It might be the best-known Bible story next to Noah’s Ark. Who doesn’t know about Jonah and the whale? Many people are even familiar enough with the details to know about Jonah’s resistance to preaching in Nineveh. But who remembers what happened to Nineveh?
Bible scholars and Sunday school teachers will be quick to reply, “They repented and God didn’t destroy the city.” And this is certainly true. But then what? They lived out their lives and they all died, just as Hebrews 9:27 says all men must do, and “then comes judgment…”
So how will God judge Nineveh? He sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of judgment, and the whole city received him. They turned away from their wickedness and violence. They changed morally. But was this enough to escape from the lake of fire?
Many would say, “Absolutely not! Galatians 2:16 says that ‘a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus.’” And who could argue with that? The Bible does not say that Jonah preached Jesus to the Ninevites. It certainly doesn’t say that they joined Israel or made sacrifices at the temple. So if they did not have faith in Jesus or in the sacrificial system that represented Him, then what became of them?
We know for sure that they will not “go to heaven.” They will not be part of the Holy City in Revelation 21 and 22, the twelve tribes of Israel. They were not grafted in to the faith of Abraham. In fact, not many years after the people of Nineveh repented, their country attacked and conquered Israel, carrying ten tribes into a captivity from which they never returned. But will the Ninevites who repented go to “hell” — to the eternal lake of fire?
Here again many would say, “Absolutely!” For there is no question in their mind that the only alternative to faith in Jesus is eternal damnation. They surely turned from sin and did right, but that still would not satisfy “God’s righteousness,” as it is commonly understood. For no matter how noble a person is or how moral his actions, no one can meet the exacting standard of God, which only the blood of Jesus can satisfy. And so, they say, this leaves even the best of men damned forever and ever because they can never be righteous enough to keep God from roasting them alive eternally in His “righteousness.”
But this poses a very puzzling question. If the Ninevites did not hear the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, and if they were not called to be a part of Israel, then why did God bother sending Jonah to them? What good did it do for them to turn from their wickedness and avoid the destruction of their city when they would still spend eternity in “hell”?
Why does the book of Jonah quote God as saying, “And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”1 So should he have compassion on those outside of his chosen people or not? Jonah told God, “I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”2 Would He have compassion on those outside His Old Covenant people, but not on those outside His New Covenant people? Would He be gracious to them during this life, only to torment them endlessly during the next?
What did the Son of God mean when He said, “The men of Nineveh shall stand up with this generation at the judgment, and shall condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here”? Will they condemn the Jews of that generation, only to be condemned themselves by God?
The book of Jonah does say that the people of Nineveh “believed in God,”3 but this means that they believed Jonah’s message that they would be judged for their wickedness and violence. The response that the Bible records is that they “turned from their wicked way.” That’s all. They were people outside the Covenant who feared God and responded to the call to live according to their conscience.
So what will become of the people of Nineveh? How would you judge them if you were “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness”? How would you judge a non-Christian who lived a moral life, and treated others the way he wanted others to treat him.4 How would you treat him, if you were God?