The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Is ignorance an excuse?

Jonah has got to be among the worst Bible stories for children, but it is one of the most ubiquitous, right up there with Noah's ark. One of my son's Bible story books concludes the story with an outright lie: "The people of Nineveh worshiped God and Jonah was happy." Jonah was actually very angry and bitter at the conclusion of the story. But the story is so compelling for children's publishers that they whitewash or simply omit the final chapter.

The final chapter does end on a somewhat uplifting note, because God gets the last word. Jonah is sulking about Nineveh not being destroyed (and the loss of his shade plant), but God replies:

“You were upset about this little plant . . . Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!” \~ NET

The phrase "who do not know right from wrong" is a translation of a Hebrew idiom which is "who do not know their left hand from their right." The implication of interpreting the idiom in this way is that the people of the city were morally ignorant (lacking any special revelation) and therefore not subject to punishment.

However in Romans Paul presents an indictment for those who do not know their left hands from their right:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse. \~ NET

If I understand these passages correctly, my question for the systematic theologian is as follows: does ignorance of special revelation qualify as an excuse from divine judgement? Perhaps I am misinterpreting one of these passages or have presented a false comparison. Suggestions are welcome.

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