“And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.”
I will first need to give the context of this passage. Luke 12:35-48 is all about preparing for the Jesus’ return/Second Coming when he will come to judge the living and the dead. In verses 39-40, Jesus states that he will come at an unexpected time, just as a thief only burgles a house at an unexpected time. Clearly, therefore, Jesus is talking about his return (the Second Coming) and thus His righteous and just judgement.
I completely understand why the servant who knew the master’s will but did not prepare or abide by the master’s will is punished and receives “a severe beating”. This is only fair, right and just. If this servant did not receive any punishment, this would clearly be unjust and may cause the servant to be unprepared and disobedient to his master in the future, due to the lack of a deterrent. In terms of salvation, Jesus is clearly saying in this reference that those who have heard the Gospel message but disregard it and ignore will be punished and will receive “a severe beating”. This again makes sense and is only just, right and fair – why should those who ignore the Gospel message and don’t “believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31) be rewarded and blessed with a place in the paradise that is Heaven?
However, this section also states that “the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating”. I think that it can only be unjust to punish someone who genuinely did not know that they were disobeying a commandment or breaking a law. This principle of not punishing one who is unaware of the Law is practised legally: if an 8-year old were to steal something, he/she would not be punished by the Law because they genuinely did not know that what they were doing was wrong and they did not know that they were breaking a law as they did not know that law in the first place. I do not see why the same should not also be the case here.
In terms of salvation, Jesus is saying here that those who die without ever having heard the Gospel message will still be judged and will be punished, albeit with a less severe punishment. I find it very difficult to square this with the justice of God. How can it be just to punish someone who has never heard the Gospel message for not responding to the Gospel message. It would be like a teacher giving a pupil a detention for not completing a homework they were never asked to complete.
This is an immensely complicated and difficult issue, even if we disregard Jesus’ teaching here and just use reason instead. So please do not make the mistake of thinking that I am self-righteously criticising Jesus’ teaching because I think I have an easy answer which is obviously superior because I do not have such an answer. I think it would be unjust to punish and condemn someone who had never heard the Gospel message to Hell. However, if I were instead to argue that everyone who dies without having heard the Gospel message will “get a pass”, as it were, and will thus be exempt from the judgement their works should otherwise bring them, then there would be no point in evangelism. This is because everyone who dies without hearing the Gospel message would still reap the benefits of that message (going to Heaven). Evangelism would not be needed because the mere act of dying in ignorance of the Gospel would bring about the same effect. If they were to go to Heaven, they would do so without even trying to worship or serve God and without even trying to live Christian lives.
“If you love me, you will obey my commandments”
Equally, the Bible nowhere talks of a “pass” being given to those who die in ignorance and it would not make sense for Jesus to command his followers to spread the Gospel to every living creature in every nation in his Great Commission if creatures ignorant of the Gospel would be saved anyway. The Bible conversely states that belief in Jesus is required with no exceptions cited as in the following verses:
“the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him”
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved”
However, I think there may well be a translation issue with John 3:36 as at least 10 different versions, including the NIV, use the term “reject” here instead of “not obey”. This may seem like a minor difference but it could be very significant indeed. This is because if the true translation is “whoever does not obey” shall be condemned, then all those who are not Christians, even those who have never heard the Gospel message, are damned. However, if the true translation is “reject” (the AMP even uses “chooses to reject him [Christ]”), then one has to specifically, knowingly and consciously choose to reject Jesus Christ and his Gospel message of good news, obviously having to have been informed of it at some point prior to this rejection.
Another complication of this passage is this idea of differing degrees of punishment as it relates to Hell. Elsewhere in the Bible we are clearly told that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone and that if you “believe in the Lord Jesus” (Acts 16:31), you will be saved and go to Heaven (paradise) in the Afterlife. Equally, if you do not believe, you will go to Hell (the opposite of paradise). However, verse 47 seems to suggest that there are varying degrees of punishment and pain within Hell – more severe areas of punishment for some and less severe areas for others. This almost suggests a view similar to purgatory or that expressed in Dante’s Inferno.
How does one reconcile these verses with conservative ideas about salvation, grace, Heaven and Hell? Comments would be greatly appreciated.
By Ben Somervell