Ron Dart was a minister in the Armstrongite Church of God, International (CGI) while I was growing up. I remember listening to a series of sermons that he gave on personal evangelism. In Part 3, he said that one way to plant seeds for “the truth” is to ask people questions, thereby giving them an opportunity to take a look at their own beliefs.
Dart told a story about visiting a lady who was interested in the CGI. She lived with her dad, a staunch Pentecostal. The Pentecostal father and Dart got into a little debate about hell. Essentially, Armstongites believe that God will give most people a chance to be saved in the second resurrection, while he will destroy (not eternally torment) the hopelessly wicked in the Lake of Fire. Naturally, the Pentecostal challenged this position, since he held fast to eternal torment.
Dart was grilling the Pentecostal about the eternal destiny of small children and those who’ve never heard the Gospel. He asked why the Pentecostal didn’t make that great of a financial sacrifice to send missionaries to the lost, since the man had a fancy house and a nice garden. Eventually, the Pentecostal exclaimed, “Anyone who has not heard the Gospel will be automatically saved.” Dart then replied, “Then why are you sending all of those missionaries to other countries? To get people lost?”
Dart gets a lot of laughs when he tells this story. And he does well to make people evaluate their own beliefs, for many of us have not really considered why we believe the way that we do.
But, as my mind recently turned to the Book of Acts, a thought occurred to me: If God chose, he could easily leave people in their spiritual ignorance, which would then serve as an excuse for them in the eyes of God. But he doesn’t do that. Rather, he gives them light. And, when he does so, he places them in a situation where they can be lost, since they may make the wrong decision. But he also gives them an opportunity to be saved, which can occur as they become exposed to truth.
Let’s take a look at some passages. On Mar’s Hill, Paul said to the Gentiles of Athens, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30 NRSV). This passage seems to indicate that, prior to the coming of Christ, God did not hold the Gentiles responsible for their idolatry. He took their ignorance into consideration, and it served an excuse, so he did not punish them. Now that Christ has come, however, their clock has started ticking! They need to repent, or else.
Romans 3:25-26 appears to say something similar, for it affirms that God “in his divine forbearance…had passed over the sins previously committed…to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” Before the present time, God passed over people’s sins. Now that Christ has come, however, he doesn’t give human beings a free ride. They must accept Christ or face God’s wrath.
In John 15:22-24, we read the following: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.”
In all of these passages, the sinners would have been better off had they not heard the truth (from a certain perspective). When the Gentiles were ignorant, God didn’t hold their sins against them. Now that Jesus has come, he does. Jesus said that the people of Israel would not be accountable if he had not arrived and performed all those signs and wonders. But he did come and do those things, so now many of them are guilty. Why did God send Jesus to earth? To get people lost?
God wanted to enlighten people. The lost are not just lost because they are going to hell. They’re lost because they don’t know their way. It’s like they’re stumbling around in the darkness, doing things that are wrong and reaping the horrible consequences. They may do good things, yet they also chase after the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (I John 2:16). And that leads to strife, treating people as objects, selfishness, broken marriages, emptiness, a lack of personal satisfaction, disease, children who lack loving parents, and a host of other ills.
And those who are lost do not know God. According to the Gospels, the Pharisees emphasized rituals over the things that God truly cares about: justice, mercy, and faith. From my studies, I can see that Jewish writings contain inspiring lessons about kindness and love, but there’s also a lot of ritual in them. Can ritual overshadow justice, mercy, and faith? Heck, it does that in Christianity today, so why couldn’t it do so in first century Judaism?
Moreover, Paul says in Romans 10:3 about the non-believing Jews of his day: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness.” Sure, Judaism talks a lot about God’s love and grace, but it also tells its adherents to please God through their own efforts. It does not accept the free grace that God offers in Jesus Christ.
And the Bible has a lot to say about the Gentiles’ main problem: idolatry. As far as many biblical authors were concerned, people denigrated God when they exchanged his glory for that of an animal (Psalm 106:20; Romans 1:23). The Greek gods were sexually rapacious and greedy just like human beings, which concerned even thinkers in the Greco-Roman world. And there were temple prostitutes, which shows that these gods did not advocate the same high moral standards as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. People were lost because they worshipped those beings rather than the one true God.
God could’ve left people in their ignorance, which he could have then used as an excuse to forgive them. After all, can you really judge people who don’t know any better? But he didn’t do that. Instead, he gave them a chance to be lost. But he also provided them with an opportunity to truly know him, as they turned away from their dead-end lives. For God, giving people light was more important than forgiving them on account of their ignorance. God took a risk when he gave people the Gospel, yet, for him, the risk was worth it.