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    FAQ 36
    Doomed to an Eternal Hell?
    NCW 42

    Q. Is a person who does not hear or accept the Gospel doomed to an eternal hell by God?

    If he is, then it is not by the God that I know. Unfortunately, there are far too many so-called Christians who believe in the god you have just mentioned. Presumably for them someone who accepts the Gospel and then later rejects it would be in an even worse situation.

    I know someone who was a Christian minister, had a terrible inner struggle, and simply could not continue the facade. He didn't know whether God existed and his faith deserted him. He wrote and told all his Christian friends about his decision to quit the ministry because he could no longer live with a clear conscience. His double life was destroying him.

    The response was mixed. Though some sympathised and were willing to treat him with respect as a fellow human-being, many others (too many, I am ashamed to say), treated him as though he was the devil incarnate and began a hate campaign against him. He was devastated and from being an agnostic rapidly became an atheist. And frankly I don't blame him or judge him.

    The God I worship makes a clear distinction between the sin and the sinner. He says we are to hate the sin but love the sinner. Alas, far too many Christians cannot -- or don't want to -- keep the two apart, and end up hating the sin and sinner. And once they do that, they become worse sinners themselves.

    The Lord Jesus Christ came to the world to, amongst other things, reveal the true natue of God. He not only used words like "love" and "compassion" to describe our Heavenly Father but illustrated God's relationship to us in very human and heart-warming illustrations. Perhaps the best of all, in my book, is the story of the Prodigal Son.

    When the younger son in the story demanded his inheritance and left home to indulge in riotous living, he was not stopped by his father. His father did not chase him away yelling, "You good-for-nothing impudent, rebellious ass of a boy! You'll burn in hell!" Not at all. Not even remotely. The father did not threaten the boy with hell-fire and damnation -- why should he? He knew that the boy was going to create this for himself all on his own. Instead, he let the boy go in peace with the freedom to think, feel, and act as he pleased, without recrimination.

    What do you imagine the boy would have thought some time later, when he had lost everything -- money, friends, and self-respect -- if, when in the depths of desperation, he called to mind his father, and heard echoing through his head, "You no-good-for-nothing impudent, rebellious ass of a boy! You'll burn in hell!" Think about it for a moment. And then ask yourself the question: What was it that made the boy want to return home in the story that Jesus told? Was it the picture of a father breathing hell and damnation or of a sorrowful man who loved him enough to give him his freedom to do as he pleased?

    We are not in the position of passing ultimate judgment on any person. We do not know how God will judge a man or woman in the eternities because we lack those omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving keys of love. To be sure we are called to make some local judgments of individuals that affect the welfare of the Body (Church), our families, and our countries, but we have never been given the mandate to pass judgment on any individual in his relationship to eternity. Never! And I challenge anyone to show me in the Bible where we have been given that mandate.

    That Prodigal Son would never have come home had the last picture of his father been of a vengeful, condemning ogre. Once he had realised his stupidity, his egotism, his selfishness, his rudness -- yes, his rebelliousness and his being an "ass-head" for himself -- he had only one picture to fall on that would entice him home into loving care -- the picture of a sorrowful but loving father.

    Now unfortunately we sometimes make decisions against our better sense, sometimes for the most inexplicable reasons too. But God, in His loving kindness, makes allowances for us. The Old Testament particularly paints a very clear picture of an infinitely patient God. There are limits, to be sure, but God is not so black-and-white as some fanatical fundamentalists would have us believe. For them the cross remains a torture stake long after it has served its purpose -- not only are they willing to allow Christ to be tortured on it (which He willingly did) but they try to torture others with it against their will. And as a result the cross becomes something of horror to be fled from -- it becomes a weapon in God's hands (as they suppose) against them and not the means of our delivery.

    It is absurd, even devilish, to assume that there is nothing good in a man who has not made a public profession of his faith and is walking the Christian life. Paul was shrewd enough to realise that there were many nominal unbelievers who were walking in the laws of God by a clean conscience even if their minds did not know the Law itself. There is no condemnation for such if they continue to walk in a pure conscience. It is a terrible error to suppose that a man will go to hell because he rejects a message given by a man who wears the label "Christian minister". Ministers or evangelists do not save. It is Jesus who saves.

    It is a serious to mistake to conclude that a person is lost just because he rejects our preaching. Have we suddenly become Gods whose message cannot be refused on pain of everlasting destruction? There are two conditions which have to be met in a person's life who hears the Word preached by others before he can remotely be considered "written off": (1) The preacher must be preaching the Word in the Spirit and not his own strength (otherwise the Word is dead and he might just as well be preaching Monty Python as the Gospel), and (2) the hearer must be at that moment in his life where he is able to receive the Word.

    We do not know the background of anyone fully. We do not, in truth, know the path any single soul has walked within himself. Only God knows that. There are times and seasons when a soul is receptive to the Word, times and seasons which God alone knows. Anyone who calls him- or herself a Christian must be sensitive to these things to be any use to either man or God.

    There are, unfortunately, many heretical, satanic theologies around which impute more power to the "Word" than to Gof Himself. For them the "Word" -- the Bible -- is God. But the Bible, without God, is nothing. It is lifeless. And when it becomes lifeless, as it can do, when it is abused by unspiritual people, it can become an instrument of destruction.

    The heart of the New Covenant is the heart -- that is its natural home -- in warm flesh-and-blood. It is eternal to the heart -- on paper -- only because our hearts are so unreceptive to it and won't receive it. It is a dangerous fallacy to suppose that the Word is somehow "saving" in the hands of an ignorant or supposedly theologically wise man when that man is unsaved in his heart.

    Every human being is created in the image of God and that basic image is in everyone, "believer" and "unbeliever" alike. Sometimes, alas, it is stronger in those who claim to be "unbelievers" than in those who claim to be God's own. But the reality cannot be ignored.

    God sees us as we really are and not as men see us. There is much in us that is hidden to others, even to our own spouses, those who supposedly know us so well. Only God knows the full, true self. The fact that raging demons can be suddenly and miraculously turned by the Holy Spirit into caring and loving human beings does not mean that these "demons" had no love in them in the first place. More often than not that love has been a prisoner inside, unable to breathe or reveal itself because of various forms of spiritual bondage.

    Complex though such a thought may render our perception of people and life, it is a truism that many who claim the salvation of Christ have only done so propositionally, forensically or outwardly, and have never really experienced the new birth or is life-changing power; and many who claim the label "heathen" are Christians without knowing it. We are to judge people by their works and not by their religious flags, however big and bright they may be.

    There are ways to warn people of the consequences of sin that will endear them to God and cause them to repent, and there are ways that will turn them off Him altogether and encourage them to rebell all the more -- because they simply can't see the love in the inadequate human visions of eternity. God's chief purpose is to reveal His love to us -- to "draw" us to Him, not to "compell" us to Him. The god of the whip has another name.

    This is a rather longish way around to your question about whether a person who does not hear the Gospel will go to hell. Astonishingly, supposedly learned and wise men hold to such positions because that is what they believe the Bible teaches. No earthly father ever held the love and respect of his son through a régime of blind terror, so how on earth could a Heavenly Father be expected to command our love and respect by using a method which everyone instinctively (because it was placed there by God in our consciences in the beginning) knows is wrong?

    I repeat -- it is not for us to judge men whether they are fit for heaven or hell. That is none of our business, and I would even venture to suggest that those who act as God in this way run the risk of finding themselves in that place they are so busily condemning others to. It is our duty to warn them not to do it and to protect innocent people from them.

    God will convict people of sin in His own way that will lead to genuine and not plastic repentance. Our job is to point people to the Saviour and His Law and invite them to receive, of their own free will and desire, the Gospel of Salvation themselves.

    This page was created on 8 April 1998
    Last updated on 8 April 1998

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