The problem of fairness: “What about those who’ve never heard?” etc.

January 13, 2014

I like theologian Glenn Peoples, a Calvinist (he’s a fiercely intelligent Christian apologist; I only wish he would blog more often), and I like theologian Jerry Walls, an Arminian (who is also United Methodist—yay, team!).

In this post, Glenn critiques Walls’s unusual concept of Protestant purgatory. Walls wrote a book on the subject, which I haven’t read. Apparently, Walls argues that since everyone doesn’t receive a fair, equal, or “optimal” level of grace sufficient to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ in this life, God “balances the scales” after death in a state of being that Walls calls purgatory.

This solves the problem of unfairness (assuming, against Calvinism, that it is a problem): no one will go to hell without having had a fair chance to accept God’s gift of eternal life through Christ.

As a Calvinist, Peoples naturally rejects Walls’s ideas. But he’s right about one thing: Arminianism’s concept of “prevenient grace,” which we Arminians offer as an alternative to the rigid determinism of “irresistible grace,” doesn’t completely solve the unfairness problem—as Walls well knows, otherwise he wouldn’t be proposing a Protestant purgatory. Peoples writes:

So actually, given Walls’ view that not everybody has had a chance to be saved in this life, Arminianism is in the same boat and subject to the same objection as Calvinism here: The distribution of grace isn’t fair! Of course, a Calvinist just bites this bullet hard: Nobody deserves eternal life, and God chooses to give it to some. If you don’t like it, talk to the hand. Now, Walls can say, of course, the Arminian who doesn’t believe in a second chance after death has a widerbase of people who can be saved: namely all those who have heard the Gospel in this life. But still, there are some who, as Walls puts it, have not “had such grace in this life.” Based on what has happened in this life, Walls thinks, they can’t be saved. So Arminians have a problem that is surely only better in degree than the problem had by Calvinists, but which is the same in principle (assuming there’s a problem here, as Walls does).

Lest you think I’m becoming a Calvinist, I would say that while prevenient grace doesn’t solve this particular problem, it also doesn’t introduce new ones: like how to square double-predestination and irresistible grace with the obvious (from my perspective) biblical truth that we human beings are ultimately responsible for choosing God’s gift of salvation.

I’ve heard Calvinists complaining about the misleading language of popular evangelicalism, which stresses the importance of “accepting Christ as Savior and Lord”—the good old-fashioned Billy Graham-style invitation. This, they say, places an emphasis on the wrong side of the equation: human response rather than God’s initiative.

Theologically, I understand the concern, but I dismiss it: any language we use will ultimately fail to capture all the mystery and nuance of salvation. To speak of “accepting Christ” is good enough for me.

Besides, call Arminians like me “semi-Pelagian” all you want, nothing in the Gospels and nothing in Paul’s letters convinces me that we don’t ultimately get to choose to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ—at some level, in whatever qualified way we wish to explain it. God doesn’t override our will, even if, through grace, God helps it along.

In the comments section of Peoples’s post, Peoples and his commenters discuss Molinism, another attempt to solve the problem of unfairness. Molinism says that since God knows whether or not an individual would accept Christ under the most favorable circumstances, he places that person in the right place—geographically and historically—so that they either will or won’t make that choice. In other words, no unsaved individual will die and face judgment who would have been saved under other circumstances. If, for example, an unsaved person dies having never heard or responded to the gospel—because they lived in North Korea or an Islamist country where the church is underground and Christian evangelism is illegal—it doesn’t matter: even if they’d been born in the buckle of the Bible Belt a hundred years ago, they still wouldn’t have accepted Christ.

I personally find Molinism less appealing than Walls’s purgatory. And Peoples raises an interesting proof-text against it:

In Luke 10:13 Jesus didn’t say “everyone who did not get the opportunity would have rejected the opportunity anyway.” In fact he seems to be saying the opposite: That some people who didn’t get a chance to hear are actually people who would have accepted the opportunity, and repented. So if we think about grace and our response to it in Arminian terms (as Bill does), it would appear that the contention that everyone who would have repented gets the chance to do before they die is not a biblical contention.

I confess I’m not as bothered by this question of “fairness” as I’m supposed to be. First, because I trust God to be perfectly fair in Final Judgment, so I don’t have to worry about it. Second, as far as I can tell, most people I know—at least in my little Bible-Belt corner of the American South—have already received a sufficient amount of grace to respond to the gospel. If they haven’t already accepted Christ, maybe they never will. Or maybe they need us Christians to work harder to persuade them!

I’m mostly uninterested in any theological proposal—post-mortem “optimal grace,” Calvinistic determinism, and difference-splitting Molinism—that diminishes the urgency of our evangelistic task.

Of course, even as I write this, I recognize my hypocrisy. What’s my problem when it comes to evangelism? It’s not like I’m beating down people’s doors to share the gospel with them! Am I living and ministering with a sufficient sense of urgency?

Well, I promise I’m getting better about evangelism. But I have plenty more work to do in that area!

What we know for sure is this: God has given us this time on earth to hear and respond to the gospel. Those of us who’ve already repented and said “yes” to God’s offer of salvation through Christ have our work cut out for us.

5 Responses to “The problem of fairness: “What about those who’ve never heard?” etc.”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a pretty tricky area, to say the least. One of the biggest “divides” in conservative Protestant Christianity that I know of. Personally, I lean toward Molinism, though I recognize the verses referenced by Peoples to argue the contrary. (In fact, I just happened to go over those verses in my Bible reading with my kids a couple of days ago!) To the best of my reading and understanding, I don’t believe that anyone would have gone to heaven instead of hell had he been born in some other place or time. That strikes me as “unjust,” and I don’t believe God to be unjust.

    As you say, of course, we can just rely on God to be just and ignore the whole controversy, but I think there are people who would tend to have trouble with Christianity if “place and time” could be determinative, so if we have some good answer to that, it may be that some people’s difficulty could be avoided. Case in point–myself. One of the reasons why I abandoned the faith when I was in college (not the only one, but a big problem) was due to the debate between Calvinists and Arminians. I thought the Bible taught both predestination and free choice, which two were contradictory and incompatible, so, since contradictions cannot be true, the Bible could not be true.

    So, how to resolve the matter of Peoples’ text? With respect to the Sodomites, I note that Jesus says they will have an easier time of it on Judgment Day than those who actually had the privilege and “light” of seeing and hearing Jesus himself teach and perform miracles before them. Not that the Sodomites will not be judged as well. So, what about saying the Sodomites would have repented? I think this may correlate to Ahab “repenting.” He was so concerned about what God told him as to his judgment that he “went about meekly and wore sackcloth and ashes,” as I believe the King James puts it. So, God decided to bring the judgment in his son’s day rather than Ahab’s. But surely this does not mean Ahab became saved! Rather, he simply wanted to avoid the immediate judgment God had pronounced against him. Similarly, the Sodomites might have been so impressed by Jesus’ miracles that they would have modified their behavior. But not to the point of salvation, I don’t think. This is similar, in my opinion, to Simon of Samaria “believing” based on Philip’s miracles, but his heart nonetheless not being changed to salvation, as per Acts 8:9-24. Which ends with, ‘Pray that none of these things will happen to me,” as opposed to “repenting.”

    As far as Molinism discouraging evangelism, surely it would be no more likely to do so than Calvinism! That aside, we don’t know whom will be saved and whom not, and we should recognize that one of the very things “foreseen” by God (and unknown to us) is the evangelistic efforts by his children. For all we know, it is the very fact that we evangelize which could determine whether someone was placed where he is (based on his foreseen heart) to be saved. Also, Mordecai says to Esther, if she did not act, God would save the Jews some other way, but she would perish if she did not act, but who knows whether she had come to be queen for just such an occasion as this. And Ezekiel indicates that we will be judged for not giving warning, even though the wicked man will perish because of his own sin. Therefore, certainly we have every motive to preach even simply for our own sakes, regardless of how God is using us, with the state of our own hearts, to bring someone else to Christ, based on the foreseen heart of the lost person.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Love this: “For all we know, it is the very fact that we evangelize which could determine whether someone was placed where he is (based on his foreseen heart) to be saved.”

  3. Morbert Says:

    Calvinism always seemed strange to me. I seems odd that God would go to such lengths to enable the gift of salvation, but then limit that gift to certain pockets of the world.

    I think molinism is an interesting idea, particularly in matters of free will, but in this context it seems to have some dubious undertones, as the content of someone’s character is prejudged based on their nationality or geographic position. Early Mormonism had similar prejudgements when it came to skin colour.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Morbert, I see your point about the possible misinterpretation of Molinism to be “geographical” or “racial.” However, I think that can be dispelled. Nobody is preempted from salvation wherever or whenever they were born. In fact, the Bible recounts at least two situations in which persons were “divinely orchestrated” to share the gospel with a a new “people group,” the Ethiopian eunuch (dark skin color) and Cornelius (a despised Gentile). Also, persecution in Jerusalem lead Christians out to the despised Samaritans. And certainly Paul’s missionary journeys opened broad new horizons for salvation. In fact, Revelation suggests that there will be persons from every tongue, nation, and tribe gathered around the throne. Indeed, the very thrust of “modern missions” has been to get the gospel out throughout the world. So, there is no “racism” inherent in Molinism. Instead, properly understood, it argues against any such construction.

      What I think may imply otherwise is that persons who “have not heard” are TYPICALLY (but certainly not exclusively) in “remote regions” of the world. It may very well be that under Molinism it is possible to conclude there is a higher likelihood that persons could be placed where and when they are based on foreknowledge that they would not repent even had they heard the message. However, no one in such “locales” are necessarily precluded from coming into the fold; as the eunuch and Cornelius stories indicate, if a person does have a heart which is seeking for God, then God has a means of getting the message to him. (Note that the eunuch had made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and obtained a scroll of Isaiah [no small feat] and that Cornelius had given alms to the poor and prayed. Also note that the eunuch returned to AFRICA.) There is therefore no “racism” based on “skin color” like there was with early Mormonism.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes. Some Christians can’t decide what to do with God’s foreknowledge—which, since God is outside of time is always present knowledge to God. It’s not incompatible with human freedom, regardless.

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