By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
So, I’ve had some heavy stuff on my mind. Welcome to my world. Part of it was an issue on gun rights for American citizens. See my earlier posts.
(I don’t know who this guy is, I don’t endorse him, but I did find his response to The Young Turks concerning gun-control to be hilariously fascinating: https://youtu.be/wZrcR3guGG0)
Right now, I’d like to make a simple theoretical question…that kinda is a legit theology question. But let’s just call it a theoretical question because it demands a very theoretical response.
I’ve come across Christian siblings who have spoken about “saving knowledge.” Now, “saving knowledge” as I describe it is a Calvinist term that means the amount of intellectual exposure a person has about the one true God. In other words, it is how much a person knows about the Christian God. As Christians, we believe that God can only be known by revealing Himself to us (John 1 reasserts this major Biblical theme in its opening verses). But the thought crosses all of our minds, What about the people who have never heard about Jesus? Do they all die and go to Hell only because they never got an opportunity to accept Him? Will not the Judge of all the Earth do rightly?
Thus comes up the theological belief of “saving knowledge,” or the minimal amount of intellectual knowledge a person has to have in order to adequately choose to worship God or not. Because in these latter days God has spoken to us through His Son, and no one can get to God without going through Messiah Yeshua/Jesus. Those who hold to the very Calvinist view of “saving knowledge” generally believe that a person must explicitly and expressively believe in the name of Jesus the Messiah (however the name and title are translated) in order to be saved by God through faith period. If a person living in modern times has never heard of Jesus, the average Calvinist either will say that the person’s soul in theoretical uncertainty (only God knows) or that the person is condemned to Hell for not knowing Jesus. For the lengthy treatise of saving knowledge as believed by Calvinists (if my short version doesn’t suffice) click here.
So now, let me posit my theoretical question.
Saving knowledge according to the Calvinist tradition is knowledge about God that every Christian has. But, the Calvinist definition of “saving knowledge” can be kinda screwy at times. For example, when I asked my Calvinist compañeros whether a 4th century BC Japanese person could have come to know God and be saved, they would often say that it would be unlikely since the person would not have “saving knowledge.” Within that context, what they really mean is that the 4th century BC Japanese person would most likely have zero knowledge about the Israelite God and therefore could not possibly come to know who the true God is. Is God really that small and limited? Is the God who Israel declared to be Eloheinu Melekh haOlam, our God the Lord of the Universe, only limited to the circular migrations of a Semitic people who were habitually willing to reject the God who saved them from Egypt?
Is the Lord of the Universe…ethnocentric?
And what really is meant by “saving knowledge?” It can’t just change into an epistemological knowledge in the case of the Japanese person and then change into a confessional knowledge in the case of confessional Christians, can it? Can God be just and condemn a person to Hell for rejecting a message that they have never received?
Let’s take two historic persons as examples and see how our theology fits, and then let’s have a glance at what the Bible says.
First, we’ll take the well-known atheist and journalist Christopher Hitchens who passed away in 2011. Christopher Hitchens spent a great deal of time in his latter years engaging in religious discussions and profound philosophic deliberations with some of the lead intellectuals of the Christian community of the Western world. Surely, Hitchens had more epistemological knowledge of Christianity than many Christians do. Does this mean that he had saving knowledge? Well, if he did have the required amount of knowledge about God that was sufficient enough to become a Christian, then does that mean that he was “saved.” Well, to say such a thing about a man who vehemently chose atheism in the face of the Gospel would be to not only throw out the Gospel, but it would be very much against what Hitchens himself wanted.
So, the saving knowledge would have to have been confessional. And it wasn’t. But that fundamentally changes the kind of knowledge that is “saving knowledge” into a confessional knowledge, but not one based upon epistemology or exposure. Does God use a changing standard in His justice? If so, such a standard would only work to condemn the largest possible gathering of people in the universe: if you don’t know enough theologically about God because of the lack of effective missionaries, then you’re doomed; and even if you do know enough about God but don’t trust in Him, then you are still doomed. Sounds like a lose-lose for a lot of people, and a shaky standard by which to measure the very theologically-illiterate modern Christians.
Now, let’s take an example from America before Columbus. What about the Indians (Native Americans)? Let’s take Nezahualcoyotl (neza-wall-koyotal), The Hungry Coyote, ruler of Texcoco and leader of the Aztec Empire in the early 15th century. Nezahualcoyotl was pivotal in uniting the Aztec Empire, even though the Aztecs were of the Mexica tribe and Nezahualcoyotl was actually of the Alcohuan tribe. Though Nezahualcoyotl was surrounded by the Aztec gods who demanded human sacrifice, he refused to worship them. Instead, he honored a monotheistic deity who he claimed was the one true master of all life and all the universe. He called his god Tloque Nahuaque, Lord of the Near and Nigh, and honored him with a grand temple all to himself where no sacrifices were ever made unto him (most likely because Nezahualcoyotl saw Tloque Nahuaque as the Giver of all life). The warrior-king was known for his many songs and poems, most of which involved enjoying Tloque Nahuaque’s creation and loving his fellow man. Nezahualcoyotl also allowed others to practice their own religion, sponsoring temples to be made for other Aztec gods and for their sacrifices, including human sacrifices, to continue.
Nezahualcoyotl is a very strange case. He was the founder of a dynasty of kings that lasted until the motley crew of Spanish conquistadores and their thousands of Indian allies obliterated the empire he established less than a century after his death. He also worshiped only one god.
Now it has been claimed that Nezahualcoyotl’s descendants of Colonial New Spain later changed his story to fit more with the Spanish conquering culture. But such an assertion is sort of random. For one, monotheism among Indians prior to Columbian contact is not ahistorical. Depending upon the nation, tribe, clan, and person, various religious ideas could have been found and were found by outsiders exploring Indian lands. When so many Aztec rulers were very much polytheistic and proud of it, why would men descended from Nezahualcoyotl through these very polytheistic rulers only try to make one of the major Aztec kings into a monotheist, but not his father Ixtlilxochitl (isht-leel-sho-cheetle) who was the mentor to the young prince? If the goal was to show the Aztec Empire as a monotheistic empire gone polytheistic in order to appease the Spaniards, then why not just start at the very first Aztec rulers? At the very least the monotheistic legend could have continued until Moctezuma II, who unfortunately had garnered many Indian enemies even before Hernán Cortés arrived. It seems that the testimony of Nezahualcoyotl is most likely credible, though I am open to challenges.
Some will point out the fact that Nezahualcoyotl allowed others to continue serving false gods in religious human sacrifices as evidence that he was only a monotheistic pagan. But if that scale were used for the kings of Judah, like Azariah/Uzziah and his son Jotham, they too would be condemned monotheistic pagans just like Nezahualcoyotl. Another problem is that the Bible says concerning Azariah and Jotham that their one major fault was that they did not destroy the idols, but that in everything else they did “what was right in the eyes of the LORD.” The Canaanite god Baal who the kings allowed Israelites to worship demanded human sacrifices too, much like the Aztec deities, so we do have direct parallels here. And besides, Azariah and Jotham had direct exposure to God and laws concerning the Israelite nation: that God expressively commanded their nation to not tolerate any idols. In Nezahuacoyotl’s case, it could be argued that he was simply a believer of allowing religious freedom among his subjects. That makes him just as bad as modern American presidents, save the allowance for human sacrifices (glad I’m not a liberal, cause right now cultural equality would be a hassle).
Some will then point out that Nezahualcoyotl’s deity was not expressively triune in nature, and therefore cannot be the God of Israel. But do we really want to extend that same judgement to everybody in the Bible, including Job, Deborah, Abraham, Hannah, and Elijah? As we learned in Hebrews 11, these men and women believed God for what He revealed to them, even without understanding the full picture or completely receiving what was promised within their lifetimes. Because they trusted God’s word about His character, we have benefited from them by receiving the better Covenant. They knew in part and spoke in part, much like we do today, but they still worshiped the same God who we worship. Even for Gentiles who worshiped God, like Cornelius, God honored them and even moved so that they could inherit the promise of the Holy Spirit though they knew nothing of it. And this lines up with what Jesus said about His flock-to-be: that they all hear His voice and know Him, but the time is come that the folds become unified as one flock. One God, one Lord, one Way, one Gospel, and many who have been given varying degrees of revelation to trust in and serve the one God. This necessitates that all of the revelation given not be contradictory at all. The revelation of God is continual, but still unchanging, much like the continual revelation found in the historical narrative of the saints in the Bible. Abraham may not have known about the revelation of the Trinity while he was alive on Earth, but that did not stop him from seeing ahead by faith into the promised Lamb of God or even meeting the God-man Himself.
Still, if we were to use comparisons of Christopher Hitchens and Nezahualcoyotl, anybody can see that Nezahualcoyotl was far closer to believing in anything close to the Christian deity. But we can’t go upon sentiment or near-misses. We cannot go by mere appearances in the matters of God. We must go by His Scripture, and what does it say?
Well, first it says in Hebrews 1 that God spoke to the Israelites and their ancestors in various ways and at various times. Stop. How did God speak to the Israelites and their ancestors in various ways? Well, God literally walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden face to face. Then, He spoke to Noah in some manner (it can be assumed in the same manner that He answers us in our hearts through our prayers). He talked to Abraham in the same way and then later appeared before him face to face. Then things get a little weird. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. Then God appeared before Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel in a very glorious form as they ate. God spoke to Job from inside of a whirlwind or tornado. And just in case you thought that God’s point was to show that He does whatever He wants, He trolls on Elijah just to prove how unpredictable He can be. So already we have just about every example one can think of for how God spoke to the nation of Israel all by Himself in various ways, and this isn’t including the usage of prophets, foreign nations, or donkeys.
Do we really think that the God of the Bible, the God of Israel, couldn’t communicate with the rest of His beloved creation just because of a little geographical distance?
Many of my Calvinist friends will fear me having become a heretic (and I honor them for their concern, it is a sign of sober thinking). Many of them will point me to Paul’s Roman epistle where the apostle explicitly states that hearing comes by the word of Christ. They will explicitly turn to Romans 10:14-17 where Paul asks the exact questions that this entire blog post is about.
(Funny, right? So many of us have this “forbidden question” running about in our minds looking for a place to land, when all along our question is written in the very Scripture we are oft too lazy or too intimidated to read.)
When my Calvinist friends turn me to Romans 10:14-17, I am elated because I keep reading to the end of the chapter. And what we find in verse 18 ought to rock our socks off. Paul, a man trained as a Pharisaic Jewish academic of the Torah, pulls an academic device still used to this day. He cites a single verse from a source that is meant to be taken in its full context. In other words, Paul means to use the context of the entire passage that the source is found in to answer his question in Romans 10:18. And what does he cite as the answer to whether any human being in existence has not heard the Gospel?
Psalm 19. Specifically, Psalm 19:4. Now this fits directly with Paul’s basis for the entirety of humanity from past to present to future being condemned for rejecting God’s righteousness. This is found in Romans 1, 2 and 3. It even is a thread of thought that Paul uses in his epic speech to his cosmopolitan audience at Athens, an ancient city that was just as diverse as any of the modern major cities of today. The very universe God created tells us about God, and even our consciences convict us of His justice and holy uniqueness. And even more, God reveals Himself to us through His Son, the Light of the world. And that Light shines unto all men who are in darkness so that they may come to know the Light and bask in His radiance. So since Scripture cannot be broken, the claims of John’s Gospel and the claims of Paul’s Epistles together, then we come to conclude that Jesus Himself has been speaking to us humans all along throughout the entire Bible. I’m not alone in this either.
Because God will ultimately judge all nonbelievers of all time for rejecting Him, will not His scales of justice be just? We should believe so, for to whom much is given much will be required. And just scales demand just usage, for how else will God separate the sheep from the goats?
So judge righteously, does Christopher Hitchens stand in a better position of faith than Nezahuacoyotl? Will the amount of revelation that both men were given be taken into account during their final judgment? Did Nezahuacoyotl even have the possibility of knowing God during his lifetime? Was Nezahuacoyotl doomed to searching after the God of all creation, the God whose evidence he marveled at day and night in psalm of praise, just so he could never find Him? Is there a chance that Nezahuacoyotl actually found God?
Only God knows, and I am very excited to find out. In the meantime, I will trust in God’s character as revealed through His oath to Israel, and I will continue to live in His Kingdom and proclaim the Gospel of His conquest so that many more will inherit His promise of salvation and be saved from Death.
Ezekiel 33:11- 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?