Copyright 2003 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino
Some people argue from the Bible that God condemns people who reject his revelation even knowing that, had he revealed more to them, they would have repented. Some say this proves the Bible has errors in it or that the God of the Bible is unjust. Some say this proves God’s sovereignty outweighs anything else in his character or actions – yes, God condemns those who would have repented had they known more (but that doesn’t make him unjust, they would argue).
Matthew 10:15 says, “I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” [that rejects the kingdom of God preaching of Christ’s disciples].
Matthew 11:20-24 (cf. Luke 10:12-15) says, “Then Jesus began to denounce the cites in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you Beth-saida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And for you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the mriacles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.'”
The argument goes like this: Christ himself said that those wicked cities that were destroyed in the Old Testament times would have repented (and been spared God’s destructive wrath) if the miracles of Christ and the preaching of his disciples had come to them (implying that the revelation they received from God was inadequate). If this is the case, then their failure to repent and believe is not their own fault, but God’s fault – they would have believed if he had sent them the caliber of revelation brought by Jesus Christ and his disciples.
The common misunderstanding of these passages rests on two interpretive problems. First, Jesus is using an ad hominem argument – he is assuming something his opponents believe and then using it against them. Second, Jesus is using a common rabbinical argument, arguing from the lesser to the greater. (This is one of the arguments listed by the great rabbi Hillel, whose rabbinical school was one of the leading schools of first century Jerusalem. Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, was the apostle Paul’s teacher.)
The purpose of Jesus’s argument is to warn the Jews of his day that because they were rejecting him and his message, they would justly receive judgment and condemnation from God. First, Jesus assumes (for the purpose of his argument) what was the common Jewish opinion – the inhabitants of Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon were as completely wicked as they could be and deserved every bit of the destruction God brought against them. They were the quintessential rejecters of God. If anyone deserved judgment, they did. There is nothing God could have done that would have provoked those cities to repent! Second, Jesus argued from the lesser to the greater. His argument can be paraphrased this way: “If Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon were justly condemned by God for rejecting the prophets how much more just is God’s coming condemnation against those who reject the very one the prophets prophesied about.” In other words, “If you Jews who reject Jesus as the Messiah agree that God was just in condemning those who merely rejected his messengers, you cannot argue that God is unjust in condemning you for rejecting God manifest in the flesh.” The only way the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’s day could overturn his argument would be to argue that, in fact, maybe Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon didn’t deserve God’s judgment – something no Jew of his day would be willing to argue!
That this is the meaning of Jesus’s statements is clear not only from first century Jewish history and literature, but also from the gospel of Matthew itself. In Matthew 12 Jesus uses the Old Testament and the rabbinic argument from the lesser to the greater in a similar context: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (41-42). In other words, “If the Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba had enough revelation to repent and escape God’s judgment, how much more will you unbelieving Jews be condemned for failing to repent at God’s (greater) final and full revelation in Jesus Christ.” A similar argument is posed by Jeremiah (3:6-13), where the prophet warns Judah (the southern kingdom) that it will be judged more harshly than Israel (the northern kingdom, disdained by the southern kingdom), because Judah not only had the warning of God, but also had the example of God executing his judgment against Israel first, and yet Judah would not repent.
In fact, God is so just that Jesus elsewhere argues hypothetically that one who is truly ignorant can’t be justly judged. In John 15:22 Jesus says, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin.” In John 9:41 Jesus says, “If you were [spiritually] blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”
In some ways the main message of the Bible is so simple and so constant from Genesis through Revelation that even a small child can understand the basics of salvation. In other ways the Bible is so rich in history, language, philosophy, literature, and rhetoric that one can never fully plumb its depths. When we carefully study and come to understand problematic passages such as these, we appreciate anew God’s perfect revelation of his perfect character, his justice, and his love, on our behalf.