Doctrine of Christ (Part 51): The Work of Christ (44) - Christian Particularism, Conclusion

May 16, 2018     Time: 36:40

Wrapping Up The Discussion on Christian Particularism

Today we’re going to wrap up our discussion of Christian particularism. I think the lesson will be fairly short today because we’re right near the end of this section, and I don’t want to begin a new section midway through the class, but put that off until next Sunday.

To recap what we’ve seen so far, we’ve seen that many people think that the religious diversity in the world presents a significant challenge to the truth of salvation through Christ alone. After clearing away some fallacious objections to Christian particularism, we saw that the central problem involves the fate of those who lie outside the orbit of the Gospel, who never hear the Gospel of Christ and so do not have a chance to respond to it. How will God judge them? In particular we saw that those who reject the light of general revelation in nature and conscience that is available to all persons but who would have freely believed in the Gospel if only they had heard it present a real agonizing problem for Christian particularism. It would seem that their damnation or salvation hinges upon the accidents of history and geography. They just happen to have the bad luck through no fault of their own to be born at the wrong time and place in history where they do not get to hear the Gospel. But if they had heard it then they would have been saved. God’s judgment of such persons on the basis of general revelation in nature and conscience is certainly just, but would an all-loving God allow people to be eternally lost simply because of historical and geographical accident? That’s the challenge.

As we looked at this so-called soteriological problem of evil in more detail, we saw that, like the philosophical problem of evil, the argument seems to be that Christian particularism involves an internal contradiction or inconsistency. Namely, the Christian particularist believes on the one hand that God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet he also believes on the other hand that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. The religious pluralist says that these two statements are logically incompatible with each other. But since there is no explicit contradiction between these two statements the religious pluralist must be making some hidden assumptions that would bring out the contradiction and make it explicit. We saw that those assumptions appear to be, first of all, that if God is all-powerful then he can create just any world that he wants to. Secondly, if God is all-loving then he would prefer a world of universal salvation over a world in which some people are lost. In order for the argument of the religious pluralist to be valid both of those hidden assumptions need to be necessarily true. As we examined them we saw that, in fact, neither of them seems to be necessarily true.

With regard to the first assumption, God’s being all-powerful doesn’t mean that he can do the logically impossible, and it is logically impossible to make people freely do something. Therefore it’s possible that in any world of free creatures that God might create, these free creatures (some of them at least) would go wrong and reject his grace and salvation and so be lost forever. Such worlds where everyone would freely receive Christ and be saved therefore may be infeasible for God. Given the way people would freely behave it may be that there is no world of universal salvation that is feasible for God.[1] Therefore God’s being all-powerful doesn’t mean that he can create just any old world that he would like.

Secondly, we also saw that God’s being all-loving doesn’t guarantee that he prefers a world of universal salvation over a world in which some people are freely lost. Certainly, all things being equal, God would prefer a world of universal salvation, but how do we know that all things are equal? It may be that the worlds that involve universal salvation that are feasible for God (if there are any) have other overriding deficiencies that make them less preferable. Since that’s certainly possible it follows that the assumption of the religious pluralist is not necessarily true that an all-loving God would prefer a world of universal salvation over a world in which some people are freely lost.

So the argument of the religious pluralist is invalid. Neither of its critical assumptions is necessarily true.

Last week we pushed the argument a notch further and argued that we can actually prove that it is entirely consistent that God be all-loving and all-powerful and some people never hear the Gospel and be lost. What we need to do is simply to find a statement which is compatible with the first one and entails the second one. This was the proposition C on your outline which goes like this: God has created a world that has an optimal balance between saved and lost, and those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed the Gospel even if they had heard it. Now, is C true? God knows! We don’t know whether C is true or not, but what we can say is that as long as it is possible it proves that there’s no inconsistency between God’s being all-powerful and all-loving and some people never hearing the Gospel and being lost. That is a succinct recap of where we’ve been so far.

Today in our final section, I want to discuss a further move that the religious pluralist might make with regard to this argument. The religious pluralist at this point might admit that it is possible that God is all-loving and all-powerful and yet some people never hear the Gospel and are lost. But he would say nevertheless these two statements are highly improbable with respect to each other. It is highly improbable that if God is all-powerful and all-loving that some people never hear the Gospel and are lost.

Why might he think that the two propositions are improbable with respect to each other? He might note that people by and large seem to believe in the religion of the culture in which they are born and raised. But in that case, the pluralist might argue, it’s highly probable that many of those who never hear the Gospel would have believed in the Gospel if they had been born and raised in a Christian culture. If they had not been raised in the culture in which they find themselves but instead, say, be born in 20th century America and raised in a Christian home then they would have believed the Gospel and been saved. So the hypothesis C that I’ve suggested, though possible, is nevertheless highly implausible. It’s highly improbable that all of those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed in it if they had heard it.

I think we can agree that it would indeed be fantastically improbable that just by happenstance alone it turned out that all of those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed in the Gospel even if they had heard it. But that is not the hypothesis. The hypothesis is not that this happened by accident, rather the hypothesis is that a provident, sovereign God has so arranged the world.[2] Given a God who is endowed with the knowledge of how every possible person would freely respond in any situation in which he finds himself (and this as someone noted the other week is called middle knowledge – if you need a review of that go back to our section in this class on divine omniscience where we talked about God’s middle knowledge) – but given God’s knowledge of how every person would freely respond to his grace in any circumstance in which God might place him, it’s not at all implausible that God has ordered the world in the way that I have described. Such a world wouldn’t look outwardly any different than a world in which a person’s circumstances of birth are just a matter of happenstance.

We can agree that people generally adopt the religion of the culture in which they’re born and raised. Therefore, if many of those who never hear the Gospel had been born in Christian cultures they would have probably become at least nominally or culturally Christian. But that’s not to say that they would have been saved. It’s a simple empirical fact that there are no distinguishing psychological or sociological traits between persons who become Christians and persons who do not become Christians. There’s no way to predict accurately based on psychological profiling or sociological factors whether or not a person will become a Christian and under what circumstances he would do so. Since a world that is providentially ordered by God in the way that I’ve described, there is no way to tell that the hypothesis that I’ve suggested is improbable. Apart from a demonstration that middle knowledge is improbable, I do not see how one could prove that it’s improbable that a provident God has so arranged the world as I’ve described since such a world would look outwardly identical to a world in which the circumstances of a person’s birth are a matter of historical and geographical accident. I don’t know of any good demonstration or argument that it’s improbable that God should have this sort of middle knowledge. So I do not think that the solution that I proposed can be indicted either as being improbable or implausible.


Student: I want to use a different perspective to recap what you’re saying. Maybe it’s more tangible for us to understand. We can use Newton’s law of an object that is set in motion will continue in that motion unless there’s a external force. Let me draw the connection. God is good and he has sent his goodness into motion when he created the world. Yet the sin is all the friction and all the external things that stop that goodness. So a person, if they cannot accept that there is no goodness, all the goodness can be stopped by external force, then they will . . . I mean a person cannot accept that they will project in faith with all the things . . . basically Jesus said this counterforce against the friction . . . the Gospel is the one that kind of propelled the goodness. So each person can, by faith, accept this counter-friction message. Or they have to accept that goodness will just eventually be eliminated because of the sin. So the so-called middle knowledge is one’s desire and alignment to see God’s goodness continue.

Dr. Craig: I can’t resist asking Brad if he thought that was easier to understand than what I said. [laughter] Okay, we can draw this analogy of the force and the friction and the friction is like sin that impedes the goodness of God. That’s fine.[3] But I’m not sure that the analogy captures the problem that I’m addressing, and that problem is this. What about people, who through the friction of their own sin and stubbornness, resist God’s goodness that they have perceived but who under different circumstances would not have resisted it but received that counter-friction, that counter-force, and so be saved. That’s the problem, it seems to me. It’s this what I would call counterfactual problem. People who resist God and are lost but who would not have resisted him and been lost if they had been in other circumstances. Those are the people that I’m really wrestling with and troubled about. So I think that while one can develop other sorts of analogies like this you’ve got to have an analogy that will capture the problem and then provide a solution to it.

Student: Maybe a bridge between two of them is man moved away from God and we see this movement from the Garden go east of Eden then they go to Babel and they want to build a tower that exceeds the height of the flood. This is moving away from God. And also moving east toward Sodom and Gomorrah, not that there’s anything wrong with going east but it’s figurative of man’s moving away from God. So these cultures became what they are because man moved away from God. If you take India, for example, you have a Christian minority, Sikhs, and Muslims but the dominant religion is Hinduism. That’s 1200 BC. Before they were Hindus they were something else. But the idea is they’ve moved away initially starting with Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve had the revelation and the relationship with God. It’s man who’s moved. So some of these explanations are ways of dealing with this and has to take into account that man has moved away from God and established these entities and these cultures. That would be, I think, an augment to what we’re saying here.

Dr. Craig: I certainly want to agree that man in rebellion against God plunges himself into darkness and that some cultures are morally reprobate and very dark indeed. But I have to insist, I hope people are understanding the problem that I’m wrestling with in this class, and that is: what about the Hindu living in India who never hears the Gospel and so is damned because he doesn’t respond to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience but who would have been saved if only the missionaries had gotten there earlier? His condemnation – here I think you are right – is certainly just when judged by the standards of general revelation of nature and conscience. That person’s condemnation and punishment is just. But would an all-loving God allow a person to be justly condemned because of the accidents of history and geography? Basically what I’m saying is: given divine providence, there are no accidents of history and geography! As Paul says in Acts 17, God determined the exact times that people should live and the exact places that they should live and he did this with a view toward their salvation – that they would reach out and feel after him and he says perhaps find him because he’s not far from every one of us. So, again, the question is not: is their condemnation just? Because as you rightly point out they have separated themselves from God. The question is: would an all-loving and all-powerful God allow people like this to be lost due to historical and geographical accident?[4]

Student: I want to preface this with saying that I actually 100% agree with what you’ve put forth and actually reteach it often myself. My question is the other solution to this: is it incompatible with God’s loving nature? We see all the time throughout the world that people are affected by other people’s sin. And it’s no fault of their own. I mean innocent people are harmed all the time. They’re murdered. People’s sin doesn’t always just affect themselves. It affects everyone around them, and it affects innocent people all the time. So I feel like that’s demonstrated with what we can view today. Do you believe that it’s incompatible – the situation of people not hearing about Christ and therefore not being saved because of the sins of others for not going to tell them is actually incompatible with a loving God? Because I agree with what you’re putting forth. I just want to make that clear. I think that’s more likely the case, but is it absolutely incompatible that because of people’s sin people don’t hear and therefore they go to hell. Because I feel like innocent people are affected by other people’s sin all the time.

Dr. Craig: Do you grasp what his question is? What he’s saying is that the historical and geographical accidents involved in a person’s salvation are not just the circumstances and time at which he was born but will include things like people’s obedience to the missionary call and their going out to share the Gospel. Think of the corruption and the degradation in the medieval European church. If the church had been obedient to New Testament Christianity and the teachings of Jesus instead of the centuries of corruption and darkness that existed in the medieval church, maybe many of these people would have been reached that we’re thinking about today. So he is asking: do I think that it would be incompatible with God’s love for God to allow people to be condemned simply because the medieval church, for example, was disobedient and didn’t go to them with the Gospel? While I’m reluctant to make an incompatibility claim, because that is such a strong claim, it certainly does seem to me to be improbable. Given God’s love and his will that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, it’s very hard for me to think that God would allow people to go to hell simply because the Christian church was irresponsible or disobedient to missionary activity. So that would be my response to this.

Student: I was wondering if we’re perhaps underestimating the power of God’s ability to minister apart from missionaries and apart from the church. I hear all the time tons of stories about folks in the Middle East who have never encountered a Christian before seeing a white light and having visions of Jesus. I wonder if perhaps we’re overestimating man’s involvement in that and underestimating God’s general revelation.

Dr. Craig: I think that’s a very fair comment. God could reach out in special ways to people who do not hear the Gospel by giving them visions or dreams. We certainly have biblical examples of God speaking to people in visions and dreams. But I’m assuming a sort of worst-case scenario where communicating with people by visions and dreams wouldn’t give enough content unless they’ve at least heard of Christ in some way. Please understand that by stating the objection as hard as I can, it makes the answer all the more powerful. If we can state the objection with maximum difficulty and answer it, then you’re quite right! It will be all the easier if we are found to be underestimating God’s power and we can take into account dreams and visions and other things of that sort. That will make it easier for us. So I’m quite open and happy for that sort of factor to be considered as well.

Student: Im still really struggling with understanding. It just really sounds to me like some people are created for damnation.[5] I don’t think that’s what you’re saying, but that’s what I’m hearing and I’m really struggling against that.

Dr. Craig: I fully appreciate the difficulty of understanding this, and thank you for asking for a clarification. Professional philosophers have misunderstood this as well, so you’re in good company (if it’s good to be in the company of philosophers!). What’s critical to understand is that the propositions that are at issue here are contingent. They’re not necessary. Take a proposition like, “If I were rich, I would buy a Mercedes.” That may be true. That could be a true proposition in the actual world that if I were rich I would buy a Mercedes. But that doesn’t belong to my nature. There are possible worlds in which different counterfactuals are true. Like in some other possible world, if I were rich I would buy a BMW, or if I were rich I would donate all my money to Doctors Without Borders, or something of that sort. So don’t think that these counterfactuals are necessarily true or belong to the person’s nature. It is contingent that a person would reject Christ in any circumstances that God placed him in. In other possible worlds he might be very amenable to the Gospel and could receive Christ if he were in those possible worlds because a different set of counterfactuals would be true. So it doesn’t belong to a person’s nature. This is not any kind of fatalism.

Student: I have a question about a specific subset of people who are exposed to accidents of history and never hear, and that’s for infant or child mortality. Traditionally I’ve been taught that there is an age of accountability, and there’s kind of an exception there. I’m not sure if there’s significant scriptural evidence to overcome this middle knowledge solution that you proposed, and if so does that open the door for another solution rather than middle knowledge for tribes who have never heard or the kind of the missionary scenario we’ve been discussing?

Dr. Craig: I don’t advocate a middle knowledge solution for the problem of people who die as infants. Sometimes people will say God judges people who die as infants on the basis of what they would have done if they had grown up. I think God knows that. That would be middle knowledge. He knows what that person would have done if he had grown up under such and such circumstances. The problem with that is that I don’t think you can be held morally responsible for something you never do. If I had been born in Nazi Germany I might have been a member of the Hitler Youth and became a Nazi criminal, but I didn’t and so God isn’t going to condemn me for what I would have done but never did do. And similarly with respect to those who die in infancy. So I’m more inclined to say that on the basis of Jesus’ attitude toward children when he says, Suffer the little children to come to me for such is the Kingdom of Heaven, that God’s grace is extended to those who died in infancy and they will be saved. Would there be an application of that to those who never hear? I suppose you could say theoretically that those who never hear are like the infants and they are therefore all saved, but that just seems crazy. We know that they do have general revelation and that they are condemned for their failure to live up to general revelation – Romans chapter one.  Moreover that would make – as somebody asked the other day – the Gospel bad news, indeed. All of these unevangelized people would be saved but when the Gospel comes to them then many of them would be lost. So the Gospel would be the source of their condemnation and damnation rather than salvation, and that can’t be right. So I’m not inclined to extend this solution about infants who have no cognitive ability to grasp any revelation from God to persons who are responsible adults who have God’s general revelation but suppress it in unrighteousness and wickedness.[6]

Student: In Matthew 11:23 there’s an example where Jesus is speaking to the people of Capernaum and he says, You’ll be brought down to Hades for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom it would remained until this day. He’s dealing with a counterfactual here, and he doesn’t exactly say they would come to salvation but he does say that their judgment would be different if the historical circumstances had been different. Does that apply to salvation? How does that impact this argument you’re making?

Dr. Craig: That passage was one of the favorite prooftexts of the proponents of middle knowledge. They would use that passage as well as the example of David in Keilah when he is using the ephod as a divining device as to whether Saul will come down if he remains in the city. The incident in 1 Samuel with David and then this verse about the cities in which Jesus preached that were hard and unrepentant compared to Sodom and Gomorrah were often used to prove that God has middle knowledge. I am not persuaded that the passage in Matthew is a good prooftext for middle knowledge, however. I think it’s more plausible to think that this is religious hyperbole on Jesus’ part. He often would use hyperbolic language in his teaching, and I think it’s a way of saying to the people in Bethsaida and Capernaum that they are really rotten people, they are really evil, hard-hearted people because they haven’t repented. If Jesus’ miracles have been done in Sodom and Gomorrah they would have repented. I don’t think that’s a serious piece of middle knowledge but it’s probably just religious hyperbole. But if you do take it literally and not hyperbolically then that would be a verse opposite the position that I’ve suggested here. It would be a verse that would suggest that a person’s salvation or damnation might be contingent upon these sorts of historical factors.

Student: Speaking of necessary and contingent truths, I think that a lot of the solution to the problem here relates to middle knowledge which from what I know is kind of controversial in theology – as to whether God actually has middle knowledge. So I have two questions along those lines. First of all, when considering that kind of optimal balance between those who are saved and those who are not saved and the claim that for those who never received the Gospel at all, never hear about the Gospel, those are the people who, had they heard about the Gospel, would not have believed anyway. That statement requires that God has middle knowledge. That seems like a necessary condition for the statement being true that God must have middle knowledge. If God has middle knowledge as part of his omniscience and therefore is necessary, it would be a necessary property. So couldn’t the person say God doesn’t have middle knowledge and therefore the claim that there is this optimal balance is necessarily false?

Dr. Craig: This is a middle knowledge solution to the problem posed by religious pluralism. If you don’t believe in middle knowledge then you’re welcome to develop your own solution. But for my part, I find this to be the most plausible solution to the problem. I don’t know of any good objections to middle knowledge. I think that it is part of divine omniscience, and therefore, as you say, belongs to God’s nature to have middle knowledge. In my published work on this, I, in fact, call this a middle knowledge solution to the problem of the exclusivity of salvation through Christ. So this is founded upon this doctrine of middle knowledge.


Let me just wrap up in the moment remaining. I don’t think therefore that religious pluralists have been able to show any logical inconsistency in the doctrine that Christ alone is the way of salvation. On the contrary, I think we’ve been able to show that such a position is not only logically coherent but even plausible and biblical as well.[7] Therefore, mankind’s religious diversity, I think, does not undermine the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone. In fact, on the contrary, I think that what we’ve said puts the proper perspective on Christian missions and evangelism. It’s our duty to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world knowing that God has so providentially arranged the world that as we go out sharing the Gospel there will be people that he has placed in our path who are ready to receive the Gospel when they hear it. So our compassion toward those in other world religions is not shown by pretending that they are not lost and dying without Christ but rather by our supporting and making every effort ourselves to share with them the life-giving message of the Gospel of Christ.[8]


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[2]          9:55

[3]          15:12

[4]          20:00

[5]          25:01

[6]          30:03

[7]          35:00

[8]          Total Running Time: 36:39 (Copyright © 2018 William Lane Craig)