It was heartbreaking to watch this elderly man. He could barely move but he was giving every bit of his remaining energy in worship. His sincerity and devotion wasn’t the heartbreaking part—what caused my heart to ache was the object of his worship. He was engaged in passionate worship of a false god.
But here was a guy who was radically dedicated to what he believed was the one true God. And yet he was rejecting Christ and rejecting the Scriptures. This means, according to the Scriptures, that this very sincere worshipper will spend eternity in hell.
That seems so cruel to our modern mind. How could a loving and merciful God send someone to an eternity in hell for passionately worshipping the wrong thing? Isn’t it enough that he is sincere—and that he is at least trying to worship God. So, he got a few facts wrong, should that confine him to an eternity of torment? Folks get lifelines on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. They get saves, copies, and peeks on Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. And these things are just for something temporal like money. You’d think God would be at least as gracious as television executives when it comes to something as significant as eternity.
The problem with this logic, though, is that its not telling the story correctly. Consider this from John Calvin:
For they think any zeal for religion, however preposterous, is sufficient. But they do not realize that true religion ought to be conformed to God’s will as to a universal rule; that God ever remains like himself, and is not a specter or [fantasy] to be transformed according to anyone’s whim. (Institutes, 49)
The above narrative only works if God has not revealed himself to humanity. But he has. It is not as if we are left alone groping to try to figure out God. If this were the case then it would be terribly ungracious of the Lord to condemn people for getting the wrong answer to a question they’d have no way of knowing. But he has revealed himself and in our sin we are zealously rebelling against what he has revealed. Calvin continues:
One can clearly see, too, how superstition mocks God with pretenses while it tries to please him. For, seizing almost solely upon what God has testified to be of no concern to himself, superstition either holds in contempt or openly rejects that which he prescribes and enjoins and pleasing himself. Thus all who set up their own false rites to God worship and adore their own ravings. Unless they had first fashioned a God to match the absurdity of their trifling, they would by no means have dared trifle with God in this way. (Institutes, 49)
What is really taking place in the above narrative, then, is that this sincere man is sincerely engaging in idolatry. He is worshipping a god of his own making. God isn’t confining him to hell for getting a question wrong. Apart from repentance and faith this man will be in hell because he has rebelled from the living God as he has revealed himself.
This is why sincerity is not enough. If I ask my daughter to clean her room and she decides to passionately (and quite sincerely) play with her dolls instead, then am I not justified to consider this rebellion? Am I unloving to discipline her because she was sincerely playing when she should have been working?
If God has revealed Himself (and He has), then our groping around and fashioning idols of our own making as if we are in the dark isn’t some cutesy attempt to please him. It is outright rebellion. Just as my daughter can’t get away with, “I didn’t know” or “I didn’t understand”, so too humanity will be without excuse as we lug the idols we’ve crafted before the mighty throne of God. No matter how dedicated we were to crafting them. “I never knew” will never work.