In the previous article (Tidings, June 2013) we introduced the moral dilemma illustrated by the situation of the man born blind in John 9. Jesus’ answer was that God had His own purpose in the man’s blindness. We will continue the issue, particularly the moral dilemma of the teeming multitudes who will live in hardship and die without any knowledge of the one true God.
The moral dilemma
We Christadelphians are not exempt from this issue. Our Christadelphian understanding is that the word of God teaches that there is no immortal soul. This eliminates the concern about eternal torments for those who die outside of Christ, but it still leaves us with a serious moral dilemma. We still have the challenge of reconciling our belief in a loving God who is the all-powerful creator and sustainer of this world, with the reality of billions of people who will live out their lives, many of them in terrible situations. They never have had the opportunity to hear about the possibility of salvation through belief and baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Therefore, based on what we understand from the Bible, they will die and remain dead. It is far better than believing they will all go to hell when they die, and suffer eternal torments, but it does not answer our moral dilemma.
We understand that the first people in the history of the world had the kind of opportunity to know and serve God that we would wish for all mankind, and we know what happened. In this day and age we also understand much more about genetics and how terrible diseases and birth defects can be passed from mother to baby. It is very reasonable to suggest that by the time of the flood in Genesis, and the time of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, God knew that the people had so polluted their blood line that all their progeny were going to born into a horrible existence. He also knew, that even as you would put a suffering animal “to sleep”, so also that was going to be the kindest answer in the long run for those people. One again, that is just a possible explanation as to how human beings are being born into suffering in some cases, but not an answer to our question.
What do we know, and what do we not know, that might offer some solace in our mind and hearts when we consider this question? How can we as Bible believers reconcile the Scriptural teachings that God is all powerful and that He loves us, with the principle set forth in Acts that Jesus’ name is the only name given under heaven among men whereby we can be saved? And while this question may not be an issue for most of us, it is a very real, serious issue for some very sincere people who believe in the Bible, and/or very much want to believe in the Bible. So much so, that some of these have felt compelled to take a “cafeteria” approach to what they will accept or reject in what they read or else adopt one of the other positions we set forth at the outset.
The following suggestion draws from what has been revealed, allows for the fact that we do not know everything, and seeks to avoid going too far in the direction of projecting what may be… to an assertion of what will be.
The power of God
The first time many of us seriously consider this question is when there is the tragic death of a child in our own family or in our ecclesial family. Then the child is very young and, of course, not baptized. Believe it or not, it is not uncommon in our community for someone to remind the parents that there is no hope for their deceased child. Sometimes our well intentioned zeal can really hurt. Sometimes the less said the better. We do well not to speak too positively when we speak about what God will, and will not do in a specific situation. It is also wrong and could be dangerously misleading to someone’s salvation to cobble together some exceptional situations in the past from the word of God into a doctrinal conclusion. Balance and humility in all our reactions to these situations, both internally and externally, will serve us well.
By way of examples of exceptional manifestations of God’s power and His love… consider the following: What do we say to the resurrections from the dead that are recorded in the Old Testament and the New Testament that fall completely outside the revealed plan of God?
1Kgs 17: 17-21. Elijah raises a widow’s son from the dead.
2Kgs 4:18-37. Elisha raises the son of the Shunamite.
2Kgs 13:21. A dead man is restored to life upon being buried in a sepulcher that contained Elisha’s bones and when his body touched the bones he came back to life.
Luke 7:11-18. Jesus raises to life the son of a widow in Nain.
Luke 8: 41-56. Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter.
John 11:38-44. Lazarus’ resurrection.
Matt 27: 52, 53. When Jesus died on the cross “the graves were opened: and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”
Acts 9:40. Peter raises Dorcas from the dead.
Acts 20:6-12. Paul raises the boy who “…fell down from the third loft, and was taken up for dead.”
In all the above cases people were raised from the dead, continued their lives, and ultimately returned to the grave. During the rest of their lives did they not have free will? If their prior lives were sinful did they not have the opportunity to repent? Or vice versa, if they had led acceptable lives were they insulated from temptation and unable to fall from grace? No one would contend for those positions.
These incidents serve as examples of God using His power as He sees fit for the accomplishment of His purposes. They reveal the power of God. They do not reveal a plan of God. The exceptions cited do not establish the doctrine of a “second chance”, nor do they teach that salvation can be had in any other name than Jesus Christ. What they do teach us is that God is all powerful, He can raise the dead to life, and we cannot always understand, let alone anticipate, what He will do in specific situations.
The fact that God works in mysterious ways and that we cannot anticipate everything He will do in the future based on what we know about the past does not change our own responsibility. This is to make our decisions based on what we do know has been clearly revealed. We should not let what is not clear, cause us to reject what is clear. Our inability to answer every question we can raise should not become an excuse to fail to answer the questions that are specific to ourselves. We are responsible to learn God’s plan for man and to respond in faith, repentance and baptism and then allow Jesus to live in us.
Two further points
Two points in closing. The moral dilemma of the possibility of innocent people suffering with the guilty was brought home to Abraham in no uncertain terms. He was told by God’s angels that Sodom and Gomorrah were likely to be destroyed. His nephew Lot and his family lived there and would suffer whatever befell the city. His reaction to being told about the imminent possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed gives us good guidance. His heart was touched, he pleaded with God for His mercy, and he showed his fundamental faith and trust that God would ultimately do the right thing. Abraham asks the rhetorical question: “shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). This is the same faith he exhibited when asked to sacrifice Isaac. He was willing to obey because he accounted “…that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure” (Heb 11:19). Ultimately, God’s goodness and justice will manifest itself.
“Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Of course He will. We can rest assured that in the Kingdom we will see the ultimate manifestation of the loving power of God, and all our questions will be answered in ways that satisfy all our concerns. Free will requires the temporary suspension of rewards and punishments. If God reacted instantly to our conduct, how could freedom of choice actually function? If every good deed was instantly rewarded and every sin immediately punished, how could humans truly be said to have freedom of choice? Instead of some people learning about God and developing a faith in Him, there would be two classes of people on the earth: obedient robots or dead rebels. Putting off a day of judgment provides opportunity for repentance and change, but it also provides time for people to continue sinning. To the degree their sin affects others around them and in some cases their biological children, innocent people suffer. We know that some inherited conditions skip generations and some are passed on by the fathers and some by the mothers. We know a lot more about these things than they did when the disciples asked Jesus… “Who sinned, this man or his father”…but we do not know everything. And in fact we may learn in the not too distant future that we did not know very much at all about our own bodies. We may learn that the cumulative effect of generations of bad choices has had profoundly negative effects on our genes.
We can also be assured that some of the things God will do may be extremely exceptional. There may be people raised from the dead for His purposes and in His justice that we cannot begin to anticipate. And if there are, and if they then have the opportunity to learn about salvation through the name of Jesus Christ, and they exercise their free will in decisions to be baptized…how wonderful that will be.
The second point comes from an old brother’s prayer many years ago at the end of the memorial service. The young exhorting brother had been a bit too extreme. Whether he had been too judgmental or too forgiving I can’t remember. But I can’t forget the old brother’s prayer. He prayed: “We seek neither to extend nor limit thy mercy, O God.”
Good advice. Let the Judge of all the earth make the decisions. He will judge righteous judgment. And He may make what to us are exceptional decisions affecting the salvation of people. Witness the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Bible is the source of our belief in God and Jesus Christ. It stands alone in the world as having the divine stamp of approval in fulfilled prophecy. The witness of creation around us and the birth of a baby coupled with the revealed teachings of God and His Son convince us of the power and love of God. This we know. We do not know the answers to every question we can raise, whether it be regarding unexplainable human suffering or questions about how our own brain functions. We should not let what we do not know weaken our faith in what we do know. We have learned and experienced enough about God to know and trust that the “judge of all the earth shall do right” and if we remain faithful the day will come when we will know. “For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1Cor 13:12).
Ken Sommerville (Simi Hills, CA)