In his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation (great title, by the way), Jerry Walls, a United Methodist theologian, makes a case for perdition in the face of modern objections. One of these objections is this: “What about those who’ve never heard the gospel, or who’ve heard only a deficient version of it? Would God send them to hell, even though they had no fair opportunity to hear and respond to God’s message of salvation through Christ?”
It’s a good question, and one which the Bible doesn’t address directly. Walls’s answer, which he acknowledges is speculative, is that God gives everyone a sufficient amount of grace—either in this life or shortly thereafter—to accept or reject the gospel. In other words, in the liminal space between time and eternity, during the moment of a person’s death, God may yet reveal himself to an unsaved person and enable him or her to say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life.
Yes, you might say, but if someone were facing a choice of salvation or damnation right away—as opposed to in some hypothetical future, where most of us keep the prospect of our own death—who wouldn’t choose salvation?
Maybe no one, in which case, Walls would say, the “choice” wouldn’t be free. The dying person wouldn’t choose God out of a sincere desire and love for God; the person would choose God out of fear alone. Therefore, his or her choice would be coerced.
Walls responds to this objection as follows:
[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.
In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.[†]
Whether you agree with the idea of postmortem conversion or not—and let me say that I hope it’s possible (the rich man and his brothers in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 apparently already had a sufficient amount of grace in their lifetimes)—Walls’s handling of the “free response” objection helps me make sense of a question that has nagged me over the years: If God wants us to know him, why doesn’t he do more to reveal himself to us? Why does he often seem hidden, even from sincere atheists who, unlike virulent New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, would like for God to exist? (This question was debated in the most recent Unbelievable? episode.)
In “The Idea,” a punk song that I first head in 1983, Adam Ant pointed to the problem: “I could be religious if/ A god would say ‘hello.’/ I could be religious if/ An angel touched my shoulder.”
Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth remembering that God doesn’t want mere belief in his existence—or even the intellectual assent to facts about his Son Jesus and his atoning death. Otherwise, we might say—perish the thought—that Satan himself could be an orthodox Christian! “You believe that there is one God,” writes the apostle, with sarcasm, “Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”
Also, as is clear in John 3 (Nicodemus) and John 6 (the miraculous feeding), among other places in the gospels, plenty of people have a kind of faith in Jesus based on his miracles, but Jesus warns that this faith is insufficient. This gives the lie to the idea that if only people saw miracles today, they would repent and be saved.
Still, what would be the harm in God’s making his reality clearer to more people?
Here’s where Walls helps: Sure, if God made his presence more obvious, more people would seem to choose God and his way of salvation through Christ. But would it really be a choice? Or would it be coerced? If circumstances forced more unbelievers to acknowledge the reality of God and his gospel, their relationship with God might be based on something other than faith, hope, and love.
Remember: Paul says that faith and hope, alongside love, “remain” even after we know “fully, even as we are fully known.” They are permanent features of our relationship with God, both now and in eternity, not something we’re stuck with until we no longer see through the “glass darkly.” Whereas I might wish that I didn’t need faith, God doesn’t. And in his hiddenness, he’s forcing me to put it into practice.
All that to say, even in our finitude and sin, we have enough evidence to suggest that God knew what he was doing when he enacted his rescue plan for humanity.
But what do you think? Is God’s “hiddenness” a problem for you?
1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992), 100.