Types of ignorance
It would seem that ignorance is of two broad types:
- 1) Not knowing or being aware of something, not having the information
- 2) Deliberate suppression of knowledge or not obtaining knowledge because of an attitude of indifference, intolerance or opposition.
These two kinds of ignorance incur two different responses from God.
This is how the apostles spoke to those who were outside of the Covenant: “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth [Creation as witness to God]. He does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. [Addressing the idol/temple worship of those to whom they were speaking]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; [Adamic Covenant] and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring. Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone – an image made by human design and skill. [Countering idol worship] In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17 v 24 – 31).
In the past, God overlooked such ignorance. God is forbearing and patient. In the past, Abraham and others had faith in God. They did not have faith in Jesus. They were ignorant of Jesus, Jesus had not yet been revealed. But God overlooks such ignorance and their faith in God was counted as righteousness. Ignorance then can be absence of knowledge – not ignoring, avoidance or suppression of knowledge – but the information has simply not been to hand. God overlooks such ignorance. Thus we read: ‘a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervour and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately’ (Acts 18 v 24 – 26). And again: ‘Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, ‘Did you receive the Spirit when you believed?’
They answered, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’
So Paul asked, ‘Then what baptism did you receive?’
‘John’s baptism,’ they replied.
Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’ On hearing this, they were baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 19 v 1 – 5). In other words Paul explained baptism ‘more adequately’, more completely, more perfectly, in a fuller way. Neither Apollos nor the disciples at Ephesus were condemned because of their ignorance. Their hearts were in the right place, they were sensitive to God and His purposes – but they were unaware of certain information, they lacked certain aspects of teaching, they were ignorant of some aspects of doctrine – they had a degree of ignorance. So this ignorance did not incur God’s wrath, but rather matters were explained to them more completely and more adequately.
But it is those people who are ignorant because they have a hard heart that incur God’s anger. The people in this group are wilfully ignorant. They have some knowledge but they choose to ignore it, to be indifferent to it or to oppose it and insist on going their own way. They conform to the mistaken desires that arise within them. Thus: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from the spiritual realm of heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them’ (Romans 1 v 18).
Implications for outreach and evangelism
There is a vitally important principle here in terms of those people who have not heard the gospel – who are ignorant of the gospel. They have the universal testimony of creation and providence that declares to them the invisible qualities of God. Also, despite humanity’s fall into disobedience, they have in their very nature and constitution something remaining of their creation in the ‘image of God’. Thus: ‘when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. [Adamic and Noahic Covenants]. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them’ (Romans 2 v 14, 15). The Covenant with Abraham, later further embellished through Moses and David, is an embellishment of the Adamic and Noahic Covenants. These Covenants do not terminate the earlier Covenants that God made with Adam and Noah, nor render them out of date. The requirements of God’s Law – the details of which were subsequently explicitly stated under the Covenant with Moses at Sinai – are contained within the earlier Covenants that God made with Adam and Noah: Covenants that were made with all of humanity and which remain in force today. But more than this, the requirements of the law are written into the very nature and constitution of every human being. In their very physical constitution, despite the fall into disobedience, human beings have an instinctual sense of the requirements of the God’s law. Their conscience bears witness to what they do and say – sometimes accusing them and sometimes excusing and defending them.
The Covenants require faith in God – a dedicated, obedient trust in God – and this is reckoned or counted as righteousness. It is quite possible for someone to have faith in God despite having never heard the gospel or heard about Jesus. Abel had faith in God. Noah had faith in God. Abram had faith in God. They did not have faith in Jesus as we would understand it. They may have believed that in some way God would restore His creation and fallen humanity, and they may have obediently trusted God in these matters – even though they were ignorant of how God’s plan would be put into effect. Just because a person has not heard the good news of the Messiah it does not mean that God therefore condemns them. God overlooks such ignorance. The gospel explains God’s plan more adequately, more completely, more perfectly. Thus, if a person hears this gospel and then rejects it, then what hope remains for them?
The primary goal in outreach/evangelism was to declare this good news – to declare God’s method of reconciliation and restoration more adequately and completely -especially to Jews and to religious minded people. The purpose was to declare that God’s plan for His Kingdom had been successfully inaugurated, secured and guaranteed through Jesus. The primary aim was not to ‘get people in’ or to count the number of favourable responses. On the other hand, if people do not hear the message of the gospel, then even if they seek to be godly and to trust God, they are at a disadvantage because they are still in relative ignorance concerning God’s Kingdom plan. Once the gospel message was declared however, the apostles and evangelists had no time for those people who rejected it. The testimony had been given. Those people who opposed it or argued against it were walked away from, and those who merely wanted to enter into a theoretical debate on theology and philosophy were not engaged with. The apostles and evangelists sought a response of repentance and obedient trust in Jesus.