refer back to 1 Peter 3:19 but instead refers to the “spiritually dead” as Dr Morris seems to think, then Peter here is equivocating on the word dead and has therefore committed a logical fallacy. For one verse earlier (in 1 Peter 4:5), Peter juxtaposes the physically living with the physically dead but then in the very next verse he is said to rely upon a meaning for dead which differs from that of the verse’s premise in 1 Peter 4:5. By the way, I find it instructive that in 1 Peter 4:6 it is euaggelizō (and not kērussō) which is used to indicate the preaching of the Gospel to the dead. Since Dr. Morris previously certified euaggelizō as the only acceptable verb capable of conveying gospel-preaching, its fortuitous presence in this verse allows us to appeal to Dr. Morris’ own standard when asserting that 1 Peter 4:6 is definitely a demonstration that the dead were preached the Gospel. But more importantly, 1 Peter 4:6’s relation to 1 Peter 3:19 also shows us that the words euaggelizō and kērussō are interchangeable; this discovery destroys the idea that kērussō is not intended to mean “preached the Gospel.“
Finally, regarding the identity of the “spirits in prison,” Dr. Morris’ argues that the majority of the time “spirits” is used in the New Testament it does not refer to men but “to supernatural beings, or angels.” He adds that on the few occasions in the N.T. when “spirits” does refer to men, it is always “clearly indicated” in the text. Actually there are more than just a few occasions when “spirits” refer to men (e.g. 1 John 4:1, Hebrews 12:23, 1 Corinthians 14:32, 1 Corinthians 12:10, Proverbs 16:2, Numbers 27:16 etc.) But of course, Dr. Morris argues this way so as to impress upon the reader that whenever the New Testament uses “spirits” in a verse where contextual clues are sparse, then “supernatural beings, or angels” should be preferred as the referent. Yet, the most glaring flaw with this interpretive approach is that it assumes there are actually passages in the Bible where the context of “spirits” is ambiguous and yet the meaning is still “supernatural beings, or angels.” However, in every N.T. verse where “spirits” is said to refer to “supernatural beings or angels” that it does so is also “clearly indicated” by the context. Therefore if 1 Peter 3:19 turns out to be the exception, then we must find some other way of determining which referent is meant, since this verse would then become the precedent. Hence, we must abandon Dr. Morris’ argument and continue to strive with the given context until the true referent reveals itself. Fortunately, in this case, it turns out that not much striving is needed. For if Christ did preach to the “spirits in prison” as 1 Peter 3:19 clearly suggests, then this action would seem to precisely coincide with what Isaiah prophesied that He would do. For in Isaiah 61:1-2 we read:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings [i.e. the Gospel] unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn…
This passage in Isaiah is the same one Christ reads in Luke 4:18-19 when He—to a synagogue full of shocked listeners—identifies Himself as the fulfillment of this Messianic prophecy. Specifically, in Luke 4:18 Christ says He was sent to “preach deliverance unto the captives” yet the verse He quotes from in Isaiah 61:1 uses the phrase “proclaim liberty to the captives.” This shows us that contrary to Dr. Morris’ assessment, there is no distinction between the preaching and proclamation of the Gospel. And also, who are the captives to whom Christ was sent to proclaim liberty? Who were bound in the prison which Christ opened? Could these captives be the same folks as 1 Peter 3:19‘s “spirits in prison?” This would seem to make good sense. For though this act of deliverance has been argued to generally apply to all sinners set free by the truth of the Gospel (John 14:7), the emphasis on the word prison not only in Isaiah 61:1 but also in Isaiah 42:7 and Isaiah 49:9 seems to better (though not exclusively) suit the words of 1 Peter 3:19. Incidentally, another passage in the Bible which unassumingly seems to point to the conclusion of the dead hearing the Gospel is John 11:25-26. For more information on this verse’s applicability see “Though he were dead” – A Controversial Understanding of John 11:25-26.
Again, it should be noted that I am not putting forth the idea that persons who have already rejected the Gospel were also among the dead whom Christ preached to in 1 Peter 3:19. That would be akin to claiming that God grants second chances after death which is firmly unbiblical. I am merely affirming that 1 Peter 3:19 gives insight into how God could get the Gospel to those who have never heard it. And if God is willing to preach the Gospel to the dead who were ignorant of it then why couldn’t He also devise a way for infants to hear and understand the Gospel?
There must be numerous other questions which accompany the idea that God chose to preach the Gospel to those who died without ever hearing it, but what has been said thus far must suffice for now.
A final point worth mentioning is that when one considers the many judgments record-ed in Scripture which God has enacted upon deserving sinners down throughout the centuries, the fact that the Holy Spirit in 1 Peter 3:19-20 chooses to focus on the most devastating of them all (i.e. the world-wide flood) is probably instructive. By applying the a fortiori argument which Christ so frequently employed in the Gospels, we could reason that if God endeavored to preach the Gospel to the ignorant who perished in the most devastating judgment yet known to man, then He will also provide the same courtesy to the ignorant who perished in less-devastating judgments such as the fire and brimstone storm on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Of course, the soundness of this argument is also based upon the premise that God shows mercy to the ignorant.
God’s mercy during the times of ignorance.
Does God ever show mercy because of ignorance? The Bible clearly suggests so. In Acts 17:30-31, Paul tells his pagan audience that God in times past overlooked the long period of ignorance in which He “suffered all nations to walk in their own ways.” For in Acts 14:16 & 17:30-13 we read:
Who [i.e. God] in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways… And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 14:16, 17:30-31)
What does it mean that God winked at “the times of this ignorance?” Does this mean that God was merciful because He could have—but did not—wipe out the ignorant idolaters of those times? Does this mean that God has been extremely patient in withholding deserved worldwide judgment? Yes, these are certainly some implications of Acts 17:30, but there are still more profound inferences to be drawn. For it should not be said that God overlooked the times of ignorance if He also held the ignorant accountable for the ignorance of not hearing and therefore believing the Gospel. After all, if those who lived during these times of ignorance were condemned without hearing the Gospel then it is also true that God did not overlook nor wink at their ignorance. Moreover, it seems to be the case that part of the good news of the Gospel is the “assurance given unto all men” that Christ was raised from the dead (Acts 17:31). For this fact also appears in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 which is perhaps the clearest enunciation of the Gospel in the Scriptures. Yet, if this assurance was not communicated to those living during these times of ignorance then how could it ever be concluded that they have heard and rejected the Gospel? There is after all, a difference between the innate knowledge of God which Romans 1:18 & John 1:9 tells us is given unto all men versus the greater light of the Gospel. In other words, the propositions of Romans 1:18-20 are not coextensive (i.e. of equal scope) with the propositions of 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. Yet, according to Romans 2:16, it is the later and not the former which both saves and condemns all men. Please do not misunderstand my point. It is agreed that in Romans 1:18-20 there are certain innate truths about God which He has shown unto all men. These truths are grouped under the phrase “what may be known of God.” It is these indwelling propositions which render men inexcusable and make them deserving of God’s heaven-revealed wrath. However, it is the neglect, denial or disobedience of the Gospel which condemns men to Hell (1 Peter 4:17, Hebrews 2:3, Hebrews 5:9, John 3:18-19, 1 John 5:10). Therefore, the most apparent and compelling inference of Acts 17:30 is that God did not condemn the ignorant who had not yet heard the Gospel. But if so, then where are these people right now? Have they still not heard the Gospel? Perhaps some of them were part of the “spirits in prison” to whom Christ preach the Gospel and were therefore in the number of the captives who were set free (Isaiah 61:1-2, 1 Peter 3:19). But what about any ignorant persons who died after Christ arose? What happens to them? No matter how rare the predicament, the only solution to dying without ever hearing the Gospel is to hear the Gospel after death. “For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6)“
For this author, such a solution (especially as it pertains to infants) is easier to say than to conceive of, yet this solution is no problem for God provided that He wills to do it. Since Acts 17:30 declares that God has in the past overlooked ignorance, it is apparent that God wills and does show mercy to the ignorant. This mercy is not a free pass into Heaven, but is the inalienable chance to hear and believe the Gospel of Christ.
Finally, Paul’s own account of his state as an unbeliever gives us additional insight into how God’s mercy is manifested to the ignorant. For in 1 Timothy 1:13,16; he says:
[I the apostle Paul] was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief…Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.
Paul says that God’s mercy and forbearance (i.e. long-suffering) toward the ignorant unbeliever is a “pattern.” It is therefore the nature of God to show mercy unto those who have not believed solely due to ignorance. This is also the lesson that we learn from Jonah 4:11 where God declares unto Jonah:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six-score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand…?
It is clear that God shows mercy to the unbeliever who is only in unbelief due to ignorance. Therefore, one important implication of the many verses we have surveyed is that God will not send to Hell a person who would have believed the Gospel if given the chance to hear it.
“But as it is written, To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand…for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (Romans 15:21, Isaiah 52:15, 1 Peter 4:6)“
Other things to consider:
- The Gospel saves persons guilty of all manner sin (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, Luke 23:42)
- Though all will hear the Gospel, how many will believe (Matthew 7:13-14, Luke 13:24-25)?
Objection 1 – The state of David & Bathsheba’s dead infant in 2 Samuel 12:21-23 proves that all infants go to Heaven
This objection assumes without necessity that David is speaking of joining his deceased child in a particular compartment within Sheol (i.e. Paradise) as opposed to just generally joining the child in Sheol (the place of the dead) where all the deceased must go. When Solomon in Ecclesiastes 6:6 says: “…do not all [the deceased] go to one place?” he is clearly referring to Sheol without any concern for its underlying compartments. Perhaps David in 2 Samuel 12:23 means to do the same. For an in-depth answer to this objection see Is He Biased – Objection 3. Actually, a less-discussed passage with similar implications is Job 42:10 which implies that all of Job’s dead children were in Heaven. Regarding Job 42:10, Dr. Henry Morris states:
Job only acquired the same number of children as before, but his earlier family still belonged to him, safe in the Lord, awaiting a reunion with their new siblings when all later would be together with the Lord.
However, in as much as this passage is a prediction of the final state of Job’s deceased children, or in as much as 2 Samuel 12:21-23 is a prediction of the final state of David’s dead child, we must remember that any argument that would seek to take a specific case and generalize an authoritative rule going forward will invariably engage in the Fallacy of Induction. Remember, inductive reasoning is always invalid regardless of whether it is deemed a weak induction or a strong one.
Objection 2 – Christ’s utterance in Matthew 11:20-24 about Tyre, Sidon & Sodom demonstrates that those in times past who died without the Gospel are doomed!
20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
The objection of Matthew 11:20-24 (Luke 10:12-15) argues that in God’s sovereignty (and for His glory) He did not allow His mighty works (e.g. miracles) to be done in the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom knowing all the while that people who would have otherwise repented ended up perishing as a result. That this occurred is then said to bolster the claim that not all people will get a chance to hear the Gospel. Whenever I encounter this objection, I am reminded of a somewhat similar argument which Dr. James White put forth during his debate with Dr. Michael Brown on the topic of Calvinism. White claimed that God in His sovereignty allowed for the destruction of certain peoples who could have otherwise been spared by some sort of timely intervention (e.g. Jeremiah could have been allowed to offer intercession for Israel in Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 16:5, or the Apostle Paul and his companions could have been allowed to take the Gospel to Asia and Bithynia in Acts 16:6-7). Specifically, White says:
Jeremiah, at one point, once God has made the decree “This people is going into destruction” what does He then say to Jeremiah? “Do not intercede for this people.” So the question then becomes, is God only saying these things on the basis of passively taking in knowledge of “Well I know what’s going to happen, I know what these people are going to do. So now it is time to say that I am going to destroy them because I am know they are going to be destroyed anyway.” Is that the kind of sovereign decree that is going on here? Again, we want to allow Scripture as a whole to speak. There were times when God forbade people from doing things, such as, he forbade the disciples from going into Asia to preach the word, people died without Christ as a result. He forbade Jeremiah from interceding for the people. Jesus in His high priestly prayer says, I do not pray for the world. We have to allow those texts into the discussion…
In another debate against Dr. Michael Brown on the subject of Predestination, Dr. James White also said:
Was the Amorite high priest preached the Gospel? No, he wasn’t! There have been millions who died without ever hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and God knew it when He created this world and placed them in that position and knew that they would be lost.
When one considers the similarities between Dr. White’s argument and the one derived from Matthew 11:20-24, one wonders why Dr. White has (presumably) never appealed to this passage when trying to convince folks that God, without any thought for their reclamation, irremediably decrees the plight of the lost. Perhaps Dr. White deems this passage unsuitable because Matthew 11:21 seems to imply that something else apart from unsolicited regeneration can lead to repentance. After all, such a verse would not be helpful to a Calvinist. Nevertheless, it is apparent from these excerpts that Dr. White does not believe in Colossians 1:23. For had he believed this verse, he would not have claimed that the consequence of God forbidding Paul from taking the Gospel to Asia was that “people died without Christ.” Moreover, by asserting this unbiblical consequent White commits a logical fallacy. For while it is certainly possible that because of Acts 16:6 some Asians died without hearing the Gospel, it does not follow necessarily. Since God is the only Omniscient being, what follows is that He alone is capable of reaching that conclusion. By the way, it turns out that according to 1 Peter 1:1, God ended up getting the Gospel to Asia though another means, namely, the Apostle Peter. Therefore, Dr White’s implication that Asia was purposefully deprived of the Gospel (in order to secure the damnation of the non-elect) is a non sequitur. Nor does it follow that any Asians who died without Christ are now “lost” merely because the Gospel might have been delayed from arriving in Asia. After all, before Christ was born in Bethlehem, the Gospel was delayed from arriving in many more places than just Asia. For when speaking about the advent of the Messianic era, Isaiah 42:4 & 51:5 tell us that the Isles (i.e. the pagan nations) shall await Christ and His (coming) law. Were the inhabitants of these pagan nations who died while awaiting the Gospel condemned as well? Not necessarily, at least not according to the implications of Acts 14:16, 17:30-31. Likewise, the fates of those who had not yet heard the Gospel in Tyre, Sidon or Sodom and were yet destroyed in judgment are not known to us. We must therefore allow for the possibility that God will do whatever He deems best for their situation. Based upon the record of Scripture, it is not inconceivable to think that God would mercifully overlook the ignorance of those who had never heard the Gospel by preaching to them as Christ did in 1 Peter 3:19. In fact, recalling what Christ said in John 15:22-24 may help the reader understand why the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, on the day of judgment, were headed for a different outlook than the obstinate (i.e. gospel-rejecting) cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. For in John 15:22-24 Christ says:
If I had not come and spoken unto them [e.g the obstinate cities], they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them [e.g. the obstinate cities] the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.
Obviously the sin which Christ refers to in this passage is not just any ordinary sin but is a particularly egregious type of sin. In fact, it turns out that it’s the most significant sin as it pertains to the day of judgment, for it is the unforgivable sin mentioned in Matthew 12:32, Mark 3:29 and John 3:19. This sin involves being confronted with the light of the Gospel and the internal conviction of the Holy Ghost and then rejecting both for the duration of one’s life. The only thing which separates those going to Heaven from those going to Hell is whether or not they have committed this life-long sin of John 15:22-24. I believe that the pervasiveness of this one sin in the obstinate cities allowed Christ to deem them worthy of more woe on the day of Judgment than the three destroyed cities mentioned. For though these three destroyed cities were certainly guilty of all types of wickedness and idolatry (e.g. Amos 1:9-10, Joel 3:4-6, Jeremiah 23:14), they had probably never heard the Gospel and were therefore incapable of committing the unforgivable sin of John 15:22-24. According to Christ, the obstinate cities would have “not had sin” had they not heard and rejected the Gospel, for His “mighty works” being the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy bore witness of the Gospel (John 5:36; John 10:25; John 10:37-38; John 14:11, Hebrews 2:3-4). Therefore it follows that the destroyed cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom must also hear and reject the Gospel before one can consign them to the flames of the Second Death. Hence, Jesus argues that because the inhabitants of these destroyed cities would have repented if confronted with His mighty works, it will be more tolerable for them on “the day of judgment” than for the obstinate cities of Chorazin, Bathsaida and Capernaum.
But here in Matthew 11:20-24 we have exposed something that raises a question. What does it mean that it will be “more tolerable?” Is the tolerability which Christ refers to concerned with the intensity of each city’s penalty or with the differential success of each city as it pertains to how many of their inhabitants will escape the Second Death?Since these two positions are not mutually exclusive, then perhaps both of them factor into the meaning of “more tolerable.” However, only one of these positions is pertinent to the point being made. So again, does Christ mean that the degree of punishment for the inhabitants of the obstinate cities will be greater than for those of the corresponding destroyed city? For instance, will the intensity of the lake’s fire (Revelation 20:15) be greater for the inhabitants of Capernaum than for Sodom? Or, does Christ have the outcome of the entire city (e.g. “more tolerable for the land of“) in mind when He speaks of tolerability? For instance, will the obstinate city of Capernaum end up with more of its population in Hell than the destroyed city of Sodom?
If on Judgment Day it turns out that the hell-bound individuals from the obstinate cities are of a significantly greater proportion than those of the destroyed cities, then God’s judgment would have indeed been more tolerable for the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom and this would then confirm that Christ’s view of tolerability deals with how many of each city’s inhabitants will face the Second Death. But more importantly, this would also imply that the Gospel was preached to the inhabitants of the destroyed cities prior to the day of judgment.
So what do you think about the issue?
- Albert Barnes, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Matthew 13:18-23
- Day 4 – Arminianism (Dr. Michael Brown) vs Calvinism (Dr. James White), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vix2SVES4Wo, Time Marker: 45:53
- Predestination debate: For whom did Christ die?, Dr James White & Dr Michael Brown, Revelation TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzbJccGEk5I, Time Marker: 01:19:16
- Robert Velarde, What About Those Who Have Never Heard?http://www.focusonthefamily.com/faith/becoming-a-christian/is-christ-the-only-way/what-about-those-who-have-never-heard, Accessed on February 3rd, 2016
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, editors, Faith Comes by Hearing (InterVarsity, 2008), 241.
- Henry Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible, Colossians 1:23
- Day 3 – Arminianism (Dr. Michael Brown) vs Calvinism (Dr. James White), Time Marker: 44:32
- “First, the eternal predestination of God, by which before the fall of Adam He decreed what should take place concerning the whole human race and every individual, was fixed and determined.”
John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, p.121
- “God’s foreknowledge, therefore, is not a reference to His omniscient foresight but to His foreordination. God does indeed foresee who is going to be a believer, but the faith He foresees is the faith He Himself creates. It’s not that He merely sees what will happen in the future; rather He ordains it. The Bible clearly teaches that God sovereignly chooses people to believe in Him.”
John MacArthur, Saved, p.59.
- “Furthermore, not only is predestination/election never said to be unto salvation, but Paul carefully separates predestination from salvation whether in its call, its justification, or its glorification”
Dave Hunt, Calvin’s Dilemma, p. 165
- Andrew Potter, Immanuel Bible Church, Adapted from his Solomon’s Porch Notes,
- John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions (New York: J. Emory and B. Waugh, for the Methodist Episcopal Church at the Conference Office, 14 Crosby Street, 1831), II: 39.
- 2nd and 3rd Stanzas of James Rowe’s You Never Mentioned Him To Me
(2) O let us spread the word where e’er it may be heard,
Help groping souls the light to see,
That yonder none may say, “You showed me not the way.”
You never mentioned Him to me.
(3) A few sweet words may guide a lost one to His side,
Or turn sad eyes on Calvary;
So work as days go by, that yonder none may cry,
“You never mentioned Him to me.”
- Gordon Clark, The Image and Likeness of God, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/ journal.php?id=49
- Albert Barnes, Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, Romans 3:35