ARE THE HEATHEN LOST?
T. PIERCE BROWN
For almost the past half-century we have been hearing discussions and reading articles on this question. It seems apparent that it would be silly for Jesus to command and Paul and others to risk life and limb to take the saving gospel to a group of people who were not lost! Mankind in general is lost without the gospel.
Some time ago we wrote to an intelligent, searching young Catholic a reply to his sincere question, “Do you mean to tell me that a loving God would condemn the poor honest Buddhist or Hindu or pagan to an eternal hell just because he did not have the New Testament, or because he did not interpret it the same way you do?” Our immediate and forthright answer was, “NO, a thousand times, no!” The only thing that ever caused any man to be lost in the first place is SIN.
No man is condemned just because he does not have a New Testament, but because he sinned! Romans2:12says, “For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without the law—.” Since the basic definition of sin is that it is a transgression of the law (1 John 3:5), the question may be raised, “How can a man sin without the law?” One answer is that he can sin without knowing the law of God as revealed in the Bible, whether it is the Law of Moses or the law of Christ. But every man has a law of some kind, as Romans 1:14 shows, and he may sin against it.
Is the heathen lost? The answer we have usually heard from sound Bible students is, “Of course!” We believe the answer is not complete enough. If we asked the question, “Is the American lost?” or “Is the white man lost?” surely you would not answer that question with a brusque, “Of course!”
Any person becomes lost if he is responsible for committing a sin, and stays lost if he does not get forgiveness of it! This answer helps a person to see that the lost person is responsible for committing the sin, and does not impugn the motive or character of God who can “condemn a poor ignorant but honest pagan to eternal hell” because of something he could not help. No pagan, or any other person is condemned for something he cannot help.
There are two things that need to be made emphatically and abundantly clear. First no man is held guilty of a sin for which he is not responsible! That should be so apparent that it is almost silly to say it. Imagine a man accusing God of holding a man responsible for a sin for which he is not responsible!
The second thing that needs to be understood is that the degree of a man’s guilt depends on many factors. It seems that there are few things more clearly taught in the scriptures than that there are degrees of both guilt and punishment. Only two of many scriptures that teach such will be suggested. Jesus said to Pilate in John 19:11, “He that delivered me unto thee hath greater sin.” James 3:1 says, “Be not many of you teachers, my brethren, knowing we shall receive heavier judgment.”
But what does that have to do with our present question? Simply this: The average questioner thinks the average answerer is telling him that “the poor ignorant savage” is just as guilty and reprehensible in the sight of God as the vilest of deliberate sinners, for he is going to “burn in the same hell.” He does not see any sense in that, so he rejects what he thinks is the Bible teaching. The truth of the matter is that it is not sensible, and is not Bible teaching.
The Bible teaching is this: The heathen, when he is born, is in the same condition as the American, or anyone in the world. He is without sin. He may be classified as a “sinner” in general in the same way that a baby man-eating tiger may be classified thus, though he has never eaten a man, does not want to, and could not if he did want to! He stays without sin until he sins! Unfortunately, we have coined a phrase, “age of accountability” which apparently leads some to think there is a specific age at which one becomes accountable for sin. When “the savage,” “the American,” or “the white man” becomes accountable is known only to God, who determines it, not in terms of some specific age, but in terms of ability, mentality, opportunity, etc. But remember this: whenever he becomes accountable, it is not because he did or did not have a Bible, has or has not heard about Jesus, or does or does not interpret the plan of salvation the same way I do. It is because he has transgressed a law that applies to him.
Even among some those who are called “gospel preachers” there are apparently still some who assume that until a person becomes a Christian he is not amenable to God’s laws. It seems remarkable that a sensible person could fail to see that if that were true, there could be no sinners! Of course, the laws for Christians, such as partaking of the Lord’s Supper are specifically stated as for those “in the kingdom.” Surely even a cursory reading of such passages as Romans 1:28ff and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 would make a person aware of those things.
When a man becomes lost it is through no fault of God, and no fault of mine. However, now that he is lost a different principle may begin to operate, or a different truth apply. Since God gave me the responsibility of taking the gospel to him, whereby he may be saved, if I refuse to do it, I have sinned, and if I do not repent, I will be lost. He will stay lost. But note carefully: My failure did not cause him to be lost. He was lost already, as a result of his choice to sin! Nor does my failure, or his ignorance of the Bible cause him to suffer in hell. If he suffers in hell, he will do it because of what he did that he should not, or what he did not do that he should have and could have done!
If we may take the liberty to paraphrase the statement of Jesus in Matthew 11:22ff, “It shall be more tolerable for the “poor ignorant savage” in the day of judgment than for the enlightened Christian (?) who has six Bibles in his home, two cars in his garage, and thousands of dollars in assets who does not care enough about that ignorant man (or the one next door) to try to get the gospel to him.” If I had my “druthers,” I “druther” be the “poor ignorant savage” and beaten with few stripes (Luke12:47-48) than a “preacher of the gospel” who was more interested in his private hobby than in the salvation of souls and be beaten with many.
So, for those who have not yet understood the tenor of this article, let us re-emphasize this point: Before you can give a clear answer to a question, you must have a clear question to answer. If one asks, “Is the heathen lost?” we are unsure of whether heathen babies or irresponsible heathen are included in the question.
To some, this may be “much ado about nothing.” Others will see that sometimes we have allowed honest questioners to assume that the Bible teaches that God condemns a man to hell because he was unlucky enough to born inAfrica, orRussia, or simply because he does not have a Bible. This is not so! God’s mercy and grace can find a way to equalize all the factors of heredity, environment, ignorance, etc., but mercy and grace do not overlook sin. He provides a way for forgiveness of sin. But if two persons are guilty of the same sin, both stay guilty until they are forgiven. If one never has a chance to hear about Christ, and stays lost in his sin, he will be lost in eternity forever. But he is not lost because he was guilty of rejecting Christ, nor will he be punished for that! The person who is guilty of the same sin, and has a chance to hear about the redemption in Christ and still rejects it, now has two sins for which he has to answer. He was lost because of the first one. He stays lost because of the second one, and is in a worse condition than “the poor ignorant savage.”
There is one other point of which many of us do not seem to be aware. There is a vast difference in teaching what the Bible says in general about those who are in a lost condition, and in our trying to determine, or thinking it is our privilege or responsibility to determine the eternal destiny of a specific individual. It is one thing to say, “I know that responsible persons who have sinned and do not get forgiveness for it are lost, for the Bible says so” and another thing to say, “I know that John Doe will be lost, and I am able to pronounce his eternal destiny just as well as God is, for I have the word of God which says so.” You do not have the word of God which specifies John Doe will be saved or lost, and you have neither the right nor privilege to assume you can make the final judgment of any specific person’s destiny.
It is very sad that we have brethren on the one hand who teach that God’s mercy and grace will cover almost if not every kind of sin, regardless of how one responds to that grace, and that God did not mean what He said. It is just as sad that we have brethren who assume that because God said, “But for the fearful, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and fornicators, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part shall be in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone; which is the second death” (Rev. 21:8), we have the right to say, “I know that John Doe was fearful, and told a lie. Since I know God spoke the truth, I know that John Doe will be in hell.” Why not just leave things as God left them, since your judgment does not determine the fate of anyone else, no matter what it is?