Theological Memeology: The Noble Pagan
In this meme we have what appears to be an Eskimo fishing while speaking to an unseen Christian priest/missionary. The Eskimo asks whether those who are ignorant of God’s righteous character and our moral rebellion against him would, in light of that very ignorance, be held accountable. The priest/missionary replies “No, not if you did not know.” The Eskimo’s response is the key to understanding the single point of the meme, “Then why did you tell me?” According to the rationale of the meme’s creator, Christians appear to hold to 3 contradictory beliefs: a) Those who reject the message of sin and the forgiveness provided by the cross-work of Jesus are eternally damned (i.e. go to hell), b) it is the Christian’s job to tell as many people as possible the message of sin and the forgiveness provided by the cross-work of Jesus. Finally, c) Christians are to spread this message because they love their fellow man. Can you grasp why this would be seen as a problem? If not, I’ll expand those 3 points a bit to clarify:
- Ignorance of the gospel message preserves a person from being held accountable for sin (i.e. they will not be judged for rejecting a message they’ve never heard of)
- Believing the gospel and placing one’s personal faith in Jesus is required to be saved from the coming wrath of God.
- It is better for people to be saved from the coming wrath of God than to experience it.
- Christians claim to love people when they spread the gospel of Jesus (evangelize).
- Rejection of this gospel of Jesus will—upon its rejection— lead these ignorant/innocent people to experience the coming wrath of God.
- Therefore, the act that Christians claim to do out of love (evangelize) is the very act that condemns people who would have been better off if Christians simply left them alone.
As you can now see, the whole dilemma is rooted in point 1, and it’s this point that I think Christians should reject. People are not condemned to hell because they reject the gospel, per se. They are not judged for what they do not know. Instead, they are judged for what they do know, and according to Paul they know quite a lot. According to Romans 1:18-32, all people, since they are created in the image of God and live in God’s created world, know that (the true) God exists, that he is unlike his creation, that he expects us to live righteously, and that all who violate his moral law are rightly deserving of judgment. Yes, that’s a lot to know intuitively, but that’s what Paul says!
And this isn’t a slip of the pen on Paul’s part. In Ephesians 2 Paul describes the state of Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians prior to hearing and believing the gospel:
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands—remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph. 2:11-13 ESV)
Paul says the opposite of the assumption behind point 1. These Gentiles, apart from the saving message of Jesus, were left in their ignorance, yes. But did this mean they were already saved? No, apart from faith in Jesus, they had “no hope” and were “without God.”
To wrap up, we should ask where Paul got this crazy idea. I would argue that it’s part of the initial revelation Paul received when Jesus called him as an apostle. In recalling his conversation to Jesus the Messiah of Israel to King Agrippa in Acts 26, Paul says:
And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’…I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. (Acts 26:15-20 ESV)
So Christians like the priest/missionary in our meme above are mistaken and can confuse those to whom they preach the message of Jesus. Whether or not a person has ever heard of the message of Jesus—and this is true of both Jew and non-Jew— we have all violated God’s moral will for our lives and it is this disobedience and spiritual rebellion for which we will be justly judged.