Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers brought up the old “sinners in a remote jungle” conundrum in a recent exclusive interview with ESPN. Of course, in his words the conundrum is updated to “remote rainforest,” because, I guess, “jungle” is offensive or culturally oppressive, or something.
In any event, the conundrum supposedly unmasks a big problem with Christianity. In Rodgers’ words: “I remember asking a question as a young person about [somebody’s salvation] in a remote rainforest…[He answered]: ‘If you don’t confess your sins, then you’re going to hell.’ And I said, ‘What about the people who don’t have a Bible readily accessible?’”
Rodgers, who grew up in a conservative evangelical household, struggled with this question for years, until he heard progressive preacher Rob Bell give a talk to the Packers in 2008. After his relationship with Bell grew into a friendship—he watched last year’s Super Bowl with Bell—he came to adopt Bell’s progressive views on Christianity, eventually concluding that hell “wasn’t a fiery pit idea – that [concept] was handed down in the 1700s by the Puritans and influenced Western culture.”
Later, the interviewer asked Rodgers if he’s still a Christian. Rodgers said he has “no affiliation.”
Good Job Being a Cultural Cliché, Aaron
Where to begin? First off, ohhhh, how ESPN must have loved this. Another millennial ditching that mean, nasty Christianity? Such stuff is the catnip of the media and coastal elites.
Second, c’mon Aaron! Don’t be a cultural cliché! Of all the cultural clichés out there, millennials growing up in a Christian household and abandoning “organized religion” after “questioning things” is probably the biggest of our era. As a campus pastor and Army chaplain dealing with young people all the time, I constantly hear some variation of “I grew up X, but…” That’s our national religion!
Another phrase for that is “I’m spiritual but not religious.” These are the “nones” we hear so much about. Another word for that is Gnosticism, America’s fastest-growing religion.
That leads to the third. The article says Rodgers grew up in a typical evangelical household, dubbed “non-denominational” in the article. Note to “non-denominationals” and evangelicals: in the Rodgers-Bell-BFF narrative arc, you see why evangelicalism historically always devolves into Unitarianism. Their attempt to eschew denominational labels and think they’re just a-followin’ Jesus just fails.
I’m trying to hold back a “naa na-naa na boo boo” here, but guess what, the world still is calling evangelicals “organized religion” and lumping them with all the organized religions they believed they were rarefying their faith from in an attempt to be ecumenical, broad-minded, and more “authentic,” but which in the end was simply a works-heavy, doctrinally light expression of Christianity that, yeah, will always end up exactly where Rodgers did.
Because here’s the thing: an ethos is still a label. An ethos by its very nature denominates itself from “other.” Americans, perhaps especially since the advent of Internet globalism, have been trying to find that universal spirituality transcending the particulars of “organized” religion, as Rodgers is. But there’s a label even for that, and it’s Gnosticism, which always ends up with some organizational structure with its own standard of doctrines and heresies. (Paging leftists…) Sorry, Aaron, but your spiritual quest is just the natural trajectory of your non-denominational roots, and it doesn’t end well.
As for Knowing a Smidgen of World History
Fourth: Puritans, Aaron? Puritans? That’s where hell came from? That’s as far back as your historiography goes? As a proud representative of that bogeyman medieval Christianity, I’m kind of offended. I thought we owned hell. The point is, the scholarship is just wrong. Sorry, but hell goes way, way back.
From Jesus (AD 30): “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” From Polycarp (AD 155): “[Christians] kept before their view escape from that fire which is eternal and will never be quenched.” From Hermas (AD 200): “Sinners will be consumed because they sinned and did not repent.”
Do we need to go on? We could do this for hours, and we haven’t even gotten medieval yet. To deny the teaching of hell in Christianity is either wishful thinking, hipster Christian theologians trying to be cool, or just outright Gnostics dismissing historic Christianity as an apostate church while true Christianity hid out in the hills and ghettos, a view with so many paradoxes and conundrums it might as well be, well, perfectly suited for liberal Christianity.
Now for the Jungle People
Now to Rodgers’ “remote jungle” conundrum. I’m actually quite sympathetic to his concerns. He represents an awful lot of millennials in wondering how Christianity can deny salvation to someone who hasn’t heard the Word of God and never had a chance to repent and believe in Christ. But there is an answer that is biblical and doesn’t deny historic Christian teachings on hell. You can read my full argument in this paper in the Lutheran theological journal Logia, or here. Here are the highlights of the argument.
The argument begins with the premise that the gospel is for all people. On the first Christmas, the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.” All people! None excluded. This fulfills the many Old Testament prophecies stating the biblical message is ultimately for “all nations.”
Christ’s death was for all people, and in him all the world was reconciled to God. The objective reality of this mystery must be unpacked subjectively for any individual to be saved, and this happens through the proclamation of the gospel and baptism. Here is where the conundrum enters. For how can we say the gospel is for all people, and all must hear, believe, and be baptized, while clearly not all have heard?
Maybe it’s not so clear that all have not heard. Is there a biblical and historic case for a universality of proclamation (as opposed to universality of salvation—different thing), that indeed, all people have, will, or do hear the gospel? I believe there is.
St. Paul expresses the universality of proclamation when he astoundingly writes to the Colossians of the “gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven.” In his letter to the Romans, he even answers the question, “Have they not heard?” saying, “Yes indeed: ‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth, And their words to the ends of the world.’”
Paul is using the perfect tense in both these verses, meaning it’s a “completed action with continuing effect.” Yet how can he say with confidence that the Aztec peasant or Amazonian tribesman has heard the gospel, even in his day when the gospel had at the furthest gone to India or Spain?
Paul is speaking eschatalogically, which is a fancy word for “from an end times, fulfilled, eternal perspective.” In other words, in some mysterious way we don’t entirely understand, Christ will—indeed, has already!—assured the proclamation of his gospel to all peoples.
Here’s My Argument for All Having the Chance at Salvation
My argument—speculative, yes, but biblically based—is that Christ resolved the conundrum in his descent into Sheol, or Hades. Scripture states he preached to “to the spirits in prison” (I Peter 3: 19) who died in Noah’s day. Many in the early church understood this to mean he did this during his descent into Hades.
There was no debate that Christ descended into Sheol/Hades to liberate the Old Testament saints. Much medieval iconography—endorsed by Martin Luther—testifies to this belief. The question is, did Christ’s work in Hades extend to those who never heard? On this there was some debate in the early church, but many held the view that it did.
The thinking goes, during his descent Jesus preached not only to the Old Testament saints who believed in the coming Messiah, but also to those in the Old Testament age who never heard—Socrates, Hammurabi, and the like. Those among the latter who received his message were saved. One ancient theologian even believed the apostles continued their ministry of baptism to these souls after death!
Now, this is all great for those who died in the Old Testament age never having heard. But what of those who die in our New Testament age, after Christ’s advent? What about our poor Amazonian tribesman in the remote jungle? What about that Afghan child who dies in a terrorist attack? What about miscarried and aborted children? Strap on your seatbelts, folks, because we’re going to go on a time-warpy ride.
In the book of Acts (chapter 17), St. Paul is preaching the gospel to the Athenians. Hinting at the nature of things in the Old Testament age and how God viewed ancient Greek idolatry, he says to them, “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent.”
If indeed Christ proclaimed the gospel in Sheol/Hades to those who never heard in the Old Testament age, that would explain how “God overlooked” their ignorance. He didn’t excuse it or ignore it. He deferred it until the time his son would give them a chance to repent. I argue for a place in Sheol called Hyperidon (Greek for “overlooking”), distinct from Abraham’s Bosom and Gehenna, reserved for those who neither received nor rejected the Word, but simply never heard. God overlooked their ignorance until the proper time, when Christ preached to them.
But notice how things change with Paul: “God now commands all men everywhere to repent.” By one interpretation, this would seem to say that, at some specific point in salvation history—Christ’s death? Resurrection? Ascension? Pentecost?—God made a heavenly decree that, even if in the past he overlooked ignorance, now he wants all men to repent.
Here’s an Example of How That Would Work
So, say you’re a 60-year-old Athenian in AD 25, prior to the fulfillment of Christ’s mission. If you died then, you’d still be under Old Testament rules. Your ignorance would be overlooked, and after spending five years in Sheol, you’d eventually see Jesus come down and preach the gospel.
But if you survive and live past that point, now you’re under new rules that you must repent or be damned. This is true even if you never hear the gospel. Well, lucky for you, you made it to 80 and heard St. Paul preach. Or you didn’t, and you along with all the other pagans of the world die condemned under the new rules of “repent or be damned.”
But that interpretation ignores the literalness of the “now” of Paul’s words. He’s actually stating when that “specific time” is for repenting. It’s not at some past moment like Pentecost or Christ’s death. It’s “now,” at the moment of his proclamation to the Athenians! In other words, it’s in the proclamation of the Word that the Old Testament rules switch over to New Testament rules. Proclamation of the gospel makes real and present Christ’s salvation event. Proclamation of the gospel “for you” is an essential moment of salvation history. Proclamation of the gospel is the point at which the Old Testament ends for a person and the New Testament begins.
Why is this significant? Because it means that anyone who dies today not having heard the gospel dies under the Old Testament rules. God overlooks his ignorance, and he will hear Christ’s preaching after his death. Whether that is in spirit, or at the resurrection of the flesh on Judgment Day can be argued (I tend toward the latter), but the ultimate point is preserved that all people will hear the gospel. This is not a “second chance,” because they never had a first chance.
So, why preach the gospel at all, then, some say. Oh, you mean if you had knowledge that your impoverished, struggling brother had just inherited a fortune, you’d withhold that information from him until he absolutely needed to find out? You get the point. Yes, that places mission work and evangelism away from a sense of urgency dependent on my action to an act of love dependent on Christ’s completed action.
Rodgers and other millennials who struggle with questions about the “remote jungle” conundrum should rest easy. There is a biblical answer rooted in ancient church teaching. That might free his mind up to focus on winning us Packers fans a damned Super Bowl before his window shuts.