A person who was reading a 1988 Grace in Focus article on our website entitled, “The Gospel Is Unhindered,” asked a great question. Though he is convinced that God is fair and impartial, he wondered how God could give some more revelation about the message of life than others. He wrote:
In Matthew 11:23 Jesus is talking and rebuking various people for their unbelief, and He says, “For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day.” Although God clearly knew these people would have repented given sufficient revelation, He did not give them the opportunity, but rather destroyed them. If God knew that people would come to know Him, given that they had received a greater degree of revelation, how can it then be said that He is impartial? It seems that by withholding divine revelation from some who would accept it, and yet not from others would be, by definition, partiality. Perhaps there is something wrong with my understanding of impartiality.
God Knows Every Possibility of What
Could Have Happened
Matthew 11:23 shows a neat facet of omniscience. Notice that the Lord shows here that He knows what would have happened if there had been a different set of circumstances in Sodom. The Lord isn’t just guessing here. He can see not only everything that has ever happened or will ever happen, but also every possible thing which could have happened. That blows my mind.
The Lord Gives Different People
Different Amounts of Light
The Lord is indeed saying that if He had done these same miracles in Sodom—which He clearly chose not to do at that time—then the city of Sodom would have repented (like the Ninevites did when Jonah proclaimed judgment). The implication is that there would have been an ongoing city of Sodom which would have remained until the time of Christ.
The Lord is showing that He gives different people different amounts of light. Some people, like the people of Capernaum whom the Lord Jesus was rebuking in Matt 11:23, witnessed amazing miracles that gave overwhelming evidence that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Others, like those in Sodom, never met Jesus and saw very few, if any, miracles.
As an aside, I should note that even the Sodomites were given some miracles and were given a chance to repent. You will recall in Genesis 19 that the men of Sodom were trying to seize and attack the men visiting Lot. What did the visitors do? They struck the men blind (Gen 19:11). That was an amazing miracle. It should have led those men to fall on their knees and pray and seek forgiveness. They should have put on sackcloth and ashes like the men of Nineveh did later. Not only did the visitors strike the men blind, but in addition, the amazing visitors (actually angels) hindered them from finding the door at all (Gen 19:11). Even blind men should have been able to feel their way to the door and force their way in. But God, through these angels, didn’t allow even that, though it appears the men of Sodom tried.
In light of the Lord’s willingness to haggle with Abraham (Gen 18:22-33), as well as the mercy that He showed to the wicked Ninevites when they repented (Jonah 3-4), it seems highly likely that the Lord here was giving those in Sodom one last chance to repent. That they did not take it sealed their death sentence.
It seems to me the reader has failed to mention a key point from Matt 11:23-24. Verse 24 goes on to say, “But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” That means at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15) the degree of punishment meted out to people will be in great part determined by how much light, or revelation, they had received in this life. Unbelievers who received more revelation will receive more eternal torment. In my view this text implies that the lake of fire, though a place of unending everlasting torment, will be tolerable suffering for all. That it will be more tolerable for some than for others suggests that it will be tolerable for all, and that the issue is one of degree.
After all, the Lord could have said, “It will not be tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, nor will be it be tolerable for you in that day.” But He did not.
So in a sense, receiving less light is actually a mercy if the Lord knows that the ones who could have received more light would have rejected it anyway.
It should be noted that the Lord does not say that those in Sodom would have come to faith in Him and hence would have been born again. What He said is that they would have repented. This implies that the city would have continued to exist. That is, the people would have lived on. There is a difference between the survival of a city and the regeneration of the people in that city. We do not know how many, if any, of those in Sodom and of their potential descendants would have come to faith.
It Is Fair of God to Give Some People
More Information Than Others
To be partial in Scripture (e.g., Rom 2:11, which you cite) means to judge someone differently than someone else doing exactly the same things. God doesn’t do that. He has poured and does pour His wrath on both Jews and Gentiles depending on how they live. That is the point of Rom 1:18-32 as well as Rom 2:1–3:20.
It is “partiality,” in a sense, on God’s part to choose to give more light to the Jews living in Israel at the time of Christ than He did to previous generations of Jews or Gentiles. That is part of His sovereign choice. But it is not partial in the sense that the resulting judgment differed.
God the Father sent the Lord Jesus “when the fullness of time had come” (Gal 4:4). That doesn’t mean that people before that time were slighted. They were not. Nor does it mean that we who were not privileged to see and hear the Lord have been slighted. There has always been plenty of evidence to lead people to cry out to God, and any who do that will ultimately hear about the Lord Jesus and His promise of life (cf. Acts 10:1-35; 16:9-10, 14).
In my view if the Lord gave everyone an experience like Saul had on the Damascus road, then most people would come to faith in Christ. That is, if everyone saw the risen Lord Jesus Christ and spoke with Him, I think that most would come to faith in Him. Certainly many more would come to faith than do without that.
But the Lord is not obligated to appear to people. They have plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that Jesus is the Messiah who guarantees eternal life to all who believe in Him. And for those who do not have the Scriptures, there is plenty of evidence in nature itself that God exists. And if a person cries out to God, then God will bring him the Scriptures and the message of life.
God doesn’t draw everyone equally, but He does draw everyone (John 12:32). Those in Capernaum were drawn more than those in Sodom (Matt 11:23), and Saul was drawn more than those in Capernaum (1 Tim 1:13-16); probably more than anyone in human history other than Adam and Eve, Abraham, and maybe the two witnesses at the start of the Tribulation.
The range of possibilities is mind boggling. Let me give you two examples I’ve thought of.
Jim lived his whole life in the Bible Belt. His dad was a pastor of a Bible church. Jim was home schooled by his godly mother. Both Mom and Dad shared the message of everlasting life with him from the time he could talk until the day they went to be with the Lord. They tried to get him to go to a Christian college, but he refused. Instead, Jim went to a secular school and majored in philosophy. He became a professor and for decades his students would evangelize him. Jim died at age 80 as an unbeliever, never having come to faith in Christ though he had literally tens of thousands of opportunities to do so.
Khan grew up in Pakistan. His entire family had been Muslims for as long as anyone knew. Though he heard the name of Jesus and had even heard that He supposedly died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead, Khan had never heard the message that those who believe in Him have everlasting life. One day, when Khan was nearing retirement, a friend at work, who also had grown up in a Muslim home and whom Khan thought was a Muslim, started talking to him about Jesus. He shared the message of John 3:16 with him. Khan came to faith through this one brief encounter.
Jim is like Judas, in my opinion. Who had more drawing and more light than Judas? Yet he did not come to faith in Jesus.
Khan is like the woman at the well. She has but one chance encounter and she comes to faith in Christ. While she did meet the Lord face to face, He did not perform a sign in her presence. If she had not come to faith that day, she might well have died before the message of life reached Sychar again.
The possibilities, of course, are endless. The number of times a person is evangelized varies. The clarity of the evangelism he receives also is quite variable. How long a person lives impacts how long he has to believe. Whether he lives in a Christian land is a major variable. Were missionaries present? Did he have believing parents? Did he have strong influences motivating him to disbelieve (like atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions that are antithetical to Christianity)? Was his education a help or a hindrance in terms of coming to faith in Christ? How many people were praying for him to come to faith? Did he live before or after the cross? Did he live before or after the invention of the printing press? Did he live before or after the invention of the radio, television, and the internet? Did he have the Bible in his own language?
God doesn’t force anyone to believe. He doesn’t believe for us. He doesn’t give anyone faith. God makes the message of life available to all. Everyone is capable of coming to faith. Why some do and others do not is between the individual and God. But no one will be able to legitimately say, “Lord, I never had a chance to come to faith in You.” (Those who die before being able to believe and those who are mentally unable to believe will not be condemned. My guess is that they live out their normal lives during the Millennium and either come to faith in Christ or not. But possibly they are simply regenerated and glorified. Either way, no one who never had an opportunity to come to faith in Christ will be sent to the lake of fire.)
I think God gave me plenty of opportunities to come to faith in Christ. Yet as I look back on my life, I also had plenty of opportunities to be led astray and to stay that way. Actually I was led astray. I was in a works salvation group from ages 6 through 20. At age 20 a friend from the group invited me to a Campus Crusade for Christ meeting. If I had not gone to that meeting, I quite likely would have continued in the works salvation group to this day.
At the Crusade meeting I heard a message that was not clearly Free Grace. But it was a far cry from works salvation. My interest was piqued. I ended up contacting the Crusade group at my campus to talk with someone about assurance. After five or six sessions with CCC staffer Warren Wilke, I came to faith in Christ. Warren kept stressing Eph 2:8-9 and the gift of God which was not of works, lest anyone should boast.
I imagine my experience is fairly average for an American. Probably half the people who are alive today in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico received less information about Jesus and the message of life than I did before I came to faith. And probably half received more. But in terms of the entire world, however, I imagine that my experience is in the 80th percentile. I imagine eight out of ten people alive today have received less information about Jesus and the message of life than I did before I came to faith.
But whatever the actual percentages are, there are people who have come to faith from lands where 99% of the people are Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists. As Paul said in Acts 17:27, anyone who searches for God will find Him. God is a rewarder of all who diligently seek Him (Heb 11:6). Paul’s Macedonian vision shows that God will bring the message of life to anyone who is crying out to Him for help (Acts 16:9-10).
So I don’t know why God gives more information to some than to others. But I do know that He is fair in all that He does.