The Role of the NonBeliever
(A Theology of the NonBeliever)
In conventional evangelical Christian belief, the nonbeliever (or non-Christian) has no role in God's Plan except as potential convert. At the other extreme, in Humanist thought, there is no significant difference between Christian and non-Christian, both having the role of serving humanity to dominate. But under this New View, all human beings have a role in God's Plan, whether they are Christians or not, and even all non-human things do too.
This is tied up with the question of: In what ways is the Bible relevant to those who are neither Christians nor Jews? What we think God expects of the rest of humanity and Creation?
A Tentative Role for the NonBeliever
The service that the nonbeliever renders in God's Plan might be unwitting, but is important nevertheless. While the arrogant or deeply rebellious nonbeliever might have very little role, the ordinary nonbeliever, and the nonbeliever who has some (what might be called) goodwill, might have any number of roles, especially if they are radical thinkers, such as:
- Felling of idols. Each generation or community has its own idolatry, often in the shape of elevating a certain aspect (such as rationality or finance or science). Radical thinkers are often the ones that point this out (even while they don't call it that), and try to knock the idol down. e.g. the anti-globalisation protestors, e.g. Nietzsche, e.g. Hume pointed out that empiricism is not to be seen as absolute.
- Pointing out aspects of reality that have been ignored. Similarly, in each generation some aspects are ignored or suppressed. Radical thinkers often discern what these are and start to draw our attention to them. e.g. those in the Green movement. Some of them might swing the pendulum too far the other way, elevating the suppressed aspect, but at least they have done us the service of opening our eyes.
Radah of God's Creation. If our role as human beings is to manage God's creation for its own sake and blessing, it is often nonbelievers who do this best, or who show the way to do it. All can learn from them.
- Opening up God's creation. e.g. by science and technology. While it was Christian world view that enabled science to really get going from the 1500s or so, much of the good work is done by non-Christians. And this might have eternal significance.
In such ways (and others) we can see that even nonbelievers help in God's plan of bringing blessing to the whole creation. Because even nonbelievers bear some of the image of the God they ignore or deny.
The Theological Problem
This, however, raises the theological question, related to the eternal destiny of such people.
- Most conventional Christian theology asserts that nonbelievers are destined for hell (understood in various ways). But if what (at least some) nonbelievers do or achieve is important in God's eyes, surely it is unjust of God to commit those people to hell. If God even uses what nonbelievers accomplish to further his plan, and then sends such people to hell, is that not fundamentally unjust?
Three ways of escaping this are around:
- Universalism: God sends nobody to hell.
- Extreme Exclusivism: Nothing that nonbelievers accomplish is of any value at all to God.
- Claim ignorance: Since God's ways are higher than ours, our understanding of injustice is flawed.
The New View rejects all three of these. Universalism is rejected, not for theological reasons, but because of Jesus' clear message about the sheep and the goats, and several other passages. Exclusivism is rejected because what nonbelievers do is at least potentially important in God's eyes. The ignorance claim, while it contains a grain of truth, is rejected because NewView believes that, in giving humankind its unique role, God intended humankind to understand him truly even if only partially.
This presents this New View with a problem to sort out. It is perhaps related to what Don Carson calls "the difficult problem of the love of God": if God is love and has the power to save, how can he send people to hell. But the problem here is not the one about the love of God, but more about the justice of God.
(I have recently been made aware by AW of a fourth way of escaping the conundrum: Instead of 'destined for hell', those who reject God are annihilated (I think that was the term used), i.e. unmade. It is by their own choice that this occurs. I don't take this line. It might be slightly better than a hell where people suffer eternally, but it does not really deal with the seeming injustice of a God who uses their contribution but then lets them go. It does not seem to me justice to gain from someone without giving them a reward. However, I suppose if those people reject the reward, then it can still be justice.)
Towards a Theological Solution?
This is still being worked out. That's not code for "we have no idea"; instead, we have some ideas but they still need working out. However, here are a few possible components of a solution:
- Speaking to an evangelical mindset: Might Christ's work be effective for more than just those who accept him as Saviour and Lord?
- Speaking to a Calvinistic mindset: Does the doctrine of predestination of 'the elect' necessarily entail that the rest are predestined to hell? (See discussion of Romans 9-11: A New View of the Doctrine of Election.)
- The Holy Spirit. Maybe there is a difference, conflated in most Roman, evangelical and Calvinistic theology, between those for whom Christ's saving work is effective and those who let the Holy Spirit of God have control in the fullness of their being? Pentecostal thought knows something of this difference, but perhaps the New View takes it further? It is, perhaps the difference between Dimension 1 and Dimension 2 of Salvation - and then Dimension 3.
- Representing God: Maybe there is also a difference between those for whom Christ's saving work is effective and those who truly represent him on earth? Representing God assumes extra importance in New View.
- Speaking to most current and past Christian thought: Does the problem dissolve somewhat if we shift focus away from the individualistic question of who is saved? Can we find a view in theology that, while affirming the importance of each individual, does not make this the central point? See below and also Relatedness.
- Is not God absolutely just? Will not all creation one day see and fully understand (deep down grasp and agree with) his justice? See Justice.
The Difficult Problem of the Love of God
Don Carson's book The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God is an excellent discussion, very clearly laying out the problem of the paradox between God's love and God's wrath against evil. Particularly useful is his separating out of various meanings we attach to 'the love of God', or various aspects thereof.
- God's intra-Trinitarian love
- God's providential love, protecting us
- God's yearning, inviting love that commands us to come to him
- God's electing love, effecting in us the ability to see the glory of Christ's vicarious death so that we can be saved
- God's continuing love, as father for children.
A Calvinistic influence can, of course, be traced here and that list can perhaps satisfy Calvinists about the paradox between God's love and God's justice or wrath. Many non-Calvinists will contest something of that list, and I find it rather tortuous, but it does help us sort out ideas about love.
But the one element of the love of God that is crucial to New View is missing from that list: God's justice is not in paradox with God's love, but is based on, rooted in, arises out of, his love. Because God loves the other-than-me, he requires that I give the other-than-me its full due, and therefore must be angry when I harm the other-than-me, especially when I do so from attitudes of "affluence, arrogance and unconcern" [Ezek. 16:49]. See Justice As Love. That is what dissolves the apparent paradox, not Carson's rather tortuous taxonomy of love. Sadly, Carson is left with his tortuous taxonomy because, it seems, has no inkling about that.
Individualism and Relatedness
Very important to the New View is Relatedness - that all in creation is interconnected. This is why what Christians understand by the Fall matters. Not only is my sin an affront to God but, because of this interconnectedness, it harms the other-than-me, which God loves. In this way, NewView agrees with Christian Relationalism, but perhaps goes further.
Individualism concerns itself only with my affront to God and my own eternal destiny. Relationalism, as I understand it, moves the focus away from the individual to the relationships and community, but seems to focus on the structural aspects of relatedness. New View concerns itself not only with both those, but also with how my/our living and functioning affects all else. Our good functioning brings blessing to the other, and our sin brings harm to the other - all that God loves.
(It does not ignore my/our affront to God, but it sees that as one (important) aspect of good and evil among many others. In this, my thought has been informed by the philosophy of Dooyeweerd especially by his notion of law and how it allows us to address the diversity that is 'shalom'.)
In the New View, the functioning of God's people, representing him and filled with and matured by the Holy Spirit, affects the functioning of the nonbeliever in ways that truly please God. Recognising all this might dissolve the supposed paradox and provide a path towards a new theology of the nonbeliever?
If you can help develop a theology of the nonbeliever with comments, questions or even rants in response to the above, please complete the following and 'submit' it.
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Carson, D.A. (2000). The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God. IVP.
This page, URL= 'http://abxn.org/nv/nonbel.html',
is part of the on-going work in developing a 'New View' in theology and practice that is appropriate to the days that are coming upon us. Comments, queries welcome by emailing
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden to latest date below, but you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Written on the Amiga with Protext in the style of classic HTML.
Created: 2 March 2004.
Last updated: 30 April 2011 major additions: sectioning, the problem, towards a solution, Carson, individualism; I am indebted to Colin Bell for making it necessary to clarify my ideas about the need for a theology of the nonbeliever; new .end,.nav, cmts box. 10 July 2011 AW's comment on destiny of nonbel. 4 October 2020 slight edit of intro; new .end. /nav, bgcolor. 3 December 2020 How Bible relevant to nonbel; changes elsewhere.