One of the most difficult questions for Christians to answer, especially when posed by adherents of other religions, is the question of what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus? In this post, I will explain how progress in the field of philosophy of religion has given us a possible (and Biblical) solution to this thorny question.
First, Christianity teaches that humans are in a natural state of rebellion against God. We don’t want to know about him, and we don’t want him to have any say in what we are doing. We just want to appropriate all the gifts he’s given us, do whatever we want with them, and then have eternal bliss after we die. We want to do whatever we want and then be forgiven, later.
Along comes Jesus, who, through his sinless life and his death on the cross, heals that rift of rebellion between an all-good God and rebellious man. Now we have a real understanding of the fact that God is real, that he has power over death, and that he has very specific ideas on what we should be doing. If we accept Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and follow his teachings, we can avoid the penalty of our rebellion.
The only problem is that in order to appropriate that free gift of reconciliation, people need to actually know about Jesus. And there are some people in the world who have not even heard of him. Is it fair that these other people will be sent to eternal separation from God, just because they happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Enter William Lane Craig to save the day. His solution is that God orders the world in such a way that anyone who would freely choose to acknowledge Jesus and appropriate his teachings in their decision-making will be given eternal life. God knows in advance who would respond, and chooses their time and place of birth, and he supplies them with the amount of evidence they need.
And this agrees with what the Bible teaches. The apostle Paul says this in his apologetic on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31:
22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.
23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘ N D ‘ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands;
25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;
26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,
27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;
28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’
29 “Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent,
31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
In this research paper, Craig explains in detail how God foreknows how people will choose in every set of circumstances, and how God uses that knowledge to get everyone where they need to be without violating their free will. God wants the best for everybody, and has ordered to whole universe in order to give each of us our best opportunity for eternal life.
Here is a summary of the what is in his paper:
The conviction of the New Testament writers was that there is no salvation apart from Jesus. This orthodox doctrine is widely rejected today because God’s condemnation of persons in other world religions seems incompatible with various attributes of God.
Analysis reveals the real problem to involve certain counterfactuals of freedom, e.g., why did not God create a world in which all people would freely believe in Christ and be saved? Such questions presuppose that God possesses middle knowledge. But it can be shown that no inconsistency exists between God’s having middle knowledge and certain persons’ being damned; on the contrary, it can be positively shown that these two notions are compatible.
Go read this paper and equip yourself to answer this common question!
And now I want to close by making a general point. There are two kinds of people in the world. The first kind encounters problems, like the hiddenness of God, or the problem of evil, the problem of Cookie monster objections (thanks, Truthbomb!), or religious pluralism, and they respond by leveraging that problem in order to justify rejecting God and going their own way.
Even uninformed Christians read books like “The Da Vinci Code”, and avoid the arguments and evidence that would defeat the objections raised by that book. Why? They want to be lazy, or to fit in, or to pursue pleasure apart from God. This is because if we don’t know that God is real for certain then we won’t feel rationally compelled to be good. And that’s why many Christians go out of their way not to find out the truth about these thorny problems.
And doubts also relieve us of the burden of evangelizing. Uninformed Christians know that their doubts give them freedom to keep silent about God, so they can get along with non-Christians. They think that keeping the truth about God to themselves, and not being ready and available to answer questions, is loving. But it’s really just selfishness. It doesn’t help non-Christians to keep the truth from them.
So why do some Christians hide the truth from others? It’s because they really do not believe that God will exclude people based on their beliefs about Him, even though Jesus says so in many places. Deep down, we believe that God’s purpose for humans is to be happy. When Christians don’t try to find answers to difficult questions like religious pluralism, they end up softening the Bible’s exclusive claims based on their emotions.
This is not what ambassadors are supposed to do – we are not free to make up our own doctrines and then lie to people in order to be happy and popular.
The second group is willing to spend time and effort to assess whether science, history, philosophy, etc. support Christianity. This kind of person is willing to go where the evidence leads. They don’t jump on doubts and use them to justify disobedience. They are willing to be public (i.e. – “divisive”) about their faith and put God first, above worldly goals, like popularity.
The whole point of life is for God to draw people to himself in a two-way relationship. He reveals himself a little, and we respond and pursue him. How about you? Do you want to know for certain whether God is real? Are you willing to give up everything to follow him? Or would you rather he just keep out of your busy life and your subjective purposes in the world?
UPDATE: A related post over at Tough Questions Answered on whether Jesus is required to be rightly related to God and to get eternal life.