Ignorantly entering hell is better than apostasy, 2 Peter 2:21
…if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.
Here is one of those warnings that doesn’t seem like it should need to be there for the person who has raised the hand, walked the aisle, prayed the prayer, and signed the card.
There is a “knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” that can help a person to “escape the defilements of the world.” There is a morality that can come along with a profession of faith in Christ. That’s well exemplified by legalists, by moralists, or even by certain notoriously moral cultists.
Peter’s point is simply this: Those who have gained some measure of understanding of the Gospel, and experienced to a certain degree the life-transforming power of the truths contained in the gospel, but have then abandoned it and returned to a life of drowning in sin, would have been better off never hearing the Gospel in the first place.
The reason why this is true seems to be this: the wrath of God burns far greater against those who have beheld something of the beauty of Christ and the power of the gospel and turned their backs on it. Apostasy is a great and terrible sin. To have tasted of the glories of Christ and then spit them out as though it was a worthless thing is a far more dreadful offense to the Father than those who have perished only rejecting the light of God’s truth revealed generally through the conscience or creation.
Hebrews 6 speaks of the impossibility to renew an apostate to repentance. I think of that graphic picture Bunyan painted of the man in the iron cage, (for text and some interesting insight, see here) and certainly avoiding that condition of despair would qualify as a reason that outright ignorance is better than apostasy, but I’m not sure that’s what Peter has in mind here, though it’s not an exegetical hill I’d die on.
Here’s another angle on the same idea, this time from the lips of our Savior, and probably closer to what Peter has in mind. Jesus said this in Matthew 11:23-24, “…You, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.”
I think in most conservative evangelical churches, especially considering the nature of the current culture, Sodom is probably viewed as the greatest stench in the nostrils of a holy God. Men miraculously struck blind but still groping for a door so they can invade a house and rape two other men is a level of debauchery that, at least a decade or two ago, would have seemed almost surreal even to modern eyes. But there is another town whose judgment will burn hotter than the fires which fell from heaven on Sodom, and that’s the town of Capernaum. Better to be a citizen of Sodom and burnt to a crisp for a level of almost unthinkable wickedness, than to be a citizen of Capernaum, having seen the miracles of Jesus with your own eyes and turned your back on Him.
Apostasy is, it would seem, worse than the sin of homosexuality. For all the precautions and thinking done in trying to learn how to handle the inevitable pressures of this popular sin in and around the church, I wonder if we have learned to fear the apostates among us – both for their sake, for the judgment they are under, and for the sake of our own souls and the souls of others in the church, for whom apostasy would result in a far worse judgment that befell Sodom itself.
Fire and brimstone falling and destroying a city is, at the end of the day, God killing people in short order that were going to die, from the perspective of looking back 3 and a half millennia, in a relatively short amount of time anyway. It is not the fires that fell on Sodom that we should fear. It is the fires of the day of judgment that we should fear. And just because God doesn’t scorch apostates in the same manner he destroyed Sodom, we shouldn’t conclude therefore that Sodom is more repugnant to God than those who have apparently embraced the gospel, only to turn away from it.
It’s almost impossible for me to read Jesus’ statement that if Sodom had been exposed to the things Capernaum had been exposed to in the way of Jesus’ teaching and miracles, the town would exist to this day, without at least asking the question: Well, why didn’t you expose Sodom to those things then? Apparently, had God seen fit to send Sodom a prophet, they would have responded, repented, and avoided judgment, much like Nineveh. God just didn’t choose to do so, for reasons that Jesus doesn’t elaborate upon. He doesn’t owe us the explanation, and consequently, He doesn’t give it.
Sodom had no prophet, had no warning. Lot’s soul was vexed, but I don’t think we can necessarily conclude that he vexed the souls and stirred the consciences of the Sodomites. Apostates have sat under the ministry of the men of God and laid their eyes upon the word of God. And at the end of the day, it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.
The doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints indeed has something to say in this context: those who are genuinely born again will not turn their backs on the gospel. But that’s not to say this warning has no merit: indeed, warnings such as these which are directed toward professing believers (and not, in this case, to those living in a Sodomesque lifestyle) are indeed one of the many tools in the satchel of the Holy Spirit to preserve the true believer. Let those of us who name the name of Christ “make our calling and election sure.” Let those of us struggling to resist the incredibly powerful allure of the flesh, world, and devil, take heed to our souls, for we are, potentially, in a position whereby we may incur upon ourselves a worse judgment than those lived a far more wicked life than we could ever imagine for ourselves, but who never knew the way of righteousness.