This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Hello Dr. Craig,
It’s an honor and privilege to write you, you are one of my favorite scholars, debater, and lecturer. I am an agnostic, but to clarify I believe in an all knowing and all powerful god, but I am not sure what religion has the best description of this god’s character. Nevertheless I chose to explore the concept of god first in the christian faith. While there are aspects of the Christian depiction of god that makes sense there are some things that makes it hard for me to make the decision to become a Christian.
First there is the belief that only those who accept Jesus can get to heaven. I find this belief to be one of the most harshest mandates of the Christian religion. How can an all loving and all powerful god not see how the complexities of the human existence may not allow for one to know Jesus let alone accept Jesus. There are humans who have never left their village and know nothing of the Christian faith, and to no fault of their own, because they do not control where they are born, nor do they control the culture that they are born in. Even if one have heard of Jesus how can an all knowing god not see that if someone is born in a culture with a religion that their society has been practicing for generations, expect that person or persons to drop that religion and simply adopt a new religion? Surely an all knowing and intelligent god could see how difficult that can be for the average human being. Also god knows that he made humans imperfect and not all knowing. I say that to say that god knows humans will make mistakes. Why couldn’t that be for religion as well? How can an all loving god not be empathetic to a human being who explored Jesus story but made the mistake of not believing it or made the mistake of choosing another religion? How can a perfect god intentionally make imperfect humans, intentionally put them in different environments, intentionally in different cultures. And expect them to make the perfect decision of accepting Jesus for salvation? It just doesn’t add up to me.
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
I’m so glad you’re looking into the Christian faith, Andrew! I’m confident that of the world’s religions, you’ll find that there is none that has so exalted and ennobling a concept of God as the Christian faith.
What about the doctrine that “only those who accept Jesus can get to heaven”? It might surprise you to learn that this is not what the Christian faith affirms. Every Christian agrees that Old Testament figures like Abraham and Moses, who lived before the time of Jesus, found forgiveness and salvation even though they had never even heard of Christ, much less believed in him. As I’ve explained in my work on Christian particularism, Christians hold that salvation is available only on the basis of Christ’s atoning death for our sins, but salvation can be accessed without a knowledge of Christ’s atoning death for our sins. It’s like suddenly finding out that you’re the beneficiary in the will of a rich uncle whom you never knew about. Old Testament believers responded appropriately in faith to the revelation that God had given them and therefore are beneficiaries of Christ’s atoning death. Not only that, but, intriguingly, there are figures in the Old Testament, sometimes referred to as “holy pagans of the Old Testament,” who were not even members of God’s old covenant with the Jewish people, but who nonetheless clearly had a saving relationship with the God of Israel, people like Job and Melchizedek.
So people can get to heaven without placing their faith in Jesus, even though they cannot get there without Jesus. Now here’s the question: could there be modern-day Jobs and Melchizedeks who, through no fault of their own, have never heard of Christ but who do respond appropriately to the revelation, principally in nature and conscience, that God has given them? I don’t see why not. As the good news of the Gospel spreads out from first century Palestine, people who find themselves in as yet unreached regions of the world, are, in effect, still like persons who lived prior to the time of Christ. Accordingly, God will judge them on the basis of their response to the light that they have. They may be saved in their native religions, but not through or on the basis of their native religions.
More radically, I have suggested that it’s possible, as well as plausible, that God, given His universal salvific will (II Peter 3.9; I Timothy 2.4), has so providentially ordered the world that He will bring the Gospel to anyone who He knows would receive it if he heard it. Those who never hear the Gospel and are unsaved would not have received it and been saved even if they had heard it. Thus, anyone who wants or even would want to be saved will be saved. Our destiny is truly in our own hands.
But, you say, what about persons who through the influence of their culture fail to believe in Jesus when and if they hear the message of the Gospel? I think you underestimate, Andrew, the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome such resistance and to bring a person to a point of a genuinely free decision; but never mind. I’ve suggested that God has so providentially ordered the world that anyone who rejects the Gospel in his present circumstances would not have believed it even if he had been born in more conducive circumstances. Although you mention God’s being “all knowing and intelligent,” I don’t think you’ve truly comprehended what that involves. An omniscient God knows all “the complexities of human existence”; indeed, those practically infinite complexities are under His providential control. You’re thinking of a God who inserts people into a world not of His own planning, rather than of a God who providentially orders the world in such a way as to maximize human salvation. God knows what circumstances to place people in with a view toward their salvation.
Look at what the apostle Paul had to say about this:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17.24-8).
In Paul’s mind the times and places in history at which people live are not the result of accident but rather of God’s planning, with a view toward their finding salvation. God places people in various circumstances of His choosing and then through His Holy Spirit provides them gifts of grace in order to draw them freely to Himself. Thus, no one will be lost through historical or geographical accident.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.