The Dilemma

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This entry is part 16 of 22 in the series The Thread: God's Appointments with History

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.

Romans 10:1

Many years ago, before I learned better than to argue religion, I was engaged in a discussion with a chap about heaven and hell and salvation. I had a problem with his beliefs and he had a problem with mine. He believed that everyone goes to heaven or hell immediately at death. There were no intermediate categories of people, and no stops along the way. Not only that, but he believed that only those who had accepted Jesus Christ as personal Savior would go to heaven and the rest would go immediately to hell.

Hell, in his belief system, is a tough proposition. In hell, one is tormented by fire, not for a few hours until he dies, not for a few days, not even a few years. Hell is forever. I once heard a preacher explain how long that is. He asked us to imagine a mountain of granite one mile high and one mile in diameter at the base. Once a year a little sparrow flies to the top of that mountain and proceeds to sharpen his beak. When that little sparrow, sharpening his beak once a year, will finally have worn that mountain of granite down to a little pebble he could carry away, one day of eternity will have passed. If you happen to be one of those souls in hell, that is rather a long day. And the torment by fire goes on forever.

My granddad was a salty old fellow. I don’t know if he ever went to church in his life. He was known to use bad language when provoked. But overall, he was a pretty good sort. He was good to his family and his friends. He took me fishing many times, and we camped out together on the banks of a river, ran trot lines all night, fished all day.

Now if you want to tell me old J.D., my maternal grandfather, can’t go to heaven because he didn’t meet some standard of religious actions, I might be able to live with that. But there is no system of human logic that can see any justice in tormenting him with fire and brimstone for all eternity. There is something wrong with that picture.

But at least old J.D. knew who Jesus Christ was, he just didn’t think Jesus made much difference to him. My discussion with the gentleman in question focused on people who had never heard the name of Jesus at anytime. How could it be right for God to torture these people forever? Tell me he is just going to leave them dead and we have one picture. Tell me he has arranged for their eternal torment and we have another altogether. Mind you, hell, as presented, isn’t something that is just there. It has been created, because there is nothing that exists that God did not create. So we are presented with a God who created a place of torture and torment and planned for the torment of people who never even heard of him.

And then, there are the children. I asked him if all these people, including countless children, who had never had a chance to be saved, would burn for all eternity. I think I must have backed him into a corner, because he then said something completely off the wall, “Well, if they never had a chance to be saved, then they are saved.”

I was flabbergasted, but I couldn’t let that stand. “So, why then,” I pressed, “does your church send missionaries to these people? To give them a chance to be lost?”

This came at the end of a rather long discussion about the whys and wherefores of churches who send missionaries into the far flung corners of the world because they believe that people out there in India, Africa, and Asia, are going to hell and burn for eternity. How is it, I wondered, that we spend all this time in our business meetings discussing whether we should install an air conditioner, stained glass windows, or taller steeples? If we really believe, as one television evangelist said in a letter, people are going to burn in hell for all eternity if we don’t get the Gospel to them, why aren’t we moving heaven and earth and spending every spare dime to keep missionaries in the field? There is an inconsistency here, and I hope every reader can see that.

That ended my discussion with the gentleman, but I had another not so long ago with my sister-in-law. We made our way through the discussion to the point where one has to deal with the question of salvation for people who never had a chance to be saved in this life. She knew as well as I did that you can’t postulate a God who will torment forever people who never had a chance to be saved. Any thinking person is going to have a problem with that. She thought about it for a moment and then concluded, “Well, I believe that God will make a way.”

We finally found agreement at that point, because I too believe that God will make a way. But I think it would be strange indeed if, in all the pages of the Bible, we couldn’t find so much as a hint as to what that way is. I am not so sure I would have seen this if it had not been for the thread we have been following. Many years ago, I began observing the holydays of the Bible and it was in one of these festivals that I found my hint as to what God’s way of handling this dilemma might be.

I found that this is not a new question. It has been around for a long time. I know that a lot of people have shed many tears, and lain awake long nights worrying about loved ones who have died without accepting Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. They worry about hell, but they also fret about losing any chance of ever seeing their loved ones again. Apart from any concern about torment, the mere loss of the loved one forever is excruciating.

The Apostle Paul struggled with this same question for slightly different reasons. Paul traveled all over the Roman Empire, and everywhere he went, he went first to the synagogue and preached the Gospel of Christ. He preached with all the fervor of his being. He had seen Christ alive after his death and burial. Moreover, he had thoroughly investigated all the claims about Jesus, and he was absolutely convinced. He preached and argued the resurrection of Jesus in the synagogues, mostly to blank faces. Once, he got himself stoned for preaching this Gospel. But everywhere, most of the Jews rejected the message. This troubled Paul greatly. There was something profoundly wrong with the picture he was seeing, and he struggled through this question in his important letter to the Christians in Rome.

I have asked myself several times why Paul addresses this question in this particular letter. It is a long discussion, running three chapters. I have looked at the context and can’t find any reason why the discussion arises here. The only thing I can conclude is that it was bothering Paul and he was able to find some resolution only by talking it out with someone.

Paul’s style is elliptical. That is, he leaves a lot unsaid that he expects will be understood by his readers. Unfortunately, not many modern readers of the New Testament have the background in the Old Testament to quickly grasp what Paul is talking about. In the letter to the Romans alone, there are 46 direct citations from the Old Testament, and still more indirect references. They are taken in their original form, but without context. Unless you know the original point of the citation, you can easily miss what Paul is driving at. He is a difficult study at all times, and nowhere more so than in this passage.

It was at this point in Romans that I suddenly realized that the question that troubled me was not new. It had bothered Paul as well. What on earth, he wondered, is going to happen to the Jews? These are God’s people. They know who God is, they have kept his laws, they have tried their best to be faithful to God, and for reasons Paul couldn’t grasp, they were rejecting the Gospel wholesale. When you read these chapters in the book, consider that you have gotten this letter from an old friend (Paul knew many Roman Christians personally) who is pouring out his frustrations to you and working his way through a troubling issue. He begins with an unusual, threefold affirmation, which means he thinks you won’t believe what he is about to tell you.

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Romans 9:1-5).

It was that bad. I know you won’t believe this, said Paul, but if it would help, if there were any way it could make a difference, I would even be willing to be cut off from Christ. It was a great heaviness for Paul, a constant sorrow to him, that all these people, God’s people, such a talented, accomplished people, were continually turning their backs on the one they had been waiting for all their lives. So what’s going on here?

But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel, nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham; but, “In Isaac your seed shall be called.” That is, those who are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God; but the children of the promise are counted as the seed (vv. 6-8).

This is a long, hard sentence. But what Paul is driving at is that the word of God has taken effect, because those who are counted as Israel were not necessarily those who were ethnic Israelites, but those who believed, of whatever race or land. There is an Israel of God, there are children of Abraham, and it is the believers who are counted as such.

For this is the word of promise: “At this time I will come and Sarah shall have a son.” And not only this, but when Rebecca also had conceived by one man, even by our father Isaac (for the children not yet being born, nor having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works but of Him who calls), it was said to her, “The older shall serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated” (vv. 9-13).

Many find this statement troubling, but it is crucial to the point Paul is making. Only someone familiar with the story from Genesis will fully grasp what Paul is driving at. Many generations before, God looked down upon a woman bearing twin boys inside her womb. Before either of the boys was born, so that he could establish one principle that was important for all men to understand in all ages, God said that what was to follow was not a matter of merit. It was a matter of his choice. The elder shall serve the younger. I will love Jacob. I will not love Esau. And so it was, as history played out.

While we are all prepared to accept that God is sovereign, and he can do whatever he wills, it doesn’t make sense that Esau was rejected without so much as a chance to do the right thing. Paul recognized that, and went on to address it.

What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not! For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion” (vv. 14-15).

I know that God is sovereign. I know I can’t lift up my voice and argue with him about things like this, but I have to be honest. If we are talking about forever, I don’t get it. If the acceptance of one and the rejection of another is final, for all eternity, this seems unfair and wrong. But if it is for this life only that this decision holds, and if there is more beyond this life, then maybe there is something more to understand.

So then it is not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth.” Therefore He has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens (vv. 16-18).

I don’t mind telling you, I have struggled with this all my life. As a very young man, I read this and wondered, “What if I am one whom God has hardened?” How would I know, and what hope is there for me if he has hardened me? Obviously, he had not, but instead of being grateful that he had mercy on me, I was struggling with the other side of the equation.

Then there are those of us who have fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters we love dearly and who might seem to have been hardened. At least, they show all the signs of it, and in many cases have departed this world in that condition. Does that mean they are lost to you forever based on an arbitrary decision made by God, a decision made, not on the merits of the person, but as it were, on the flip of a coin? Or is there something that we don’t yet understand?

I suspect Paul had wrestled with this himself, and so he lays out his thought processes. I feel that he, to borrow his phrase, only saw this “through a glass, darkly.” He had an idea of what God was doing, but it had to grow on him as he followed his knowledge of God and the Scriptures, linking them to what was actually happening on the ground. He seems only now to be putting it all together.

You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? (vv. 19-21).

One can hardly argue with God, but I sit here wondering, “What’s the point?” What is there that I can do, and does it make any difference what I do? I can accept what Paul is saying here, but it isn’t very comforting. And what if I am one of those made for dishonor? This last idea once made me sweat.

What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, even us whom He called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (vv. 22-24).

This is all well and good, but one can only hope he is “a vessel of mercy,” and not “a vessel of wrath.” It wasn’t that I was worried so much about myself, but about all those people I have loved and lost, people who are not “vessels of mercy.”

As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.” And it shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, “You are not My people,” There they shall be called sons of the living God. Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, Because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth” (vv. 25-28).

And so the theme emerges. Out of all these people who have lived and died, only a remnant shall be saved. But what about the rest? What is to happen to them, are they just lost? This had been bothering Paul for months and he is only now beginning to make sense of it. He is working his way through this question in the full realization that, as far as this life is concerned, some are saved, most are lost, and there is not very much we can do to change that.

And as Isaiah said before: “Unless the LORD of Sabaoth had left us a seed, We would have become like Sodom, And we would have been made like Gomorrah.” What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness of faith; but Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Why? Because they did not seek it by faith, but as it were, by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling stone. As it is written: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame” (vv. 29-33).

But what about the rest of them? You have to say of many of these people that they did their best. Why didn’t they make it? Paul continues his argument by stating, in the firmest and most heartfelt terms, what it was he wanted to come out of this.

Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God (Romans 10:1-3).

The first thing to take away from this is that these are not all bad people. Many are good people who, in their ignorance, have gone about this the wrong way. They have tried to establish their own righteousness, but have not understood the righteousness of God. Are we going to punish these people forever for what they did in ignorance, for doing the best they knew given their circumstances? Paul goes on in this tenth chapter to establish clearly the principle of salvation by grace, and then sets it opposite salvation by works. This, at least, is something well understood throughout the Christian faith. Having made and elaborated this point, he goes on to ask and answer the core question.

I say then, has God cast away His people? Certainly not! For I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not cast away His people whom He foreknew (Romans 11:1-2).

What are we to make of all this? He has told us that it was the Gentiles who had found God even though they had not looked for him. He was made manifest to those who did not ask after him. He said of Israel, “All day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and contrary people” (Romans 10:21).

Which is it? Are they disobedient and contentious, or are they ignorant and without understanding? What is going to happen to them? Paul asks the key question. Has God cast them away? No, there is more to come.

Or do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel, saying, “LORD, they have killed Your prophets and torn down Your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life”? But what does the divine response say to him? “I have reserved for Myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” Even so then, at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace (Romans 11: 2-5).

So there is a remnant, but that is not the question. What about the rest of them? The answer to that is cold comfort.

What then? Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded. Just as it is written: “God has given them a spirit of stupor, Eyes that they should not see, And ears that they should not hear, To this very day” (vv. 7-8).

Here we sit struggling with the question, “Is this fair?” Is it right for God to blind them, to give them a spirit of stupor so they could not see, and then to destroy them forever? He could, of course, just not ever raise them from the dead. Or he could raise them, judge them and then burn them up in a lake of fire. Or still worse, he could torment them in fire for eternity. Paul struggles alongside us.

I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles. Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness? (vv. 11-12).

How does that work? Down through all the ages, the religion of the Jews had been just that – a Jewish religion with a Jewish God. In many ways, the Jews had made Jehovah their own national property. “He is our God,” they said, “not yours.” This jealousy, this holding on to God, this xenophobia by the Jews had prevented the truth of God from going to the world. The answer is, they have to fall. It is only through their fall that salvation can go to the Gentiles.

What Paul is coming to is an acceptance of the fact of Judah’s fall, and a recognition that this is not the end. What is going to happen so the other half of this, their fullness, can come to pass? It is right here that we get our hint of what God has in store. “For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world,” Paul wrote, “what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (v. 15).

The problem is not merely that we put these Israelites aside for a while so the Gentiles could come in, and then we’ll go back and get them later. What about those who have died while we were getting this done? For there would have been many. Paul’s answer? The receiving of them is “life from the dead.”

In the nature of the problem we are wrestling with, Paul has sent up a small signal flag. The answer, Paul suggests, may be in the resurrection from the dead.

For I do not desire, brethren, that you should be ignorant of this mystery, lest you should be wise in your own opinion, that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved (vv. 25-26).

That is a relief to hear, but how can it be? We follow the thread onward.

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Ronald L. Dart

Ronald L. Dart (1934–2016) — People around the world have come to appreciate his easy style, non-combative approach to explaining the Bible, and the personal, almost one-on-one method of explaining what’s going on in the world in the light of the Bible. After retiring from teaching and church administration in 1995 he started Christian Educational Ministries and the Born to Win radio program.

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