Copyright 2017 by Bob Rogers
Many people wonder, “If a person lives in an unevangelized area and never hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, do they go to hell?”
On the one hand, John 14:6 says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, yet we know that millions of people have never heard about Jesus. It seems unfair for God to send them to hell, especially since 2 Peter 3:9 says that God does not desire that anybody perish, but desires all to come to repentance and faith in Christ.
Some Christians try to solve this dilemma by thinking that God just gives people a pass if they haven’t heard. But if that’s true, then they’re better off not hear the gospel at all, because once we tell them about Jesus, we doom them to hell if they refuse! But we know that can’t be right, because the Bible commands us to share the gospel with all people.
We find some answers in Acts 17. It says Paul preached to a group of people who had never heard the gospel before, and Paul says something that can help us understand this dilemma. He noticed that they had worshiped what they called an “Unknown God,” and then he told them what they call “unknown” he wants to make known to them: Jesus Christ. Then he says this:
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, 1984 NIV)
Notice three things in this passage that helps us understand the fate of those who have never heard the gospel:
I. God knows where we live (Acts 17:26)
People say it is unfair that God sends somebody to hell because they happened to be born in a land or culture where they don’t hear the gospel, but Paul says almost the direct opposite. He says in verse 26 that God determined the exact time and place where every human should live. Verse 27 even says that God did this so that men would seek Him!
Could it be that God put people who are less likely to seek Him in strongly evangelical areas, and He put people who are more likely to seek Him in non-Christian areas? I used to pastor in one of the most evangelized areas of the world, in Mississippi, where there is a church on every corner. But I can also tell you that many of the unchurched people that I met were some of the most hardened to the gospel and hardest to witness to that I had ever met. Yet when I went to an unevangelized area of Mexico and shared the gospel, hundreds of people responded.
So don’t think it is an unfair accident that some people live in areas where the gospel is rarely preached. God didn’t make some mistake. He knows exactly where He put every person, and God is revealing Himself. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
II. God knows our hearts (Acts 17:27a)
Paul goes on to say in verse 27, “God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”
God knows our hearts. God knows who is going to seek Him.
In Romans 4, Paul discusses this with the illustration of Abraham. Abraham believed what God revealed to him. Jesus had not yet come, but Abraham had faith in everything He saw, and God accepted that faith as righteousness. Apparently God even revealed Jesus to Abraham, because in John 8:56 Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Notice the words “he saw it.” Jesus was saying that somehow, God allowed Abraham to see and understand about Jesus.
Cornelius was another example. Acts 10 says Cornelius was a God-fearing Roman centurion. He had not heard the gospel, but he had heard about the God of Israel, and he sought the Lord, even giving generously to the synagogue and praying regularly. Acts 10:4 says an angel appeared to Cornelius and said, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” Then God sent Peter to Cornelius to share Jesus with him, and when Cornelius heard about Jesus, he believed.
God knows our hearts. If people live in lands where the gospel is not preached, but they seek God, then God will respond to them. If they come to the light they are given, God will give them more light!
III. God is available to us (Acts 17:27b)
Finally, notice what Paul says in the end of verse 27: “He is not far from each one of us.”
God is available. He is not far away. He can be found.
Romans 1:20 says that God has revealed Himself through creation, so that all people are “without excuse.” Everybody has been given the revelation of God’s existence through creation. When we pay attention to the light that God gives us, then God gives more light. Deuteronomy 4:29, (HCSB) says to “search for the Lord… you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart…”
The International Mission Board reports that around the Muslim world, Christian workers report an increasing openness and turning to Christ — often preceded by dreams or visions of him among potential converts. Several examples of such phenomena were detailed by National and International Religion Report:
— Thousands of North African Muslims wrote to a Christian radio service asking for information. Many reported a similar dream: Jesus appears and tells them, “I am the way.”
— In Nigeria, Muslims savagely beat a Christian convert from their tribe. As he lay dying, they heard him asking God to forgive them. That night two Muslim mullahs who participated in the attack saw visions of Christ. Both repented and took 80 followers to a Christian church to hear the gospel. (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
Each of these stories illustrate the truth, that God is available, no matter where a person lives, and even people who live in areas where the gospel has rarely been heard, are hearing and coming to Christ.
Really, the question should not be, “Why did God put them in places where the gospel is rarely preached?” The question should be, “Why are we not taking the gospel to them?”
My wife and I saw the sneak preview of the new motion picture, The Shack. I posted a review earlier of the bestselling book (click here to read it) of the same title by William Paul Young, so I wanted to follow up with this review of the movie.
The Shack is a deeply emotional film about a man named Mack Phillips, played by Sam Worthington, who is angry at God because of the abusive and tragic circumstances he experienced as a child and as an adult. The film tells the story of a deeply personal tragedy that occurs at a shack in the woods, and how Mack gets a letter from God, inviting him to return to the shack and deal with his pain. Mack returns, and there meets God in three persons, who engage him in experiences and conversations that allow him to rediscover the goodness of God. After he resolves these issues and learns to accept forgiveness and give forgiveness, Mack returns to his family a changed man. The plot uses flashbacks to tell about the tragedies in his life. Much of the story is framed as a visionary dream, which is a major departure from the plot of the original book. The plot moves well at the beginning and the end, although it may seem a bit long in the middle, if you are not engaged in the conversations.
Octavia Spencer plays “Papa,” a character representing God the Father, who appears to Mack as an affectionate African-American woman. She explains that since Mack could not relate to God as a father, due to his childhood experiences with an abusive father, Papa has chosen to appear as a mother figure. In fact, all three persons of the Trinity are there. The Son, representing Jesus, is a Middle Eastern man, played by Abraham Aviv Alush, and Sarayu (the Spirit), played by Sumire Matsubara, is represented by a young Asian woman who glows and shines and sometimes just disappears. Although God is represented as three different persons, they act in unison, as one person continues a conversation with Mack that he had earlier with the other person.
The movie deals powerfully with the question of why God allows suffering. Papa, The Son, and Sarayu do not offer easy answers, but they help Mack to get a bigger picture of how God loves, forgives and redeems. For example, when Mack angrily tells Papa that Papa could not be good and allow the Son to suffer on the cross, Papa shows nail scars in her own wrist, and says with tears, “Don’t think that I wasn’t also there when my Son died.” In another scene, Jesus sends Mack on a path to a cave where he meets a female called Wisdom, who lets Mack sit in the judgment seat of God and see what it is like to be a judge, an experience that overwhelms him, reminding him that no human should try to play God, and also hinting at the reason Jesus had to die for our sins. Unfortunately, the emphasis on God’s love is so strong, that a balanced statement about God’s holiness is lacking. God reminds Mack that sin has consequences, but when Mack bluntly asks Papa about God’s wrath, Papa could have said that God is holy and offended by sin, but instead only emphasized God’s goodness and love.
The film quality
This is a quality film production. There are breathtaking nature scenes, scenes filled with color and light, darkness and drama. The music is engaging, but not distracting. The main actors and supporting cast are all convincing in their roles. Octavia Spencer exudes love and kindness as Papa, and Sam Worthington explodes with emotion and pain as Mack. Country singer Tim McGraw does a good job as a supporting actor, playing Mack’s friend, who becomes a narrator of the story.
Comparisons with the book
Fans of the book will probably also like the movie, and some critics of the book may like the movie better than the book. I don’t remember hearing any profanity in the movie, although the book has some profanity. The portrayal of God the Father as a woman is explained sooner and more clearly in the movie than in the book. There were several passages in the book that critics accused of teaching universal salvation (that all people will go to heaven), particularly some conversations Mack had with the persons of the Trinity. Most of those controversial conversations do not occur in the movie, although the movie does repeat the words of Jesus that He is not a “Christian” (which came across as humorous to me both in the book and film.) The movie puts more emphasis on God’s love than on God’s judgment, although it it reminds the viewer that God does make judgments of heaven and hell and that sin does have consequences. After the movie was over, I asked my wife, who has not read the book, if she thought the movie taught universal salvation, and she said, “Not at all.”
Spoiler alert: If you have read the book, you will notice that the movie ends a little differently. It makes the whole encounter at the shack into a visionary dream, and while the book has Mack actually finding his daughter’s body and giving it a proper burial, the movie shows that happening as part of his dream. Then the movie focuses at the end on Mack going to church with his family and having a new faith in God. The movie added the friend as a narrator of the story at the beginning and end, which I thought was a good framing device for the story.
I liked the original book, despite its flaws, but I liked the movie even more. What I like the most is that it deals with the important issues of pain, suffering, the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ. I wept several times as I thought about my own sin and need for forgiveness, and it moved me to want to be more forgiving towards others. My wife commented that the story touches nearly every person at some level in their lives. This film offers a vivid story that can open up discussions with our friends and neighbors about how our hope is found, not in an old rustic shack, but on an old rugged cross.
The Shack is a motion picture being released on March 3, 2017. It has a Christian message, yet some Christians are calling the movie heresy. What’s going on?
The movie is based on the bestseller of the same name by William Paul Young. (This is a review of the book. You can read my review of the movie by clicking here.) It is a deeply emotional story about why God allows suffering. The main character, Mack, gets a note from God, asking him to return to the shack where his young daughter had been murdered. Mack goes, and finds answers to his questions and doubts about God’s goodness. Sounds inspiring, doesn’t it? Then why the controversy?
Negative elements in the book
Many people are bothered by the portrayal of the Trinity in the book. God the Father appears as a black woman who goes by the name “Papa,” Jesus appears as a Middle Eastern man, and the Holy Spirit appears as an Asian woman named Sarayu (Sanskrit for “wind”) whom you can see through. Although they appear as three persons, they are shown as completely one, as they answer Mack in unison from time to time, and whenever he has a conversation with one of them, they always continue the conversations he had with the others. “Papa” reminds Mack that God is spirit, and since Mack had a poor relationship with his own father, he chose to reveal himself to Mack as a woman to get around his resistance. In fact, (spoiler warning: don’t read this next statement if you don’t want to know too much about the novel’s plot…) at the end of the book, after Mack is reconciled to his own father, “Papa” appears to Mack as a man.
Some people will be put off by a few uses of profanity in the book in the dialogue. There is one use of S.O.B., and a few other milder profanities spoken mostly in passages where the speaker is angry.
The most troubling part of the book occurs on page 182. Jesus is talking to Mack, and he says, “Those who love me come from every system that exists. They were Buddhists or Mormons, Baptists or Muslims, Democrats, Republicans and many who don’t vote or are not part of any Sunday morning or religious institutions…” At this point, Jesus appears to be teaching universalism, that everybody will be saved. It appears that Jesus is saying that He has taken people from any background and transformed them. Notice the next words that William Young has “Jesus” speak:
“…I have followers who were murderers and many who were self-righteous. Some were bankers and bookies, Americans and Iraqis, Jews and Palestinians. I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.”
“‘Does that mean,’ asked Mack, ‘that all roads will lead to you?’
‘Not at all,’ smiled Jesus as he reached for the door handle to the shop. ‘Most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.'”
Perhaps this is universalism, or perhaps it means that Jesus is the only way, but He will do what it takes to reach us. The only thing that is clear is that it is left unclear.
Positive elements in the book
The book does a beautiful job of showing that following Jesus is more a matter of relationship than religion. It illustrates how suffering cannot be understood because we cannot understand all of God’s purposes, thus we simply must trust God.
(Spoiler warning: skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know too much of the plot…) Perhaps the most powerful part of the book is when Mack is asked to “play God” and decide which three of his children will go to hell and which two will go to heaven. Mack’s reaction to this awful choice helps him see how God works through suffering.
There are several good quotations in the book:
“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.” (p. 185)
God says, “I am a verb. I am that I am. I will be who I will be. I am a verb! I am alive, dynamic, ever active, and moving. I am a being verb.” (p. 204)
God says, “Forgiveness is about forgetting, Mack. It is about letting go of another person’s throat.” (p. 224)
This is a review of The Shack, the book. The movie has several differences, so see my follow-up review of the actual film by clicking here. The movie has no profanity, and has fewer implications of universal salvation, as some of the above conversations that imply universalism are not in the film. Also, the depiction of God the Father as a woman is explained earlier and more clearly in the film.
Whatever your opinion about the depiction of the Trinity and other controversial elements in the book, it is an inspiring message of how God works through suffering that reminds us how we ultimately find hope not in the shack, but in the cross.
Article copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
Barbara Robinson writes in her book, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, about a Sunday School Christmas pageant. One child heard from Isaiah 9:6 that the Christ child’s name would be “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Wide-eyed, she responded, “He’d never get out of the first grade if he had to write all that.”
Perhaps we need to return to this familiar prophetic title with the same wonder of a child. We will see:
As Wonderful Counselor, Christ takes away our gloom.
As Mighty God, Christ takes away our doom.
As Everlasting Father, Christ adopts us all.
As Prince of Peace, Christ takes down the wall.
In the verses before Isaiah 9:6, we see how meaningful this really is…
I. Wonderful Counselor takes away our gloom
Isaiah 9:1 says “the gloom of the distressed will not be like that of the former times.” In this world, we often live in gloom and sorrow, but Christ takes it away. Our Wonderful Counselor listens with compassion, helps us see matters in a new light, confronts us with the truth, and guides us in the right way.
II. Mighty God takes away our doom
Isaiah 9:2 says, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Because of our sin, we are living in the land of death, headed to a sinner’s hell. But the Christ child is more than a sweet baby; He is God in flesh, and able to save us from our sins by His sacrifice on the cross. He came to earth, so that we may go to heaven.
III. Everlasting Father adopts us all
Isaiah 9:4 speaks of the oppression and burdens of the people, who have no one to protect them. But God is a good Father, and His Son Jesus has come to adopt us all. When I say, “adopts us all,” I don’t mean to imply universal salvation; I’m speaking poetically of all who trust the blood of Christ, and then are adopted into God’s family, as if we were blood brothers and sisters. “I will not leave you as orphans,” Jesus promised in John 14:18.
IV. Prince of Peace takes down the wall
Isaiah 9:5 speaks of the blood of war, from which Christ came to bring peace. He takes down the wall of sin (Isaiah 59:2), so that nothing separates us from God (Romans 8:38-39). He takes down the wall that separates us from our brothers and sisters in Christ: “For He is our peace, who made both groups one and tore down the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14).
When missionary Don Richardson was trying to explain the gospel to a remote tribe, they could not understand the incarnation of God in flesh or the atonement of Christ upon the cross. But then he learned that when tribes wanted to make peace, they would exchange children to grow up in the other tribe. That was it! He explained that Jesus is our “Peace Child,” the Son of God, born as a Son of Man to make peace through His flesh.
Isaiah prophesied of the Messiah’s birth long ago. As you celebrate His birth, you can also be born again by faith (John 3:3). Have you?
Copyright 2016 by Bob Rogers
“Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” (Job 2:10, HCSB)
Last week, I met a man who wanted to give up on life. I asked him if he knew the story of Job, from the Bible. He said he had a Bible somewhere, but had never heard of Job. So I gave him the short version of the story: Job was a good man who worshiped God, but he lost everything. Bandits stole his property, a storm killed his children, and then his skin broke out in painful sores. His wife told him, “Curse God and die.” When I said this, my new friend raised his eyebrows, and wanted to know what happened next. I explained that Job refused to curse God. Then his three friends came to comfort him, but instead of comforting him, they tried to defend God. They said Job must have sinned, and that was why God was allowing him to suffer. Job objected, saying he didn’t deserve his suffering. In the end, God spoke to Job, and restored his fortunes.
The wrong question to ask of Job
Many people go to the book of Job looking for the answer to why people suffer. Unfortunately, the only answers they find are negative:
Job’s suffering was not because God was angry or punishing him. Bildad, one of Job’s friends, accused him of this. He implied that Job must have forgotten God, so God forgot him (Job 8:13). But Bildad was wrong! God specifically said in Job 1:8 and 2:3, “Have you considered My servant Job? No one else on earth is like him, a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil.”
Job’s suffering was not because Job sinned. Bildad said that Job’s children died because of their sin (8:3), and Zophar, another one of Job’s friends, accused Job himself of being so sinful that “God has chosen to overlook some of your sins” (11:6). But they were wrong! Job 2:10 says, “Throughout all of this Job did not sin in what he said.”
Job’s suffering was not answered by God, either. After the long debates between Job and his friends, the Lord Himself answered Job from the whirlwind in chapters 38-41. But if you read those chapters to find an answer to suffering, you will be disappointed. It’s not there. Instead, God turns the questions on those who have been asking questions. “Where were you when I established the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding,” God asks (38:4). Then the Lord lists the amazing traits of His creation, and asks if Job can explain all of that. The point is blunt: We do not know all there is to know. Only God does. We cannot understand God. As the Lord proclaimed through the prophet Isaiah, “For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
So what is the answer to suffering? The Book of Job doesn’t answer that question. In fact, it’s the wrong question to ask.
The right question to ask of Job
The question to ask is not, Why is there suffering? The question to ask is, What do suffering people need to do? The Book of Job has hope-filled answers to this question.
First, hold on to faith. Despite his losses and sorrow, Job fell to the ground and worshiped, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will leave this life. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Praise the name of Yahweh” (1:21). Later, in the middle of his debates with his friends, Job says, “Even if He kills me, I will hope in Him.” This doesn’t fit with the so-called “prosperity gospel” that says if you just have faith, all will go well. No, this is a real-world faith, that holds on to God’s hand, even when it cannot see His plan.
Second, live in integrity. Satan, the old accuser before the Lord, said that Job would curse God if Job suffered. But Satan was wrong. This is one of the major points of the book. The word “integrity” is repeatedly used to describe Job. Notice the question Job’s wife asks: “Do you still retain your integrity? Curse God and die!” (2:9) But Job rejects her suggestion as foolish, saying, “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” (2:10) We read in James 2:2-4 to consider it joy when we face trials, because God uses it to produce maturity in us. It has been my observation as a hospital chaplain, that suffering generally reveals the attitude that is already in a person. I’ve seen people handle horrible physical problems with grace and peace, while others with lesser physical ailments complain and are bitter. We choose how we will respond. Job set a standard, choosing to live in integrity.
Third, hope in the Savior. One of the greatest cries of faith comes in the midst of the greatest pain, when Job says, “Even now my witness is in heaven, and my advocate is in the heights!… But I know my living Redeemer, and He will stand on the dust at last. Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet I will see God in my flesh” (16:19; 19:25-26). Long before Jesus Christ came, Job caught a vision of the Redeemer, who would die on the cross for our sins, and be our advocate before God the Father (Romans 8:34; 1 Timothy 2:5).
There is an fable about a poor man who had a valuable horse. People told him that he should sell his horse, so he wouldn’t be poor, but he refused. Then the horse ran away, and the people asked, “Why didn’t you sell it when you could? The man said, “Don’t say that. All you can say is the horse ran away.” Later, the horse returned, with 20 wild horses, and the man suddenly became the owner of 21 valuable horses. This time they said, “We were wrong! Now we know why the horse ran away; it was to bring you riches later.” The man said, “Don’t say that. All you can say is the horse returned with more horses.” Then the man’s son broke his leg, trying to tame one of the wild horses. The people said, “Why did you keep the wild horses? Now your son has a broken leg.” The man said, “Don’t say that. All you can say is my son broke his leg.” Then their country went to war against a larger, more powerful nation, and the army came to their town, forcing all of the young men to join the army, except for the son of the man with the wild horses. The people said, “Now we know why his leg was broken, to spare him from dying in the war.” Once again, the man said, “Don’t say that. We don’t know why. All we can say is my son did not have to go to war.”
Thus the question we need to ask is not why? but what? Not, Why do people suffer? but What do suffering people need to do? Even if we knew the answer to why, it would not help us do anything different. But the answer to the second question gives us hope and purpose that we can put into action. Because our Redeemer lives, we even after our skin is destroyed, we shall see God!
I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken, about the amazing life of Louie Zamperini, so I was excited to hear that a movie version was being made. However, I was concerned when I heard reports that director Angelina Jolie had cut out the story of Zamperini’s Christian conversion.
The life of Louie Zamperini was made up of three inspiring stories of redemption: athlete, war hero, and Christian servant. Any one of these stories would make an great book or movie. The first story is how he was changed from a troubled boy into an Olympic runner through the inspiration of his big brother. The second story is how he survived air battles with the Japanese, a crash and 45 days afloat in the Pacific Ocean, and horrible torture in a Japanese P.O.W. camp through his personal determination. The third story is how he was saved from alcoholism, post-war trauma, a broken marriage, and bitterness toward the Japanese when he accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior at the Los Angeles evangelistic crusade in 1949 that made Billy Graham a world-famous preacher. The book tells all three of these stories; the movie tells the first two.
When I went to see the movie, I knew the conversion story would not be told, so I went with low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the movie did include the same foreshadowing of his spiritual conversion that is found in the book: the Christian message he heard growing up in an Italian Catholic home with a praying mother, and the promise he made to God when adrift in the ocean that if God would save him, he would serve Him the rest of his life. The movie ends with his homecoming after the war, but the text on the screen briefly tells the viewer that Zamperini “made good” on his promise to serve God, and that he returned to Japan to forgive his captors.
So the story of Zamperini’s faith is not omitted from the movie, but it is greatly abbreviated. The movie itself is very well done. The acting, filming, musical score and drama is top-notch and faithful to the story found in the first two parts of the book. If you have read the book, you will still enjoy the movie. If you have not read the book, I encourage you to see the movie and then read Laura Hillenbrand’s book to get “the rest of the story.”
Copyright 2014 by Bob Rogers
Things from nothing
Man from dust
Sin from perfection
Evil from innocence
Promise from faith
Hope from belief
Laws from above
Commands from Him
Failure from obedience
Despair from hope
Love for hate
Blood for anyone
Light in darkness
Peace in war
Crying to joy
Death to life
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
Copyright 2014 by Bob Rogers
Lillie Mae Lanier leaned on her wall
In her shotgun house on Desire Street.
Missing her husband, afraid of it all
In her shotgun house on Desire Street.
Her heart hurt, her head broke
Open the truth that she spoke
To her wall– as it wondered if it could stay still
When such painful emotions were written on the wall
In the shotgun house on Desire Street.
Katrina had come, Katrina had gone
To the shotgun house on Desire Street.
Waters had risen, families washed away
But Lillie Mae Lanier never wandered away
From the faith she had on Desire Street
Why? You may ask. Why lean on that wall
In your shotgun house on Desire Street?
Lillie Mae still leans day after day
In her shotgun house on Desire Street
For she knows the wall will never give way
And one day will take her heart far away
From her shotgun house on Desire Street.
When all that you have has melted away
And Monday’s food must last till Friday
You need a wall to lean on
You need a foundation to stand on
Lillie read the words written on her wall
That keeps her faith strong
That moves her along
She knows that one day He will take her away
And she’ll never again live on Desire Street.
For she’s a princess in hiding
And she’s waiting for her King
To smile on her heart on the day she departs
From her shotgun house on Desire Street.
(If you see a video ad below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
John Calvin was wrong about Romans 9.
Calvin, the Protestant reformer of Geneva, Switzerland, was a great theologian. He became famous for his emphasis on the sovereignty of God and God’s predestination of our salvation. But in his commentary on the ninth chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, John Calvin took predestination beyond anything the apostle Paul intended to say.
Qualifications of what I’m saying
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that salvation is completely by the grace of God and cannot be earned by our good deeds. I believe that God is merciful and just, and I believe in the sovereignty of God. I also believe that when we believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, the Bible says that we are chosen, or predestined.
My disagreement is with a specific brand of Calvinism and with a specific statement made by John Calvin in his own commentary on Romans. Many will argue that Calvin himself took a different position in some of his other writings, and that may be true, but it does not change the fact that Calvin was wrong in his commentary on Romans 9.
The key verses and Calvin’s comments
The debate centers around the key verses, Romans 9:18, 22 (HCSB): “So then, He shows mercy to those He wants to, and He hardens those He wants to harden… And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction?”
Calvin says in his commentary on Romans 9, “Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will… that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end—that they may perish.” (John Calvin, Commentary on Romans.)
John Calvin’s interpretation of Romans 9:18 and 22 has been called double-edged predestination. This interpretation teaches that the saved are predestined to be saved, but also that the lost are predestined to be damned. At first glance, one can see how Calvin would interpret this passage the way he did. But a study of these verses in light of the entire chapter reveals a completely different picture of what Paul was saying.
God is not unjust
Calvin’s interpretation makes God arbitrary and implies that God is unjust. Yet Paul reminds us in Romans 9:14, “Is there injustice with God? Absolutely not!” Let’s go through the chapter and see how God is both merciful and just.
Hardened clay and melted butter
When Romans 9:18 says that God shows mercy on whom He desires and hardens whom He desires, this does not mean that God is arbitrary or unfair. Let’s look at the context of this statement. In the previous verse, verse 17, Paul spoke about Pharaoh, who hardened his heart and would not let the people of Israel go from slavery. But if one reads the story in Exodus, one finds that half of the time it says God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and half of the time it says Pharaoh hardened his own heart. What Exodus described was the process by which God brought out the hardness that was already in Pharaoh’s heart. As Dale Moody says, “The sun that hardens the clay melts the butter.” (The Broadman Bible Commmentary, vol. 10: Acts- I Corinthians, “Romans,” by Dale Moody, p. 230.) Thus God was not making Pharaoh do something that Pharaoh didn’t already want to do. Likewise, God does not take away our free will to obey or disobey.
The clay pot and the potter
Next, we note that Paul uses the example of a clay pot to illustrate predestination. He says in verses 20-21, that we have no right as mere humans to talk back to God about His will. It is interesting that Jeremiah 18:5-10 also uses the clay pot illustration to show how God reacts differently when we respond differently. Jeremiah says that if a people whom God warns will repent of their evil, then God will relent of his disaster and not inflict on them the disaster God had planned. This shows how predestination works in the mind and heart of God. Of course, God in His foreknowledge already knows what we will do, so when we choose Christ, God speaks of having chosen us.
A choice by faith
Romans 9:30-33 shows how salvation comes by a free choice to believe the gospel, not by arbitrary predestination. It does this by drawing a contrast between Gentiles who obtained righteousness and the Jews who did not obtain righteousness. What was the difference? It was their faith! Verse 30 says the Gentiles obtained a “righteousness that comes from faith.” Verse 31 says Israel did not achieve this righteousness. “Why is that?” Paul asks in verse 32. His answer: “Because they did not pursue it by faith.”
Objects of wrath and objects of mercy—treated differently
With all of this in mind, let us return to the key verses that are central to this debate, Romans 9:22-23. These verses have been interpreted as teaching double-edged predestination, because they speak of the “objects of wrath ready for destruction” and “objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory.” However, what many people miss here, is that Paul describes the objects of wrath (the damned) and the objects of mercy (the saved) in different ways in this passage. The Greek grammar in verse 22 describes the “objects of wrath ready for destruction” with a perfect participle in the middle or passive voice. Thus it describes the objects of wrath, which refer to the lost, as “having been made ready for destruction,” which may mean they prepared themselves for destruction by their own unbelief. Notice also that God “endured with much patience the objects of wrath.” In other words, God patiently waited for their free choices, because, as 2 Peter 2:9 says, God is not willing that any be lost.
However, the Greek grammar is different when referring to the “objects of mercy” in verse 23. Paul describes the “objects of mercy” as those “that He prepared beforehand for glory.” This time, Paul uses the active voice to describe God’s action of salvation. In other words, Paul speaks of the saved as actively being predestined by God beforehand, but Paul speaks of the damned as passively being predestined, implying it is the result of their own choices, which God in His omniscience already knew they would make.
Why John Calvin was wrong
John Calvin said that the apostle Paul taught in Romans 9 that God created the wicked for the purpose of damning them to Hell. But when we read Paul’s words carefully and in context, we see that Calvin was wrong. Instead, Paul says that God is not unjust. He says that God hardens the heart, but those are hearts that have also freely chosen to harden themselves. He says that we are like clay pots that cannot question God who forms them, but those same clay pots do have a choice to respond to the potter’s hands. If anybody is an object of God’s wrath, it is because that person has failed to obtain salvation by faith. The choice is always ours, but God always knows what choice we will make.
Guest blog: OUT OF THIS WORLD! Part Three: Books and audiovisuals on near death experiences and the afterlife.
Copyright 2013 by Joyce C. Rogers
(For the past two days on this blog, my mother, Joyce Rogers, has shared her insights from scripture and other resources on the subject of what happens when we die. Today she lists the books, articles and audiovisuals she read on the subject, with a brief comment about each.)
Alcorn, Randy. Heaven. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Randy is considered a leading authority on Heaven. He answers some tough questions as he invites you to picture Heaven as the Scripture does. This is a very scholarly book. One needs more than an afternoon to read it!
Alexander, Eben, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. Dr. Alexander spent seven days in a coma and experienced a heavenly reality of love and beauty. His experiences changed his scientific mind to one of profound belief in God, spirituality and love. An excellent book.
Black, Dale. Flight to heaven; A Plane Crash: A Lone Survivor: A Journey to Heaven and Back. Published by Bethany House Publishers. Captain Black pursued his dream of flying planes, even after being severely injured in a plane crash. His trip to Heaven is beautifully detailed. The story is a fascinating read.
Burpo, Todd and Sonja Burpo. Heaven Changes Everything. Published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. This is a sequel to the very popular book, Heaven is for Real, the story of little Colton Burpo’s unforgettable trip to Heaven. This family’s lives were changed. The Burpos show how believing in Heaven helps one survive hardships here on earth, including the death of a loved one, particularly the loss of a child. A sweet and down to earth book.
Burpo, Todd with Lynn Vincent. Heaven is for Real: A little boy’s astounding story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. Thomas Nelson Publishing. A four year old child, he sat on Jesus’ lap, said angels took him from his hospital bed and other wonderful things. Colton spoke with disarming innocence. A delightful and convincing book. Colton and his parents were interviewed on the “Today” show, showing the public interest in this story.
Garlow, James and Keith Wall. Encountering Heaven and the Afterlife: True Stories From People Who Have Glimpsed the World Beyond. People who have had near death experiences (NDEs) bring back word descriptions of the pathway to Heaven or the descent into the darkness of Hell. Those who go to Heaven lose their fear and report amazing feelings of love, warmth and acceptance. Those who go to Hell are horrified and so thankful they get to come back.
Graham, Billy. Death and the Life After. Word Publishing. Billy Graham talks about how the culture relates to death, the death of children, living wills, euthanasia, hospice care, the grief process, and preparation for death. He explores the practical side of death. Dr. Graham helps the reader find peace and comfort for those grieving or pre- paring a will or planning a funeral.
Graham, Billy. Nearing Home: Life, Faith and Finishing Well. Thomas Nelson Publishing. At 93, Dr. Graham said that old age was a surprise. He advises one not to retire from life. Many older people have heard and obeyed God’s call. He says leave a legacy of faithfulness. We are meant for Heaven, our final home. Heaven is glorious because it is the dwelling place of God.
Graham, Billy. The Heaven Answer Book. Thomas Nelson Publishing. This short little question and answer book gives straight biblical answers about heaven in typical Billy Graham style. He answers such questions as “Does Heaven really exist?” and “What is a resurrected body?” Dr. Graham is evangelistic in his approach to these questions and answers.
Harris, Trudy. Glimpses of Heaven: True Stories. Published by Revell. A hospice nurse relates stories of those leaving the world in his/her own unique way.
Harrie, Trudy. More Glimpses of Heaven: Inspiring True Stories of Hope and Peace at The End of Life’s Journey. Published by Revell. More stories of the beauty and pain of life’s end as observed by hospice nurse, Trudy Harris.
Lotz, Anne Graham. Heaven, My Father’s House. W. Publishing Group. Billy Graham’s daughter writes about our heavenly home compared to our earthly home. She says, “The invitation to my Father’s house is extended to all, but you have to RSVP.” This is an inspiring little book.
Malz, Betty, My Glimpse of Eternity. Published by Chosen. Betty was “officially” Pronounced dead for 28 minutes before waking to report seeing and hearing angels and understanding several different languages at once. Catherine Marshall said, “Upon occasion God breaks into human life to give us a glimpse of what lies ahead.
Betty Malz’s remarkable experience is a resounding ‘Yes, there is life after death.’”
Neal, Mary C. MD. To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, angels, and Life Again. Waterbrook Press. Dr. Neal, a spine specialist, had a kayak accident and drowned. Her friends worked hard to revive her and finally did. In her “in-between “ state, she experienced a joyous welcome celebration in Heaven. Very readable and interesting.
Piper, Don with Cecil Murphy. 90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life. Published by Revell. A popular book involving a car accident, being pronounced dead and waking up to sing with a minister praying and singing over him. After a long, grueling recovery, Don was persuaded to tell his story.
Prince, Dennis and Nolene. Nine Days in Heaven: A True Story. Charisma House Publishing. Nine Days in Heaven relates the vision of 25 year old Marietta Davis more than 150 years ago, in 1848. Her story is re-written in modern English. She was shown the heavenly nursery where infants are cared for and taught redemption’s story. Each section is supported by Scripture. Beautifully done. Especially helpful for those grieving for a lost child. Not to be confused with 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper.
Rogers, Joyce C. “After This, Then What?” Family Bible Study, Life Ventures Learner Guide. Summer, 2005, p.116-161. LifeWay Sunday School unit. Speaks of salva-tion here and now and throughout eternity, Jesus’ return, and the special place God has prepared for His own.
Sigmund, Richard. My Time in Heaven: A True Story of Dying…And Coming Back. Whitaker House Publishing. Following a traffic accident, Richard found himself in a thick, cloudy veil. He could hear sirens and the words, “He’s dead.” He could hear singing and laughter on the other side. Led along a path by angels, he saw a book containing his name. He claims to have seen mansions belonging to loved ones and many other wonders. The book has testimonies, select scriptures and an index.
Springer, Rebecca. Within Heaven’s Gates. Published by Whitaker House. After feeling alone in her illness far from home and family, Rebecca has a vision of life in Heaven. She describes with unspeakable joy life in Heaven where she has her own mansion and visits with loved ones. A vision, not an NDE.
Stone, Perry. Secrets from Beyond the Grave: The Amazing mysteries of Eternity, Paradise, and the Land of Lost Souls. Published by Charisma House. Detailed studies of questions related to death and the afterlife. The author asserts that Heaven and Hell are real places. Details he relates include: people in Heaven or Hell have all 5 senses; are not limited to time or space or travel hindrances; and have conversations not with words but with thoughts.
Wiese, Bill. 23 Minutes in Hell; One man’s story about what he saw, heard, and felt in That place of torment. Published by Charisma House. Bill Wiese said that he saw the searing flames of hell and was terrorized. He said, “My sincere hope is that this book is the closest you will ever come to experiencing hell for yourself.” A question he answers is “Can ‘Good’ people go to hell? There is an 18-page scripture index.
ANNOTATED BIBLIOGRAPHY Of AUDIO VISUALS
Besteman, Marvin with Lorille Craker, read by Maurice England. “My Journey to Heaven.: What I Saw and How It Changed My Life.” Baker Publishing House, Christianaudio, 2012.. Marvin Besteman shares the true story of his experience of Heaven in detail. He speaks of angels accompanying him to the gate, his conversation with St. Peter, and his joy when he recognized friends and family members who had touched his life. Very interesting story. Running time 4.7 hours. CD.
Malarky, Kevin. “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven,” Tyndale Entertainment Production in Association with Franklin Films. Based on book by Kevin Malarky. Six year old Alex Malarky suffered a terrible car accident which left him in a coma for 2 months. He awoke to share an incredible story of angels, Jesus and his trip to Heaven. He was left paralyzed, but we see how God is still using him today. This is an amazing and convincing story. Running time 50 minutes. DVD.
_______. “The Final Frontier.” Produced by Eternal Productions. Revived patients encounter some form of extension of consciousness beyond clinical death. They encounter some form of reality: Heaven or Hell. These are not hallucinations, but a highly structured and organized phenomenon. More and more scientific evidence tells us that life after death exists. Where we are going is a matter of choice. We must think about our own lives. This DVD makes one think. Running time 53 minutes.
_______. “The Lazarus Phenomenon: A Glimpse of Eternity.” Eternal Productions. Lan McCormack was stung by jelly fish off the coast of an island in the Pacific and was unable to get help. His experiences changed his life. On the other side of the world, a pastor died and 48 hours later revived. He was shown his death certificate. He also had experiences beyond the veil. Well worth watching. Running time 100 minutes..
Jeremiah, David Dr. “Revealing the Mysteries of Heaven.” Turning Point Television. Shadow Mountain Community Church, San Diego, California.. Sermons on Heaven. Dr. Jeremiah preaches a 3 month series of sermons on Heaven. Each sermon covers A different aspect of Heaven. Topics such as “Won’t Heaven be Boring?” and “What About the Children?” are covered. He says “Worship in Heaven is not about us – its about Him. Its not about here – its about there. Its not about now – its about then. Its not about one – its about many.” Wonderful resource. Each sermon about 30 to 40 minutes. DVD.
Copyright 2013 by Joyce C. Rogers