A woman was convinced of the truth of the gospel but would not accept it for herself. The main obstacle to her embracing the Christian faith was the fate of her late mother:
‘If Jesus is the only way to eternal life in the presence of God, then I will have to live with the dreadful thought that my mother, who died a Buddhist, is now lost forever and I will never be with her again if I become a Christian. This is a truth too awful and painful for me to accept.’
This is a story that sounds familiar to many East Asians.
For many East Asians, the dreadful fate of those who die without Christ means that one will be eternally separated from non-believing family and ancestors if they choose to follow Jesus.
While this is true for all of us, it is especially significant for East Asians because this belief implies one must choose between personal salvation or duty to love and respect parents and ancestors. Many have chosen to reject the offer for personal salvation through Christ for the sake of their deceased loved ones, even when they may be convinced of its truth. This reason for rejecting the gospel can seem perplexing to some of us, but as we consider the cultural and religious values that undergird this decision, we begin to appreciate the predicament.
Understanding Filial Devotion
Life and reality are approached collectivistically in the majority world. Often the interests of the self are subsumed to those of the group, and decisions are made based on what’s best for the community rather than for the individual. So a decision for personal salvation that solely concerns the individual will be perceived as not only self-centred, but also against the norm of putting the interest of the community before the individual. Such a decision is perceived as even more disgraceful when the community in question is one’s family or parents.
Viewed through the lens of an East Asian culture, this decision violates the cardinal expectation of filial piety. Even though this moral imperative to respect and love our parents exists in all cultures, filial devotion is exceptionally central in East Asian cultures. Confucianism, which has markedly influenced the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, taught that filial piety is the greatest of virtues, and failing to discharge that is tantamount to disowning one’s parents.
This duty and allegiance to our parents and ancestors is an unconditional obligation to be fulfilled toward both the living and the dead. For our deceased elders, we are supposed to perform certain rituals to ensure their well-being in the afterlife. Meanwhile our duty to parents or elders who are still living would be to prioritize their interests and desires over our own. Hence, if one’s parents are opposed to our conversion, then we should comply with their wishes. We should also always strive to be able to love and serve them. But should we become Christians while our parents have passed on without the opportunity to hear the gospel, it would imply that we have deserted them in hell. Therein lies the dilemma—to become a Christian or to be unfilial.
Theological Considerations: What Not to Say
Many who desire to see more East Asians becoming followers of Jesus long to find a way to resolve this dilemma. There’s no simple or easy way to address this missiological conundrum, but we may want to avoid the following two assertions.
1. Avoid stressing the absolute certainty that those who die without hearing the gospel are in hell, on the basis that Scripture is clear that judgement comes after death (Heb 9:27) and that those who are in Christ will not be condemned (Rom 8:1-2).
God is the only one with the prerogative to judge and has the knowledge of our fate. It would be highly presumptuous if we declare with absolute authority that those who have not articulated their belief in Christ when they died are eternally lost, because we often do not know if a person has persisted in rejection of Christ till his or her last breath. In fact, the realization of impending death often causes someone to recall the gospel previously shared with them and come to a point of genuine repentance. Hence in many instances, we only have probable but not absolute knowledge of deceased non-believers’ fates.
2. Avoid saying that those who did not get the chance to hear the gospel and/or believe in Jesus in this life will get a second chance after death. Nothing in Scripture supports this belief. Instead, stories like the rich man and Lazarus affirm that no one can cross from hell to heaven after they have died (Luke 16:24-26). Hebrews 9:27 is also clear that judgment comes after death. Furthermore, Scripture says nothing about the final judgment as dependent on anything done after we die, but only on what has happened in this life (Matt 25:31-46, Rom 2:5-10).
The idea that there should be a second chance to accept Jesus after death assumes that everyone is entitled to a chance to accept Christ and that eternal punishment only comes to those who consciously decide to reject him. However, no one deserves God’s acceptance, and it is only for the grace of God that we are offered that in Christ. The belief of eternal punishment is certainly difficult for us to accept, but Scripture is clear on it. It should be an impetus for us to urgently share the gospel.
Engaging within Context
Rather than maintaining either of these two views, we can navigate this missiological predicament by holding firmly to what has been revealed to us about God: he is a good and merciful God who out of his love for sinners and his desire to see them return to him, sacrificed his Son to take the penalty of our sins. In his grace, he gives us the freedom and opportunity in our present life to choose life with him (2 Peter 3:9). As the sovereign God, he is the only one who knows our heart and he is the only one who has the prerogative to judge who deserves eternal punishment.
As the late apologist Norman Geisler aptly puts it, ‘For God in his wisdom and goodness would not allow anyone to go to hell whom he knew would go to heaven if he gave them more opportunity.’ Therefore, we can be sure that even as we love our parents, God loves them even more. He in his omniscience would have reached out to them.
We also need to highlight that Scripture has a very positive posture towards ancestors—they are remembered, honoured, and respected. Jesus’ detailed genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew gives us a glimpse of how his ancestors were not ignored. In fact, Ancient Near Eastern cultures share a lot of similarities with East Asian cultures— having a proper reverence for our parents, elders, and ancestors is one of them. So, in view of this, we are not expected to abandon our elders once we become followers of Jesus. On the contrary, we are expected to honour God by honouring our parents.
Even as we seek ways to address this concern of our East Asian friends, we must recognize that no two persons are the same. We must contextualize our presentation of the gospel. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit in cooperation with the non-believer. Our call is merely to be obedient and faithful in witnessing to the good news of Jesus. Whenever we have an interreligious conversation, it always occurs in contexts influenced by culture, religious beliefs, personal history, and associations of the past, as well as present realities. As such, we must pay attention to those things and learn about the cultural roadblocks that are in the way, so that our friends may embrace the Christian faith as their own. Then we ought to seek to articulate the gospel in terms that are relevant and significant to them existentially.
As we present the truth of the gospel to people from another culture, we are essentially stating that not all they have believed and known about life and reality is true. We are offering them life in Christ, but it entails them having to abandon some of their values and beliefs to conform to this newly presented truth. This is a significant and complex decision to make, which is not just about their ultimate fate, but one that will greatly impact their social and cultural identity and all of their lives, even long after they say the sinner’s prayer.
- I’Ching Thomas, Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing (Singapore: Graceworks, 2018), 51.
- Daniel J. McCoy, ed., The Popular Handbook of World Religions (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2021), 50.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 815.
- Grudem, Systematic Theology, 822-823.
- Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 313.
- Editor’s note: See article by D.J. Oden, entitled ‘Keys to Contextualized Church Planting in Thailand’ in the November 2020 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2020-11/keys-to-contextualized-church-planting-in-thailand.
I'Ching Thomas, Lausanne Co-Regional Director for South East Asia, has been a communications consultant, a missionary in the Middle East with Operation Mobilisation (OM) and, an apologist and Director of Training for an international apologetics ministry. Presently she leads the theological and missiological reflection division in OM International. She speaks at universities, churches, and conferences regularly. Her book, Jesus: The Path to Human Flourishing, explores the commonalities between the gospel and Confucius’ ideal of human flourishing. She is the co-creator of CantoSense, a video podcast on contextualization and cultural redemption for the cultural Chinese.