CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

What About Those Who Have Not Heard?

Jan 24, 2007

A recent comment on this website raised a number of related issues about God’s fairness and justice concerning those who have not heard the gospel, or are unlikely to have heard it. I mentioned to that person the many good questions that had been raised in this comment, and that it deserved a fuller response. Thus this article.

The first point raised by the commentator was that many people in the world may not hear the gospel message. The person makes this claim: “God has been willing to entrust such an important message about their eternal wellbeing into the hands of flawed and prejudiced humans. It seems to me that God is willing to sacrifice not just the lives but the eternal lives of countless innocent people. This is where the logic falls down for me and I am unable to accept the apparent immorality of this unfair discrimination.”

She is right to some extent in her first sentence. We fallen and finite humans who have become followers of Jesus are entrusted with a huge responsibility, and we carry a great burden. It is our job to communicate the good news to those who have not yet heard it. And often we fail in this important task.

But she ignores the tremendous amount of work that God has already undertaken in this regard. The sending of his son, and the costly sacrifice he made has already been accomplished. In a sense all that is left is for believers to circulate this good news far and wide. The fact that many believers fail to do this does not minimise nor take away from the vital work already performed by God on our behalf.

It is like a super billionaire (say several million Bill Gates’s rolled into one) who makes an incredible offer. He says he will personally pay off the financial debts of every man, woman and child on the planet. One simply has to accept the offer. Thus those who have already benefited from this tremendous opportunity simply need to tell others who have not yet heard about it. The overwhelming bulk of the work has already been performed by the wealthy benefactor.

(Of course this analogy is far from perfect, as Jesus not only died a painful death to pay the full penalty of our sins, but he in fact became sin for us. A totally innocent and sinless being took all of our sin upon himself, suffering the penalty that we deserved. Thus while the grace of God may be free, it is certainly not cheap. It comes at an enormous price.)

But her point is still valid. Many believers are not going out into the whole world and sharing the good news. That is unfortunate and inexcusable, but the story does not end there. The truth is, God is bigger than our shortcomings. He is not constrained or limited by his fallen but redeemed sons and daughters. He is quite able to break through into people’s lives, often directly. Saul seemed to have been directly reached by God without human intermediaries, on the road to Damascus. Of course seeds may have been planted along the way, since Saul persecuted other Christians and would have heard snippets of the gospel before his own dramatic conversion. So God is not at the mercy of his imperfect representatives.

But yes, the norm is for God’s people to get on with the job of sharing the good news with everyone. And it is also true that Scripture makes it quite plain that those who genuinely seek for God will find him. Consider just a few such promises found in Scripture: “And you will seek me, and find me, when you search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13). “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

A remark by Bertrand Russell comes to mind here. He was once asked the question of what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him. Russell replied: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.”

That raises a further important point. What theologians call general and special revelation needs to be addressed here. By special revelation we mean the way God has revealed himself in special ways, as in Scripture, and in the person and work of Jesus Christ. By general revelation we mean a more generic revelation of who God is and what he is like. Conscience and creation are two such types. We see God’s handiwork in creation, and we all have a conscience, a sense of right and wrong, which Paul in Romans 1 and 2 argues makes us without excuse. God’s laws are written in our hearts, and despite the effects of the fall, we still all have some sense of right and wrong, and so are guilty before God. And the created order also testifies to the fact that a creator God exists.

So God has been more than generous to us in terms of revealing himself. General revelation makes all men guilty and without excuse. Special revelation seals our fate, if you will. What we do with God’s word and his son will determine where we spend eternity.

Thus there really is no discrimination with God. He reveals himself to all people, and it is up to us how we will respond. If people like Russell choose to ignore and suppress the evidence for God’s existence, that is their choice. Or atheists like Dawkins can go on all they like about how so much of the universe appears to be designed, but is not in fact designed. Everywhere we look we see so much evidence of intelligent design, yet Dawkins can only reply that it just looks that way. It appears to be carefully designed but it really isn’t, he insists. It just seems that way.

I am sorry, but I simply do not have enough faith to be an atheist. They have to deny so much reality and come up with such bizarre and fanciful faith-filled claims to deny God’s existence, that the Christian explanation seems much more plausible, sensible and reasonable.

Unfair Advantage?

The commentator goes on to offer more concerns. She says that it is unfair for a child to be raised in a Christian home, with all the benefits of receiving the gospel which that entails, compared to someone raised in a non-Christian home where it is hard to hear the gospel. She says there are the rare cases of, say, a Muslim converting to Christianity, against the odds, but it is the “exception to the rule”. She says, “the Christian-born Christian required a relatively tiny amount of effort to use his free will for God’s intended purposes compared with the Muslim-Christian convert who had to fight an almost impossible uphill battle to choose the right path.”

Yes and no. There are unfortunately perhaps millions of people raised in “ideal” circumstances (e.g., a Christian home or a Christian nation) who either never embrace the faith, or embrace it, only to reject it later on. The truth is, no matter what circumstances one is born into, one can still make choices about how one responds to the gospel. And while a person born in a Christian land and a Christian home may have less obstacles to sort through, they still have in one sense as much difficulty as anyone else.

That is, we are all born with an orientation or predisposition to reject God and serve self. We are all born with inclination to sin and self. Thus there are no “innocent” people as my commentator said earlier. The real issue is, the genuine seeker will find the truth, no matter what circumstance he or she is born into.

(Now I realise in all this there are theological debates that can be raised, i.e., the Calvinist/Arminian debate. For our purposes I do not wish to enter into that discussion here.)

And as to Muslim converts, yes it is difficult since in many Muslim nations those who seek to leave Islam are regarded as apostates and death is the sure penalty. Yet despite these severe constraints, we are aware of countless stories of Muslims finding Christ, and often not through direct contact with Christian missionaries. Numerous stories are told of how Christ has appeared to Muslims in dreams or visions, and many have become believers as a result.

My commentator also expresses her concerns that some people might be doomed to hell because God’s ambassadors do such a poor job of sharing the gospel. But my points expressed above still stand. In one sense, God sends no one to hell. We all decide what our eternal destiny will be. As C. S. Lewis has remarked, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”

In conclusion, the real heart of the issue is this. While it may be a genuine question to ask about the fate of those who have never heard the gospel message, those who are reading this have heard the gospel message. The real question is, what will they do with this message? Will they receive it or reject it? If they really are concerned about the fate of those who have not yet heard, they should first embrace the gospel message themselves, and then go out with that message to them.

[1594 words]

15 Responses to What About Those Who Have Not Heard?

  • Bill

    Nice work with this essay. You may also want to consider Acts 17:26-28 where Paul addresses the Areopagus. Here he is speaking to the pagan intellectuals of the day and he assures them that God;

    “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring’.

    So God has preordained to place every people group in positions where they have the chance to ‘grope for Him’, either through general revelation or missionary contact or whatever.

    Some have even pointed out the fact that Job came to look for God just from the general revelation he had around him. Notice he doesn’t have scripture to access.

    I can’t help but think that God knows each one of us intimately and thus knows how much light would be suitable to draw us to the kingdom. Too much light for those that do not want God can be a bad thing as well. It makes them so much more accountable for their evil that they will be given extra punishment at judgement.

    Damien Spillane

  • Bill,
    To an outsider, this seems a very unjust philosophy. You appear to have no position whatsoever on those who lived before Christ, or on those who have never heard of God, e.g. indigenous populations througout history. You’ve also provided a very superficial treatment of the question of how your God treats Muslims, Jews, Hindus etc., who by an accident of cultural upbringing, worship different gods, but are otherwise goodly people.

    Damien,
    Why do believers cast all non-believers as “evil”? Take Fred Hollows for example – a person who devoted his life to helping millions of disadvantaged people but was not able to accept that there was any evidence of God. Does your theology really assert that such a person is condemned to hell?

    Bronwyn Kingsley, Brisbane

  • Bronwen, I thought his mention of dreams and visions appearing to those who truly seek God addressed those issues?

    Well done Bill on drafting an article on this subject without going into denominationalism 🙂

    Something that has always interested me: atheism is learned. People seem to be born with a predisposition towards believing in some kind of God; disbelief tends to be a learned thing. I think this should be mentioned whenever atheists bring up the “Christian predisposition” thing. Also, it is interesting that when people stop believing in Santa, they simply stop believing, whereas when people stop believing in God, many take the time to tell Him about it!

    Amanda Fairweather

  • Amanda, you say “atheism is learned. People seem to be born with a predisposition towards believing in some kind of God; disbelief tends to be a learned thing”

    I would agree that atheism is mostly learned however people are not “born with a predisposition” to believe in a God. It is a direct result of their upbringing and surroundings. Many atheists are usually those that despite their probable Christian upbringing are able to rationalise and see outside of the cocoon of their surroundings and make their own determinations of what is real and what is not real.
    Marius Wytenburg

  • Can I throw some thoughts into the mix?

    From what I can see one of the main parts of God’s ultimate plan is to have a family. This family is to be made up of (for want of a better terminology) those who are found in the body of Christ. Of course becoming a follower of Christ can only ever be a voluntary and conscious decision be each individual. If we take the Bible at it’s word where it says that the will of God is that ALL should be saved (but most wont be) then I think is safe to assume that out of all the possible universes that God ‘could have’ created, this is the one where the MOST people would freely choose to follow him. It ‘might’ be the case that those who have never heard of Christ would never have repented anyway? I’m pretty sure it’s also the case that all those who cry out for truth will be heard and answered by God (I have enough anecdotal evidence to be convinced of this).

    The other thing to note is that maybe we humans are not as ‘special’ as we like to think we are and that God is only concerned with those who are a part of the Church (not the visible Church). of course as we cannot not tell who they are and in fact the Bible forbids us to even speculate on the subject we should treat all people equally regardless of race, religion and sexual orientation.

    And while Bill mentioned the Churches failure to communicate the Gospel to those around us it should also be noted that we are to be ‘living letters’, or in other words stop talking and start walking. This discrepancy in the lives of Christians who speak a thing and yet live a completely different thing is the main objection to ‘Christianity’ that I ever hear. Of course living it means understanding it but then since the Bible has been replaced with ‘The Purpose Driven Life’, ‘Experiencing God’ and inward nudges and feelings what hope do we have?

    Cheers, Paul Wilson

  • Amanda said:

    “Something that has always interested me: atheism is learned. People seem to be born with a predisposition towards believing in some kind of God; disbelief tends to be a learned thing”

    I have read a lot of things on this site, but this would have to be *the* most ludicrous. How on earth does one even measure that people are born with such a predisposition?

    Chris Mayer

  • Bronwyn, as a Christian I struggled with the question ‘what about those before Jesus?’ as well and then I discovered Hebrews chapter 11. There, many of the ‘ancients’ are commended for their faith (By faith Abel…, by faith Enoch…by faith Noah…by faith Abraham….by faith Moses….by faith Rahab…by faith Barak, Jephthah, Samson etc). In 11:26 Moses by faith ‘regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward’. Moses and all these others didn’t know about Christ’s death on the cross (11:39), but they were commended for their faith. They focused their faith on God and his promises – that is why 11:26 can say ‘disgrace for the sake of Christ – because this is what it ultimately was’. Jesus is the ultimate fulfilment of God’s promises to them. Christ’s death in payment for sin covers those who earnestly sought/seek God [Yahweh]. And its effectiveness is not bound by time.
    Catharine Carpenter

  • Thanks Catharine

    Yes Bronwyn should know these things, as she admits to a Christian upbringing. Christ’s atoning death is of course retroactive, even though the Old Testament believers had a different object of faith, based on earlier revelations of God. All people will be judged on the light they have, or the revelation they receive. As Hebrews 1:1-2 puts it, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

    As I have mentioned before, those who are really concerned about those who have not heard should respond to the light that they now have, and then pass it on to others, instead of using such concerns as an excuse to reject the knowledge they now have of Christ, and his work on their behalf.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Chris

    It seems that belief in God, or longing for the transcendent, or desire for the supernatural, is a universal trait amongst humans. It appears in most, if not all, human cultures throughout history. The most likely and rational explanation for this universal longing for the transcendent is that there is something indeed which transcends mere physical existence.

    As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

    Of course reductionists (atheists, philosophical naturalists, etc.) have to come up with all kinds of convoluted and distorted theories to try to explain away this universal experience. Thus Dean Hamer writes a book in 2004 entitled The God Gene and says we are hardwired to believe. Of course there is no God, but we all have a god gene in us nonetheless. Presumably then there is also an atheist gene as well. And this by the same fellow who earlier tried to convince us that there is a gay gene.

    Sorry, but I just don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. They have to come up with such weird and exotic theorising, which any Joe Six-pack can see is patent nonsense.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill.

    Chris, sorry, it was more of a personal observation than an absolute fact (it may be true or it may not be, but I don’t have the data to absolutely support it). I have travelled quite a bit and I’m yet to meet someone who has never had any belief in a religious deity. That’s what I find so interesting about atheism- from what I have observed, it is a learned thing.

    (BTW Chris, I’ve heard many atheists argue that “people are religious just because they were raised in religious homes or brainwashed”- regardless of the number of devout atheists who turned to theism later in life. I guess you just read my comment the same way that I read that absurd idea.)

    Amanda Fairweather

  • What part of the Great Commission do we not understand? It is quite simple! Jesus said “GO,” and that is our job! So there are still people that haven’t heard the gospel- GO to them with it and tell them the good news. Arguing about theology doesn’t win souls for the Kingdom. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ” When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We must die to ourselves and choose to live the harder life- the life set apart for God- a life carrying the cross and doing His will rather than arguing theology. We must give up our comfort in this temporal life and forsake the familiar. We must declare to the world that Jesus saves!

    The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood,
    but the speech of the upright rescues them.
    Proverbs 12:6

    Your brother in Christ,
    Derek Royer – Oklahoma

  • It is not necessary to be an atheist to have problems with this line of questioning – it is simply rational. I have discovered from Christians I have spoken to, and from other research, that there is no satisfactory answer for this question from the Christian community, or any other religious community.

    Many Christians simply look at it as a minor point which can be mulled over when they have a moment. This is because they already have a faith in their religion. The problem for many people who do not find Christianity a satisfactory explanation is that from a logical point of view the destination (heaven/hell) of persons who have never heard of Christianity is a defining point. Certainly for me – it simply prevents me from having such a belief.

    The explanation that God expects us to spread the word as a reason for the vast swathes of the human race that do not adhere to Christianity is a nonsense, although it is clear that people want to believe it. It cannot be right that a loving and rational god wished a person in 300AD in Antioch to traverse the oceans, find South America and persuade its inhabitants that Christ existed so that their souls could be saved. By the time he had invented the technology to do so, 1200 years had passed and how many people had lived and died? Does that make sense as a rational argument – of course not.

    Other explanations I have encountered revolve around a general revelation of god or an adherence to a moral code. Neither of these are satisfactory, as if they are true, then based on the inability of humans to transfer/interpret the same information to each other, then even in communities with big Christian sections God could logically be expected to judge non-Christians on the basis of their moral code.

    I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation and continue to wait…

    Simon Baggs

  • Thanks Simon

    But it just seems that you are not satisfied with the answers offered, not that no satisfactory answers exist. I have dealt with these issues in my article, so won’t repeat myself here. Other points could be offered, such as: God may well know how a person would have responded to the Gospel had he or she heard it, so he can judge a person on that basis. Also, God will judge people according to the light that they have, not what they don’t have.

    Paul makes it clear in Romans 1&2 that there is enough information and evidence available as to God’s existence, but we choose to reject it. And it is clear from Scripture that those who sincerely seek for God will indeed find him. He responds to diligent seekers, not casual inquirers.

    I and millions of others believe that the Christian worldview offers a fully rational and reasonable explanation of things. The question is, how does your worldview stack up?

    And as I said in the article, it can be asked whether people who raise such concerns are genuinely interested in the fate of those who have not heard, or are simply using it as a convenient excuse. The truth is, you have heard the gospel (both here and elsewhere). So the real question is this: what are you going to do with it? Will you reject the message of the gospel, or accept it? The choice is yours.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Matthew 5:3-10 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    Matthew 25:40 “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

    Proverbs 19:17 He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.

    Proverbs 14:31 He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

    The Jesus I worship expresses concern for those “who don’t know what they are doing” and he will be judge of their fate – not you or I. In fact the more knowledge we have the more we are accountable for. But also the more knowledge we have of God and his ways the more like him we can become as he can save us from the empty way of life lived by those in this perverse and selfish world.
    Peace, Tom Donlon
    Hagerstown, MD

  • “A remark by Bertrand Russell comes to mind here. He was once asked the question of what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him. Russell replied: ‘I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence’.”

    Peter Kreeft speaks on this very topic beginning with Russell’s remark. Well worth listening to Kreeft in this short, 6 min. video:

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