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#586 Middle Knowledge and the Essentialism of Origins

July 08, 2018

Dr. Craig: You have a great deal invested in God's ability to "providentially order" His created Earth such that those who will accept the Gospel are actualized in temporal and geographical circumstances where they will hear the Gospel. As for the many places that the Gospel had not reached (say, second century Tibet), God actualized in such places only those whom He knew (via His middle knowledge) will never accept the Gospel. This seems to raise serious personal identity issues. Apparently, before the creative decree God had the flexibility to actualize a particular essence in either Tibet or Texas depending on how that essence, once actualized as a person, would respond to the Gospel. But how would that essence be the same person whether actualized in ancient Tibet or modern Texas? And what of essentialism of origins? Would we be the same person as we are now if we had different parents? To ask the question another way, what could it possibly mean for me to say "I could have been a second century Tibetan"? Without an answer to this your entire defense of hell falls apart. I have tried to see where you address this in your published writings, but have not found anything. Have I missed it? Thank you. I really look forward to your thoughts on this important issue.


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Dr. craig’s response


Before I answer your interesting question, Steve, let’s make sure my view is represented accurately. It is trivially true that “those who will accept the Gospel. . . will hear the Gospel.” What is at issue is whether those who would accept the Gospel will hear the Gospel. It is crucial in discussions of this sort that we discriminate between sentences in the indicative mood and sentences in the subjunctive mood. Our concern is with subjunctive conditionals like ”If Ali had heard the Gospel, he would have accepted it.” If my view is properly understood, then, I do not claim that those who would accept the Gospel (if they heard it), are born at a time and place where they do hear it. There may be people who never hear the Gospel and are saved through their response to God’s general revelation in nature and conscience alone, but who would also have accepted the Gospel (had they heard it) and been saved.

Nor do I hold that “As for the many places that the Gospel had not reached. . . , God actualized in such places only those whom He knew (via His middle knowledge) [would] never accept the Gospel.” On the contrary, as the foregoing paragraph makes plain, there may be people who never hear the Gospel but who would have accepted it, had they heard it. Rather my proposal is that people who never hear the Gospel and reject general revelation would not have accepted the Gospel even had they heard it.

Now what you call the “essentialism of origins,” far from undermining my view, actually helps it! The essentialism of origins is the thesis that one’s parentage is essential to one’s personal identity. So on this view I could not have been born of different parents. I’m sceptical of the essentialism of origins because I believe that the soul is distinct from the body. I am not my body. Rather I am a soul with this particular body. But I could have had a different body. God could have embodied my soul, it seems to me, as a black African or an Indonesian or a medieval European.

This gives God a lot of flexibility with regard to my historical and geographical circumstances. If I am a person who would not accept the Gospel in my present circumstances, were I to hear it, then God can see what would happen if He were instead to actualize my individual essence as a Kenyan or a Brazilian. Maybe He could find circumstances in which I would freely accept the Gospel (though that might mess up the world in other ways).

But if the essentialism of origins is true, then God’s hand is really limited! In that case I have to have all the same ancestors as I presently do. God can’t just put my soul in any old body. I have to have the same two parents, and they in turn have to have their same parents, and so on, all the way back. The only way God could locate me in, say, Brazil is by getting some of my ancestors to move there. But God has no option of seeing what would happen if I were an Eskimo or the son of D.L. Moody. Thus, given the essentialism of origins, God’s hands are tied with respect to my ancestry. Many of the worlds feasible for God on my view would now no longer be feasible for God and are thus irrelevant. So it is much more plausible, given the essentialism of origins, to think that those who never hear the Gospel and are lost would not have believed the Gospel even if they had heard it.

- William Lane Craig