Q: Hold on…are you saying that God condemns people simply because they’ve never heard that Jesus died for their sins? That seems unfair…
A: OK – The complaint that lies behind this question is that God is unfair condemning someone because they have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. So it is a moral complaint?
Q: Yes, obviously. You’re point being..?
Q: Oh, right, you want to argue that God made the moral rules. We can discuss that later. At the minute can you just answer my question? Wouldn’t it be completely irrational for God to condemn people for being born in a country where they couldn’t hear about Jesus?
A: People aren’t condemned because they’ve never heard of Jesus; they’re judged because they broke God’s law. God doesn’t judge anyone by a standard they are unaware of. Everyone who is aware of the difference between right and wrong does wrong – and has to take responsibility for that.
Q: But if they haven’t heard of God, how can they be condemned for rejecting God?
A: We’re certainly aware of his rules! I don’t need to know the origin of the moral code to know that it is a code I should follow. Romans 2 and 1 Cor 5 teach that we have a knowledge of a moral law. So we knowingly reject what God stands for.
Moreover, there is enough evidence in the world, and in our consciences, for us to know that there is a creator who we are responsible to. So we should know that we need to repent. To receive forgiveness, a person need only call out to a merciful creator for mercy. God won’t cast out anyone who comes to him.
A: Are you saying that only people smart enough to work out that God exists can be saved?
Q: No, not at all. I don’t think that God expects the individual to “deduce” that he exists, then “work out” how to respond to him. He can reveal himself through religious experiences. He can give a person a sense that they are created, and a sense that they need forgiven. Then they need only depend on God to forgive them.
Q: And are you saying that all religions lead to God?
A: No, not at all. For one thing, only a direct encounter with God can reveal God to you. For another, you can’t hear about Jesus, reject his message, pursue another religion and then expect him to enter into a saving relationship with you. Finally, it’s total trust in a saving God that leads to healing and forgiveness. A religion which teaches that we are a part of God, or that God is not personal, or that we can please God through good deeds, can’t show you a way back to him. They obscure God rather than reveal Him.
Q: Isn’t that a very arrogant thing to say?
A: Less arrogant than saying that I am part of God, or more personal than God, or that I can be good enough to meet a Holy God on my own merits? I doubt it. Our only hope is to put our trust in a perfect God; because the Son of God became one of us to die for us, God can forgive us.
A: So the Cross wasn’t necessary?
Q: No. God can only forgive wrongdoing and remain just because his son paid the price of our wrongdoing. But a person need not be aware of the atonement to benefit from it. After all, no-one in the Old Testament could have predicted that God’s son would die for them. Their faith was in God.
Q: So why do so few believe?
A: The knowledge of God demands humility. If we are not ready to accept that a personal God exists; and we if will not choose to develop the necessary humility that would bring us to that point, then the lack of knowledge would be our fault, not God’s. God has given us all the information that we need.
We need not expect the knowledge of God to descend on a person all at once. It might take time; it might be a process. And we might walk away from that process at any time. Say we become aware of design, and the “goodness” of nature. But then we realise that we don’t want to be accountable to a personal God. At that stage we might stop “listening” to what God has to say. Generally, people resist the presence of God in conscience and creation – so it takes the direct message of the Gospel to wake us up.
For further reading on “accessibilism” – the idea that the unevangelised have enough knowledge to respond to God in repentance – see Paul Helm “Are They Few That Be Saved?” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell (ed. Nigel Cameron) Paternoster: 1992