9/13/16 Michael about 40
"If there is one word that best expresses what it means for me to be a Christian…" - I told an agnostic man named Michael - "…it would be the word 'wonder'." I had reached out to Michael, in his 40's, at a coffeeshop and we were near the end of an hour-long conversation in which I had explained the Gospel. He had asked me a difficult question about Christianity that is on the minds of many agnostics and baffles many Christians. "What about all the good people in the world who have never heard the Gospel? Does your God send them to hell just for not having heard about Jesus?"
That's a hard question to answer, but it needs to be addressed. I couldn't just shrug my shoulders and say "I wonder" or "It's a mystery". Michael's question implies that the God of Christianity is unbelievably unfair, and if left unanswered it further justifies the unbelief of the agnostic and can leave the Christian with so many doubts they will never attempt to share their faith again.
When it comes to questions about heaven or hell, some wonder how God could be so cruel as to eternally punish good people. But the assumption of human goodness in Michael's question comes from a lack of understanding of the magnitude of God's holiness and the depth of our sinfulness. Until we understand our sinfulness before a holy God, we can't understand the "wonder" of the Gospel. The sense of wonder I used in my answer to Michael to describe our attitude as Christians is not in doubt or uncertainty, but rather awe and amazement. But how can this be in reference to something as horrible as hell?
If we assume we deserve some sort of reward for the good things we ought to do anyway, we will always be disappointed by people, by life, and ultimately by God. But if we understand and accept that we deserve to be punished for the bad things we ought not to do, or the good we ought to but fail to do, we are truly amazed if we are forgiven and don't get the punishment we deserve. When we find out the tremendous price of that forgiveness - God's own Son on a cross - we are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at why God would choose even a sinner like ourselves for salvation. When we read in Genesis that "on the day you eat of it you will die", we realize that only by His amazing grace are we allowed another breath, or another heartbeat, and every new day of life becomes a precious gift.
Hell is for the punishment of unforgiven sinners, whether we know about Jesus or not. God doesn't owe us the forgiveness found in the Gospel. We don't deserve the immeasurable price of that forgiveness, the death of Jesus in our place. If these truths fill you with a self-righteous indignation toward God or Christianity or Christians, then you have not truly received the Gospel yourself. If, however, you are filled with a sense of wonder at your own salvation, then you will want to go and share the Gospel with others who need to hear it. "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7)