Do We Assume That Thousands of our Former Family and Friends are Either in Hell or on a One-Way Track to Hell? Don't Do It! It Might be Entirely Incorrect!
Who's On First?
A justifiably well-loved comedy duo, Abbott and Costello had several famous comedy routines, one of which was the hilarious 'Who's On First?' skit based on the odd names of players in a baseball team. Lou Costello repeatedly misunderstands Bud's use of such words as 'Who' and 'Watt.' While Bud genuinely tries to explain, Lou comes to the erroneous conclusion that his partner is simply being evasive.
I used to love Abbott and Costello, the American comedy double-act who were so popular back in the 1940s/1950s. They had a very famous and very clever sketch/skit in which funny man Costello asks Bud Abbott about a baseball game which is coming up in which Abbott (that is, in the skit) is the team manager. The sketch is hysterical. Even today if you type in 'who's on first?' on YouTube their old skit comes up (in very old, low-definition black and white).
The sketch shows how a careless assumption can lead to an ongoing misunderstanding. I won't spoil the skit for you because I am going to provide a link to it just below so you can watch it for yourself (it takes less than seven minutes to play), but the problem starts because Lou doesn't understand that the first man 'in' is called 'Who' and the second man 'in' is called 'Watt.' The hilarity all comes from this basic error. I watched this great sketch again just recently and it reminded me of how perfectly sincere Christians can make assumptions about a Bible teaching which is not strictly accurate. Sometimes we seem to bring our own psychological 'baggage' to a Christian teaching without realising it. Then - at times - that assumption just goes on getting repreated. I want to just briefly look at one example of that right here (but there are others).
Now we all know that 'The Great Commission' tells us to take the Gospel to the entire world and deliver it to all who will listen (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49). Jesus directly passes this authority on from Himself to us. It is a responsibility for all of us, that is, at whatever level you and I can influence others. Of course, this does not mean that you and I should spend every wakeful moment in 'cramming the Gospel down people's throats!' To do so is foolish, often counter-productive, and would be to 'cast our pearls before swine.' No, there is a time to preach and a time when it would be better not to preach; hopefully we all learn this with experience.
So Jesus passes this authority on to us, but do we stick faithfully and carefully to the message, or do we slip up in understanding in just one facet of it? Actually Jesus - when you think of it - never said something like, "And you had better get this good news to every single person in the world before they die, else they are headed straight for hell!" Yet this extra assumption - never taught in Scripture, nor by the Apostles, nor by the early church, went straight into much of the Augustine-grounded church theology of the 5th century AD onwards. It is essentially a pessimistic theology which seems to doubt the grace of God. It also questions whether Jesus will be the final conqueror, suggesting that Satan will - at the end of time - be more successful. Unfortunately, this approach later went straight from Catholicism into the Protestantism of the 15th/16th centuries. Why? Because the early Protestants saw Augustine, bishop of Hippo, as their great champion. Now there are many, many great things in Augustine but also a few serious errors which are not in-line with Scripture. This man had been seriously influenced by Manichaeism which was a very pessimistic and fatalistic theology of his time. When he later became a Christian - which he certainly did - he did not entirely eradicate this earlier influence. This man believed, for example, that every tiny little new-born baby who did not undergo baptism at once, went straight to hell at death even if that death followed within a few hours of his or her birth (something which was very common in that day). So here we see an assumption being added to Bible teaching. This careless assumption has caused sorrow, stress and needless worry to thousands of otherwise sincere believers. It has even caused some to walk away from the Christian faith.
So yes, Jesus warned about the clear rejection of the Gospel where people have embraced and understood it, but the eternal destination of those who either a) never hear it, or, b) never properly grasp it, is never discussed in Scripture. However, many hundreds of verses in the Bible do discuss the bountiful mercifulness of God; nothing hinders our God from setting His hand to save wherever He wills! I used to know a very sincere lady who told me that she spent many hours being deeply depressed and even sometimes in tears because all her relatives (unconverted as fas as she was aware) who - she assured me - "are now in hell." She believed that they would be there for infinity. I told her that her depression was wrong and actually God-denying! Don't you believe in the mercy of God? I once asked her. Do you even know how many people in your family repented and accepted the Lord on their deathbeds? The answer, of course, is no. Similarly, several famous missionaries died in despair because they had not brought the Gospel to more people. The assumption here is that the Holy Spirit cannot work without us which is not biblical. Indeed, over the last 25 years or so I have heard several cases of moslems being called by Jesus during dreams! Again, many years ago when all missionaries were sent out of China, the Gospel spread like wildfire in their absence!
Yes, God calls us to spread the Gospel but that certainly does not mean He cannot call sinners without us! Let us not be like Lou Costello in that famous skit. Let us not assume a teaching which the Bible never actually states, nor assume the most depressing scenario for hundreds or thousands of those who have lived in our families throughout the ages. Moreover, the Bible seems clear that some will be surprised to be saved and perhaps we too will be surprised to find them in eternity!
"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:34-40).
Now let us look at something which John the Apostle wrote: In vision, John saw a huge number who would eventually be saved. Carefully check out Revelation 7:9-17 and the "innumerable multitude," - this is not the depressing picture which many appear to envisage. True, during the present age we must ensure that we enter the 'narrow gate' because many appear to be rejecting the Gospel message. Things don't seem to be going well for us right now but - as an Eternal truth - Christ will indeed prove to be the conquering King - not Satan. Yet a few seem to believe it will be Satan with only a tiny group being saved and countless millions going to hell! Actually, both theologically and philosophically that cannot be correct.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. ... But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God's grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man's sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! (Romans 5:6-11, 15-17).
The point here is this: Christ's efficacy to save is greater - not lesser - than Satan's ability to destroy! Do we sometimes not take account of this? His grace is freely abundant! But is Christ's grace only available for a tiny group? Or is it wider?
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2).
Yes, we should be realistic about how difficult it is to get through to people right now but it is wrong to doubt God's abilty to reach out with the Living Waters of His Spirit, nor to think that He cannot do it without us at a time entirely of His choosing.
This all puts me in mind of Elijah who was sure that he was the only righteous person left in Israel, but what did the Lord tell him?
He replied, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too." (1 Kings 19:14)
Yep, Elijah was convinced he alone was 'saved' in Israel at that time, but what did the Lord tell him?
"Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel - all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him." (Verse 18).
So Elijah wasn't 'all on his own' at all - there were 7,000 other genuine believers around him! I seem to have witnessed a similar almost self-congratulatory 'we alone are saved' stance among certain evangelicals and fundamentalists.
Now let us remind ourselves of the words of Jesus, then Paul:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17).
He made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment - to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).
Now think of this: Would it really be 'bringing unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ' for countless millions to end up in hell with only a small group being in heaven? I think not. Actually, it would turn a God of love into a monster!
So, yes, indeed it is a fearful thing to reject Christ whilst in a full knowledge of the truth. When that invitation comes, you and I must accept it! - yet we must accept that millions have lived and died without hearing the Gospel, including many millions dying in childhood. We can leave those millions in God's merciful hands with real hope and belief in that mercy, not in a cynical desperation, whilst assuming the very worse.
It is important that we do not assume nor misapply 'biblical things' which are not all that biblical. Listen carefully to what Christ says - but also to what He does not say!
Now watch that hilarious video: Who's On First?
Robin A. Brace. May 7th, 2014.