Doctrine of Christ (part 30)June 25, 2012 Time: 00:40:15
We have been talking about the challenge of religious pluralism in our lesson. Last time we began to look more closely at the logic of the case against religious particularism. We saw that the religious pluralist claims that the propositions:
1. God is all-powerful and all-loving.
2. Some people never hear the Gospel and as a result are lost.
are somehow incompatible with each other. We saw that there seemed to be a couple of hidden assumptions lying behind this reasoning, since these propositions are not explicitly contradictory with each other. One is not the negation of the other. We saw that the pluralist seems to be assuming:
Assumption 1. If God is all-powerful, then He can create a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and freely responds to it and is saved.
Assumption 2. If God is all-loving, then He prefers a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved.
Both of those assumptions need to be necessarily true if he is to prove some sort of inconsistency between God’s being all-powerful and all-loving and some people’s never hearing the Gospel and being lost. The problem is, we saw, that neither of those two assumptions does appear to be necessarily true! It is not necessarily true that an all-powerful God can create a world in which everybody freely responds to the Gospel offer and is saved. Indeed it is possible that in any world that God might create some people would freely reject the Gospel and be lost. Secondly, we saw that it doesn’t follow necessarily from God’s being all-loving that he would prefer a world in which everybody hears the Gospel and is freely saved because those sorts of worlds could have other overriding disadvantages that would make them less preferable to a world in which multitudes are freely saved, even though others freely reject God’s grace and separate themselves from him forever.
So neither of those assumptions is necessarily true, and therefore the argument is simply doubly fallacious.
But I want to go one step further. I want to argue that we can actually make a good case that it is perfectly consistent for God to be all-powerful and all-loving and yet for some people never to hear the Gospel and be lost. All we have to do in order to show this is to find some third statement or proposition that is consistent with God’s being all-loving and all-powerful and which would entail that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. If we can find such a proposition, then that would prove that it is perfectly consistent for God to be all-powerful and all-loving and some people never to hear the Gospel and be lost. Let’s see if we can find such a proposition. Let’s think about it together.
It seems to me that as a good and loving God, God wants as many people as possible to be saved and as few as possible to be lost. It seems to me, then, that God’s goal for human history would be to achieve what I would call an optimal balance between saved and lost. That is to say, to create no more of the lost than is absolutely necessary in order to achieve a certain number of the saved that freely respond to him. So it is not just a matter of numbers and it is not just a matter of ratio – it is sort of a combination of numbers plus ratio that would yield what I call an optimal balance between saved and lost. And it would seem to me that God would, all things being considered, want to achieve a world that has an optimal balance between saved and lost. But it is possible that the actual world has such a balance! Remember, when we talk about the actual world, we are not talking just about the past or the present but also the future, as long as this universe might continue to exist.1 It is possible that the actual world, so-defined, has an optimal balance between saved and lost. It is possible that in order to create this many people who will be freely saved, God had to create this many people who would be freely lost. It is possible that if God created a world in which fewer people go to hell that even fewer people would have gone to heaven. It is possible that in order to achieve a multitude of the saved, God had to accept that there would be a multitude of lost as well.
Somebody might object at this point that an all-loving God would surely not create people who he knew will be lost but who would have been saved if only they had heard the Gospel – people who have only the light of general revelation and do not respond positively to it and so are lost but who would have been saved if only they had heard the Gospel. But here is the question I want to ask: how do we know that there are any such people? It is reasonable to assume that many people who never hear the Gospel would not have believed in the Gospel even if they had heard it. After all, when missionaries reach an unreached people group, not everybody turns to Christ and is saved. Many do not. So it is reasonable, I think, to assume of those who never hear the Gospel in their lifetimes that there are many who would not have responded positively to the Gospel even if they had heard it. So suppose, then, that God in his providence has so ordered the world that everyone who never hears the Gospel is such a person. 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. God in his love and mercy has so providentially ordered the world that anyone who would respond to the Gospel were he to hear it is created at a time and place in history where he does get to hear it. Thus, nobody could stand before God on the judgment day and say, “Well, all right, God, so I didn’t respond to your general revelation in nature and conscience! But if only I’d heard the Gospel, then I would have responded and been saved!” God will say to them, “No, I knew that even if you had heard the Gospel, you wouldn’t have believed it. And therefore my judgment of you on the basis of your response to nature and conscience is neither unfair nor unloving.” So it seems to me it is possible – and here is that third proposition I want to enunciate – that God has created a world which has an optimal balance between saved and lost and that those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed in Christ even if they had heard of him.
3. God has created a world which has an optimal balance between saved and lost and those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed in Christ even if they had heard of him.
Is that statement true? I don’t know! God knows (at least if he has middle knowledge right?)! But the point is, as long as this statement is even possibly true, it proves that there is no inconsistency between God’s being all-powerful and all-loving and some people’s never hearing the Gospel and being lost. So as long as this proposition is even possibly true – which it surely seems to be – , it follows that it is perfectly consistent to think that God is all-loving and all-powerful and yet some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.
Question: Does this proposition rely on a Molinist perspective?
Answer: Yes, it does! Thank you! That wasn’t a plant, by the way, that question [laughter]! Do you remember when we talked about the attributes of God and we dealt with divine omniscience?2 In the context of talking about divine omniscience, we talked about God’s so-called middle knowledge, which is his hypothetical knowledge of what any person would freely do in any circumstances that God might create that person in. This whole problem, in a sense, arises from these counterfactual conditionals that “If a person had heard the Gospel, then he would have believed.” If those propositions are true, then God knows them because God is omniscient and so has knowledge of all of these hypothetical conditionals. Through his middle knowledge, God can then providentially arrange the world in the way that I have suggested. So it is important to understand that this hypothesis is not saying that it just happens by chance that all those who never hear the Gospel and are lost wouldn’t have believed in Christ if they heard about him. That would be fantastically improbable, though possible. But in this case I am saying that God has providentially ordered the world in this way based on his middle knowledge. So this, I think, is not only possible, I think it is also plausible, given a God with that kind of knowledge.
Question: I take it this does not work with monergism. This is a synergistic solution.
Answer: That depends on how you define these terms. The idea here is: do human beings contribute anything to their salvation? Some Reformed or Calvinist folks like to accuse Arminians of synergism, saying that salvation is the work of human beings and God together, as opposed to monergism, which is just God’s unilaterally saving people. I don’t think that God unilaterally saves people apart from the human will; if that is what you mean by monergism then, right, it rejects that view. But I don’t think that means synergism in the objectionable sense that these folks take it to be, namely, that we do something that somehow contributes to our salvation. Paul in his letters always opposes faith and works. He thinks of faith as the opposite of works. So when a person places his faith in Christ or receives the gift of God’s grace, it is not as though he is working (that is the “energism” here) to attain salvation. Paul opposes faith and works. Faith is the opposite of works. But for these folks, they think of faith as a work. They think if I place my faith in Christ, I have done something of the nature of a work to contribute to my salvation. I think that is very un-Pauline. That is not the way Paul thinks at all. Faith is just the reception of God’s grace, and it is God’s grace alone that saves you. But it is not an irresistible grace or a grace that overpowers the human will in a unilateral sort of way.
Followup: All right, but you could hold to limited atonement and be a Molinist, right?
Answer: No, I don’t think that is right. Limited atonement – again, I guess is going to depend on what you mean. Limited atonement is the doctrine that Christ died only for the elect. That is not affirmed by Molinism at all. The Molinist can agree that Christ died for the sins of the whole world – for unbelievers, too. But he would just say that those who reject Christ’s sacrifice for their sins separate themselves from the grace of God and so are not beneficiaries of his death. The doctrine of limited atonement is a doctrine held by certain Reformed theologians who say God picked out the elect, he predestined them, and then Christ died only for them. There is no sacrifice for these other people. He died only for the elect. That doctrine isn’t incompatible with Molinism; a Molinist could hold to this if he wanted to.3 He could say God knew everyone who would freely respond to the Gospel if he heard it, and therefore he chose to send Christ to die only on their behalf. But he is not committed to that view.
Question: I am struggling with what you mean by optimal in your definition. If it has nothing to do with numbers or ratios, then how do you measure it? And if it turns out there are more lost, which it appears by the way we see the world today – of course we can’t see the future and we can’t know the total picture, but in looking at the present and looking at the past it would appear that there is going to be far more people lost than saved – how can you define optimal in those terms?
Answer: I would define optimal as being a weighted measure based upon numbers and ratio. You would try to combine these together. Individually, or taken separately, those wouldn’t be good measures because he could achieve fewer of the lost by just creating fewer people overall. But then you might have a world that is terribly under-populated or has a terrible ratio, say, 90 people are lost and five are saved. That would be a lot fewer lost, wouldn’t it? But it would have such a bad ratio. Or he might have had a lot better ratio, but maybe only at the expense of having terrible numbers, say four out of the five people that are created – he only creates five people and four of them are saved and one is lost. But there you have such bad numbers. So what I am suggesting is that what God would want to do is try to combine these in such a way as to create a world where you get both a good ratio, as good as you can, and then also as many as you can of the saved and as few of the lost as you can. It may be the sad fact that God’s options aren’t very good; that unfortunately of the worlds that are available to God, given the way people would freely respond, that his options are not that great.
Question: Would you say that this is the most optimal world – the best of all possible worlds?
Answer: I am talking here about an optimal balance between saved and lost. That is all. Not the rest of the features of the world. So I am not making a judgment about that. One doesn’t even need to say that it is the single optimal ratio. It is possible that there is a whole range of worlds that have a similar ratio and they could be quite different from each other. But it would suggest that there isn’t any more optimal balance than what we have here. So it doesn’t mean that this is the single best world that God could have created, but I am suggesting it is possible that out of the range of worlds that are feasible to God there is a kind of world that has an optimal balance that couldn’t be improved on by God.
Question: This may be a good argument to say that you can’t disprove that God is all-loving and all-powerful but I don’t think it adds any insight. The impression people are going to take away from this is like God has five kids in his family who wants to go to Six Flags and he can have the most fun if he only takes two, so he’s going to kill the other three and burn them forever instead of having them sit at home for later. That is what they are going to come away with. I think our God is bigger than this, there are things still sealed.
Answer: All right. Let’s talk about that a little bit. I am going to address that question in a minute at more length. In order to show – you granted this – that there is no inconsistency between these two propositions, this is enough. This proposition (3) doesn’t need to be true; it just needs to be possible. As long as it is possible, you have defeated the argument for religious pluralism, or against religious particularism. I think what your question is really, “Is this a plausible scenario that could really be true?” Could this really give insight into the way God is and has ordered the world?4 I guess I am inclined to think that it does give possible insight into the way the world is. God wants everyone to be saved. He wants everyone to come to know him, and he provides sufficient grace for everyone to come to salvation. But he knows that some people would freely reject him and be lost, and he gives them the freedom to do that. But I don’t think that makes him less loving. He wants the lost to be saved, and many of the lost5 may see greater measures of grace than many of the saved do.
Followup: I am not saying it makes him less loving, but it makes him less powerful. I think God does more than that. Like in Galatians, it says God has reconciled everything on Earth first and then in heaven. Everybody is saved but the Son of Perdition.
Answer: Ah! OK, here, though, you are embracing an idiosyncratic view of almost-near universalism, where you think everybody will be saved except for the Son of Perdition, right?
Answer: I just don’t think that is a biblical view. It just seems to me that it is very clear that there will be lots of people in hell.
Followup: I think that is part of a truth that is not evident now that led the Catholic Church to come forth with the idea of Perdition and later withdrew it because they knew it shouldn’t have been established. But God also says every knee will bow when they come into his presence. I don’t think a person who did not trust and believe in Christ would entrust enough to trust his life when God says “Well, you can’t see it now, but you would not have believed anyway.” He is not going to bow to the knee really. God is going to have them fully comprehend – he will have no hope, he will know he fully deserves it when he is there.
Answer: I guess I don’t see why, on this view that I am suggesting, people wouldn’t also realize that what they receive is fully deserved. God is going to judge those who had never heard the Gospel by much, much lower standards than those who have, and I think that every person standing before God’s judgment throne will say, “Yes, this is absolutely just.”
Let me move on. I do want to head off a possible misunderstanding, which hasn’t been raised by anyone here, but I have heard it raised other times. That is, somebody might respond to this and say, “Then why should we engage in missionary work? If everybody who has never heard the Gospel wouldn’t believe in it even if they heard it, why should we go and tell them?” Well, what this question forgets is that we are talking only about people who never hear the Gospel during their lifetime. On this view, God in his providence can so arrange the world that as the Gospel spreads out from first century Palestine, God places in its path people who he knew would receive it if they heard it. So when the Gospel reaches a people group, God can create people in that people group who would respond to the Gospel, if they were to hear it. In his love and mercy, God ensures that no one who would respond to the Gospel if he were to hear it is born at a time and place in history where he fails to hear it. Once the Gospel reaches a people group, only then will God begin to introduce into that group people who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it. But he ensures that those who never hear about it during their lifetime are people who wouldn’t have accepted it even if they had heard of it. Thus, I think this solution magnifies the mercy and the love of God because he is too compassionate and too loving to allow anyone to be lost on the basis of the time and place in history where he is born.
Question: One element to consider with this is history. If you look at biblical history, God was very gracious even to the first murderer Cain. But we see man moving away from God. He moved out of the garden, then he continues to move further and further away, and as the Earth becomes populated the people groups move away with their own heresies and their own beliefs. It is movement away from God, and God is adapting to this with the expansion of the Gospel as you outlined here.6 But you could take, even as a dramatic example of this, when Jesus raised Lazarus. You would think everybody would believe that saw that. But yet there were some that went to plot how they could kill him. So even in the light of very dramatic revelation and personalized revelation, there are people that reject.
Why Didn’t God Create a Different World?
On the basis of this possible answer, I think we are able to provide possible answers to those three difficult questions that I posed at the beginning of our study several weeks ago. Let me take them in reverse order.
(1): Why didn’t God create a world in which everyone would freely receive Christ and be saved? Answer: it may not be feasible for God to create such a world. Such a world may be logically possible, but given human freedom, it may not be feasible for God to create such a world. If such a world were feasible, then all things being equal, God would have created it. But, given his will to create free creatures, God had to accept that some would freely reject him and be lost.
(2) (This gets to the earlier question, I think, which is a difficult question, but here is what I would say about it): Why did God even create the world at all when he knew that so many people would not receive Christ and be lost? Why not just scuttle the whole project and just exist by himself without a world of free creatures? Here’s my possible answer to this. God wanted to share his love and fellowship with created persons. God is the supreme Good. He is infinite goodness, infinite love, and he wanted to share his self and fellowship with him with created persons for their good. He knew that this meant that many would freely reject him and be lost. But he also knew that many others would freely receive him and be saved. The happiness and blessedness of those who would freely believe in him should not be precluded by those who would freely reject him. There is no reason to allow the unsaved, who would freely spurn God’s grace and every effort to save them, to hold some sort of veto power over God, preventing the blessedness and the joy of those who would be saved. But God in his mercy has providentially ordered the world in such a way as to achieve an optimal balance between saved and lost by maximizing the number of those who would freely receive him and minimizing the number of those who would freely reject him. He gives sufficient grace for salvation to every single person that he creates and wills and works for their salvation.
(3) 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? Answer: there are no such people! God, in his providence, has so arranged the world that those who would respond to the Gospel if they heard it do hear it. Those who do not respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience and never hear the Gospel would not have responded to the Gospel even if they had heard it. Thus, no one is lost because of historical and geographical accident. Indeed, there are no accidents on this view of history and geography. Anyone who wants to be saved or even would want to be saved will be saved. How can God get any better than that? Anyone who wants to be saved or would want to be saved will be saved.7
Those are merely possible answers to the questions that I posed. That is enough to remove the sting of religious pluralism. But I want to go further. I think these are also attractive answers because I think they are quite biblical as well. Look at Paul’s speech on Mars Hill in Acts 17:24-27. This is what Paul says:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and . . . gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’
I was astonished when I read this passage because I thought, this is exactly the view that I had arrived at just by philosophical reflection on the problem. So it seems to me that the possible solution that I am proposing today is one that is not merely possible but is one that is really quite biblical as well. We believe in a God who has so providentially ordered the world that where people are born and live isn’t a matter of historical and geographical accident, but he has done this so as to achieve the salvation of as many people as possible.
Question: When you were saying about no one who hears the Gospel would accept it – what about babies that die?
Answer: Yeah, this is a good question. What about children? Would this apply or have any application to them? I don’t think this solution would apply to babies because they don’t make any sort of conscious faith decision on which God can judge them. Some people have tried to use a middle knowledge solution to deal with infants who die or perhaps the severely mentally retarded by saying that God judges them on the basis of what they would have done if they had grown up and heard the Gospel. I think that that is an unacceptable solution. You cannot judge someone morally for something he would have done but did not do. If I had been born in Nazi Germany, I might have been a war criminal. I might have been part of the Nazi SS. But I am not, so I am not punished for that, I am not guilty for that. So my view, that I’m suggesting, should not be confused with the view that God will judge the unevangelized on the basis of what they would have done if they had heard the Gospel. That is not what I am saying. I think that is an incorrect view. You are judged based on the light that you have – general revelation. But what I am suggesting is that God has providentially ordered the world in such a way that no one who rejects general revelation and is lost would have received the Gospel if he had heard it. That won’t apply to infants. I think in the case of infants, our hope is simply that not having reached the age of accountability, God’s grace will be extended to them in the way that Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, such is the kingdom of heaven.”8
Question: I have a question about Romans 5 where it talks about death in Adam and life in Christ.9 It basically says that all men die in Adam, and then we know that Christ is greater than Adam. It talks about that Adam was a type of the one who was to come. And you know Christ is referred to in some places as the new Adam or the second Adam. Here is where I get hung up a little. All die as a result of Adam’s original sin, yet only some are saved by Christ, one who is greater than Adam. Does God then have some kind of rational basis, according to your understanding of middle knowledge, of knowing who is going to accept him? Does God have a rational basis for that?10
Answer: That gets back to this idea of middle knowledge. Does God know counterfactuals of creaturely freedom, as they are called, like “If Jones were to attend the Billy Graham Crusade in Memphis, then he would receive Christ and be saved”? Or “If Smith were to be born into a non-Christian family who are members of the American Humanist Association, he would turn to Christ later in life and be saved”? It is saying that God knows all of those various counterfactuals of freedom and so can providentially order a world on the basis of those counterfactuals. I am suggesting that he does it with a view toward maximizing, or getting the best balance, between saved and lost that he can. It is just a sad fact that so many people would freely reject God’s grace and be lost, that in any world feasible for God having this many saved, there are going to be this many lost.
Followup: OK, that explains how God does that. But why? Why is there a basis for saving one person and not another?
Answer: This is where one begins to ask questions about God’s motivations that I think are unanswerable. For example, here’s a world where James would have been saved, and here’s another world where Bill would have been saved, and God chooses one world rather than the another. Why? We don’t know! That is his sovereign will, that he is going to create a world in which it is James that is saved, and Bill is never actualized. Bill is just a possibility. There are unlimited numbers of such possibilities, when you think about it. But I take it that this has a very, very strong view of divine sovereignty, that God freely can choose to actualize whichever world that he wants, so long as it is consistent with his fundamental nature of being good. I don’t think there is any world that God could actualize where, for example, everybody freely is damned. God is too good to create a world like that. But I think he could create a world like this one, where there would be multitudes that are saved, even though multitudes freely reject him and are lost because of what I said about the damned’s not being allowed to hold veto power over God and preclude the blessedness of those who would freely respond to his grace and be saved. But I don’t think we can penetrate into the reasons for why God chooses a world with James rather than the world with Bill. That may be just purely free choice, that he just freely chooses one or the other.
Let me wrap this up, as we close, by saying, it seems to me, in conclusion, that the presence of other world religions besides Christianity doesn’t really do anything to undermine the Christian doctrine of salvation through Christ alone. In fact, I think what I have said can help to put the proper perspective on Christian missions. It is our duty to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world, trusting that God has so providentially ordered the world, that as we go out sharing the Gospel, there are literally divine appointments waiting for us, people whom God has placed in our path because he knew that if we were to share the Gospel with them they would freely respond to it and be saved. So this puts a tremendous positive motivation behind the task of world mission. As for those who are in other religions, our compassion toward them is not to be shown by pretending that they are not lost and dying without Christ because they are. Rather our compassion toward them is to be shown by our supporting and making every effort ourselves to bring to them the life-giving message of the Gospel of Christ.11
5 Dr. Craig misspeaks here and says “saved” when he meant to say “lost.”
8 cf. Matthew 19:14
9 cf. Romans 5:12-21
11 Total Running Time: 40:15 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)