Is the problem that God did not bring the gospel to those whom he knew would freely accept it if they heard it, but were lost in their sin solely because they never did?
This seems to be the problem at the root of the religious pluralist’s objection to Christian particularism. It is argued that there is an inconsistency with God being all-powerful and all-loving, and the fact there are some that some never hear the gospel and are lost.
Rawiri Taiwhanga, Maori chief and unidentified woman
To illustrate let us imagine the Maori chieftain Rawiri Taiwhanga perceived through nature the creator God, and through his conscience knew the moral law, but chooses to reject these lights and lives selfishly. Then he would be justly condemned. Now let us suppose that had Christian missionaries arrived in time to New Zealand and preached the gospel to Rawiri Taiwhanga that he would have responded positively and been saved, but that the Christian missionaries did not. His condemnation would be just, but the question remains if this is the action of a loving God. It makes it seem that Rawiri Taiwhanga’s condemnation is merely the result of the accident of history and geography. What we have here is similar to the logical problem of evil discussed in lesson eight of our course.
The Soteriological Problem of Evil
It would seem that there is a contradiction between the following two premises.
- God is all-powerful and all-loving
- Some people never hear the gospel and are lost
Thus, it appears that Christian particularism is logically incoherent.
However, these premises aren’t explicitly contradictory—one is not the negation of the other. Thus, if the pluralist is claiming that the two premises are implicitly contradictory, he must be assuming some hidden premises that would serve to bring out the contradiction and make the premises explicitly contradictory. These premises would be something like the following.
3. If God is all-powerful, He can create a world in which everybody hears the gospel and is freely saved.
4. If God is all-loving, He prefers a world in which everybody hears the gospel and is freely saved.
If premise 1 is true, that God is all-powerful and all-loving, and premises 3 and 4 are true, it stands in contradiction to premise 2 creating an explicit contradiction. Both premises 3 and 4 have to be necessarily true if this argument from the religious pluralist is to be successful. So the Christian particularist merely has to argue that 3 and 4 are possibly false. Lets us consider 3 and 4 in that order.
On the face of it, premise 3 certainly seems to be true in that God can create a world in which everyone hears the gospel and is saved. However, so long as people are free, there is no guarantee that everybody in such a world would be freely saved. It is logically impossible to make someone freely choose to do something, so it will always be possible for a free creature to reject God’s plan of salvation. Thus premise 3 is not necessarily true and the religious pluralist’s argument is fallacious. Moreover, there’s also no reason to think that the balance between saved and lost in such a world would be any different to the actual world.
Although the argument is already fallacious let us look at Premise 4 also. At first this seems plausible as well. But not so fast. Let us presume that there are worlds which are possible and feasible for God to actualise and in which everyone hears the gospel and is freely saved. If God is all-loving, does this mean he should be compelled to prefer such a world over another in which some are lost, or even the actual world where it seems that many are lost?
The answer is ‘not necessarily,’ for such world may have overriding deficiencies. Suppose that any such worlds are vastly underpopulated, with only a handful of people, perhaps only three or four. If God were to create any more people, then they would freely reject His grace and be lost. It is far from obvious that God would prefer such a world over another in which vast multitudes were saved, even though that world also contained those who were lost. So long as sufficient grace had been offered to those who are lost, God seems to be no less loving.
Thus, it is possible that God does not prefer a world in which all hear the gospel and are freely saved. The argument then is doubly fallacious. In the absence of any other premises that would make the contradiction between 1 and 2 explicit, we are justified in accepting Christian particularism.
We can go a step further however and show that there is no inconsistency between 1 and 2. It is possible that God is all-loving and all-powerful and that there are some people who never hear the gospel and are lost. To show this we can posit the following premise.
5. 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 it even if they heard it.
To put flesh on the premise, if there are any persons like Rawiri Taiwhanga, our Maori chieftain, who would not have responded to the revelation of God in nature and in conscience and so have been lost, but would have believed the gospel had he heard it, such as sending an angel to tell preach it to him, then God would have arranged it. Indeed, Christian missionaries did arrive in New Zealand to preach to Rawiri Taiwhanga the good news of salvation, and he became the first prominent Maori convert to Christianity in 1830.
It is possible that the actual world has the correct balance between saved and lost, such that as many people as possible are saved and as few people as possible are lost. God’s goal would be to create no more people who are lost than would be necessary to achieve a certain number of saved. It’s possible that had God created a world with fewer people who were lost, then fewer people would get to heaven. It’s possible that to achieve a multitude of heaven-bound saints, God had to create a multitude of hell-bound sinners.
It is also possible that God, in his mercy, has so providentially arrange the world such that all who are lost would have rejected the gospel even if they heard it. That is, that no person who would have been saved had they heard it misses out on salvation. God is too good to allow any person to be lost because of the (so-called) accident of the historical and geographic location of their birth.
So long as this is possibly true, it shows that there is no contradiction between God being all-loving and all-powerful, and that there are some who are lost. It may be objected however, that such a solution is extremely unlikely. As evidence in support of the implausibility of premise 5, it seems that the religious affiliation is strongly connected to the historical and geographic location of one’s birth. If those people who were raised away from the influence of the Christian west were raised in a Christian culture, it seems likely that they would have been Christians instead. At least nominally or culturally.
However, the hypothesis is not that the historical and geographical location of the persons who are lost were by complete happenstance, but that God has arrange the world in that way. If that were the proposal, then it would indeed seem unlikely, but that it not the proposal. The world this solution imagines is providentially arranged by God. Since there is no distinguishing sociological or psychological characteristics of those who are become genuinely saved (and not just become culturally Christianised) and those who are lost, the world this solution imagines would appear no different to the world had it been ordered by happenstance, so it is difficult to see how it could be implausible (unless one could demonstrate that God is not endowed with such contingent knowledge).
If this solution is correct, then it provides an exciting impetus for missions, for it means that God has arranged for those who go out and spread the gospel, people to providentially be in their path whom he knows would respond the good news if it were given to them. And not insignificantly, if this solution is correct then we are in a position to answer a host of other questions, of which we can address in the follow post, A hell of a Problem? Part 3.
For the previous post, See A hell of problem? Part 1