Questions regarding God's justice will be with us always—at least until the kingdom comes. A current example: Since Love Wins brought it up, we are pondering the fate of those who have never heard of Jesus. The New Testament clearly teaches that we can appropriate the forgiveness wrought for us on the cross only by trusting in Christ. But of course, those who haven't heard of Christ cannot do that. So how will God judge them?
In my book, God Wins, I argue that when it comes to such questions—questions the Bible does not answer—our only recourse is to trust in the God who has shown himself to be perfectly merciful and perfectly just in Jesus Christ. We are called to trust that this God will do what is just, right, and good.
This answer has seemed too easy to some. One reviewer of my book referred to this type of answer as "punting"—by which he inferred that it was an easy way out of theological dilemma.
In one sense, the criticism is just, because in the book I did not signal what an extraordinary thing such faith is. I may have given the impression that this sort of faith is an easy out, a comforting escape, a way to avoid tension and ambiguity. It is anything but that.
To me, the easy way out of such dilemmas is to foreclose the tension. For some Christians today, that means positing a loving God who would never in a millennium condemn such people to hell in such an arbitrary fashion. Others say that people who have never heard the gospel will be judged by their good works, or by the lights of their religion. Some speculate that upon their death, such people will be given knowledge of Jesus and will be able to make a decision for Christ right then and there.
The problem with each "solution" is that each is a sheer fabrication. The Bible—what we take to be God's revelation of himself and his will—says little or nothing about the fate of those who have never heard the name of Jesus. But we continue to trust in such solutions because, well, they relieve the tension. To me, they are different ways of "punting," taking the easy way out.
The hard way, the narrow way, the way that demands more than human beings can do on their own, is to trust God to do what is right and just and good.
We can see this more clearly when we bring the issue of God's justice closer to home. You have a brother or sister, son or daughter, mother or father, husband or wife, or best friend who simply refuses to believe in the gospel. But their reasons are complex. Maybe they were abused by a pastor in their youth. Maybe they were raised in a church that was oppressively legalistic. Maybe they have faced tragedy after tragedy. The point is, you understand why they refuse to trust in Christ—everything in their life suggests that the Christian faith is absurd. And yet in many ways, this loved one lives more like a Christian than do a lot of people in your church. They make lifestyle changes to preserve the environment. They volunteer at the homeless shelter. They never judge other people. They are the nicest people to be around. And so forth.
There's the tension: What is God going to do with such people, people who literally have failed to trust in Christ but whose circumstances suggest they may now be psychologically incapable of even hearing the gospel?
Some revert to the letter of the gospel law: Since these people have heard the literal words of the gospel and refused to name the Name, they are destined for hell. Tension eliminated.
Others say God will understand their circumstances. Surely their lifestyle must count for something. And they imagine that God will welcome these "unbelievers" into his presence when they die. Issue resolved. No more tension.
But of course, we have no idea what God will do. He's not revealed what he would do in such circumstances. So we're just making things up, one way or the other, to relieve the tension.
The really hard thing in such circumstances is to appreciate the deep ambiguities evident in such situations: that these are people we deeply love, that they are sinners like us, that they have refused to believe in Christ, and that their circumstances seem an unfair hurdle for them to jump over to receive Christ into their lives. The really hard thing, then, is to refuse to judge them as bound for hell or heaven. The really hard thing is to live with the tension and leave the entire matter in the hands of the God who showed himself perfectly just and perfectly merciful in Jesus.
If anyone out there finds that an easy thing to do, put your name ahead of Mother Theresa for sainthood nominations. For as we've learned from her journal, even Mother Theresa found God's ways inexplicable at times, so inexplicable that they caused her anguish. Anyone who can look at the famine in Somalia, or the tsunami in Japan, or terrorist bombings in Iraq—at the senseless loss of precious human life and can say —glibly, casually, smoothly !—that God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful has no idea what they are talking about.
God is perfectly just and perfectly merciful, and this we must proclaim right in the midst of the most awful circumstances and in the face of the most mysterious questions. But we proclaim it not glibly, not easily, but in fear and trembling, with nothing to hold on to but faith. We proclaim it not because we know exactly how God will work out his justice and mercy—for this he has steadfastly refused to reveal. What he has revealed to us is that he is perfectly just and perfectly merciful—as demonstrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God with us! When he visited our planet in an unmistakable way, this is what God looked like—a just and merciful and omnipotent Being whose justice and mercy know no bounds.
To proclaim trust in God's justice in mercy in the face of life's tragedies and dilemmas is not punting, it's going for it on fourth down and long, with the entire game on the line. It only increases the tension. It is to commit ourselves to what rational people (like us!) think an absurdity, an impossibility. It's a game plan that has no chance by human reckoning. Nobody in their right mind can believe such a thing given the facts on the ground, or given these weighty and imponderable philosophical dilemmas. It's naïve. It's foolhardy.
Yes, it is. It is Kierkegaard's faith in the absurd. It is Karl Barth's "impossible possibility." It is Paul's "foolishness of the cross" (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
I am very much a man of my time, and if I've given the impression in my book that this trust comes easily, forgive me. I am every day tempted to justify the ways of God to man. I want answers that will topple the walls of unbelief. I would rather live without these unbearable tensions. I strive to avoid the narrow and straight path of faith. In short, I punt day after day. But not because I trust in God, but because I find it much easier to trust myself.
But there is another thing I find hard to believe, even though I have staked my life on it: That God in Christ forgives sinners who know they believe more in their wisdom than in God's mercy, and grasp that they cannot do a thing about that but to trust in that mercy.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of God Wins: Heaven, Hell, and Why the Good News Is Better than Love Wins (Tyndale).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
John Stott and the Weary Evangelical | What the movement looks like at its best. (August 4, 2011)
The Most Risky Profession| Why you need to pray desperately for your pastor. (July 14, 2011)
What Faith Is: Accepting Conditions| Eternity is inevitable, one way or another. We may want to get used to it. (June 9, 2011)