This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such. Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends. Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times. I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.
I have heard this question posed many ways over the years. Most recently I was having a, mostly friendly, discussion with an old friend on Facebook. He was voicing many problems he has with Christianity. One of them is that God seems favor white people. I corrected him as far as pointing out that the majority of people in scripture were not “white” as the action centers on Africa, Asia and the Middle East. For centuries after the Bible most Christians were located in this region, the idea of Christianity as a white religion came much later.
But beyond that, I knew what he was really getting at. Why did God only reveal himself to the Jews? What about people living in Australia or South America? Its a good question. I have a few thoughts that may point us towards an answer:
1. God’s special revelation to Israel/Jews did not mean they were God’s favorite – in actuality their election was for the benefit of the world.
When God called, or chose, Abraham in Genesis 12 the text says that “all nations on earth will be blessed through you.” We see right away that God’s choosing of Abraham was not solely for his benefit, but with the hopes that the blessings would overflow to all people. This hope was repeated to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites. Israel was actually warned against thinking their relationship to God meant they were God’s favorites and when they rebelled against God they faced the same punishment others faced. Just one example, in Deuteronomy 9:4 God reminds them that they are not being given the land because of their own righteousness, they did not earn this gift.
Perhaps we may question God’s method, how God worked to bring blessing and salvation to the whole world. Could there have been another way that might have worked better? I doubt it, but I think that question is better focused since from the beginning of the scripture story we see that God does indeed care to be in relationship with the whole world.
2. Though other cultures did not receive special revelation, it does not mean God was absent
God was never absent from other cultures and anyone who desired to know the Truth was actually pursuing God. We see glimpses of this in the scripture story as “outsiders” like Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth and Namaan (2 Kings 5) are seen to be welcomed into relationship with God. The important thing in all those cases is that God accepts them based on their limited knowledge. In other words, God accepts them for who they are. They probably had a lot of wrong or false beliefs about God, but their desire to know God was most important.
There is a great verse in Amos 9:7 – “”Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?” Here we see God reminding the Israelites that he has also worked among other peoples too.
Further, many of the early Christians believed that God was present in Greek cultures just as in Hebrew ones. The Hebrews were prepared for the Gospel with the Law of Moses and the Greeks, they said, were prepared for the gospel of Jesus through Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato. The principle here is that wherever people find Truth they are finding God.
3. Those who “never heard” are not automatically doomed
I have been asked this question probably every year – what about those who never heard about Jesus? Are they automatically sent to hell forever? My answer – no.
The assumption of this question is that those who never heard were never able to believe in or accept Jesus. They never said the right words or performed the right actions. I am not going to say that these things are unimportant, but the danger in such assumption is we reduce a relationship with God to making sure we say the magic words perfectly. God is not going to condemn people for not dotting their I’s or forgetting to cross their T’s.
In Hebrews 11 the author discusses people who had great faith prior to the coming of Jesus. In the middle of the chapter we read: “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.” I think this passage helps. These people, prior to Jesus, never were able to confess and believe “in Jesus.” Yet they had a hope based on the limited knowledge they had. I think we can apply this same idea to those who never heard.
To put it most simply – we can trust that God is fair. No one will be condemned for lack of knowledge. God knows people’s hearts and what they desire. God knows what people would choose if given greater knowledge. In the end, we need to focus on what we know of God, on who God is revealed in Jesus, and I think we are on solid ground saying no one will suffer for all eternity because the message did not get to them clearly enough.
4. God desires a relationship with all people
Finally, and I am sure there is much more I can say, but I am a firm believer that the God revealed in Jesus truly is a God of Love. God is so much better then we often imagine. And God desires a relationship with all people. When God visited this planet in the person of Jesus, not even death stopped him from accomplishing his mission. I doubt, based on that, the geography of where Jesus’ followers are currently located will slow God’s Spirit down from accomplishing his.
5. God desires a relationship with you
I was going to end at four, but as I reread what I wrote I thought something more practical was in order. It is important to take questions like this from the speculative to a more personal level. We can spend all day ruminating over texts, trying to discern the fate of people in tiny villages on the other side of the world.
But in the end, the question facing us is what will we do with the person of Jesus?
Does God care about those people who have not yet heard? Yes.
But God also cares about you, sitting right here talking with me. We cannot do much, right now, about other hypothetical people but we can discuss you and I. And the fact is, God loves and wants to be in relationship with both of us.
That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.