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Does Ignorance Excuse All Sin?


Is ignorance bliss in God’s sight?  For example, suppose someone who is 45 years old but has the mental capacity of a five-year-old child.  Is he responsible for his sins?  My answer here is "partially yes," but let's explain why ignorance is only a partial excuse, not a complete one.


True, Scripture doesn't directly answer this question about how the mentality handicapped are regarded concerning their sins.  However, it does discuss the issue of whether ignorance excuses for sin or not.  And that’s really the question that’s being asked here:  Does the ignorance of a mentally handicapped man excuse him or not?  A balanced view would be that ignorance is a partial, but not complete, excuse.  On the one hand, Jesus told the Pharisees who rejected Him (John 9:41):  “If you were blind, you would have had no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”  In John 15:22, likewise He said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.” 


On the other hand, some punishment is still due to the one who knows less (Luke 12:47-48):  “And that slave who knew his master’s will and did no get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few.  And from everyone who has been given much, shall much be required.“  So some punishment still occurs to those who know little.  This is in accord with the principle found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 4:2-3) that sacrifices were still required for sins that were unintentional.  Notice that Numbers 15:22-24 similarly commands animal sacrifices for sins done in ignorance or at least not done deliberately:  “But when you unwittingly fail and do not observe all of these commandments . . . Then it shall be, if it is done unintentionally, without the knowledge of the congregation, that all the congregation shall offer one bull for a burnt offering . . .”  So there is still a penalty assessed on the ignorant sinners as well, even though it’s a lighter punishment. 


Furthermore, in order for God to condemn all people as sinners, He has to assess sin against all of those who break His law, even if they didn’t know better (Romans 3:23; cf. verse 19):  “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Everyone is being called to account even now (Acts 17:30):  “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent.”  Notice also that the law defines what is sin and educates people as to what is right and wrong (verse 20):  “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” 


Now, there’s a related issue lurking here, which concerns whether people have only one chance to be saved.  However, can people be saved after they die if they weren’t called during this life (John 6:44)?  However, people who are ignorant of salvation during this life, whether because of physical/mental conditions or just because they never heard the gospel, still can be saved.  That requires considerable explanation, however.  In truth, anyone who wasn't called during this life for the first time will receive his or her first opportunity to be saved after the second resurrection at the end of the millennium (Rev. 20:5, 12-13).  In the case of someone mentally handicapped, that person will be healed when he is resurrected after the millennium ends so he would become fully morally responsible at that point.


Can those who died unsaved still get saved?  According to Scripture, unsaved people who die aren't immediately put into an eternal hell fire.  Instead, they simply aren't judged until the second resurrection takes place (see Rev. 20:5; cf. I Cor. 15:22-24).  This would be true for both babies and adults who were uncalled in this lifetime.  Because they weren’t called during their first lives on earth (see John 6:44, 65; Acts 2:39; Matt. 13:11-16; Romans 8:28-30), they will get their first and only chance (not a “second chance”) to be saved after their resurrection at the end of the millennium, after Christ had ruled on earth for a thousand years.  Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones of the house of Israel provides the clearest passage showing the unsaved dead will be resurrected and then given an opportunity for salvation.  Now the Chosen People generally had a dismal history spiritually.  Israel was often very disobedient.  Israelites born in the pre-Exile period (not just Jewish, of the tribe of Judah only when strictly defined) commonly were violating the First Commandment by being idolaters, just as typical Hindus are today.  Most of Israel obviously was not saved back then since so many were so faithless and disobedient that they often used statues while worshiping false gods, such as Baal, Chemosh, Molech, and Dagon.  But instead of being thrown into the lake of fire after their resurrection, they are lovingly put back into the land of Israel, as God told Ezekiel (Eze. 37:11-14): 


“Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope has perished.  We are completely cut off.'  Therefore prophesy, and say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God, "Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.  Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.  And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land.”’" 


These unsaved Israelites were no more saved than ignorant Buddhists, Hindus, animists, pagans, and Muslims.  This would include all the great famous human monsters and tyrants of world history, including Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mussolini, Dahmer, Manson, Bundy, etc.  Indeed, most Israelites didn't have the Holy Spirit, which conditionally gives salvation by its presence (Eph. 4:30; 1:13-14), which only became much more generally available on Pentecost in 31 A.D. after Jesus’ resurrection and later ascension to heaven (John 16:7; Acts 1:4-5; 2:2-4).  But when they were resurrected, they weren't tossed into hell, but were placed in the Holy Land!  Notice that they were resurrected to have physical bodies of flesh (verses 7-10), not bodies composed of spirit, like angels have (Hebrews 1:7) and already saved Christians will receive when Jesus returns (I Cor. 15:42-53). 


        God will not condemn any who are ignorant during their first lifetimes on earth, but only the willfully knowing wicked who refuse to repent even after their resurrection (Daniel 12:2).  After all, if God commands all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30), He has to make His will theoretically possible to fulfill.  Likewise, the Lord (II Peter 3:9) “is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”  Paul also told Timothy that God “desires all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4).  So doesn’t God want to save everyone?  Will God condemn to an eternity of torture in hell fire those who never heard Jesus' name or who never heard the Gospel preached?  Would God hurl billions of ignorant Chinese and East Indian peasants to burn in hell for endless trillions of years for a mere mayfly lifetime of sins without an opportunity to escape their dire fates?  Would God so fail so colossally to grant them a practical way to gain repentance (Acts 11:18) so they possibly could be saved?  Is it fair for God to condemn those who never had a chance to begin with?  Can the traditional view justify God's justice to humanity (i.e., construct a convincing theodicy)?  Is a brief life of (say) 20, 40, or 70 years of moderate sin fairly punished by trillions and trillions of years of burning torture?  And that's merely for starters, the barest preface to a never-ending story of agony.  Will God maintain and supervise this a plague spot in His universe for all eternity with evil angels and men suffering for their sins?  Or will God totally clean out His universe (see Acts 3:21) in order to restore the conditions that existed before Lucifer (a/k/a Satan) rebelled and Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil?  Wouldn’t God ultimately want EVERY living creature still remaining in the created universe (cf. Rev. 5:13) to bless Him and to worship Him?

As indicated by Matt. 12:41-42 (compare 11:21-24), most people aren't judged yet during this lifetime.  The pagan inhabitants of Nineveh aren't yet burning eternally in hell.  If the immortal soul doctrine is true, then the judgment has to occur at death.  Otherwise, the dead are being held in an unconsciousness state instead.  How else could presumably unsaved people during their lifetimes, such as the men of Nineveh who heard Jonah and the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, condemn Jews who rejected Jesus as their Messiah when He visited their villages and towns?  It would be most curious for God to resurrect these people who (most likely) never had the Holy Spirit, which is a requirement for salvation (Romans 8:9-11; II Cor. 5:5), and let them condemn others before tossing them all into hell.   


 Notice that Israel still has a chance at salvation despite having rejected their Messiah to date, according to Paul:  "And thus all Israel will be saved" (Rom. 11:26; cf. verses 7, 26).  If this generalization wasn't true, how could Paul write it?  Could (say) 90% of Israel be lost to hell despite he believed they all would be saved?  Although we know some won't be saved, such as Judas Iscariot, it has to be that almost all of them will be, despite they often worshipped false gods using idols during their physical lifetimes. 


We shouldn’t mistakenly assume that when the dead are “judged” that has to mean "sentencing" rather than “probation.”  Nor should we equate "sentencing" with "judgment."  Someone who is judged or being judged need not at that moment be condemned and sentenced to a particular punishment.  A person can have a period of judging before a final outcome is determined.  For example, Peter says "it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"  (I Pet. 4:17).  Since Christians during this lifetime aren’t yet sentenced, "judgment" here simply can't mean only "sentencing."  So we should be wary of assuming this automatically for other texts, such as Hebrews 9:27, but see what the context indicates or what other parts of the Bible teach


But now, let’s look at these issues more broadly.  Are we humans naturally immortal?  Will we live forever, whether it be in heaven or hell?  Do the dead even go to heaven or hell right at death?  Or rather, is immortality conditional upon continued faith in and obedience to God?  What does the Bible teach about where the dead go after they die?  When the Bible's text is carefully examined, without reading preconceived ideas or interpretations into it, it reveals that the dead presently aren't alive in heaven or hell, but they remain unconscious until the day they are resurrected.  Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10 clearly teach that the dead aren't conscious:  "For the living know that they will die:  But the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.  Also their love, their hatred and their envy have now perished; Nevermore will they have a share is anything done under the sun. . . . Whatever your had finds to do, do it with your might:  For there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going."  Therefore, nobody goes to heaven or hell at death, but each person lies unconscious in the common grave of humanity until his or her resurrection, excepting for those few Christians translated or “born again” (John 3:5-8) at the first resurrection when Jesus returns (I Cor. 15:45-55; I Thess. 4:14-17). 


The Bible Teaches The Doctrine of Conditional Immortality


            The technical name for this doctrine is "conditional immortality."  People only have eternal life conditionally upon obeying and having faith in God and Jesus as their Savior.  According to this teaching, the soul doesn’t separate from the body's continued life.  The “soul” requires for its continued existence a “body” (the physical, biological organism) and a “spirit” (the life force animating the flesh that God breathed into Adam when creating him, Genesis 2:7).  Similarly, a light bulb needs both a functioning filament within a glass (its “body”) and electricity flowing through it (its “spirit”) to give light from being a functioning whole, i.e., like a “soul.”   So when the body dies, and the spirit/life force leaves, the soul dies or ceases to exist.  Notice Ezekiel 18:4 and 20.  Both say, "The soul that sins shall die."  Now, after seeing such a text, should we devise/invent a definition for "death" for the "soul" that doesn't refer to its ceasing to be conscious?  The "separation from God" interpretation of such texts is a (suddenly invented) definition for "death" that's been read into them because people have assumed the truth of the traditional teaching about the immortality of the soul.  So people only have eternal life conditional upon obeying God, and that the unsaved will have no consciousness until their resurrection. 

            If the word translated "soul," "nephesh" in Hebrew, is examined generally by how it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament, it can't refer to an immortal soul that separates from the body and has continued consciousness.  This word does appear in Eze. 18:4.  But it also refers to a dead body in Num. 9:6-10 several times and to animals in Genesis 1:21, 24.  So when the body dies, nothing conscious leaves the body and goes to heaven or hell then.  The "soul" then ceases to exist until the resurrection, when the spirit of man is reunited with the physical body God has just made by resurrecting it.  But this “spirit in man” (I Cor. 2:11; Job 32:8)  isn't conscious when separate from the body.  It records the personality and character of the person who died, but it can’t think when not connected to the body.  Notice, by the way, how we have a "spirit," a "soul," and a "body."  An advocate of the immortal/eternal soul doctrine really should choose between "spirit" and "soul," and not inadvertently assert humans have two immortal parts!  


The Dead Aren’t Conscious, but “Sleep” in the Grave


            Since people only have eternal life conditionally upon having faith in and obeying God, the unsaved won’t have consciousness until their resurrection either.  Jesus said Lazarus was asleep before resurrecting him (John 11:11-13; cf. Job 14:12).  Paul said that if the resurrection didn't happen, the saved dead were lost, which means they couldn't have been conscious souls living in heaven then:  "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!  Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (I Cor. 15:16-18).  Job said that fathers who die don't know whether their sons are honored or become insignificant (Job 14:20).  So dead parents supposedly saved and living in heaven wouldn't know what their offspring on earth are doing.  David said in Ps. 6:5:  "For there is no mention of Thee in death; in Sheol who will give Thee thanks?"  (See also Isaiah 38:18-19 for similar thoughts).  So could the saved dead (in heaven or elsewhere) even possibly not be praising God?  It would be absurd!  The rhetorical question in Ps. 88:10’s second line implies the departed spirits aren’t praising God.  Psalm 115:17 says flatly:  “The dead do not praise the Lord.”  In Psalm 146:4, it says we shouldn't trust in mortal man because, "His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish."  Although the word translated "thoughts" here can be translated more narrowly as "plans," the Christian writer Uriah Smith has said that the Hebrew word here refers to "the act of the mind in the process of thinking and reasoning."  If so, the dead can't be conscious according to this text either.  Therefore, if the saved dead, of whom Paul spoke here, aren't resurrected, then they are unsaved and aren't restored to consciousness.  


The Doctrines of the Immortality of the Soul and the Resurrection Aren’t Compatible


            The doctrines of the immortality of the soul and of the resurrection simply aren't compatible (especially as taught in I Cor. 15).  After all, if the immortal soul is perfectly happy to live in heaven, why reunite it with the material body?  And if the wicked entered hell right after they died and are presently suffering eternal punishing, why pull them out of hell and reunite them with their physical bodies?  Would they be thrown right back into hell again after being judged again?  Could God have made a mistake the first time around after they died?  Does He review His previous decision for error after the millennium ends?  What balderdash!  Why reencumber spirit bodies (see I Cor. 15:42-45) with gross material flesh again after they have possibly lived in heaven or hell for thousands of years?  According to Rev. 20:13, "death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds."  The Great White Throne Judgment of Rev. 20:11-15 implies those who died before Jesus’ return and came up in the second resurrection are all judged at the same time, not piecemeal down through the generations as they died. Paul wrote that if the resurrection didn't happen, the saved dead were lost, which means they couldn't have been conscious souls living in heaven then:  "For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.  And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!  Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (I Cor. 15:16-18).  If someone is "perished" without a personal resurrection, then he or she isn't alive consciously while dead before it occurs.  Paul uses "sleep" here to refer to the state of the dead (as in verse 20 also).  So if the saved dead, of whom he's speaking here, aren't resurrected, then they are actually unsaved and aren't restored to consciousness.  The resurrection wouldn't be regarded as such a crucial doctrine if we were still conscious after death.  


            If indeed the dead are fully conscious, the Bible’s analogy between death and sleep makes no sense.  To say only the "body" sleeps, not the whole “person,” in order to explain this away runs again into the problem of the resurrection:  If we stay conscious continuously after death automatically when we would go to heaven or hell at death, why have a resurrection at all?  Also, if this "spirit/soul" is the real part of the person, and the body superfluous matter to staying conscious, isn’t it rather deceiving to call the state of the dead "sleep"?  It's hardly "sleep" to suffer conscious misery in hell as the flames supposedly torture the wicked terribly.  The doctrines of the immortality of the soul and of the resurrection are simply incompatible, although many will illogically labor mightily to square this circle.


The Righteous Dead Aren’t in Heaven Now


            When the dead enter the great collective grave of mankind, "sheol" in Hebrew, and "hades" in Greek, they aren't conscious of anything.  They aren't in heaven, hell, limbo, or purgatory.  When Jesus said this (John 3:13), no man had gone to heaven (i.e., where God's throne is, the third heaven):  "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven."  Even after Christ's resurrection, King David, the man after God's own heart, hadn't ascended to heaven according to Peter (Acts 2:29, 34):  "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . . For David did not ascend into the heavens."  In the same passage, Peter cited David in the Old Testament to prove the Messiah Himself wouldn’t ascend to heaven before His resurrection, but His soul would stay briefly in the grave while He was dead (v. 27):  “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.”  So when the dead enter the great collective grave of mankind, sheol in Hebrew, hades in Greek, they aren't conscious of anything.  They aren't in heaven, hell, or purgatory.  So when will Christians experience what’s described in  I John 3:2?:  "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he [Jesus] appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is."  Notice that this text refers to Jesus' second coming, not to the present.  We wouldn't see Jesus right after we die nor, surprisingly enough, do saved Christians go right to heaven!  


            After all, what do the meek inherit? (Matt. 5:5)  They inherit the earth, not heaven!  Similarly, doesn’t God the Father come down to a new earth in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:1-3)?  So I John 3:2 discusses what happens when Christians will be resurrected (I Cor. 15:51-54) and rise to meet Jesus in the clouds/sky of the earth (I Thess. 4:16-17).  That’s not an exotic, faraway, “spiritual” location:  That’s where airplanes fly everyday!  Instead of remaining a immortal/eternal soul/spirit, our bodies will be transformed by a resurrection (or translation, if we're alive when Jesus comes) that will give us eternal life (I Cor. 15:48-54).  There’s no other way we can be saved, meaning, be preserved to live for all eternity.  After all, Jesus comes to the earth (Zechariah 14:3-4) from where He prepared a place (i.e., positions in the kingdom of God, cf. Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-30) for us so "that [when on earth] where I am you may be also" (John 14:3). 


Will the Wicked Be Eternally Tortured?


            Are the wicked to be eternally tortured?  Do the unrepentant disobedient have eternal life also?  After all, if each person has an undying, immortal soul or spirit, it has to live forever in the place of punishment if it won’t live forever in the place of reward.  The Bible teaches that "the soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20).  If that soul “dies,” does it actually continue to “live”?  The last book of the Old Testament teaches the wicked will be destroyed to nothingness, that they will be ashes underneath the feet of the righteous (Malachi 4:1, 3):  “’For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.’ . . . And you will tread down the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the Lord of hosts.”  Now if the wicked will be like burnt up like waste from grain that will leave nothing behind (“neither root nor branch”), will they still have an intact consciousness?  If they will be, not just “be like,” but “be ashes” that the righteous will literally walk over, will those “ashes” still be feeling their painful misery?  Let’s turn now to the New Testament.  Jesus warned his listeners (Matt. 10:28):  “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”  Are we going to read a creative definition into the word “destroy” here in order to prop up preconceived theology?  If the word “destroy” means to ruin something such that it can no longer function, do we assume a “soul” can be “destroyed” yet still function with consciousness?  Uriah Smith pointed to the implied analogy made in Christ’s statement that undermines a non-literal meaning for the word “destroy”:  “Whatever killing does to the body, destroying does to the soul.”   Consider Paul’s well known statement (Romans 6:23):  "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Do we assume that the opposite of “eternal life” is “death,” meaning, “eternal life in hell”?  Did Paul intend a complicated, metaphorical meaning here, such as "separation from God”?  If a conventional, literal definition of "death" is upheld here or in other similar texts, that is, “cessation of consciousness,” the inevitable conclusion is that the wicked are punished by “death,” not “endless life in hell,” but a state of non-functioning consciousness.  Eternal punishment (Matt. 25:46) shouldn’t be confused with eternal punishing, since a death that never ends is a punishment that lasts forever.


So although even the ignorant still get condemned for the sins they commit, the unsaved can be saved after they die after their minds and bodies are resurrected and healed physically, psychologically, and mentally.

Eric Snow




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Why does God Allow Evil? Click here: /Apologeticshtml/Why Does God Allow Evil 0908.htm

May Christians work on Saturdays? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Protestant Rhetoric vs Sabbath Refuted.htm

Should Christians obey the Old Testament law? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Does the New Covenant Abolish the OT Law.htm

Do you have an immortal soul? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Here and Hereafter.htm

Does the ministry have authority? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is There an Ordained Ministry vs Edwards.html

Is the United States the Beast? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Are We the Beast vs Collins.htm

Should you give 10% of your income to your church? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Does the Argument from Silence Abolish the Old Testament Law of Tithing 0205 Mokarow rebuttal.htm

Is Jesus God? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is Jesus God.htm

Will there be a third resurrection? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Will There Be a Third Resurrection.htm



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