Gary Deddo, Those Who Never Heard the Gospel
Gary Deddo has a PhD from the University of Aberdeen. He is president of Grace Communion Seminary.
In this interview, Dr. Deddo discusses what happens to people who don’t seem to have a chance to hear the gospel.
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JMF: What about people who have never heard the gospel, there was never an opportunity? God’s love is universal for everyone. He’s the Redeemer of his creation. Where does that leave people who never have any opportunity to even know anything about that? Second, what about people who grow up in a Christian environment, so-called, like ours, in which there’s the appearance of Christianity all around us, but it never seems legitimate to them, for whatever reason, and they never make a commitment. Where does all that fit with the broadness and depth of the love and grace of God?
GD: The first thing to remember is what God has done in Christ, and according to Scripture he has enabled us to know his mind, his heart, his character, his purposes, so we might know who God is, and worship him as the God he truly is. It’s much easier, because God was successful to reveal himself, to know what God’s up to, as compared to what we’re up to, the “why” and “how” this would work out for people.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Jesus shows us the Father and sends us his Spirit; Jesus is the reconciler, the redeemer – that’s what’s on God’s heart, what’s on God’s mind – that is what God accomplished through Christ, it is finished. God is reconciled to us. So whatever happens to people in the end it will not be because of the deficiency in the motive of God, in the mind of God, in the effectiveness of what he has done in Christ.
God has made up his mind: “I will be your God, you shall be my people – even if you resist me.” God does not have anything against any human being any longer. He is reconciled to us. If someone manages somehow resist the grace of God, the goodness of God, the redemption of God to all in eternity, it won’t be because there is some lack in God. Because the purpose of God, the mind of God is shown to us in Jesus Christ. God is like Jesus Christ – all the way down to the bottom. There’s not another God with a non-redemptive side, a vindictive side where he does not want to be reconciled. What happens is God is the God who pursues us, pursues us to the end.
Sometimes I end up saying, if this is who God is, then there is no reason that anyone, any longer has to go to hell. That doesn’t mean that somehow, some way, someone might… But you see, what ought to blow our minds is not that someone might, but that how could anybody resist the goodness and grace of God to that point? How could anybody do that? They might be able to do it. But given who God is, I don’t know how they could, or how they should. We cannot put a limit on God’s grace. It won’t be because he has changed his mind about them. His mind has been made up in Jesus Christ.
JMF: So it would be in spite of God’s persistent love, not because God is vindictive and angry and tricky, or he leaves someone out on purpose, or anything like that.
GD: Or he turns out, in the end, to hate some part of his creation that he created and redeemed. If someone manages to resist the grace of God to do that, their resistance is the denial of the reality. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. God has made him that.
JMF: We typically draw a line at death and say, if somebody has not professed Christ before they die, that’s it. But that’s our line in the sand, isn’t it? After all, Jesus conquered death. There is no death except in the death of Christ, and there is no death except that death that results in the resurrection of Christ – whatever people come out thinking or believing, there is no death except that one that ends in resurrection.
C.S. Lewis has this in his Narnia Chronicles. In The Last Battle, he portrays (it’s not intended to be a theology book, but it’s a wonderful analogy), a certain character who is more or less a different religion from that of Aslan, but when he goes through the stable and he comes out into Aslan’s country at the end of the world, and everything is pulled through that stable, he sees Aslan and he recognizes him as everything he had ever hoped for, even though he did not know Aslan before. But when he saw him, he realized that this was who had been drawing him all along, and his heart had been pulled toward him, and he saw him as the culmination of everything he’d ever hoped and believed. (Whereas there were other characters who, when they saw Aslan, it was their worst nightmare, because their hearts were selfish and black and wicked, and they never had any regard for anything other than their own.)
It’s an interesting analogy, and it is important for us to discuss that topic and think about it in the broadness of God’s purpose throughout Scripture for humanity in binding himself to it in Christ, because we have loved ones, we have aunts and uncles and grandmothers who, for whatever reason, never became a Christian the way we think of becoming a Christian and we think, I love them and they loved me. Does God hate them? Does God punish them now in hell fire for eternity? This is not how Jesus Christ is revealed to us, and it leaves us with hope, of the salvation that is beyond our ken anyway, to fully comprehend in the love of God.
GD: We’re again dealing with both the “who” question and then the “how.” The “how” question is more difficult to answer, probably because Scripture doesn’t explain all that. So we have to go with the “who” question. If God is consistent with who he is, and there is no God behind the God except in Jesus Christ, it means God will use all his God-ness to rescue his children, who belong to him and he is reconciled to them.
Salvation is a relational kind of thing. There is a difference among those who “does it have to be explicit faith where they know Jesus, name his name, and recognize who that is,” or “might it be implicit – that is, by the power of the Holy Spirit?” There are people who realize, if they are going to have some kind of eternal life, they would need some kind of forgiveness that comes from God, that doesn’t depend upon them. God will have to somehow re-make them by his mercy.
They may not use those words, but those people might be in that spiritual condition – that is under the impact of the Holy Spirit of God, but not explicitly know that it is the Holy Spirit of God, because they have never heard of it through no fault of their own. My own view is, yes, it might be possible for them to have the right meanings without the right labels. Because the grace of God through the Holy Spirit exceeds the kinds of things we can do in our preaching, in our teaching, in our ministry, in our witness…
JMF: And can exceed our feeble attempts.
GD: Exactly. In Scripture, when we describe what we are to do, that’s assuming that we can do. But we can’t assume that the limitations that we have are the limitations that God has. Grace means God is not limited in the way we are. We cannot restrict the grace of God to our own limitations. The Spirit blows where he wills, and he will exceed our limitations. That Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, is the Spirit of redemption who will bring people to repentance and to a trust in God and even through Christ. Whether that has to happen explicitly, I don’t think the biblical story requires that.
JMF: There is no other name under heaven by which men and women can be saved. But whether they like it, or know it, or not, there is no other name under heaven. It doesn’t say you have to know that, but it’s true regardless of whether you know it.
GD: Whether it has to be explicit… A question I think of is, someone has a misunderstanding of God, a misunderstanding of Jesus, and they reject that. They haven’t really rejected Christ…
JMF: What if they rejected a false Christ?
GD: If they rejected a falsehood, they wouldn’t be condemned. God knows our hearts. We are limited in that.
JMF: Right. Which of us has a full, perfect and complete understanding? We’re relying entirely on Jesus’ acceptance of us – we’re not relying on our acceptance of him.
GD: We can get confused. We think we are saved by believing X. No. We’re saved by Jesus Christ himself. And since that’s a relational reality, that salvation will bring out a certain response – an affirmative, appreciative, thankful and repented response from us. But that response doesn’t save us, that response is the sharing in it, the receiving the benefits of something that’s already there – affirming, acknowledging the reality that is there.
We have no power to undo what God has done in Christ for us. We can live in denial. If you live in denial, if you resist the grain, you will get splinters. You cannot rearrange the grain – we have no power to do that. God is for us in Christ, we belong to him. God is doing everything in his God-ness and in his goodness and in his mercy to bring us to the point to admit the truth and the reality so we might enjoy the relationship that God has for us.
JMF: We reap what we sow, and yet we stand in the grace of God.
GD: We do, because that is who God is. We can’t change who God is, fortunately – that’s why [JMF: Yes, thank God.] God is faithful.
JMF: That is very different from universalism. There are various forms of universalism, but I think what most people think of with universalism is, it doesn’t matter what you think, say, or do, you’re saved and you can go on being whatever, doing whatever, thinking whatever you want. We’re not talking about that at all. We’re talking about what is in fact a relationship with Christ, and what culminates in knowing the Father and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent in the Holy Spirit. This is what salvation is all about. There is no other game in town, as Robert Capon sometimes has put it.
GD: Yes. They are not conditions to the grace of God, but they’re the obligations of grace. This is what James Torrance used to say. If you think of a married couple being married… If they lived as a married couple, that’s going to be one thing, if they’re married and yet they don’t live as if they’re married, that will have implications. It does not de-marry them, un-marry them. That has been established.
To think of salvation as a relationship, then it needs to be a right relationship. We belong to God by virtue of creation and redemption. Now the question is, will we live as if that’s the case? Wouldn’t it be silly for a couple to come together, to go through the marriage ceremony, and to pledge their eternal love for each other and then say, “Now, since we’re married, there’s no point in living together.” No, the point of being married is to live together.
Our belonging to God, through Christ, Creator, Redeemer, and Perfecter –now that we belong together because of what God has done, we are to live – this is the obligations of grace, not the conditions of grace – the obligations of grace is to live in that reality. If you count on “God has made us one in marriage,” then even when things go wrong, if you continue to count on that union, our being together and God supplying everything – that helps you get over the rough patches.
Living by faith is trusting in God being faithful over and over again. Rather than saying, “We’re married, so we don’t need to live together,” the Christian faith is, “Since we are married to God in Christ, we belong to him. At the root of our being, how do I live in the middle of that so that I receive and enjoy all the blessings, all the goodness, of that relationship?” Those who say, “We belong to God in Christ, so there’s no need to live…” – don’t understand anything about what that belonging is. It would be as foolish as saying, “Since we’re married, there’s no point in living together.”
JMF: Or, “Since we’re best friends, we don’t need to ever see each other again.”
GD: We don’t need to talk, we don’t need to do things together, we don’t need to be together. This is why in the early church to be a Christian, their essential definition was, “Being a Christian is: I am the one united to Christ.” That’s what a Christian was. I’m united to Christ because of what he has done for me in my place and on my behalf, I am united to Christ and now I want to live as if I am united, because I am. Union with Christ was the essential definition of being a Christian.
JMF: That’s what the Holy Spirit leading us into all truth does, the Father and Son dwelling in us through the Spirit, there’s where that union plays itself out, lives itself out.
GD: Yes, the grace of God isn’t just external and around us – the Holy Spirit actually gives us, as Paul says, the Spirit of sonship. We now have working in us the power not our own, that sets us free to be the children of God that we actually are. We are living, as Paul says, living up into Christ, because we really belong to him. We belong first, and then we believe that we belong, and then, as we’re believing we’re belonging, we’re going to be living up into it. The Holy Spirit is the power within us enabling us to live more and more fully and freely as the children – the reconciled children of God, that we really are.
We’re living into a reality, we’re not creating a new reality – that’s been done in Christ – we’re living up into the reality, or there are some people who are resisting the reality. But nobody’s changing the reality. We either affirm the reality, or we’re living in denial of the reality. That’s our choice. Sometimes we think our choice is to create an alternative reality. No, that would make us God. We’re not. Our only choice, and the choice that God gives us is, we’re to live in the reality that God has established and created for us, out of his goodness, holiness, mercy, and grace.
JMF: Let’s talk about the wrath of God in that context. We could start with the election, if we’re elect because we’re in Christ, he’s the elect, as it were, we’re in him, we’re elect, practically that encompasses everyone, since everyone is in Christ, there’s no other way to be human except in Christ. But there are passages that sound as though God is furious, vindictive, that seem out of context with Jesus saying, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.” But these passages sound very different from that in their tone. The one that comes to mind first is the 2nd Thessalonians passage… [chapter 1]
Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony… [1 Thess. 2:4-10, NIV 1984]
Others also, a passage in Romans that is similar: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them” [Romans 1:18-19] and so on. These passages seem to make God sound more like a human being who’s been affronted and who’s going to get vengeance.
GD: Well, yes. The grace of God and the wrath of God are not opposed to one another. God is one, and the Father and the Son are not split on that. But God is against everything that’s against his good purposes to reconcile and redeem his creation. God is never going to change his mind about what sin is… the greatest sin is to reject grace. God opposes that which opposes his good, loving purposes. If God did not oppose that which threatened and opposed his good creation, his purposes, God would not be loving.
God’s wrath is against that which is against his plans for love and reconciliation, and against that which destroys his good creation. It is a sign of his love. He’s just as wrathful – against that which is against his creation – as he is loving. They’re not opposed to one another.
Here’s a simple illustration: I’ve enjoyed sailing in the past… If you’re sailing with the wind, it’s amazing what the experience is, it’s calm, it’s peaceful. You can’t even feel the breeze, because you’re going the same speed as the breeze. It’s enjoyable, the sun is warm, it’s quiet. But if you turn around and tack upwind (and sometimes you do this in sailing), you’ll come about, and then you’re heading upwind. In an instant it’s as if you’re in a whole different situation. All of a sudden it’s windy, it’s noisy. The water is splashing up. You’re feeling as it were double the wind. The wind speed plus your speed into the wind, now you’ve got twice as much wind. And if you’re wet and there’s all this wind, now it’s freezing, although the sun is still out.
God’s love is in a certain direction and towards a certain end – to bring us into right relationship, holy relationship, of sharing in his Son’s sonship as his true children. If you go with the wind, you experience it one way, but if you turn around and resist it, it resists you. But the direction of the wind did not change. God’s mercy, God’s love does not change. But if you resist it, it resists your resistance. Sin is resistance of the good purposes and the love of God.
Resistance to belonging to God is resisting reality – that’s what it is. It’s denying reality. Well, that resists back. When God resists that which resists him, that resistance is his love in his good purposes. God will never change his mind, God will always be against that which is against his creation, that seeks his destruction and dissolution. He will always be against all that ruins and distorts and twists right relationship with God (in which we receive his goodness in a trusting way day by day, our daily bread). God will always, eternally, resist everything that ruins that, and he will never change his mind about that. Grace is not an exception to the rule of his love. The rule of his love is perfect, his promise remains to do that.
Somehow, some people may end up in the situation where they’re resisting the love of God to all eternity. The Bible holds out that it might be a possibility for some – but not a possibility that God creates or God wants. He is actually resisting it. Hell is where you have to eternally resist the love and grace of God. That’s your job, every morning you have to get up reject it again, and again, and again, and again. It’s eternal because God never stops being who he is – loving, holy, reconciling, restoring in his own being. So those who, somehow, manage to do this for all eternity – to me that’s unimaginable, but they might be able to figure out how to do it. Their job is to have to reject the reality of who God is and the reality of who they are, every day of their lives. When you think about it, that would be hell.
And what would heaven be? Heaven will be living in reality, receiving it and reflecting it back each and every day, living in the presence of God’s holy love, of sharing in the fellowship and communion that the Son has with his Father in the power of the Spirit. That would be heaven – to receive that fully and freely every day.
God is adamantly opposed to that which opposes the life, the fellowship, the fruitfulness of his creation. He’ll never change his mind about that. God is not in two minds about his creation. In James, we’re told not to be in two minds about God. Why shouldn’t we be in two minds? Because God is of a single mind about us, and that mind is reflected in Christ.
God tells us to love our enemies. Does God not then love his own enemies? He does. Why? Because he’s loving in his own being, but that means he hates what’s against his good creation – he completely opposes it. We’ve got a wrong view of grace if we think grace is an exception to the rule. No. Grace is never giving up on the promise. God’s love is eternal, and so he rejects that which is unloving. So, yes, God’s wrath is as strong as his love and his mercy.
JMF: And yet, it’s redemptive…
GD: Its purpose and its aim is redemptive and so, yes, somehow it might be possible that some reach a point of no return such that for all eternity they resist the truth and reality of who they are, who God is and the redemptive purpose of God. They live as if Jesus Christ is not their Lord and Savior. They live in the denial of reality itself to do that.
But how anybody could do that, given who God is? It might be possible, but I can’t imagine how they manage to do that. But perhaps some may do that. But it is unimaginable. We tend to flip it around and say, how could anybody come to believe in God? We find it easy, given who God is and what he’s done for us in Christ on behalf of all humanity.
The disciples say, “Jesus, who then can be saved?” They’re viewing it from a human point of view: who then can be saved? It’s hard for the rich to be saved, and in their view that means it’s less likely for anybody to be saved, because the rich are the most likely, in their view. But Jesus doesn’t say, “Oh yeah, you’re right. It’s hard for people to be saved. I know, I’m a pessimist myself.” No, he says, “With God all things are possible.”
The Christian message and Christian theology (which is an act of faith itself) tells the truth from God’s point of view. It tells the truth about who God is: God is merciful, God is loving, God is redemptive in his own heart, and God is faithful to himself. Though everyone be faithless, God will still be faithful. God will be faithful still – he’ll be himself even if people in hell somehow manage to resist God’s mercy to all eternity. But he will still be their God. Jesus will be their Savior and Lord, he is Savior and Lord even of those who somehow might manage to resist that from all eternity. He’s no less Lord and Savior.
This is why the Bible talks about unbelief as foolishness, you are denying reality. Christians are those who are waking up smelling the coffee and admitting, confessing, saying with our mouths, the truth that Jesus is Lord and Savior as the new head, the new Adam of all humanity. That’s who he is, and by the power of the Spirit we confess, we say the truth, we announce it. Paul’s way of saying it is, “God in Christ has said ‘yes’ to us.” If we say “No” to God’s “Yes” to us, if God is going to be faithful to himself, what does he say to our “No?” He has to say, “No” to our “No.”