Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When Justice becomes Injustice

We are making our way through the book of Leviticus in my Sunday school class. This is the passage we considered this past Sunday:

“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. 
~ Leviticus 19:15 ~

We have here a general prohibition followed by several specific examples. The general prohibition is:  “You shall do no injustice in court.” The court, we should understand, is not a human invention, but a divinely authorized institution (Deut. 1:9-18; Rom. 13:1-7). It has been established for the purpose of pursuing justice (Deut. 16:18-20). Justice involves the administration of law in order to prevent one person from harming or defrauding another and to provide a legal remedy when such harm or defraudation takes place. The role of the judge is to decide cases in terms of God’s law. Judges, therefore, are to recognize the Lord as the ultimate source of justice and to understand their role as mediating “divine decisions.”[1] This is why judges are sometimes referred to as elohim, i.e., gods (see for example Ex. 21:6; 22:8-9; Ps. 82:6). This is also why Moses charged the judges of Israel, saying, “You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s” (Deut. 1:17).[2]

This last statement is very significant. As judges decide cases under the authority of God’s law, they are rendering the Lord’s judgments. They are his decisions. It must be stressed, however, that this is only the case when the decisions are made in terms of the body of case law which the Lord gave to Israel.[3] Case law consists of a collection of past legal judgments that serve as a rule to guide judges in deciding all present and future cases. The use of case law involves reasoning by analogy, comparing present cases with previous rulings and making judgments accordingly. The Lord provided Moses with a number of legal scenarios which were likely to come before the judges of Israel for a decision. In each scenario God declared his will concerning how the case should be decided. “If this happens (i.e., if this offense should occur, or if that crime should be committed) here is how the matter should be handled judicially.” This would be of immense practical value to those charged with ruling Israel.

The preface to the first collection of biblical case law states:  “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them” (Ex. 21:1). The word translated “rules” (mishpatim) might better be translated judgments. The idea is that the decisions given in the specified cases represent God’s judgments. They represent the decisions he would give if he should personally preside in the case. Thus, the case laws provide the judges of Israel with a divine exemplar for rendering legal judgments in all similar cases. They serve the purpose of providing legal precedent. If past rulings were just and equitable, then it is good and wise to decide present cases consistently with past ones. Israel, however, was a new and independent nation; her judges had no legal history from which to draw when deciding cases. Of course they had the example of Egyptian law; and there were other legal codes available to them that provided case law,[4] but these were all fundamentally flawed in that they were of merely human origin and did not recognize the one true and only God. But the Lord provided Israel with a body of case law to establish legal precedents that were stamped with divine perfection.

Just laws, however, are not sufficient to guarantee a just society. A legal system, however well-grounded in God’s law, is only as good as the men who administer it are honest, hence the command in v. 15a, “You shall do no injustice in court.” In other words, You shall not turn the justice system into a tool of injustice. We find many similar admonitions in Scripture (e.g., Ex. 23:2-3; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 27:19; Ps. 82:2; Jas. 2:9). The integrity of the courts is perhaps the single greatest indicator of society’s faithfulness or apostasy. The prophet Isaiah laments the state of the legal system in his day when he says,

No one enters suit justly;
no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity (Isa. 59:4)

Asaph speaks of the Lord confronting unjust judges.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods [i.e., judges] he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? (Ps. 82:1-2)

The legal system had become a tool of injustice, the very thing the Lord had warned against in Leviticus 19:15.

The text goes on to prohibit several specific ways in which injustice might be done. “You shall not be partial to the poor” (v. 15b). Levine remarks, “In the pursuit of justice there can be no favoritism, even toward those for whom we have instinctive sympathy and who are otherwise deserving of our aid.”[5] This is a point which is also stressed in Exodus 23:3, “nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.” This principle stands as a rebuke of the socialist/liberationist agenda, which claims that God is on the side of the poor. He is not. Let me repeat. God is not on the side of the poor. This does not mean, however, that he is on the side of rich, as the rest of the verse makes clear:  “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.” Justice is no respecter of persons. This is a principle which is stated repeatedly in Scripture and has its ultimate foundation in the very character of God, who is himself impartial.

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe (Deut. 10:17).

[He] shows no partiality to princes,
            nor regards the rich more than the poor (Job 34:17) [6]

The impartiality God requires of judges is a reflection of his own impartiality. Justice does not take into account the litigants’ economic status. Rich and poor alike are subject to the same law. A poor man who steals from a rich man is as answerable to the law as a rich man who steals from a poor one. The same law applies. The same holds for other offences, as well. This is an application of the principle stated in Exodus 12:49, “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you” (cf. Num. 9:14; 15:15-16).

The commandment is expressed in a way that corresponds to the natural temptations a judge might feel: pity for the poor and deference toward the rich. But if he decides in favor of the poor only because he is poor or in favor of the rich only because he is rich, he has committed injustice. He is to have a regard only for the law and for the facts in the case. There must be no favored classes and no favored individuals.

[1] See Jonathan Burnside, God, Justice, and Society:  Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible (New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 2011), Chapter 4:  “Justice as a Calling,” pp.  103-144
[2] Years later King Jehoshaphat “appointed judges in all the fortified cities of Judah, city by city,” and charged them in words very similar to those of Moses:  “Consider what you do, for you judge not for man but for the Lord. He is with you in giving judgment” (2 Chron. 19:5-6).
[3] See for example Exodus 21-23; Leviticus 18-21; and Deuteronomy 13-27
[4] Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Atlanta, GA:  Scholars Press, second edition, 1997)
[5] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Leviticus (New York, NY:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 128
[6] See also Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17; 16:19; 2 Chron. 19:7; Ps. 82:2; Prov. 18:5; 24:23; 28:21; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6; Col. 3:25

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Snake-handling churches

Who knew there was such a program as National Geographic’s “Snake Salvation”? I certainly didn’t until a couple days ago when I saw this video while checking The Weather Channel for the day’s forecast. The star of the show was Jamie Coots, pastor of the snake-handling Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name, located in Middlesboro, Kentucky. [UPDATE: the video at the link above is no longer available. Here is one from ABC News.]

I say Coots was the star of the show, not because the program was cancelled (although it was), but because Pastor Coots is no longer with us. He was bitten by a rattlesnake during a service last Saturday and died two hours later after refusing treatment. Seeking treatment would have been a violation of his beliefs.

As strange as it seems, there are people who believe that God commands them…yes commands them…to handle poisonous snakes as an expression of their faith in God.[1] Their belief is derived from a misreading of the King James Version of Mark 16:17-18, “These signs shall follow them that believe…They shall take up serpents.” Coots and his fellow snake-handling aficionados believe the “shall” indicates a positive command. The problem is that the word “shall” can be used either as an imperative or simply to denote the future. English usage can be ambiguous. Greek verbs, however, have built-in indicators of tense, voice, and mood. The verb in question (ajrou~sin arousin) is not in the imperative mood, which would have certainly indicated a command. It is rather a future indicative. And while the future indicative was sometimes used for a command, there are weighty reasons against taking it as such in Mark 16:18. First, as Wallace observes,

The future indicative is sometimes used for a command, almost always in OT quotations (due to a literal translation of the Hebrew). However, it was used in this manner even in classical Greek, though sparingly. Outside of Matthew, this usage is not common.[2]

It should be added that when the future indicative is used as a command, it is almost always in the second person, “You shall,” not the third person, “They shall.”

Second, there are five other verbs in the passage with the same construction that cannot possibly be taken as commands. They are highlighted in bold below.

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover (Mk. 16:17-18).

Two of the activities mentioned in this passage, speaking in tongues and healing the sick, are gifts of the Spirit mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. Neither of these gifts are given to every believer. Paul asks rhetorically, “Do all possess the gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues?” (1 Cor. 12:30) The answer, obviously, is no. After all, he had said earlier, “To one is given through the Spirit…gifts of healing…to another various kinds of tongues” (vv. 7, 10). The Spirit, we are told, “apportions [gifts] to each one individually as he wills” (v. 11). It certainly cannot be a command to exercise gifts which God has not given. Is it not better to take the future indicatives of Mark 16, “they will speak in new tongues,” and “they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover,” as ordinary objective statements about the future rather than as commands?[3] The same is true regarding the casting out of demons and the picking up of serpents. Jesus is simply saying that these things will occur in the future ministry of the church.

Specifically with regard to picking up serpents, Jesus is not referring to intentional snake-handling, but to incidents like that recorded about Paul in Acts 28.

After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Jesus’ statement in Mark 16 about picking up serpents was not a command, or even an invitation, to intentionally flirt with danger and simply “trust God” for protection. This is not faith, but presumption. How does it differ from the temptation the devil used against our Lord? Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” But Jesus answered, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Matt. 4:5-7).

Many news reports speak of how sincere Pastor Coots was in his beliefs. All well and good. But sincerity is no guarantee of truth. His interpretation of Scripture was badly flawed and it cost him his life.

[1] Just a year and a half ago another minister was in the news when he died of a snake bit.  
[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics:  An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), p. 569
        [3] Besides is the future indicative, “they will recover,” a command too? Does God actually command the sick to recover?

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Biblical Charity: Gleaning

9 ”When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
~ Leviticus 19:9-10 ~

The gleaning laws of Scripture express the Lord’s concern for the well-being of the poor. This is a concern that he requires us to share with him—and not in words only, but also in deeds. “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn. 3:17-18). The Lord looks kindly on those who are themselves kind to the poor.

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord,
            and he will repay him for his deed (Prov. 19:17)

Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed,
            for he shares his bread with the poor (Prov. 22:9)

The gleaning laws given in Leviticus 19:9-10 were a very practical way to assist the poor in a pre-industrial, agriculture-based society. The two verses correspond to each other in content and structure. Let’s set them side-by-side for an easier comparison:

When you reap the harvest of your land,
you shall not reap your field right up to its edge,
And you shall not strip your vineyard bare,
neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 
neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard.
You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.”

In this passage we have two settings:  field (v. 9) and vineyard (v. 10). Each setting has two prohibitions:  (1) do not harvest all the produce, and (2) do not gather up the produce that has fallen to the ground during the harvest. The rationale given for the prohibitions is stated in the positive command:  “You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner.” All of this is enforced with the solemn declaration:  “I am the Lord your God” (v. 10).

The subject is revisited in an abbreviated form in chapter 23, where only the harvest of the field is mentioned.

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner:  I am the Lord your God (Lev. 23:22)

You shall not reap your field right up to its edge (v. 9). As Levine observes, “There is no limit or minimum as to the space or quantity to be left unharvested in the corners of the field.”[1] Biblical law leaves this to the discretion of the landowner. However, the second tractate of the Mishnah, entitled Pe’ ah, meaning “the corner or edge” (of the field), deals with these matters at length. There it is said, “They may designate as peah no less than one-sixtieth [of a field’s produce].” It also teaches that the quantity designated “should always accord with: (1) the size of the field, (2) the number of poor people, (3) and the extent of the yield.”[2]

Nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. The gleanings are defined in the Mishnah as “that which falls [to the ground] during the harvest” (Pe’ ah 4:10).The harvest, of course, was done by hand with a sickle.[3] “Inevitably, stalks [would] be dropped during the harvesting.”[4] The reapers were forbidden to go back and pick them up. They belonged to the poor.

The same principles applied to the grape harvest. The vine was not to be “stripped bare.” Some of the crop was to be left on the vine for the poor to gather. Further, “what has fallen on the ground of its own accord or has been dropped by the reaper is to be left there.”[5]

Deuteronomy 24 gives us an expanded view of the subject.

19 When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this (Deut. 24:19-21)

This passage mentions not only the field and vineyard, but also the olive grove. And instead of speaking merely of the poor and the sojourner, this passage mentions “the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.” The sojourner was a resident alien, a non-Israelite living in Israel. The fatherless and widow comprised the largest share of the native poor in a preindustrial, agriculture-based economy. As Wenham observes, “These people [the sojourner, fatherless, and widow] rarely had land of their own, and had to rely on selling their labor to buy food. This law entitled them to a small amount of free food each year at the expense of the more affluent members of society.”[6]

The gleaner had three options with the fruit of his labor. He could use it himself or he could exchange it for money or other goods.

We have a fine example of the importance of gleaning in the story of Ruth. She and her mother-in-law, Naomi, were both childless widows and therefore without any form of support (see Ruth 2:1-23).[7]

No penalty is ever specified for a failure to comply with the requirements of this law—no penalty imposed by the civil government, that is. Presumably, the Lord himself would see to the matter.

You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Ex. 22:21-24)

Failure to leave the gleanings of the field for the poor is not the same thing as oppression. It’s more a matter of neglect rather than of injustice. But such neglect meets with God’s disapproval. “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). God loves a large heart and an open hand.

7 If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, 8 but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be… 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deut. 15:7-8, 11)

Some further observations are in order.

1.       This law required poverty relief in the form of voluntary donations from private individuals. There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture of God requiring a state-sponsored redistribution of wealth. In fact, such a system is inherently unjust.

2.      There was no centralized, impersonal, bureaucratic authority charged with the responsibility of providing assistance to the poor. The poor dealt personally with the local landowners, and the landowners personally with the poor.

3.      The poor had to go and gather the gleanings for themselves. They could not be idle and expect others to do for them what they ought to do for themselves. The food was in the field for the taking. The landowner was not required to deliver it to the doorstep of the poor; the poor were required to go get it for themselves. In other words, there was a work-requirement to receive the assistance (2 Thess. 3:6-12). “In modern terminology, this might be called a workfare program instead of a welfare program. The gleaner was not a passive recipient of someone else’s money.”[8]

4.      The requirement to work preserved the dignity and self-respect of the poor. They were as self-sufficient as their circumstances permitted. Mere handouts to otherwise able-bodied people are notoriously de-humanizing and create a mentality of dependence.

5.      Those who were disabled were of course exempt from the work-requirement. The law shows special consideration for the disabled (Lev. 19:14).

How might the gleaning laws apply in the modern world? In a non-agricultural society, fulfilling the literal requirements of the law will not provide much help to the poor. Many of the poor in modern society live nowhere near a farm; and even if they did, they would have no idea what to do with the gleanings of the field. This doesn’t mean, however, that the principle behind the gleaning laws is not applicable or that we cannot find new ways of expressing it. Andrew Sandlin has some helpful suggestions in this regard.

What would it look like today? It would mean that grocers and restaurant owners invite the poor to take their unsold and soon-expired food. It means that pharmacies should offer surplus medicines to the ill who cannot afford to pay for them. It means that software companies offer shareware of obsolete but usable versions of their products. It means that phone and computer hardware retailers donate slightly defective merchandise to the poor. In these and many other ways, God’s law governing care for the poor applies to contemporary culture.[9]

We are only limited by our lack of will and imagination to find creative ways to apply the gleaning laws of Scripture to modern poverty.[10]

[1] Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary:  Leviticus (New York, NY:  The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 127
[2] Pe’ ah 1:2 in The Mishnah:  A New Translation, ed. Jacob Neusner (New Haven, CN:  Yale University Press, p. 15)
[3] See:
[4] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus, (CCS) (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Fortress, 2004), p. 225
[5] John D. Currid, Leviticus, (EPSC) (New York, NY:  Evangelical Press USA, 2004), p. 251
[6] Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT), (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. 266
[7] Notice that Boaz commanded his reapers to go above and beyond the law. “Boaz instructed his young men, saying, ‘Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. And also pull out some from the bundles for her and leave it for her to glean, and do no rebuke her’” (vv. 15-16).
[8] Gary North, Leviticus:  An Economic Commentary (Tyler, TX:  Institute for Christian Economics, 1994)
[9] Andrew Sandlin, Christian Culture:  An Introduction (Mount Hermon, CA:  Center for CulturalLeadership, 2013), p. 51
[10] George Grant has written an excellent book on the subject, Bringing in theSheaves:  Replacing Government Welfarewith Biblical Charity (Franklin, TN:  Ars Vitae, 1995)

Monday, February 10, 2014

The homage which the deity is due

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them. I am the Lord your God.
~ Leviticus 18:1-4 ~

These verses address one of the most common temptations faced by the people of God—the temptation to conform to the standards of the surrounding unbelieving culture. The Israelites had only recently been delivered from slavery. They had never existed before as an independent nation. They, their parents, and their grandparents were born and raised in Egypt. Egyptian ideas of religion, family life, education, ethics, culture, and law were all they knew. And they were about to settle in a land and among a people whose culture was equally devoid of the knowledge of the true God. The question was, “How were they to organize a new nation?” Their natural inclination would be to use what was familiar to them as a model. But God nixed the idea. “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt…and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan…You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow my rules and keep my statutes and walk in them.” It was this above everything else that would reflect whether or not Israel truly regarded God as God, for a nation’s laws are inevitably derived from the deity it worships.[1] This is true regardless of whether or not that deity is conceived of as a personal being. Here I define deity very broadly. Whatever is regarded as the fundamental reality—the thing prior to which nothing else existed and the thing upon which everything else’s existence depends—is in effect the god of that society, and thus its source of law.

In the West there are two rival claims to the nature of ultimate reality. Some say, “In the beginning God…” Others say, “In the beginning matter…” It makes a difference which claim is believed because whatever is regarded as the fundamental reality has the privilege of serving as the organizing principle of all human thought. Everything—including (or should I say, especially?) law—must be explained in light of that reality. This is the homage which the deity is due. In the Christian worldview, everything is explained in terms of its relationship to the eternal God. In the secular worldview, everything is explained in terms of its relationship to eternal matter and the properties inherent in it. In such a worldview, no appeal can be made to anything higher, anything more fundamental, because there is nothing higher or more fundamental. The properties of matter alone explain reality because they alone are reality.

A society that thus pays homage to matter will necessarily look very different from one that pays homage to the God who has revealed himself in the pages of the Bible. This is because matter has no wisdom, no will, no intelligence. It has no purpose. It certainly carries no moral imperative. This is why, from a legal standpoint, the U.S. looks very different than it did just one or two generations ago. A change of gods necessarily results in a change of law. Or, to put it another way, a change in law reflects a prior change in gods. We have changed our conception of ultimate reality from “In the beginning God,” to “In the beginning matter.” The legal changes we have witnessed in the last several decades are the nation’s attempt to live more consistently with its new religious commitment. These changes are often more than merely foolish; they are frequently unjust, and sometimes even bizarre. And they seem to come at such an increasingly rapid rate that one almost loses the capacity to be surprised.

So what is the faithful Christian to do? I can tell you what he must not do. He must not despair. It would be too easy to follow the trajectory of current events and conclude that things are hopeless, that Christian culture is irrecoverable. It is not. There is hope as long as God is God. Things look no bleaker now than they did in Nero’s Rome. Who would have thought that in three short centuries the throne would be occupied by a Christian ruler who would begin to make legal and other changes that would eventually result in the Christianization of the institutions of Europe?[2] I am well aware, of course, of the imperfections and shortcomings of the process and of the key people involved in it. But the point is this:  the process took place. Furthermore, it took place to such an extent that it was appropriate to speak of Christian Europe.[3] Few at the time would have believed it possible when Christians were being fed to the lions. Nevertheless, the Lord brought it to pass. Even so, there are few now who believe it possible to recover a distinctly Christian culture. But there is no reason to think the Lord will not bless our faithful labor to that end as he blessed the labor of our forefathers.

[1] See Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Philipsburg, NJ:  The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1973), p. 4.
[2] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine:  The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2010)
[3] Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe:  An Introduction to the History of European Unity (New York, NY:  Barnes and Noble, 1994)

Friday, February 7, 2014

What about those who have never heard?

I believe in Jesus, that he came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died for my sins; but, if faith in Jesus is absolutely the only way, then what about the people who died who never heard of Him? He doesn’t punish children for not believing he died for their sins because they don’t know Him yet and can’t comprehend that kind of sacrifice, so how could He punish those who never had the opportunity to know about Him when it’s not their fault? Or what about the people who died before Jesus rose again or before his life even began? What about all of the important people from the Old Testament like Adam and Eve, Noah, Joseph, David, etc? Do they just not get to go to Heaven because they lived before Jesus’ sacrifice? 

First, let me say that you have asked a really good question. The question of what happens to those who have never heard the gospel is one that is frequently asked, often with a two-fold concern, first, for the justice of God (how can he punish people for never having heard the gospel) and second, for compassion toward people. We all naturally feel sorrow for those who are still in their sins and exposed to God’s wrath (Rom. 9:1-3).

At the outset it is important to say that God doesn’t punish people for not having heard the gospel. He punishes them for the sins they have committed. Sin is a violation of his law (1 Jn. 3:4) and results in death. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). It should also be remembered that everyone is fully responsible for his or her own sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, and being responsible, they will have to give an account of them to God.

Secondly, God could have chosen not to offer salvation to anyone on any terms at any time, and he would not have committed any injustice to anyone. God doesn’t owe us salvation. This is the very meaning of grace. It is “unmerited favor.” No one deserves it. The wonder is not that some obtain it and some do not. The wonder is that anyone at all should do so.

Third, having graciously chosen to offer salvation to us sinful human beings, the Lord could have chosen to do so on any terms he deemed wise. He has deemed it wise—because it was the only way consistent with his own righteousness—to offer us salvation by way of the sacrifice of Christ. Our salvation had to come through a man, since it was a man who plunged us into ruin; but it had to come to us through one who was more than a man, because the life of no mere man was of sufficient value to atone for the sins of the world. And so Jesus, who is both God and man, met both qualifications. As a man, he acts on behalf of men to restore the glory that man had robbed from God; as God, his death is of infinite value, capable of atoning for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29).

Fourth, God has attached a qualification to receiving the benefits of Jesus’ sacrificial death, namely, giving ourselves to him, body and soul, to live and die for him. This is what it means to believe in Jesus, for faith is no mere mental assent to a proposition, but a whole-hearted devotion to Christ.

That hearing the gospel and coming to personal faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation is implied in what Paul says in Romans 10.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? (Rom. 10:9-14)

Fifth, God could have chosen to send out all his holy angels to the four corners of the earth to call people to repentance and to announce the good news that whoever believes in Christ will be saved. But he didn’t. He chose instead to tie the progress of the gospel to the seemingly weak and ineffectual ministry of human beings sharing the gospel by word of mouth.

What, then, of those who have never had the opportunity to hear the gospel? Again, they are not condemned for not having heard. They are condemned for having broken God’s law, which is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12). But their not having had an opportunity to hear the gospel is an illustration of what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans concerning God’s sovereignty in dispensing his grace.

Is there injustice on God’s part [that some receive his favor and others do not]? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who has mercy (Rom. 9:14-16).

Though this may seem difficult at first, we can be sure of this:  there is no injustice in God (Zeph. 3:5; cf. Gen. 18:25).

As far as the saints in the Old Testament are concerned, the Bible teaches that they were saved on the basis of their faith in God in anticipation of what Jesus would do for our salvation when he should eventually come (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15).

As far as children go, it is widely believed they that will receive God’s mercy so as to be saved if they should happen to die before contracting the guilt of actual transgression (as opposed to the guilt of original sin). However, since there is no direct mention of this in Scripture, there is a difference of opinion on this point among worthy theologians.

In all these things we should remember that God judges people according to the knowledge they possess.

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more (Lk. 12:47-48).

Again, God never does any injustice. Those whom he punishes, deserve to be punished. We who are saved deserve to be punished too, but we have received mercy through Jesus Christ. How humbling is this?! God has so worked in our lives that he has brought us into contact with the gospel and has opened our hearts to embrace it. The hymn writer, Robert Robinson nailed it when he said, “Oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be!”