31 May 2006

Unanswered Bible questions and the need to know

by Dan Phillips

Submitted for your approval, two propositions:
  1. The Bible tells us everything we need to know, as Christians.
  2. The Bible does not tell us everything we want to know.
The former is the teaching of such passages as Deuteronomy 29:29; Psalm 19:7-11; 119; and 2 Timothy 3:15-17. The latter hardly needs to be proven... but it should be discussed.

If you're Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon, or some kinds of Charismatic, you won't agree with the first. It's beyond the scope of this post to reinvent that particular wheel.

As to the second, I've come to see that the Bible is, in a specific sense, a very pragmatic book. That is, it is written with its actual or potential readers in mind. Put negatively, it is not written for the benefit of beings who will never read it.

We tend to lose sight of that fact. A lot of ink has been spilled, and a lot of thought expended, striving after answers to Category 2 questions, questions which are not countenanced as issues in Scripture.

This should upset us less than it does. Candor would force us to admit that we're not doing all that well in dealing with Category 1 answers, which is where we really should invest more energy.

How do I tell whether the question I have, or that I am being asked, is a Category 1 or a Category 2 question? There are at least two fairly straightforward ways to discern one category from the other. Simply pose two counter-questions:
  1. Is your question answered directly in Scripture?
  2. Why do you need to know?
We confuse "need" and "want." When Peter heard the bad news about the death he was going die, he became very uncomfortable. He suddenly found himself very interested in what was going to happen to that kid who always seemed to be hanging around Jesus (John 21:18-21).

Did Peter want to know what John's end would be? Certainly.

Did he need to know? Jesus didn't think so: "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (v. 22). Don't busy yourself with Category 2 questions, Peter; you've got your Category 1 information -- now focus on that!

Perhaps some examples of questions would help. You may not agree with my specifics. With such a sharp bunch of readers, I'm sure you know (or think you know) many answers that I don't. Regardless, I hope you'll profit from the principles.

Start with what should be a softball-question: "What must I do to be saved?"

If your Bible study, and your theology, don't instantly hand you the answer to that question on a shiny platter, there's something wrong with one -- or both.

So apply the test-questions. Is the question answered directly in Scripture? Absolutely: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Why do I need to know? Because I want to be saved!

Okay, all right; that was too easy. Let's take a few others, progressively less easy and more emotionally involving:
  • When cats and dogs die, do they go to Heaven?
  • When infants die, do they go to Heaven?
  • What happens to heathen who never hear of Jesus?
How does the first question stand up to the two tests? Is it answered directly in Scripture? Certainly not in so many words. Some deduce a negative answer from Ecclesiastes 3:21. If so, it certainly isn't an inescapable conclusion. What's more, deducing too much eschatology from Ecclesiastes is a risky proposition. The least one has to admit is that no Scripture lays down a certainly positive answer.

So pose the second question: why do I need to know? Well, honestly, I don't. I'm not a dog or a cat. Until Fido stands up on his hind legs and yelps "Rars, rar rar ra roo ra ra rar'd?", we won't really need to have an answer.

Do I feel that I "need" to know the answer, because Heaven won't really be Heaven if ol' Butchie isn't there? (I actually have seen just such a statement, to my horror.) If so, then I have a serious problem. In fact, the Bible addresses that problem (Exodus 20:3), though it doesn't answer the question I pose.

What about the death of infants? That is a very poignant question to me, personally. I find clues and themes in Scripture that lead me to cherish hope.

But is that question directly answered in Scripture, in so many words? I have to admit that it is not.

Why do I need to know? I have to admit that I, personally, do not. You see, those who die in infancy will by definition never read the Bible. So it does not answer their (unasked) question. Aslan tells me my story; he does not tell me others' -- if the Narnian allusion may be forgiven.

But I do need to know that God will deal mercifully, and justly, and kindly, with such who die. Does the Bible give me reason to trust Him, His ways, His judgments? Do I have cause to trust His dealings with those I've lost? More than abundantly so (Genesis 18:25; Romans 11:33-36, etc.). I know that, when I know all the facts, I will agree from the heart with His judgment and His disposition, and I will praise His justice and His grace with perfect joy (cf. Psalm 16:10; Revelation 21:4).

And what of the last question, concerning "the heathen"?

Let's put this question where we most often find it: on the lips of someone who is trying to feel better about his refusal to bow the knee to Christ. "So," he scoffs, "you're telling me that Joe Hutu Tribesman, who's never been within five miles of a Christian missionary, is going to burn in Hell forever because he hasn't believed in a Jesus he's never even heard of?"

To be honest, in such cases, I skip right to the second question: "Why do you need to know? After all, you are not in that position. You are probably within a five miles of enough Bibles to make a stack taller than you are. You, right now, are talking to someone who can point you to Jesus. Are you really that concerned about the lost? Then what is your plan? Are you going to 'help' them by going to Hell with them?"

Isn't the point fairly self-evident? The Bible has nothing to say to people who will never hear -- because they'll never hear! Do we need to know? No. What do we need to know? We need to know that our business is to go and bring them the Gospel (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 10:13-17). We need to know that Jesus Christ is man's only hope of salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). And those we tell of Him need to know that they have no chance, no prayer, no hope of evasion from Him.

My biggest problem isn't divining answers to the burning Category 2 questions I can dream up. My problem is the Category 1 answers I already have, and am not doing that well in embracing, internalizing, and living out.

Let's learn to minor on speculation, and major on sanctification.

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