What About Those Who have Never Heard?
Conversation with William Lane Craig
What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
Kevin Harris: On the website ReasonableFaith.org, Dr. Craig, you get a lot of questions from people who are surfing the web and go to examine ReasonableFaith.org and they have some hard questions that you pick from time to time and answer. What is your criteria for picking these questions, first.
Dr. Craig: One thing I try to do is pick a question that shows some acquaintance with my own work on the issue. I get a number of questions where I think, gosh, if they would just read the articles on the website, their question would be answered. It is right there already. So I tend not to answer those since the information is already there.
Kevin Harris: People tend to want a kind of credit-card-quick answer rather than do the work.
Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think so. Or they come to the site but not really bother to read anything yet on the site. So they just ask their question. What I want them to do is first read the articles on the site and then if they have a question that still bothers them or puzzles them then that is the kind of question I am interested in. What I’ll try to do is pick a question that is of general interest to a number of people and not one that would be so interesting to a very narrow group. Then I try to vary them. If you notice I will try to have some philosophical, some more on biblical or New Testament questions, and then jump around from the kalam argument to the moral argument to the teleological argument to other issues so that we are not all stuck in the same track all the time.
Kevin Harris: ReasonableFaith.org. This question that is asked here I would consider if not top-ten, top-five of the most common questions under the subheading of “What about those who have never heard the name of Christ.” What is there eternal fate? This questioner asks, “I feel that Dr. Craig’s argument – that God has arranged for those whom he knows will respond favorably to the Gospel to live in parts of the world where they are most likely to be exposed to the Gospel – smacks of cultural chauvinism. It means that swaths of humanity are written off presumably because even if they had heard they would not have believed.” This he is getting from some of your work. What is he going for here? What is he asking you?
Dr. Craig: He is talking about the solution that I’ve proposed to the problem of the unevangelized – those who have never heard of Christ. How does God judge people who have never heard the Gospel? If you take Romans 1 seriously, it seems to suggest that the mass of humanity apart from the Gospel are damned, that they are not going to go to heaven. Therefore, it seems to make a person’s salvation or damnation dependent upon historical and geographical accident. Some people are lucky enough to be born at a time and place in history where the Gospel is preached and they get to hear it and be saved. Other unlucky folks, through no fault of their own, are born at times and places in history where the Gospel has not yet arrived. So they are damned forever because they never get to hear about Christ and believe in him. The difficulty is, I think, that this seems incompatible with an all-loving God.
Sometimes people say, “This is unfair or unjust.” I don’t think that is right because I think all men are justly condemned. Everyone is a sinner. So if God chose to save nobody, I don’t think anybody could say this was unfair. If God chose to show mercy on some but not on others, that is not unfair any more than if the governor, say, were to pardon one man on death row and not pardon the others. There is nothing unjust about that because they all deserve to die. But it would seem to be incompatible with God being all-loving. If he is all-loving then why would he just choose to save or have mercy on a few when he could have saved or had mercy on all of them. So that, it seems to me, is the problem presented by the problem of those who have never heard the Gospel. How can an all-loving God allow people to go into eternal damnation because of historical and geographical accident?
Kevin Harris: So what we need to look at then is maybe several internally consistent solutions – internal to the Bible itself. And maybe some external solutions – philosophically – as to how this would work out. When we do that, I guess we are just looking at some possibilities and trying to speculate intelligently based on the data.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that is right. I think this is essentially an objection to say that Christianity is internally contradictory. On the one hand it affirms that God is all-loving and all-powerful, and yet on the other hand it affirms that some people never hear the Gospel and are damned. The claim is that that is somehow inconsistent with each other. If God is all-powerful and all-loving then it should not be the case that some people never hear the Gospel and are damned. So in order to resolve this problem we don’t need to come up with the actual solution (that may be beyond our ken) but what we can do is show a possible solution – something that is biblically consistent and is consistent with God being all-powerful and all-loving. As long as we can give a possible solution, that is enough to remove the alleged contradiction and solve this internal problem
Kevin Harris: When we offer at least a possible answer, that will take away the sting to the extent that maybe we can work on it further.
Dr. Craig: Yes, I think it would be nice if we had not merely a possible solution but a plausible one as well. So that is what I tried to do – to work on a solution of this problem that takes it seriously, wrestles with it honestly, and provides a solution that is both possible as well as plausible.
Kevin Harris: It is almost like when someone says to you, “I am leaving the Christian faith and I am not going to believe because of the problem of the unevangelized.” You can say, “Wait a minute, not so fast. It is at least possible that A, B, C, and D. Therefore, you are still in the game.”
Dr. Craig: Right. That’s exactly right, yeah.
Kevin Harris: Stay with it. Trust God. You have not indicted God. You have not indicted the internal consistency of the Scriptures and so forth. Plantinga did that with the problem of evil, didn’t he?
Dr. Craig: Yes, exactly, Kevin. It was Plantinga’s treatment of the problem of evil that inspired my own solution to the problem of the unevangelized. What Plantinga says is here is a possibility that shows that there is no inconsistency between God being all-powerful and all-loving and there being suffering in the world. I thought, why couldn’t I do something similar to that to show that God could be all-powerful and all-loving and yet for there to be unevangelized persons who are damned.
Kevin Harris: So the possible solution that you offered was . . .? Break it down.
Dr. Craig: What I point out is that the objector seems to be assuming a couple of hidden assumptions. He is assuming first of all that if God is all-powerful then he can create just any world that he wants. Secondly, he is assuming that if God is all-loving then he would prefer a world in which everybody is saved over a world in which some are damned. So the argument is that if he is all-powerful and all-loving, he both could create and would create a world in which everyone is freely saved. That is the objector’s argument. What I do is I call into question both of those hidden assumptions. I think both of them have not been shown to be necessarily true. In fact, I think they are plausibly both false. But at least they haven’t been shown to be necessarily true.
Kevin Harris: Why do you think those two premises – those two hidden premises or assumptions – are not true?
Dr. Craig: Take the first one – that if God is all-powerful, he can create just any world that he wants. It is logically impossible to make someone do something freely. That is as logically impossible as making a married bachelor or a round square. You cannot make someone do something freely. What that means is that if God creates a world of free creatures he cannot guarantee how they will all choose. In particular, he cannot guarantee that they would all freely receive Christ and accept his salvation. It may be that in any world of free creatures that God could create, at least some of them would freely reject his grace and be lost.
Kevin Harris: That is exactly what the skeptic says. The skeptic says if God is all-powerful then he can make a world where he can force people to freely choose him.
Dr. Craig: Right, and that is simply logically impossible once you understand the notion of what freedom is. And our culture recognizes this. Remember the movie Bruce Almighty where Morgan Freeman says, “You can do anything because you are God except you can’t override their free will.” And you remember all the problems that causes to Jim Carrey as he tries to run the world without violating free will. It really is hard.
So it may well be the case that although there are logically possible worlds of universal salvation, that none of these worlds is actually feasible for God. It is impossible for him to actualize one of them because if he tried the creatures or the persons in them would go wrong and at least some of them would freely reject him and be damned of their own free will. So that first assumption is just not necessarily true – that an all-powerful God can create any world that he wants and in particular a world of universal salvation. So on that basis alone the argument against Christianity, or the doctrine of Christian particularism as it is sometimes called, is flawed.
But I think the second assumption is also flawed which was remember if God is all-loving then he prefers a world in which everyone freely is saved over a world in which some are damned. Now, the problem with that is is that may be true all things being equal – all things being equal he would prefer a world in which everyone is freely saved. But there might be other overriding deficiencies that make a world of universal salvation less preferable. In other words, all things might not be equal. The worlds of universal salvation may have other overriding deficits that make them less preferable. Like what? Well, for example, suppose the only worlds in which everyone freely receives Christ and is saved are worlds which have only a handful of people in them – say, three or four –, and that if God were to create any more people at least one of them would go wrong and be damned? Does God being all-loving compel him to choose one of these sparsely underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes freely receive Christ even though some freely reject his grace and separate themselves from God forever? Well, that is far from obvious to me. It seems to me as long as God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every person he creates then he is no less loving for preferring a more populous world over one of these sparsely populated worlds even though that means some will freely reject him and his every effort to save them and damn themselves.
So neither of those two assumptions is necessarily true. Indeed, I think they are plausibly false. So the argument is doubly invalid that God being all-loving and all-powerful is inconsistent with some people never hearing the Gospel and being lost.
Kevin Harris: How does this bring up the issue of Molinism, which is also something rather implied in his question?
Dr. Craig: It brings it up in that I take the argument a step further. So far what I’ve tried to show is that no one has shown an inconsistency between God being all-powerful and all-loving and some people never hearing the Gospel and being lost. What I try to do next though is to show not simply that no one has shown these to be inconsistent, I try to prove that they are consistence. To offer a positive demonstration that these are consistent, which is a more powerful argument. It is in doing that that I appeal to the doctrine of middle knowledge or Molinism which says that God knows what every person would do in any circumstances he might create that person in.
Kevin Harris: The skeptic usually will say, “Why in the world did God create a person knowing that they would reject him? Why didn’t God just not create them?”
Dr. Craig: What you need to understand is that if God were not to create that person then it is not as though everything else can go on unchanged. What that means is then you have a whole new possible world on your hands and it may be in that world lacking that person that others would then freely reject him and be lost and not be saved. Indeed, as we’ve already seen, it may be the case that in any world feasible for God, some people would freely reject him and be lost.
So my suggestion is that God as an all-loving God wants as many people as possible to be saved and he wants as few as possible to be lost. So what God has done is to create a world having an optimal balance between saved and lost. A world that involves the maximum number of saved for the minimum number of lost people. And he gives sufficient grace for salvation to everyone whom he creates. Everyone can be saved if they want to be saved. But God knows that many of the lost will reject his every effort to save them and separate themselves from him forever and be lost. But nevertheless, in his mercy and love, God has created a world with an optimal balance between saved and lost.
And moreover he has so ordered the world that those who never hear the Gospel and are lost are only people who would not have believed in the Gospel and been saved even if they had heard it. In other words, anyone who would have believed the Gospel and been saved if he heard it, is born at a time and place in history where he does hear it. What that would mean, Kevin, is that no one could stand before God on the Judgment Day and say, “All right God, I rejected your revelation in nature and conscience, but if only I’d heard the Gospel, then I would have been saved.” And God will say to him, “No, I knew that even if you had heard the Gospel, you would not have received it. Therefore my judgment of you on the basis of your response to nature and conscience is neither unloving nor unjust.” I think that what I said at first by showing that those assumptions are false takes the sting out of it.
This is a positive proof that it is entirely consistent to affirm that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. So if my scenario is even possible, it shows that those truths are entirely consistent.
Kevin Harris: It occurs to me, Bill, also that this would in a sense, if God did not create someone because he knew that they would reject him and so on, tends to give hell veto power over God. God’s hands are tied due to the evil that a person might do and therefore he can’t express his creativity and so on because this person would go to hell.
Dr. Craig: Yeah. I think you are on to something there. It does seem to me that when people say, “Why didn’t God just not create anybody if he knew that so many would reject him and go to hell? Why didn’t he just not create any universe?” It seems to me that you are denying the blessedness and the joy of all of those persons who would freely receive God’s grace and salvation and enjoy him forever because of those people who would freely spit in God’s face and reject his every effort to save them and reject his love and damn themselves forever. Why should those people be allowed to have a veto power over the worlds that God is free to create? Who gave them the right in a sense to preclude the happiness and the joy of those who do want to freely receive God’s grace and be saved? Remember many of the lost may receive far greater measures of grace than the saved do but they simply reject them and refuse to come to God and be saved.
Kevin Harris: Bill, in conclusion, I think there is something that kind of glares from this question and that is: what about the person asking the question? Ask them, “Well, what about you? You have heard the Gospel. You are aware of all of this theology and the resources there. But you are worrying about the man in the bush. Why don’t you embrace Christ and maybe he will send you to the bush to reach them!”
Dr. Craig: [laughter] Maybe that’s why they won’t do it! But you are absolutely right. This is a problem for those who never hear the Gospel. But of course we have heard the Gospel and therefore we are confronted with the choice as to whether or not we are going to give our lives to Christ.
Kevin Harris: Jesus said to Peter – referring to John - “If he remains until I come, what is that to you? You follow me.”
Dr. Craig: Right.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, our question of the day: do we have free will?
Dr. Craig: I do think we have free will, Kevin, and I think that the Bible supports this as well as it being philosophically necessary. In the Scripture, it says that God will provide a way of escape for us in any temptation that we will face. He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear but will give us this way of escape. What that means is that in any situation in which we do succumb to temptation and sin, we did not have to do so. We could have taken the way of escape instead. We were free to take that way of escape but we did not do so. So that, I think, is a biblical proof that we do have in fact freedom of the will. We did not have to do, or were determined to do, what we did do. We could have taken the way of escape.
Kevin Harris: Materialists, naturalists, atheists argue that there is no free will because it is all determined by genetics or prior causes. It seems like they would even have the free will to say that and try to convince you otherwise. Can you shed some light on that? I don’t see how, even if it were true, how our genes would not allow us to have free will.
Dr. Craig: I am not a materialist and therefore that argument does not bother me. I think that we have a soul which is an immaterial self or component to our being and that the soul is not determined by the genetic makeup that we have or the sensory stimuli that we receive. The soul has freedom of the will. As you pointed out, it seems to me that determinism is rationally unaffirmable. You cannot rationally affirm determinism because if you do what you are affirming is that you believe determinism, not because it is true or this is a rational decision, you are affirming it because you were determined to do so. It was like a tree growing a shoot or having a toothache. You were simply determined to believe in determinism. Therefore, determinism is incapable of being rationally affirmed. It can only be rationally affirmed if you in fact have freedom of the will to make a rational choice in this matter. Moreover, I think that freedom of the will is necessary for our ability to act as morally significant agents in the world. If our actions are all causally determined then they have no moral value whatsoever, anymore than the jerks of a puppet’s limbs would have moral value. So it seems to me that we have both good philosophical reasons as well as biblical reasons for affirming that human beings have free will and that this is part of the image of God in them.
 cf. John 21:22
 cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13
 Total Running Time: 22:21 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)