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.
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.