Religious Pluralism (part 4)

August 10, 2008     Time: 00:18:31

You will remember we closed last time with three important questions based upon the problem of persons who lie outside of the Christian tradition and have not believed in Christ for salvation or in God. The questions I asked were:

1. Why didn’t God bring the Gospel to people who he knew would accept it if they heard it even though they reject the light of general revelation that they do have? In other words, they are justly condemned for their rejection of God’s general revelation, but if only they had heard the Gospel they would have been saved.

2. More fundamentally, why did God even create the world if he knew that so many people would freely reject him and be lost?

3. Finally, the most radical suggestion of all – why didn’t God simply create a world of free people in which everyone freely places his faith in Christ and is saved?

How are we to answer these questions? In order to get at a solution to these problems I think we need to probe more deeply into the logic of the problem that is before us. As I analyze this problem logically, I think that basically the objection is saying that it is impossible for God to be all-powerful and all-loving and yet for some people never to hear the Gospel and be lost. Basically the religious pluralist is saying that there is a contradiction between these two propositions:

A. God is all-powerful and all-loving

and

B. Some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.

The religious pluralist is really posing a kind of soteriological version of the problem of evil. You’ll remember when we talked about the problem of evil we saw that the atheist is basically saying that there is a contradiction in the Christian world and life view. It affirms that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet evil exists, and there is a contradiction between them. In the same way, the religious pluralist is posing a sort of soteriological problem of evil – that is to say, a problem of evil related to salvation. Namely, there is a contradiction between the religious particularist’s affirmations that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.

Immediately, one can make the same move that one does in response to the normal problem of evil. Namely, one can simply point out that A and B are not explicitly contradictory. After all, one is not the negation of the other. So there is no explicit contradiction between them. If the religious pluralist is claiming that A and B are nonetheless implicitly contradictory then he must be assuming some hidden premises that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit. In that case, the question is: what are these hidden premises or hidden assumptions that the pluralist is making?

Unfortunately, as I read the literature of religious pluralism, I have never seen any religious pluralist identify just exactly what those hidden premises are that would serve to bring out the implicit contradiction and make it explicit. But let’s try to be generous here and try to help the religious pluralist by identifying what those hidden assumptions seem to be. It seems to me that there are two hidden assumptions that the pluralist is making here.

1. If God is all-powerful then he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.

2. If God is all-loving then he prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.[1]

Since A says that God is all-powerful and all-loving, and the hidden assumptions indicate that an all-loving and all-powerful God both can create and would prefer a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved, it would follow from A and those hidden assumptions that everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. That clearly contradicts B.

So it does seem to me that these must be the two hidden assumptions that the religious pluralist is making in claiming that A and B have an implicit contradiction. The question is then: what about those two hidden assumptions? In order for A and B to be implicitly contradictory on the basis of those assumptions, both of those assumptions have to be necessarily true. But is that the case? Are both of those assumptions necessarily true? Let’s look at them.

What about that first assumption that if God is all-powerful he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved? Is that assumption necessarily true? When you think about it, I think we would probably all agree that an all-powerful God could certainly create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel. That wouldn’t seem to be too difficult a feat at all. But as long as people are genuinely free, there is no guarantee that everyone would freely believe the Gospel and be saved if they heard it. So long as people are free God cannot guarantee how they will, in fact, choose. It is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. That is as logically impossible as making a square triangle or a married bachelor. Those are logical absurdities and therefore no infringement upon God’s omnipotence. You will remember when we talked about the attributes of God we saw that God’s omnipotence meant roughly that God can bring about any state of affairs that is logically possible to actualize. To make a round square or a married bachelor or to make someone freely do something are all logical impossibilities. Therefore even in a world in which everybody hears the Gospel, there is no way that God can guarantee that everybody in that world will freely respond to it and be saved. In fact, when you think about it, there is no guarantee that in such a world the balance between saved and lost would be any better than it is in the actual world. It might be that in a world in which everybody hears the Gospel that the balance between saved and lost could actually be no better or even worse than the balance between saved and lost in the actual world. But in any case, it is possible that in any world of free creatures which God could create that some people would freely reject him and be lost.

Therefore, that first assumption made by the religious pluralist is simply not necessarily true. It is not true that an omnipotent or all-powerful God can necessarily create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely responds to it in an affirmative way. Even on that basis alone it follows that the argument for the inconsistency of A and B is simply fallacious because the first assumption is not necessarily true.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s press on and ask about the second assumption as well. Let’s suppose that there are possible worlds that God could create in which everybody hears the Gospel and everybody freely responds to it and is saved. Does God’s being all-loving compel him to prefer one of those worlds over a world in which some people freely reject the Gospel and are lost?[2] I don’t think it necessarily does because there might be other overriding deficiencies in these worlds of universal salvation that make them less preferable. We could agree that all things being equal God would prefer a world in which everybody freely responds to the Gospel and is saved over a world in which some people freely reject it and are lost. But all things may not be equal. It may be that in worlds of universal salvation there are other overriding deficiencies that make these worlds less preferable. For example, suppose that the only worlds in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely receives it are worlds with only a handful of people in it – say four or five. If God were to create any more people then at least one of them would have freely rejected him and been lost. Does God’s being all-loving compel him to prefer one of these sparsely underpopulated worlds over a world in which multitudes freely receive him and are saved even though some also reject him freely and are lost? That is just far from obvious to me. As long as God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every human being that he creates then it seems to me that he is no less loving for preferring a more populous world over one of these more radically underpopulated worlds even though that means that some people would freely reject his love and every effort to save them and irrevocably separate themselves from him forever.

So it follows that that second assumption is not necessarily true either. Thus the argument for the inconsistence of A and B is really doubly fallacious – it is invalid on both accounts because neither of its key hidden assumptions is necessarily true.

We can go one step further. We can turn the wheel one more notch. I think that we can show that it is entirely possible that God is all-loving and all-powerful and that many people do not hear the Gospel and are lost. In order to prove this positively all we need to do is to find a third statement C which is compatible with A and implies or entails B. Can we find such a statement? Let’s try.

As a good and loving God, God wants as many people as possible to be saved and as few as possible to be lost. God’s goal then is to achieve an optimal balance between these – to create no more of the lost than is necessary to attain a certain number of the saved. His desire is to create an optimal balance between saved and lost. But it is possible that the actual world has such a balance. Remember when I speak of the actual world I mean the past, the present, and the future of this world. It is possible that in order to create this many people who will be saved, God had to create this many people who will be lost. It is possible that had God created a world in which fewer people go to hell then fewer people would have gone to heaven. It is possible that in order to achieve a multitude of saints, God had to accept a multitude of sinners as well.

Someone might object at this point that an all-loving God would not create people who he knew will be lost but who would have been saved if only they had heard the Gospel. But how do we know that there are any such people? After all, when the Gospel reaches a people group, not everyone responds to it and is saved. I think it is reasonable to assume that many people who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed in the Gospel and been saved even if they had heard of it.[3] Suppose then that God has so providentially ordered the world that all persons who never hear the Gospel and are lost are precisely such persons. In that case, anybody who never hears the Gospel and is lost would have rejected the Gospel and been lost even if he had heard it. Thus no one could stand before God on the Judgment Day and say, All right, God. So I rejected your general revelation in nature and conscience. But if only I had heard the Gospel then I would have been saved. God will say to him, No, I knew that even if you had heard the Gospel you still would not have believed in it and been saved. Therefore my judgment of you on the basis of nature and conscience is neither unloving nor unfair. Thus it is possible that God has created a world with an optimal balance between saved and lost. Those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed it even if they had heard it.

C. God has created a world with an optimal balance between saved and lost. Those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed it even if they had heard it.

Is C true? I don’t know! God knows! But as long as C is even possibly true it shows that there is no inconsistency between A and B. Because if A is true and C is true then it follows that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. Thus is seems to me that not only has the religious pluralist failed to show an inconsistency between A and B but we can on the basis of the possibility of C say in a positive way that there is no inconsistency between A and B. Therefore the argument of the religious pluralist simply fails.

We are out of time. What I will do next week when I return is not only answer questions but I want to wrap up by giving possible answers to those three difficult questions that prompted our inquiry this morning, and then ask the question whether or not this is a plausible solution to the problem of the unevangelized. We’ve seen that C is possible, but is this plausibly true? I will say some words on that before we conclude and take your questions. With that we will close. See you next week.[4]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:10

[3] 15:04

[4] Total Running Time: 18:31 (Copyright © 2008 William Lane Craig)