“I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’” – Annie Dillard, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
This complaint refers to the justice of a God who would punish people for not believing in a God they’ve never heard about. The Bible echoes the sentiment in Paul’s plaintive preaching: “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?” (Rom. 10:14), and speaks often about the importance of evangelizing, most notably in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20). The Christian idea of God demands that He is perfectly just, so the idea that people would be condemned without having a chance to believe seems at odds with His professed character. Before facing this challenge, it is important to dispense with the notion of universalism.
The claim of universalists is that all people are saved (although they often exclude the really bad ones, like Hitler and Nero). However, this doesn’t satisfy our longing for justice, either. If all are saved then there are some really nasty people who enjoy the same fate as some really decent ones. But if only some are saved, then a line is drawn – regardless of how high or low – below which one’s deeds, temperament, karma, caste, or general douchebaggery deny the right to paradise. Whenever a line is drawn, then by necessity there are some who exist right above or below the line, where a solitary act of minimal significance determines their eternal status. Either way, we have a sense that there should be some set of requirements, even if we can’t pinpoint what they should be. Universalism denies us the very thing it promises to provide: justice without judgment. It certainly offers nothing in response to the objection.
Here are a few responses, however, that do:
1) I’ll begin with one sure to cause some eyes to roll: Who are these people who’ve never heard? I would not claim that there are no such people, but the very description requires that we cannot discover whether they have ever heard or not. By merely asking whether someone has heard of Christ (or been reached by Him), we are exposing them to at least basic knowledge of His existence. Of course, the great missional endeavors of the various churches are based on the fact that there are unreached people groups. But are they unreached by Christians or unreached by Christ? There is vast anecdotal evidence of people coming to a knowledge of Christ without hearing the Gospel from Christians (although they typically seek out a Christian to find more information). The point here is only that there can be no report from those who’ve never heard, and so their testimony on the subject is silent.
2) The Bible is very clear that all people will be given the opportunity to accept or deny God’s salvation. For example:
“[W]hat may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:19-20 (NKJV)
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” – Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)
This indicates that there are none who will be condemned without the knowledge or opportunity to be saved. (This includes those without the prerequisites of accountability, such as children or the mentally handicapped.) While most of us have access to the direct (special) revelation of God in the Bible, all people in all times have the general revelation of nature. While the Bible clearly states that we can only be saved through Christ, the inclusion of Old Testament figures such as Elijah, Moses, and Abraham among those in Heaven demonstrate that we might not have the full picture of how we can be saved through Christ. And then there is Job, who was a Gentile with no indication of interaction with the Hebrew culture or people.
3) In response to Annie Dillard’s account of the Eskimo above, we could look at #1 and ask, “What is the point of evangelizing if God will get to everyone eventually anyway?” The mistake here is the assumption that salvation is the sole purpose of our existence. I see no basis for such a conclusion. As an old pastor of mine once articulated: “If salvation was the sole aim of evangelism, the most prudent thing would be to drown the convert in the baptismal pool.”
There is so much to the Christian life beyond mere (!) salvation. First, our lives are meant to glorify God, and the greater portion of our lives that is dedicated to His service, the more glory that is produced. I understand that this harkens to another objection about God’s “need” for glory, so I’ll move to the more pragmatic (selfish?) response: there is great joy, peace, comfort, and understanding that comes from a walk with Christ. The sooner we come to know Him, the more fruitful and wonderful our lives will be. I don’t witness to others only to save them for Heaven, but to make their lives better on Earth, as well. Finally, if Christianity is true, then an evangelized soul will immediately begin making the current world better, which is good for everyone involved. It is only out of rebellion that we desire to live in ignorance, with the idea that we’ll be saved on our own merit in lieu of the knowledge of God (more on this here).
Of course, the Biblical record indicates that we are the hands and feet of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-18). As such, we are asked to do His work here on Earth (by His choice, rather than necessity). As usual, C.S. Lewis puts it poignantly:
“[I]f you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. Every addition to that body enables Him to do more. If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them. Cutting off a man’s fingers would be an odd way of getting him to do more work.”
4) If people are truly condemned because they simply don’t know, then we have a premise we regularly accept in our daily lives. The 14th Amendment provides that, within certain bounds, ignorance of the law is not an excuse to violate said law. There is little debate over the justice involved in this concept, and when the “law” in question is perfect – as would be the commandment of an omniscient and omnibenevolent Creator – there should be even less. Of course, I don’t believe there is any justification for the idea that this is the situation in any case, and Scripture is replete with references to the law that is “written on our hearts” (Jer. 31:33, Rom. 2:15, Heb 10:16).
5) Finally, lost among the depth of concern for those who might never hear, the question lies mostly ignored: what is your excuse? It seems to be something of a red herring to chase down the fate of others, when the issue at hand is the very ones presenting the objection. You have heard about Christ, and have likely been witnessed to and prayed for by those with sincere love for you and concern for your soul. You have access to a Bible and true Christians with whom you can share your concerns and objections without fear of scorn, shame, or rejection. You even have a platform of prayer from which to converse with the actual Lord and Creator of the Universe. To Lewis’s point above, if you are truly concerned about those who haven’t heard, can you help them more by denying the truth or by finding them and sharing it with them?
John 3:16-17 is one of the most famous passages of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (NIV). You have heard the Gospel – and in fact are being exposed to a sliver of it at this very moment – and yet divert attention from the present reality of your rejection of that Gospel to the theoretical situation of those with whom you have no actual experience or interaction. You cannot be counted among those who haven’t heard, so what will you do with the knowledge with which you have been blessed?
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” – Matt. 5:14-15