“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” ESV
This is a very revealing passage of Scripture. Jesus made it clear that Tyre and Sidon would have repented of their sins if the same mighty works done in Chorazin and Bethsaida were done in them….”sitting in sackcloth and ashes.”
That means that if Tyre and Sidon had the same opportunity to witness the same miracles of God that Chorazin and Bethsaida had witnessed, they would have repented of their sins, and the implication is, they would have turned to God in faith. Repentance here is clearly a decision of the free will (freed will) based on opportunity.
People are to respond to God according to the light that is given to them. This passage indicates that people respond to various levels of light. Some people respond to very little light, while with others it takes a lot more light. In the case of Tyre and Sidon, they apparently didn’t respond to the light that was given to them, and everyone is accountable to respond to whatever light God provides. Since they didn’t respond to the light that was given to them, they were not given more. For example, “mighty works” were not done in them.
I think this passage poses a serious problem for Calvinism. Think about what Jesus said here: “would have repented.” According to Calvinists, repentance can only be granted by God via regeneration, and that, by unconditional election. So with that in mind, let’s consider this passage with their theology in mind:
God would have chosen the people of Tyre and Sidon for salvation, and regenerated them, if they had seen the mighty works that Chorazin and Bethsaida had seen, but since they did not see those mighty works, God did not choose them.
Does that sound like unconditional election? I don’t think so.
Does it not make better sense to conclude that man has a free will, and that he responds to the gospel message according to that free will (as the Holy Spirit frees or enables the will so that he’s free to believe)? Does it not make better sense to conclude that not everyone has the same opportunities or the same degree of light? I believe it does. Does that understanding not motivate us to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ with a sense of urgency? Is that not the understanding and urgency that the Apostle Paul expressed in the following passage?:
“13 For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 14 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our report?” 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” NKJV (Ro 10:13-17)
When you conclude that man has a free will to choose Christ or to reject Him, and that people come to Christ through opportunities to hear the gospel message, understanding about many things then come into view.
For example, it would explain why so many people come to know Christ who grow up in Christian homes. They grow up hearing the message of Christ and the Word of God taught week after week and year after year. It would also explain why so few people come to know Christ who grow up in Muslim homes in Muslim countries (many do come to faith in Christ, but the percentage is very low). One can easily see how a child could come to know Christ in a Christian environment, and why this same child may not if he or she grew up on a Muslim environment.
Think of the teenager who grows up in poverty, with drug-addict parents, and ends up dying in a gang fight. Think of how much different it would have been for this kid if he had grown up in a loving, Christian home. Think of the millions of tribal people in Africa who have died without Christ over the thousands of years of history, and how many have come to Christ since missionaries arrived in those same places? Think of the number of people who have come to know Christ in America as compared to the number of people who have come to know Christ in Muslim countries.
It seems really clear that it’s about free will and opportunities. It’s about our faithfulness to get the message of Jesus Christ out to a very needy world.
Calvinists may argue that the repentance Jesus referred to regarding Tyre and Sidon was not about salvation, but simply a turning away from sin. What Jesus says elsewhere suggests otherwise:
“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” ESV (Luke 11:32)
The people of Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonah.” Not only did they turn from their sins, but they turned to God in faith. How do we know that? Because Jesus said that they would “rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it.” I don’t believe condemned sinners will rise up in judgment against other condemned sinners. There is no biblical basis for that idea. On the contrary, Paul tells us that “the saints will judge the world.” (1 Cor 6:2).
Thus we see that there’s no credibility to that argument.
Other Things We Learn From This Passage
“But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”
This statement reveals that there are different degrees of punishment, and that God punishes according to what’s deserved. Here we see that since God knew that they would have repented if the same “mighty works” had been done in them, He will punish them with that in mind. That’s the mercy and justice of God.
I believe this reveals that God will judge people according to what He knows they would have done if they had been in certain situations. He knows how people would have responded if they had been allowed the same opportunities as others. We don’t know to what extent God will use this kind of knowledge, but it’s clear from this passage that He will use it as a means of judgment. While hell is a horrible place, I believe this passage suggests that those who would have turned to faith in Christ in different situations, will be shown great mercy.
I think this answers the question:
“Does God know what people will do, or what they would have done, in different situations?”
Of course! Since God is all-knowing, He would obviously know such things. End of argument.
Addressing a Concern
I understand that people may wonder why God doesn’t put people in the types of situations that He knows they will respond to. They may view that as being unfair. While we don’t have all the answers, it’s important to keep in mind that God gives light to everyone. It’s up to each one of us to respond to the light that is given to us. If people respond to that initial light, then more light will be given. But if they don’t, then God will not necessarily give them more light. Though I think He may if He sees fit.
Again, this reveals that God operates within the framework of man’s free will. No one ever goes into everlasting punishment who doesn’t deserve it. Jesus died for all, and salvation is available to all who hear the message of Christ. Jesus is drawing everyone in the world to Himself (John 12:32). He’s drawing us through creation, through our conscience (Ro 2:15,16), and through the Word of God. Whatever light is given to us, whatever truth is revealed to us, we are responsible for responding to it.