If I Was Born In 1859, I Would Be Dead. If I Was Born In North Korea, Would I Go To Hell?

OperatingTheater_1050x700(Credit: JSTOR Daily)

I have stage 2x Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The x means the cancerous tumor in my body is considered “bulky.”

Per my doctor’s prescribed course of treatment, I will undergo 4-6 months of chemotherapy, followed by a month of radiation. If all goes to plan, at the end of my treatment I will walk away from all of this cancer free and go on to live an otherwise normal life.

It’s nothing short of a miracle because, you see, the curing of my cancer is really just an accident.

I mean no disrespect to my doctors or nurses or the researchers who developed my cure, but the fact that I get to walk away from a disease that has taken the lives of so many is ultimately an accident of my birth.

I was born in 1983 in the United States to a middle class family. 33 years later, still living a middle class life in the first world, I was diagnosed with stage 2x Hodgkin’s lymphoma and became the beneficiary of good insurance and medical advances I had no hand in developing that will do nothing less that save my life.

Had I, instead, been born in 1859, I would be dead.

Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, without treatment the cancer would spread to other parts of my body and/or the tumor would continue to grow, continue to press on my esophagus until I could no long eat or breathe and I would die.

It wouldn’t be my fault.

It would just be the accident of my birth, an accident of when I was born and under circumstances that didn’t allow for even the possibility of a cure.

Even if I had been born into great wealth and privilege in 1859, it would still about 33 more years until two innovative physicians applied a newfangled technology known as x-rays to enlarged lymph nodes in Hodgkin’s patients and witnessed significant reduction in their size. And even then, it would be another half century before more advancements in radiation treatments for advance cases of Hodgkin’s were seen and decades still until those types of cases were cured.

My medical salvation, therefore, comes down to an accident of birth.

Had I not been born at the particular place and time in history that I was, if I had been more a century or so earlier, I would be dead by no fault of my own and there is absolutely nothing I could do about it no matter how many coffee enemas or kale smoothies I tried.

But what about my spiritual salvation?

What if I had still been born in 1983, but in Pyongyang, North Korea instead of Nashville, TN?

What if I had been born totally cut-off from the outside world in a land where Christianity is not only illegal, but for all intents and purposes non-existent, instead of right in the buckle of the Bible Belt?

And what if I died there, never having travelled outside my homeland, never hearing about Jesus, and never being told I had to repent of my sins and accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior?

It wouldn’t be my fault because I had no choice in where I was born or what opportunities my circumstances allowed.

So, would I go to hell?

If I would, it sure seems like a particularly cruel accident of birth.

Now, I’m sure this will come as a massive shock, but cancer has a way of changing your perspective on things, life and eternity in particular.

One thing that’s really struck me is how profound a role chance plays in our lives. (And before you yell at me in the comments section about how chance doesn’t existent and everything is pre-ordained by God, allow me to direct you to my previous post or this one to see what I think of that sort of theology.)

I’ve said all along that I consider myself incredibly lucky. Not lucky that I have cancer, but lucky that I have the curable form of cancer I do and even luckier to have an amazing support system around me. I fully, 100% believe God has had a hand in all of that, bringing good out of a terrible situation (terribleness which, again, I do not believe God caused).

But in my gratefulness, I wonder about those who aren’t so lucky, at least not according to the standards I grew up with in the Bible Belt.

According to the theology I grew up with, the only path to salvation and, therefore, the only way to get into heaven was to kneel at an altar (or pray where you stood), confess your sins, and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.

No profession, no heaven.

This, of course, always led to awkward conversations in Sunday School about all of the people in the Bible who came before Jesus. The Bible sure seemed to imply they were going to heaven and yet they never said the Sinner’s Prayer like we did. So, what gives?

Sure, the Sunday School teachers usually had handy supersessionist explanations ready to explain away that particular conundrum, but when it came to non-Jewish, post-Jesus folks who never heard of Jesus, things usually stayed in the awkward stage or just got more awkward if some smart-ass teenager like me brought up the issue of cultural isolation and the justice of God.

You know, like how I’m doing in this post right now by asking whether or not a just and loving God sends people to hell who live in such cultural isolation that the fully guaranteed evangelical Bible Belt path to heaven isn’t really an option simply by virtue of the accident of their birth.

Are those people really damned forever?

And if so, what does that say about God?

And if not, what does that say about our understanding of salvation?

Maybe it’s just the cancer talking, but it seems to me we place a great deal of weight on things like the accident of our birth that are both out of our control and more powerful than we can imagine.

It’s easy to divide up who goes where in eternity based on who’s professed what and who hasn’t and I think that’s part of the appeal of that particular brand of theology. But I’ve got to think a truly just and loving God isn’t quite so lazy or simplistic. Maybe, just maybe, God is more interested in how we live our lives than what we profess with our lips.

I get that idea from lots of places in scripture – like the entire ministry of Jesus, for example – but a few places in particular stick out. In the Old Testament, for example, there are weird places like in the book of Isaiah in which even Israel’s greatest enemies – Egypt and Assyria – seem to be welcomed into the family of God despite not going through the requisite rituals.

Then there’s Jesus himself saying, ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And, of course, we shouldn’t forget the one moment in all of the gospels wherein Jesus describes exactly how he’ll separate the sheep and the goats and it’s not based on profession or theology but on how we treated the least of theses. Then there’s some of the last words Jesus ever told his disciples and, well, they may throw the biggest wrench in our obsession with conversion = heaven, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Notice what Jesus says there?

It’s “go and makes disciples,” not “go and make converts.”

It’s “go and make a better people,” not “go and see how many people you can get (or force) to agree with you.”

Better people make for a better world, converts just create more division and salvation is about the making of a better creation, not a more divided one.

Of course, that doesn’t negate our call to go and preach the good news, but it should call our attention to how much more concerned Jesus seems to be with how we live than what we believe.

So much so that even though we profess the “right” things, we may not enter the kingdom of heaven.

So much so that even though we profess Jesus as Lord, Lord it may not keep us from being goats if we didn’t care for the least of these.

So much so that even our enemies may end up among God’s people instead of us if we think we’ve already secured our place in heaven because we’re “chosen” and believe all the right things.

All that to say, as I sit here in a chair receiving my third dose of chemotherapy and thank God for the gift of an accidental birth that will allow me to go on living and see my kids grow up, I can’t help but wonder if maybe I should thank God for the love and grace I’ll never “need” because I was born in the “right” place and at the “right” time.

And while I’m at it, even if we never meet and never actually live next door to each other, maybe I should seek my neighbor’s forgiveness for damning them to hell because I didn’t realize just how incredible and expansive and surprising and working in ways and places I can’t even imagine the world changing, soul saving love and grace of God really is.


  • Nicholas Smale
    June 2, 2016

    Great article. To further stir the pot, I’d like to suggest that this line of reasoning also comes from the western culture of individualism.
    For a mind experiment, imagine there’s a murderer. This person finds someone who openly rejects God and kills them subsequently sending them to hell. Later, the murderer find someone who hasn’t heard about God and does the same. It’s a bit harder to swallow the repercussions second time around.
    To make it even more difficult, imagine that instead of murder, I simply turn people away with my actions as a Christian or spread ideas contrary to the Bible thus turning people away. Am I responsible for their eternal future? What about those who live on(eg their children)? Am I responsible for misinformation which gets passed on to future generations?
    Back to North Korea, we like to place blame for a negative eternal future. Who’s fault is it? Did someone a long time ago make one or more choices which then decided the futures of many?

  • Eric Verbovszky
    June 2, 2016

    Zack, first of all, please know that I’m praying for your recovery. Thanks for the article. I think you raise some good questions. However, I’d like to engage with you critically on a few points.

    You discuss the time and location of birth as an “accident”; if the time and place of birth is an “accident”, it also implies that there could have been an original “on purpose” that somehow mistakenly deviated, creating an “accident.” There was a negative deviated from an original positive. With the idea of “accident”, there is also the underlying idea that my life could have been someone else’s life with the circumstances of another time and place of birth. It’s faulty reasoning—clearly then that person just wouldn’t be me; that person would be another person altogether and I, as I know myself, would just never had existed in the first place to even compare to. To judge time and place of birth as either “accident” or “on purpose” is to say that these two circumstances, in and of themselves, are either negative or positive. Where and when we are born in is history is neither “accident” nor “on-purpose”; they are a-moral circumstances.

    I understand that you’re using this as a figure of speech to show that we don’t have control over the time and place of birth, as well as to create empathy, but I think it is a faulty premise to state time and location of birth as an “accident.”

    I’d also like to critically challenge you on how we understand the lives of people who have never had the opportunity to hear Christ’s gospel. I believe God to be just, and as such, he will judge accordingly the hearts and minds of people who have not been made aware of Christ’s gospel and how they have responded to whatever truth they have discerned about God, or whatever truth God has revealed to them. This is the idea of prevenient grace, which I know you are aware of as a fellow Wesleyan; it is the understanding of a characteristic of God’s grace being that it goes ahead of, or goes before, preparing hearts for God’s truth. And though many may have not heard the culmination of that truth in Jesus, I have no doubt that God will at some point, perhaps even at the resurrection, give opportunity for those people to accept or deny Christ. Another point to raise, which may cause you to rethink your hypothesis, are the numerous visions, dreams, miracles and signs attributed to Jesus being reported in places where, by geopolitical standards, Christ’s gospel has been kept out of. As a result, even after Christ’s death and resurrection, for those who have not heard Christ’s gospel, there is still more to it then salvation by works.

    Finally, I’m not doubting or arguing against the reality that it is important how we live; how Christians live should reflect Christ and should reflect faith in Christ. However, the way you’ve stated this particular sentiment and in the context of the article almost sounds Pelagian. To make a disciple is to make someone who believes with their heart, mind, body, and soul in Jesus Christ. What someone believes about Christ in their mind actually is important; if they truly believe it, it will also affect how they live. By definition, making disciples will also produce converts. People who once believed one thing and now believe another have converted their faith. Don’t miss the rest of the Great Commission. Making disciples is not about making better people (people and disciples screw up all the time, and there are a lot of good, moral people who make the world a better place who don’t believe in Jesus, as well a lot of humble people who screw up quite a bit, yet who are on their knees praying every night for Jesus’ forgiveness); it is about making followers of Jesus Christ. People won’t follow him if they don’t believe in him. They wouldn’t have been baptized in his name if they didn’t love, believe, and profess him.

    Salvation by faith is made abundantly clear in scripture and the gospels; and though our works are an outpouring of our faith, it is not by works that salvation comes but purely by God’s grace. Even the most hardened criminal, who may have made the world a living hell, yet who repents sincerely and comes to a realization of Christ’s truth and love will know salvation because of God’s grace, even if that is moments before his or her death. Still, through Christians’ changed lives and the way Christians live, due to our faith, God’s kingdom is reflected into this present age, and as a result, the world becomes a better place.

    I understand the points you’ve made and I see where you’re coming from; however, I wouldn’t agree with some of them. Thanks for reading the comment, and again, I pray for a full recovery for you.

  • Lucinda Miller
    June 3, 2016

    Something I’ve thought about a lot and come to some of the same conclusions. I know that Christ is not a formula, and God is not limited by time and place. Although the Word clearly teaches that sin separates us from God, it is also easy to see in the reading that God is BIG and his grace and mercy and goodness beyond our understanding. We with our small minds tend to think in formulas and boundaries and to make God as limited as we are. I do not know how all will be judged in the end, but I know that God is just and merciful and good. If He sees every sparrow fall, He surely cares for every human heart.

  • Tim
    June 8, 2016

    If you were born in North Korea, you’d BE in hell. 😉

  • chimichanga
    June 10, 2016

    I’m going to hell for sure under many Christian’s rules (and other religions) but bless you for full recovery. This is perhaps the most hopeful place on the webs. It was a happy accident coming here. Stay strong, Zack! You’ll be fine. 🙂

  • myfullemptynest
    August 5, 2016

    God also says our ways are not his ways, we see through a glass darkly, etc. So to proclaim to know who’s ultimately in or out is crazy. We cannot know fully how God works. We must let him out of our box. Blessings Zack for full health in the not too far future.

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