A Thought on General Revelation & the “Jungle Person”

Mark Beuving —  August 30, 2011 — 4 Comments

One of the most difficult questions for a Christian to wrestle with is the thought that people who have never heard the gospel may spend eternity in hell. Throughout history this thought has raised questions about God’s justice, mercy, and goodness. It has led many to simply conclude that God must save those who don’t hear the gospel.

These are important questions, and I think every Christian should wrestle with issues like this. Too often, deep questions like these are answered with cute or quaint sayings. Many times platitudes are invoked in order to resolve the tension we feel. (A platitude is a pat answer that has been repeated so many times that it loses it’s meaning; in this case, something like, “Don’t worry, God will sort it out.”) While we shouldn’t be content with platitudes on this or any issue, we should keep in mind that just because a statement has been repeated many times, that does not make it false or unhelpful—otherwise we would have to disregard all of Scripture.

In this post, I’d like to point out a couple of elements that are essential to thinking through this issue. I’m going to rely on a couple of points from Romans 1, as expressed by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle in Erasing Hell.

In talking about God’s general revelation, Chan and Sprinkle say that general revelation gives us enough knowledge to be accountable to God, but without the revelation of Jesus, we don’t have enough knowledge to be saved. According to Romans 1, God has made the truth about Himself plain to everyone, and everyone knows the truth about God.

But according to Romans 1, it’s not an issue of people seeing God’s truth in general revelation, responding positively to it, and then incurring God’s judgment because they don’t have the revelation of Jesus Christ. Paul makes it clear that while everyone knows God’s truth, everyone also rejects that truth. Here’s how Chan and Sprinkle put it:

“In other words, when people look at creation and see that there must be a God, and yet have no way of knowing His name or the plan of salvation, the Bible says that these people do not respond positively to such ‘light’…Even though I have theoretical stories in my mind of a person living in the jungle who responds positively to the light he’s been given, Paul argues otherwise. This passages teaches that all people are condemned not for rejecting the gospel but for rejecting the ‘general revelation’ that’s given to all people.” (Erasing Hell, 159-160)

If hell were God’s punishment for those who reject the gospel, then we might be able to say that God is unjust for sending people to hell who have never heard the gospel. But hell is actually God’s punishment for those who rebel against him, whether by rejecting the gospel or by rejecting something much more basic—the clear and unmistakable evidence of God’s existence (this is how Paul describes general revelation in Romans 1) as seen in the world we inhabit.

We have a tendency to view the unreached as innocent people who are going to be judged because they never had a chance to respond to the gospel. It’s not fair, because they weren’t given a choice in the matter. But the Bible is clear that no one is innocent. We all deserve death. The surprising truth in the Bible is that some people get saved, not that God punishes people.

So it’s not that these people are not given a choice. We all have a choice, but every person on the face of the planet, without exception, chooses against God rather than for Him. But that’s why God urges us to go to every point on the planet with his message of salvation. Everyone is choosing wrongly, but we are His ambassadors, pleading with people to be reconciled to Christ (2 Cor. 5). The problem lies not in God’s justice, but in every human heart. God gives us the solution, then sends us out to the world to spread that solution.

Having said all of that, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that this doesn’t make the doctrine of hell easy to believe. But should we really expect to be okay with the thought of hell? I don’t think so. Paul wasn’t. He said that he had “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart when he thought about hell (Rom. 9:1-3).  It shouldn’t be easy for us, but as I said, these are important things for every Christian to think through. I believe that the Bible gives us answers to these questions, but they’re not always as friendly or as clear as we’d like.

 

 

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • MarkBeuving

    Tim,

    Thanks for taking the time to voice your questions. These are big ones, and they have been the subject of much theological and philosophical debate for most of human history. I certainly won’t settle it for you in a comment. But I’ll give you a couple of my thoughts.

    The fact that literally everyone rejects God only reflects poorly on God if his goal is for some or all of the human race to be saved based on their own moral response to God’s revelation of himself. But the Bible makes no such claim. Rather, it depicts God’s goal as saving those who have rejected him through his own grace and power. So the rejection itself is no failure on God’s part, the failure would come if God was unable to save sinners.

    Augustine argued that sin entered the world because God set a choice before Adam between good and evil. The gift of choice necessarily includes the possibility of rejection. Augustine also insisted that all subsequent human beings have inherited the effects of Adam’s sin, so that we are still free to choose, but our desires have been so corrupted by sin that what we genuinely desire is the good and no the evil (the reason we sometimes choose good is owing to God’s grace, which he gives to the godly and the ungodly in some measure (a doctrine known as “common grace”)). This is why Romans 1–3 speak of every human being sinning. I think Augustine’s view gets at the heart of the biblical explanation of this issue, and I think that shows up fairly explicitly in Romans 5.

    So the question is not why God punishes some for the blatant rejection of his rule (shouldn’t God be allowed to punish those who commit such offenses?), but rather why God sees fit to transform, forgive, and “save” those who turn to him.

    As to why God went ahead with creation, knowing that his creatures would reject him, we’d be on pretty shaky ground trying to give a satisfying answer to that question. The closest that the Bible comes to answering that is in Romans 9, which basically says that we don’t know, that we are not in a position to question God, then suggests that perhaps God did it to show his mercy on those he is saving.

    Obviously there is so much more to be said, and many other views different than mine. But if you want to dig more into it, I highly recommend “Erasing Hell,” written by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle. They specifically address each of your questions in the book.

  • Tim Welch

    I have a question regarding your thoughts and conception of hell and sotoriology in general. What is the purpose of the existence of hell? is it to punish those who reject God? If everyone rejects god, where is the justice in that punishment? Likewise, why does everyone unilaterally reject God? What kind of omnipotent benevolent being has such an incredibly low success rate? likewise, considering God made us, why would he make us and with full knowledge that eliterally everyone would reject him?
    I know these are a variety of different questions, each of wihich could warrant a lengthy response – just curious to see your thoughts. Thanks!
    –Tim

  • In 2011 world population will reach 7 billion (vs. 3 billion in 1960). There are now approximately 2.2 billion Christians. Chan and Sprinkle seem to be saying that 4.8 billion people may be facing eternal hell.

    Concepts of afterlife vary between religions and among divisions of each faith. Not all Christians agree on what happens after this life, nor do all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, or other believers. Rebirth, resurrection, purgatory, universalism, and oblivion are other possibilities…none of which can be proven.

    Mystics of all faiths have more in common than the followers of their orthodox religions. True mystics realize that eternal life is here and now; it does not begin after mortal death. The age of Earth is said to be 4.5 billion years, of the Universe 13.7 billion, yet few humans live to be 100. This lifetime is a fleeting moment.

    Scriptures are subject to interpretation; people often choose what is most beneficial for them.

    • Mark Beuving

      It’s very true that we all interpret the Scriptures and that people often choose what is most beneficial to them. But should they?

      On what basis will we make our decisions about the afterlife and how to prepare for it? Saying that mystics believe eternal life is here and now is fairly meaningless, and it dodges the question. What happens when we die?

      Regardless of how any of us would want to answer that question, my simple point is that the Bible answers that question for us. Throughout history, people have chosen to reject the Bible’s answer to that question, but that does not change the Bible’s answer.