Doctrine of Christ (part 29)

June 14, 2012     Time: 00:35:07

Lecture 29

We have been talking in our lesson about the problem of religious pluralism. We saw last time that the essence of the problem posed by religious diversity is not simply that a loving God wouldn’t send people to hell. I argued that, in a sense, God doesn’t send anybody to hell. Rather, on the New Testament view, people irrevocably and freely separate themselves from God forever despite his will and his every effort to save them. Nor, I argued, is the problem simply that God wouldn’t send people to hell because they were uninformed or misinformed about Christ. What we saw is that, according to the New Testament, God doesn’t judge people who have never heard of Christ on the same basis that he judges people who have heard of Christ. To do otherwise would be manifestly unfair. Rather, God will judge those who have never heard the Gospel on the basis of their response to the light that they have. So the problem isn’t simply one of people’s being uninformed or misinformed.

The Fate of Those that Never Hear the Gospel

Rather, it seems to me, the essence of the problem lies in persons who have never heard the Gospel of Christ and who reject God’s general revelation in nature and conscience and so find themselves rightly condemned before God, but who would have believed in the Gospel if only they had heard it. It seems that the damnation of such persons hinges upon the accidents of geography and history. They just had the bad luck to be born in the wrong place before the missionaries arrived with the Gospel. Surely that seems wrong or incompatible with the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful God, that he would allow people to go to hell for all eternity simply because of the contingent accidents of history and geography.

As we think about this problem, I think we need to penetrate more deeply into the logic of the problem that it presents to us. Basically what the objection seems to be saying is this: 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.

1. God is all-powerful and all-loving.

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

Let’s think about that. There isn’t any explicit contradiction between the proposition God is all-powerful and all-loving and the proposition Some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. After all, one is not the contradiction of the other; one is not the negation of the other. If the religious pluralist is saying that these are contradictory, he must be assuming some sort of implicit assumptions that would serve to bring out the contradiction and make it explicit. If he thinks these are implicitly contradictory, then he has to be making certain hidden assumptions that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.

So the question is: what are those hidden assumptions? I must say, in my reading of the literature of religious pluralism, I have never seen any religious pluralist attempt to identify what those hidden assumptions are. But let’s be generous. Let’s try to help the religious pluralist out a little bit here by trying to identify what these hidden assumptions are so that we can assess them.

It seems to me that there are two hidden assumptions that the religious pluralist is making. First, I think he assumes that if God is all-powerful, then God can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. If God is really all-powerful, then it lies within his ability to create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely embraces it.1 Secondly, he seems to be assuming as well that if God is all-loving, then God would prefer a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.

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

Assumption 2. If God is all-loving, then He prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.

If that is true, then it follows from (1), God’s being all-powerful and all-loving, that he both could and would create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. That contradicts (2) – that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. So I think this probably does represent the two hidden assumptions that the pluralist is making. If you make those two assumptions, then the propositions do become logically incompatible with each other. So these do seem to be the assumptions that the religious pluralist appears to be making.

Now the question is: are those assumptions necessarily true? In order for (1) and (2) to be logically contradictory with each other, both of those assumptions have to be necessarily true. But are they? Let’s think about them a little bit together.

Think about that first assumption, that if God is all-powerful, then he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. Is that necessarily true? Well, I think we would agree that it certainly lies within the power of an omnipotent being to create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel. That doesn’t seem to be too difficult. God could create a world in which the Gospel comes to every person he creates. But what about the second part – that they would be freely saved? So long as God chooses to create a world that has free people in it, there is no guarantee that everybody would be freely saved. As we’ve seen before, it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something. That is as logically impossible as making a cubic triangle or a round square. As long as people are free, there is no guarantee that everyone would be saved freely in a world in which everyone hears the Gospel. In fact, when you think about it, really, there is absolutely no reason to think that in a world in which everybody hears the Gospel the ratio between saved and lost would be any better than the ratio in the actual world. That is just pure conjecture. It is possible that in any world of free creatures that God could create at least some people would freely reject him and be lost. So that first assumption is just not necessarily true. It is not necessarily true that if God is all-powerful, then he can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely embraces it.

On that basis alone, it follows that this argument for the incompatibility of (1) and (2) is invalid. The argument is fallacious. But what about the second assumption? Let’s look at it as well for the sake of argument. Remember the second assumption was that if God is all loving, then he prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved. Is that necessarily true? Is it necessarily true that God would prefer a world in which everyone hears the Gospel and is freely saved? Well, again, as I think about it, not necessarily! These worlds in which everyone hears the Gospel and freely responds to it might have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable. In other words, universal salvation is not the only measure of the desirability of a world. The worlds in which everyone hears the Gospel and freely responds to it might have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable than a world in which some are lost. What might these be? Well, I can think of one example. Suppose that the only worlds in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely embraces it are worlds that have only, say, three or four people in them – radically under-populated worlds – and if God were to create any more people,2 then at least one of them would have rejected the Gospel and been lost.3 Does God’s being all-loving compel him to choose one of these sparsely populated worlds over a world in which multitudes freely come to Christ and are saved, even though some others freely reject him and are lost? That is far from obvious to me. As long as God gives sufficient grace for salvation to every person that he creates, then I don’t think he is any less loving for choosing or preferring one of these more populated worlds even though that would mean that some people would freely reject his grace and damn themselves forever. So that second assumption I don’t think is necessarily true. It is logically possible that these worlds of universal salvation have overriding deficiencies which make them less preferable so that God’s being all-loving doesn’t necessarily mean he would choose one of those worlds. So the second assumption also turns out not to be necessarily true.

So this argument is doubly fallacious. Neither of the hidden assumptions that are made in order to show a contradiction between God’s being all-powerful and all-loving and some people’s never hearing the Gospel and being lost is necessarily true.


Question: Just on that last point, it would seem to me that it would depend on how bad eternal damnation is. Having two to three people that are saved may be much better than having two to three people who are saved and millions who are not saved. Isn’t there Scripture that says that it is better that you were not born than be eternally damned?

Answer: Certainly it does say that for those who are damned! I think that those who are eternally lost, it would be better off for them if they had never been born. That is true, but that doesn’t mean that the whole world shouldn’t have been created by God and that God did something wrong in creating that world. I think you are right about the state of the damned. They would have been better off never to have been created at all than to go to hell. But that doesn’t negate the fact that God’s being all-loving wouldn’t compel him to choose a world of universal salvation if it has other overriding deficiencies.

Followup: The original premise of this, I think, rejects Romans 1 does it not?

Answer: What is the original premise?

Followup: As you described the original premise is that persons who haven’t heard the Gospel and reject the general revelation. So they reject the general revelation of Romans 1. Is the acceptance of God through the general revelation pluralism?

Answer: No, I don’t think it is pluralism if you are saying (if I understand your question right) people can be saved through their response to general revelation without a knowledge of Christ. That would be what I call accessibilism. It would mean that salvation is universally accessible, whether though general revelation or believing in the Mosaic Law or the Abrahamic covenant or, in our age, the Gospel of Christ. Whether anybody actually does access it is a further question. That would be, I think, inclusivism. Inclusivists can range all the way from narrow inclusivism, where somebody might say, “Yes, a few get in, but the vast majority are condemned by general revelation” to some theologians who say that virtually everybody is included in salvation, even though they are not aware of redemption in Christ. That is inclusivism. My bone to pick with inclusivism is not that it is too radical, but that it is not radical enough. Because inclusivism doesn’t deal with the problem that I am concerned about, namely, what about these people who reject general revelation and so are condemned but who would have received the Gospel gladly if they had heard it?4 You see, inclusivism has nothing to say about that problem. Inclusivism only deals with how people access general revelation or the Gospel and salvation. But it can’t deal with what I am calling a counterfactual problem – what would they have done if they had heard the Gospel? So I am saying inclusivism just doesn’t even address what I take to be the real heart of the problem, which is this counterfactual problem.

Followup: Calvin has an answer to that, doesn’t he?

Answer: I am not sure that he does address that.

Followup: They weren’t chosen! They weren’t part of the elect.

Answer: Right! So, yes, on the Calvinistic view, there are no accidents of history and geography. Everything is determined, and so God has simply determined who goes to hell and who goes to heaven. That’s right. But that faces a different kind of problem about the goodness of a God who would do such a thing.

Question: On your categorization of the people that reject general revelation, I don’t think you can conclude that they would have received the Gospel. I don’t think that they would have received the Gospel if they reject general revelation.

Answer: Why do you think that?

Followup: Because part of all of what Scripture says about Christ being the Creator of the universe and he had us chosen before time and that we have eternal life. Why don’t we have immortal life? Because we are created. We have eternal life because we are bonded in the unio mystica from time immemorial. Our salvation is secure. It is spoken of before Christ in general revelation. So I think they would not accept it, just like the story in the New Testament of Lazarus and the beggar, and he goes to hell, and he says, “Let someone know about this and have somebody sent back from the dead,” and if they won’t receive the word, they won’t accept it even if someone comes back from the dead.5

Answer: Yes, now that is an interesting parable, isn’t it? “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, neither would they believe if someone came back from the dead.” That is an appeal to special revelation – right? – “Moses and the prophets.” The question that you are raising is: if a person wouldn’t respond to general revelation, you are saying he won’t respond to God’s Word? To the Gospel? To special revelation? I think the difficulty with saying that is, generally speaking, the Gospel is thought to be more powerful than general revelation. The Gospel, as Paul says, is the power of God for salvation.6 It contains the Gospel of Christ; it contains the message of salvation in so much clearer a way than God’s general revelation in nature and conscience. So, generally, it is difficult to say that if a person won’t respond to the weak revelation that he wouldn’t have responded to this much stronger revelation.

Followup: But the weaker is foundational. You have a Creator and an all-powerful God.

Answer: Yeah, but nevertheless, I can understand where you would say if somebody won’t respond to the stronger, he wouldn’t have responded to the weaker. But it is harder to say that if somebody doesn’t respond to the weak appeal, then he wouldn’t have responded to the strong appeal. That doesn’t seem to make sense. But we will come back to this. I think you are actually on the right track, but I want to push it a little more.

Followup: On the two statements, God’s emotive will, that aspect of God’s will, is that he favors all to come to repentance. That is a part of his emotive will, but he has a purpose, he has an absolute will, he has a prescriptive will, so that aspect of it is already present from the second point. But both of those are self-contradictory. They said if you had a Gospel and people would respond to it, it already implies that they have a need that there has been a decision made to reject God, that they need the Gospel and they need to be saved. So in a way the two questions are contradictory – why do they need the Gospel and salvation in the first place? So that would seem to even be an antecedent to these questions.

Answer: I guess I am not following you. It seems to me that the New Testament is very clear that every person in the world knows God’s moral law – it is written on his heart7 – and therefore he is culpable before God for his sin. And the mass of humanity lies in this state of condemnation, and we have the Great Commission to carry the Gospel out to the world because these people, if they hear the Gospel, they will respond and be saved – many of them – and if we don’t go, they won’t hear it.8

Followup: I agree except they are asking, in the question, they are saying there is a world that God could make this all possible, but if God made a world where everybody was conformist and on the same page and redeemed, there wouldn’t be any need for the Gospel.

Answer: Oh, now you are raising a deeper question – why doesn’t God create a sinless world? I am not asking that. I am assuming that God creates a world in which people do fall into sin. But then he has provided Christ, and why doesn’t he get the Gospel to every person?

Question: What about a world, though, where there are people who respond to general revelation – such as people of other religions, bare monotheists – but explicitly reject the deity of Jesus – Jehovah’s Witnesses? I have spoken to Reformed Jews about this. It is the same thing. “I believe in God, and I responded to general revelation, but we reject the Gospel.” What is their status?

Answer: They would be condemned. That is very clear in the Scripture. Jesus says “he who believes has eternal life; he who does not believe does not have eternal life.”9 So anybody who consciously rejects the Gospel of Christ is condemned, even if he is a monotheist and believes in a God of nature or something of that sort. So we are talking exclusively about people who haven’t had a chance to hear the Gospel. Those are the ones that we are concerned about. I don’t see any problem from the standpoint of religious pluralism with people who hear the Gospel and reject it. The Scripture there is very clear. That is just back to the question of would a loving God send people to hell who make a conscious and free decision to reject the Gospel?

Followup: What do you think of the status of most Americans, for example, in a Mormon community?

Answer: I am not going to make specific judgments about specific people. That is God’s business, not mine. But just theologically what I want to say is that the Scripture is pretty clear that people – well, it is not pretty clear, it is clear – those who have understood and received the Gospel and repudiate it thereby separate themselves from God.

Question: I tend to agree with the earlier point on this, and let me throw this out and see what you think. One of the basic components of the Gospel is the existence of God as revealed in Romans 1 and in general revelation. If you are going to reject that, what is it in the rest of the Gospel such that the sacrifice of his Son is going to override that basic problem? So I would tend to think if you don’t believe in the existence of God, the rest of the Gospel is powerless to save you.

Answer: Boy, you folks have a lot less confidence in the power of the Gospel than I do! Look at all the people in the world to whom missionaries go – in New Guinea and Haiti – who were involved in polytheism and just desperate situations, and they hear the Gospel, and they embrace it and are saved. The Gospel is growing all over the world, in Africa and places where people had only general revelation and they were lost; but when they hear the Gospel, they get saved. Paul says this is the power of God for salvation. It is the Gospel.

Followup: But they must accept general revelation in order to be saved. They must accept that there is a God.

Answer: I don’t think so. Suppose you are a Haitian voodoo worshipper, and you are involved in worship of these devil gods and things of this sort. But then you hear the Gospel of Christ, which tells you about a loving heavenly Father who has sent his Son into the world to die for you, and you respond to that Gospel. Then you are responding to a Gospel which includes the truths of general revelation, but you didn’t believe them when all you had was the general revelation. But now you believe them because they are entailed by the Gospel that you received.10 So don’t confuse accepting the truths that are mediated by general revelation with accepting general revelation. I certainly think anybody who embraces the Gospel will embrace the truths that are entailed by general revelation. But that doesn’t mean they respond to general revelation itself, if you see what I mean.

Followup: Yes, I think so.

Question: I am going to be on the same topic. Sorry! [laughter] You said that everybody, through God’s conviction and moral law and things like that, has the ability to understand that they would be culpable in front of God through general revelation or the witness of the Holy Spirit through that and that the Gospel was the power of God to salvation. Could it not be that the Gospel is the power to salvation and in the message also contains information about man’s culpability, but the knowledge about culpability could be gained by general revelation itself? So the Gospel wouldn’t add anything on that beginning part – man’s fallenness or his culpability before God. So people could understand that through general revelation. However, if the Gospel was in fact stronger at convicting men, it seems like we’d still be in the same problem – why didn’t God send the stronger message to everybody else?

Answer: I think you are making a very valid point. Even if people had the weaker revelation and could understand, “Yes, I am culpable before God,” why wouldn’t God send the stronger revelation to them, if he knew they would respond to it when they don’t respond to the other thing? It is not as though they fail to grasp the truths of general revelation. Paul says all men know that there is a Creator of the world, and therefore he says in Romans 1 “they are without excuse.”11 Similarly in chapter 2 he says God’s moral law is written on their hearts so they have no excuse.12 So they do grasp the truths of general revelation, that is right. But they don’t respond to it in faith and repentance, whereas when they hear the Gospel, then they might. So really the issue of whether a person can be saved through general revelation is really not germane. The question is, as you say, what about people who are condemned through general revelation, but who would have been saved if they had gotten special revelation of the Gospel? What about them? Is God unjust or unloving with regard to them?

Question: I am going to get off that subject – I hope you are pleased with that! But I wanted to make a comment on the second point, that God prefers a world in which everyone hears the Gospel and is saved. To me, that is not the case because if someone truly chooses him out of their own free will, to me that is a more precious connection than if they are sort of robotic. When people have the ability of free will and choose him, it seems to me that relationship with him is even more precious.

Answer: OK, let me try to clear up a possible misunderstanding. I think you are certainly right in saying that freely given love, a free response to God’s grace, is meaningful and more precious than a robotic, programmed response. But the religious pluralist is not talking about a robot world or a puppet world. He is talking about a world in which God creates free people, and they all freely respond and are saved. It is not that they are programmed to. This is their own free choice. And they just all freely believe in the Gospel and find salvation.

Followup: One other thought! Let’s suppose that is the case. So God reveals himself – Jesus is sitting there on the horizon, waiting, and is in your face. It still, when he is not in the revelation of that nature, when you discover him through a commitment of the heart or his work in your life and then respond to that, I’m not saying it has to be robotic, but I think this discovery in this inner communication becomes more precious.13

Answer: In a way what you are really criticizing is the first assumption, not the second one. I think you are suggesting that maybe in a world in which people are given this sort of freedom to respond to the Gospel to Christ freely that there needs to be a kind of distance between them and God – a searching rather than an overwhelming presence. I think that is certainly a valid point. It may well be the case that one of the reasons God can’t create a world in which everybody freely responds to him and is saved is because the clarity and power of the revelation to ensure universal salvation would be freedom-removing. It would be like being overpowered rather than wooed, is the way I would put it. That is a good point to make about assumption 1.

Question: My question is looking at it from a completely different perspective. A lot of times when I am thinking about this kind of conversation, the struggle with me is how damaging is sin really, that you can say that God would not be all-powerful or all-loving. My question is – if a people are rebellious and rebel against God, is it a requirement that God send anybody at all to save them and not still be all-powerful and all-loving? Can God’s grace be his free choice as well, and our rejection of him not suddenly require him to send somebody to save us, just so that he will still be loving? We need that grace to be his free choice as well as ours.

Answer: OK, this is an excellent question, and I would respond to it by saying the following. I don’t think that there would be any injustice on God’s part if he were to condemn people who reject his revelation in nature and conscience, though they would have received the Gospel had they heard it, because they are not judged on what they would have done; they are being judged on the basis of what they did do. And as you say, God is under no obligation whatsoever to save them at all. They are rightly condemned. So I don’t see this as a problem for God’s justice at all. Where I see it as a problem is for God’s love. That is to say, if God really loves these people, then wouldn’t he bring them the Gospel, if he knew they would respond to it and be saved? Why does he allow them to languish, say, on the North American plains during the Middle Ages in darkness when, if he had brought the Gospel to them or they had been born some place else, then they would have been saved? There wouldn’t be any injustice on God’s part in doing that, I think you are quite right. They are judged justly. But wouldn’t an all-loving being bring the Gospel to people who he knew would respond to it if they heard it? That is the question I am struggling with.

To summarize what we’ve said today. The problem we are wrestling with can be put very simply: what about people who never hear the Gospel and are damned but who would have believed in the Gospel if it had come to them? Is there something unloving about how God treats people like that? What I have argued here is that so far we haven’t seen an argument for this. The attempted argument to show that an all-powerful and all-loving God must create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and saved is doubly fallacious. So what we’ve seen so far is there isn’t any good argument to show that there is some problem here. What I am going to do next time is: I am going to turn the tables and go on the offensive, and I am going to try to show that (1) and (2) are perfectly compatible and we can give good grounds for thinking that there is no incompatibility at all between God’s being all-powerful and all-loving and the fact that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.14


1 4:56

2 Dr. Craig says “worlds” here, but he means “people.”

3 10:05

4 15:01

5 cf. Luke 16:19-31

6 cf. Romans 1:16

7 cf. Romans 2:15

8 20:33

9 cf. John 3:18

10 25:00

11 cf. Romans 1:20

12 cf. Romans 2:1, 15

13 30:18

14 Total Running Time: 35:07 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)