Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

Exclusive or Inclusive?

What does the Old Testament say about whether the Bible is inclusive or exclusive in terms of God’s love and revelation to peoples of the world?

God is love and longs for all to come to him.  For Christians, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we can come to faith (John 3:16).  However, this is not so clearly available where the message of the gospel is not known.  Thanks to the proclamation of the gospel through all sorts of media, this is becoming rarer.  Nevertheless, people have been alive in the past and are now alive who have not heard.

There is no easy answer.  If there were, we would all know it.  Over the years, I have attempted different approaches to try to explain this.  I believe that God does reveal himself in special ways now as in the past.  Abram may not have known God until he spoke to him.  His family was polytheistic (Gen. 12:1-3; Josh. 24:2).  How was Melchizedek a priest of the most high God (Gen 14)?  Did word reach him from Abram or was this part of a revelation to him or to an earlier generation of priests who kept the faith?  Job does not seem to have been an Israelite (Job 1) yet he was faithful to God and a man of faith.  How did the message reach him?  Jethro was a Midianite priest (Exodus 3:1; 18:1-27) and yet had no trouble speaking of the LORD.  Was the LORD the one he served as a priest?  Jonah was sent to Nineveh against his will and many there heard the message of repentance who otherwise would not have known of it (Jonah 1; 3-4).  Na’aman (2 Kings 6:1-15) knew of Israel and their God, but did not confess him until a miracle occurred in his life.  Esther impacted her husband Xerxes so that he proclaimed tolerance to the Jews throughout the Persian empire (Esther 8:1-17).  In this manner the news of God’s covenant reached everywhere.  

These are just a few examples.  I do not know all the ways God may work to lead those who have not heard to him.  He may interact with human hearts and give them the possibility of response so that as much as they respond he accepts them.  He may send angels, natural missionaries or supernatural visions, to explain the way.  Are those who have never heard still living under the covenant of Noah?  Does their response to basic moral injunctions to all peoples (Gen 9:1-11) make them part of that covenant for which God may then move to bring the greater message of the gospel to them?

God works in many ways.  He can give everyone the opportunity to come to faith in ways I cannot comprehend.  However, I am not ready to say he is unjust just because I do not understand all the ways in which he works.

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