Have you ever wondered what happens to people who never hear the gospel? Modern evangelical Christians have already sent such folks to hell along with Muslims and Jews and Hollywood actors. But there is a biblical passage we might ponder before sending non-Christians to hell. It is Romans 2:13-16.
Romans 2:13-16 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires (love), these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all. (italics mine)
Paul writes to the Roman church that “doing” is more important than “hearing” and “saying.” Likewise Jesus, in Matthew 7:21, insists emphatically that you enter the kingdom of heaven not by crying Lord, Lord, but by “doing the will of my Father in heaven.” No words, presto chango, have the magical power to save you or make you a Christian. It is about doing his will.
Moreover, Paul in Romans insists that those outside of Judeo-Christian faith can live and love "instinctively.” After all, scripturally speaking, Jesus made their hearts, too, since he made all things (John 1:1-4 & 14, Colossians 1:16-17).
What if a person demonstrates the love of Christ written on his heart even though he may never have heard of Judaism, Christianity, the Bible, or Jesus? What if it were possible for someone to love with the love of Christ even though he is ignorant of the man (Jesus), his story, his people, and his message? Paul is saying in Romans 2:14 that this very thing is true.
Only God knows a person's heart, and doing is biblically more important than confessing. People who judge persons as hell-bound because they have not (or will not) “confess Jesus” are playing God. Did not Jesus warn us about judging others?
ASV Romans . . . do by nature . . .
BBE Romans . . . have a natural desire . . .
DBY Romans practice by nature . . .
MRD Romans . . . by their nature, do . . .
NAB Romans . . . by nature observe . . .
NJB Romans 2:14 . . . through their own innate sense behave . . .
NLT Romans . . . instinctively obey . . .
Is it possible that a person ignorant of Scripture can live and love in the kingdom of heaven by instinct, by an innate sense, by natural desire? Paul seems to think so.
Helen Keller once asked her teacher, Ann Sullivan, what God's name was. Anne finger-spelled G-o-d into Helen's hand, and the young girl smiled. Helen finger-spelled her reply: "I always knew who He was, and now I know His name!" (http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/caroletest.php) Now I know that Keller is reported not to have been an orthodox Christian. But that makes the point even stronger, does it not? Assuming the story of spelling G-o-d into her hand is true, Keller is claiming that though blind and deaf she knew God before she knew his name. Is this an example of knowing God instinctively?
The little legalist in the back of my head is screaming out this verse:
Romans 10:9 because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Is confessing Jesus is Lord and believing that God raised Jesus mandatory to be saved? Romans 10:9 is often read that way. You might want to read it again. It does not say that this is the only way to “be saved.” Paul is writing about the second of three meanings of “saved” in the New Testament. I cover these in my blog “You’re Saved.” Here is a brief summary; “saved” in the New Testament has three tenses: Past, Present, and Future.
1) Saved equals universal salvation 2000 years ago on Jesus’ cross where the savior of the world, the Lamb of God, took away the sin of the world. In the blog, “You’re Saved,” I quote more than two dozen verses proving this biblical fact. Number 1 is the salvation of all people achieved in the distant past on a Roman cross.
2) Saved equals discovering and trusting that number 1 is true. This involves coming to saving knowledge of number 1. It is finding out you were saved from sin through divine forgiveness on the cross of Christ. To believe that Jesus saved the world in the past is to be saved in the present.
3) Saved equals judgment day’s completion of salvation in Jesus’ second coming, in the resurrection of the dead, and in the full arrival of the kingdom of heaven. This is salvation’s future sense.
The “confessing” and “believing” that Paul wrote about in Romans 10:9 are both number 2 responses to number 1. Do you see that? When you hear the message of number 1—that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19)—and then when you respond with confession and belief, that is an appropriate biblical response in the present. That is called “being saved” in the number 2 sense. But I do not hear Paul saying that such belief and confession are mandatory for salvation in the number 2 sense. In other words, I do not see number 2 as a requisite for living out number 1. All are saved in the number 1 sense for free. It is a gift. Some people sense that gift “instinctively,” wrote Paul in Romans 2:14; they love and live by natural desire.
So in Romans 2:14 Paul does not seem to require you to have even heard the gospel to live the gospel. Paul believes, it seems, that written on the human heart is an imprint of the law of love in Christ, such that people who have not heard the message of salvation in the number 1 sense (or reject the message of salvation in the number 1 sense!) may be nevertheless doing naturally what the law of love in Christ requires. Such conduct, it seems, Paul takes as evidence that it is not so much about your words but about your actions, because God looks on the heart and its products or fruits, not so much on what you say including tearful confessions. Look again at verse 13:
Romans For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Jesus confirms the priority of “doing” over “hearing” and “speaking” in this familiar parable:
Matthew 21:28-31 "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29 He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?"
Two things: 1) Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder than words. You can shout 1,000 times a day, “I’m a Christian!” But if you do not love, your lack of action contradicts and overrules your words. 2) Loving as Christ loves can come naturally to human beings because he wrote it on the human heart. He is already present and at work in every heart. Because he is already in every human heart, we should be suspicious of those who tell us “you must ask him into your heart.” Likewise, Christians should be reluctant to write anyone off as hell-bound. That is judging. The judgmental should be looking for their judgments to boomerang.
Matthew 7:1-2 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.”
I have a minister friend who recently preached a sermon entitled, “Muslims Are Going to Hell.”* When he told me that title, I did not know what to say. We were in an inappropriate setting to challenge his theology, but I wanted to. I wanted to say, “Man, don’t you realize that Jesus made Muslims? Don’t you realize that he wrote his covenant of love on every human heart? Don’t you realize that a Muslim can love with the love of Christ by instinct and not even know it? Don’t you realize that a person can say anything with his mouth, but if with his life he loves from the heart, he is loving with the love of Christ, and that is more important than any profession of faith? Don’t you realize that when you sentence someone to hell, you are judging them, and when you judge others (something Jesus specifically said not to do “lest you be judged”) you are playing God? I wanted to say all of those things and more. But it was not the right time. Oh well, if I never get to say it to him, maybe he will read this blog post!
[*For definitions of hell, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus see my blogs Hell Defined I and Hell Defined II.]
If there is love in the universe, biblically it is Jesus’ love. It is his Father’s love. The God of the Bible is love. (1 John 4:8) But this means something amazing. If Pagans or Hindus or Muslims instinctually put love in action, as Paul says is natural to those who may not even know about the biblical law of love, then whose love is it? With whose love are they loving? Where does love come from? Again, biblically, it must be Jesus’ love. It must be Jesus’ presence. It must be his Spirit poured out on all flesh. (Joel 2:28) Something that people can know instinctually, says Scripture, something that is apparently communicated to their hearts, trusts love, thus exhibiting that they love Jesus whether they know anything about him. What that means is that those who have never heard his name know him nonetheless. The love with which we love is the fruit of something that is universally true in the human heart.
This is not universalism, however. The love of Jesus may be written on every heart, but not every heart chooses to embrace it or act on it. Some choose darkness, evil, judgmentalness, and hate. Some kill innocent people in the name of “God.” Is such sin unforgivable? No. But can you refuse forgiveness you already have? Yes.
The urgency of telling the world that it is “saved” in the #1 sense is to get people off of their self-salvation schemes. Religious programs are endless treadmills of climbing, scorekeeping, posing, arrogance, and judging. But there is rest if #1 is true, if Jesus saved all on the cross, if forgiveness is universally inclusive, if the Spirit is already at work in all flesh, if the law of love is written on every heart. If the Spirit of Christ is at work in every person seeking to communicate this truth—that the world has been saved, and all can be at rest in this truth—then perhaps their spirits will resonate with the good news when it is “preached” to the world.
Matthew 28:19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . .”
If Paul is correct, people are every day acting out of the gospel whether they know it or not. They naturally know and act in loving ways demonstrating that they are doing what God’s law requires instinctively. Their acts of love are a symptom of the truth already in them. So I do not want to judge someone because they have not “prayed the prayer” or “walked the aisle.” I do not want to judge anyone at all.
My friend Renee Schmitz worries about “her little pygmy.” She means this humorously, but her concern is serious. If her little pygmy lives and dies never hearing the gospel preached, does he “go to hell,” meaning is he without hope? I think I have answered her question. Jesus said that when he died he drew all people unto himself.
John “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself."
The context of Paul’s writing in the early chapters of Romans is that the Jews have no advantage over the Gentiles in the eyes of God, and the Jews have no reason to boast. In fact, no one has any grounds on which to boast. The key to Romans 2:13 (For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God's sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.) is that doers of the law will be justified not by performance but by Christ loving through the doer. In Romans 1-4 Paul is trying to jerk away justification by the law by saying in not so many words that some Gentiles are doing better than the Jews in loving, thus demonstrating that the love of Jesus is “no respecter of persons.” (Acts ) Paul puts a two-by-four upside the head of anyone who is proud of their status before God. Nobody is justified by their individual performance. There is no such thing as a justifiable air of superiority. Such judgmentalism is unjustifiable and unprofitable.
Again, Paul says that “what the law requires is written on their hearts.” What law is written on a person’s heart? It is the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah and picked up on by New Testament writers:
Jeremiah 31:33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of
Israel after those days, says the
LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I
will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Hebrews This is the covenant that I will make with the house of
Israel after those days, says the
Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I
will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And what is this heart-law that people do instinctively? It is the law of love.
Romans 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
Romans Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Galatians For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
James 2:8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus spoke definitively of this subject himself:
Matthew 22:37-40 "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (italics mine)
If a person, as Paul says, can fulfill the law by loving action, then why cannot anyone on planet earth regardless of creed or affiliation do this? You can answer this question for yourself. Me? Scripturally speaking, if the law of love is written on every heart, if the human heart is designed to naturally or instinctively love like Christ, and if love in action supersedes profession of faith, then it seems reasonable to me that I should remember never to judge anyone and remember that Jesus made every heart including mine. I need to remember that he is at work in every heart, and desires to win every heart to love. A person could claim to be an agnostic, an atheist, an alien from Alpha Centauri, or an Anglican. So what? Jesus made his heart, wrote the law of love on his heart, and is working on his heart for the sake of love. The matter is between them—between him and heaven. Moreover it is none of my cotton-picking business.
I saw a cartoon that read, “Jesus is cool, but some of His followers give me the creeps!” It seems to me that Christians have become a hindrance to people discovering Christ in their hearts. Our evangelism has become judgmental, elitist, and obtrusive. It assumes Jesus is not in anyone’s heart unless they “make a decision” for him. Our evangelism has abandoned entering into relationship and replaced relationship with pressure to make an impersonal, decisional deal. We are obsessed with fear (don’t do this and don’t do that, or else) and death (afterlife security is the primary reason given to believe). We have abandoned the here and now for pie in the sky by and by. We have abandoned relationship-building for decisional pressure tactics. We have become spiritual terrorists.
Can this be changed? I hope so. What would our evangelism look like if instead of assuming that Jesus is not in people’s hearts, we assume he is? What if we quit trying to get them to ask Jesus into their hearts, and started helping them discover the Jesus that is already there at work in their hearts? Scripturally, all people already know him, whether they are conscious of knowing him.
Habakkuk But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
John “It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”
2 Corinthians 4:6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
1 Thessalonians 4:9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another . . .
All hearts know him whether they are conscious of knowing him. How can I say that? Because my job is to show you what is biblical. The new covenant written about in the New Testament is predicted by Jeremiah:
Jeremiah 31:34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Because of this new covenant in Jesus’ blood written on every human heart, everyone knows God whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
Therefore, Christian evangelism that tries to get Jesus into people’s hearts is completely wrongheaded. Our job is more appealing and less intrusive than that. Biblically, the job of a Christian is to love them in relationship in hope that the law of love written by Jesus on their hearts will “resonate” with their relational experience of loving, non-judgmental Christians. We do not get Jesus into people’s hearts. He is already there. He fills everything. What we do is love. And we let love make the connection to Jesus. Then people will discover the treasure of love already hidden within them—a treasure that longs for expression and longs for its home. Biblically, that home, that place is a person. That is the E=mc2 formula for kingdom-of-heaven living. Jesus is the Lord of Life and the presence of the kingdom of heaven hidden in the world, a mystery hidden in the human heart.