Provocative pastor Rob Bell tantalizes us with this, among several other, questions in a recent video promoting his forthcoming book Love Wins. Without spilling the beans about exactly where he will come down on the doctrine of hell, Bell (and certainly his publisher) have strongly hinted that Bell will put hell under serious fire. In fact, the publisher goes so far as to describe Bell’s argument in this way: “a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.” If publicity was what Rob Bell wanted, he sure got it.
Even CNN has entered the fray in this most recent theological discussion, which, I believe, apparently started with Justin Taylor’s comments. Others whom I have read include Kevin DeYoung, Phil Johnson, Albert Mohler, and my friend Craig Nash. And this appears to be only scratching the surface. Bloggers on all sides of this debate have had a field day.
My aim in this post is simply to offer a commentary on one recurring trend that I have seen in the discussion. A number of people discussing the issue keep coming back to the question about Gandhi and simply make the assumption that we cannot know whether he is in hell or not. Those who say this are Christian believers, most of whom (I would guess) seek to affirm historic Christian, and particularly Protestant, doctrine. It seems to me that the basis for one’s agnosticism on this question can stem from one of two different presuppositions:
(1) We cannot know if, in his final moments, Gandhi may have placed his faith in Christ. Not knowing his heart at that moment, we cannot know whether he died as a Christian or as an unbeliever.
(2) Supposing Gandhi never trusted in Christ (of which we have no indication that he did), we cannot know that God would have sent him to hell. After all, Gandhi was such a good man with such noble character and ideals that it would rub us the wrong way to imagine God condemning him for eternity.
I will grant the first point. Yes, it is impossible for us to know Gandhi’s heart in his final moments, though we can know that he never publicly identified himself as one who trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. He heard the gospel, and from everything we have seen, he rejected it, though it is impossible to know what may have transpired between him and God in his final moments.
If that is all that we are talking about here, then I have nothing else to say. But I suspect that most people who are bringing up this issue are thinking along the lines of the second point. The thought of Gandhi in hell makes us cringe, so we assume that it can’t be that simple. Unbelievers must not automatically go to hell. There must be other ways for them to be saved than by placing faith in Christ.
Of course, it is entirely possible to confess that Christ is the only Savior and still maintain that unbelievers can be saved by him without knowing it. This is known as “inclusivism.” Perhaps Gandhi and others like him are saved apart from faith, because their sins are objectively covered by the cross of Christ, even if they are subjectively unaware of this fact until they meet Jesus in heaven.
But if this is the case, what we are really saying is that men like Gandhi can be justified by their works. Yes, Christ may be the foundation of it all, but in the end we are left with the assertion that Gandhi was a good guy, so God wouldn’t condemn him. His personal character and good works are sufficient for us to identify him with Christ, even though he never (so far as we know) entrusted himself to Christ.
I hope we can see the contradiction here. In our churches we proclaim (or at least we should proclaim) that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This is the biblical gospel. All human beings, from the best of the best to the worst of the worst, are dead in sins, enslaved to the devil, and under the wrath of God by the very nature of who they are as descendants of Adam (Ephesians 2:1-3). We either believe what the Bible says about us or we don’t. We are either lost in sin–every single one of us–or we are not. We either need a Redeemer or we don’t.
Having proclaimed that a Redeemer has come for us, the Scripture also teaches that the only way his work of redemption is applied to us is through faith (Romans 3:28). In other words, we must abandon all attempts to justify ourselves before God and rest passively in what Christ has done for us. Anything less than that amounts to an attempt to please God out of “the flesh,” the fallen nature of man that belongs to this present age and is incapable of pleasing God (Romans 8:5-8).
Our problem is that we don’t feel that depraved. And if we’re not really so bad ourselves, Gandhi must be way up there on the totem pole of godliness. That kind of godliness cannot be in hell, we think. Or at least we confess that there is no way for us to know whether he is there or not. But at this point we can choose to believe what God has said about our race or we can reject it. The truth is not determined by what rubs us the right way or the wrong way. Totally depraved sinners, of all people, would be the last ones we should trust to tell us whether we are totally depraved sinners. You can’t trust a fish to tell you about the water he lives in. He probably doesn’t even know it’s there. In a sense, even our unrighteousness before God is something we grasp by faith.
If the Bible is right about who God is (fully and completely opposed to all evil) and about who we are (evil at heart), and if the Bible is also right about the only solution to this problem (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for sinners) and how we come to be included in God’s redemptive work (by faith in Christ alone, not by our works), then the conclusion necessarily follows that if Gandhi persisted in rejection of the gospel to the end, he is not among the redeemed.
I do not think it is any more complicated than that.
I grant that it is a difficult conclusion to reach, but there are two things I could say in response to the difficulty:
(1) Nothing I have said should lead us to conclude that we cannot hold up Gandhi as a moral example of the noble ideals of nonviolence and compassion for the oppressed. Even the gifts of unbelievers are gifts of God’s common grace, and God should be praised for them. Calvin, of all people, makes this argument in The Institutes.
(2) We must remember that God’s evaluation differs drastically from ours. We render moral judgments relative to ourselves. We can identify certain people who stand at the top of the human race, morally speaking. But the problem is that the whole human race is in rebellion against God. If some of the 9/11 hijackers were nicer to their captives than others, we would not for that reason excuse their atrocious acts. Relative goodness among a group of sinful rebels is not true goodness.
If we are sure of the gospel, we must be ready to declare its inevitable result: the separation of humanity into those who are redeemed in Christ and those who are not. The New Testament makes this division over and over again. We have no reason to assume that agnosticism on this question must be the only sensible answer.