Author: Phillip Jensen
A common argument used against Christianity is its attitude towards people outside of Christianity. Its exclusive claims, such as Jesus being the only name by which people must be saved, seem to give no hope for those outside of Christianity. And so the common rejoinder is: what about people who sincerely believe other religions or what about those who have never heard the gospel, or aren’t all the religions really just different ways to the same god, or isn’t it arrogant for Christians to think they have the monopoly on truth?
These arguments have particularly increased since the decline of Western imperialism, which buttressed Christian arrogance and the increase in sociological and anthropological thought forms. The sociologists have taught us to appreciate other people’s culture for its own sake. They have also suggested that people are determined by their social context. The reason why you are a Christian is because you have been raised in a Christian context whereas if you had been raised in India you would be a Hindu or in Afghanistan, a Muslim.
For some people this question is a serious one. They are concerned about the justice of God in saving people on the basis of the lottery of birth. They are worried about the justice of God in damning people to have no chance. Their concern is not only for the justice of God but also for other people. However, often the question is really based on an escape. People are raising the issue to shift the focus from themselves and their own lack of response towards God to other people and their opportunity for hearing the gospel and to God and his injustice in condemning them.
What about those who have never heard the gospel?
This is the basic question, which finds its power in the assumption that those who are ignorant cannot be blamed. If it was not your fault you cannot be held responsible. However, it does not work as an argument if the ignorance is intentional. Thus within our code of law we say that that ignorance of the law is no excuse. It is no excuse because the law is public and knowable. If you do not know what the law of the land is then you are at fault for the land has been publicly gazetted. Thus ignorance is only an excuse in the areas in which it is impossible for somebody to know.
But the gospel is public. God has been publicly gazetted it. It is not public in the sense of everybody everywhere having an equal chance of hearing about the person of Jesus. In fact, sad to say, many people will never hear the name Jesus. Many countries prevent the name of Jesus from being preached in their streets. Other people have the gospel available to them through the preaching and teaching of Christians but they choose to ignore it.
However, the gospel comes not only in the name of Jesus but also in any clear revelation of God. Thus according to Romans 1 and Romans 10, the knowledge of God is revealed in creation. Both these passages rely upon Psalm 19, which speaks of the heavens declaring the glory of God. Thus the man in deepest darkest wherever – who has never heard the gospel – does not exist. He may not have read a Bible or New Testament but God’s person is revealed in creation. There is sufficient knowledge available to reject God or to seek him.
We know that God will judge justly. His justice is tempered with mercy not with harshness. He spared the children of Israel who were too young to know the difference between good and evil when their fathers sinned in the desert. Thus, he will not hold accountable people who cannot know him. But he will hold accountable those who do have the opportunity of knowledge. He will hold people accountable but not for the amount of knowledge that is available to them. It is how a person responds to God’s revelation that is the important issue not how much revelation they have received.
What about the other religions?
Part of the post imperial Western mind set is a massive guilt about our previous arrogance. It is guilt that has prompted us to elevate and promote the idea that other religions are as good if not better than our own. We have been encouraged to perceive other religions as man’s pursuit and search for God. Thus some would see other religions as being different roads to the same destination. Others perceive the good things in the alternative religious system. But how does the Bible perceive other religions?
The Bible was written in a context of great religious diversity. There is much said about the religions of the Israelite’s contemporaries. The Bible’s attitude is uniform and consistent in its condemnation of alternative religions. Religion is not the pursuit of God but an attempt to escape from him. The God who is known in creation and revealed, through the prophets of Israel, and perfectly in the person of his Son Jesus is misrepresented, distorted and perverted in the alternative religions. The foolishness and stupidity of the alternative religious systems is scorned and ridiculed by Elijah on Mt Carmel or Isaiah or the Psalmists in discussion of idolatry. The Israelites are warned to have nothing to do with contemporary religions.
What can be known about God is clear to humanity. But humanity suppresses the truth and in our sinfulness we turn to worship idols and creatures rather than the creator. This foolishness of humanity is unaccepted as a reasonable alternative to God’s revelation.
But some would justify religion on the basis of sincerity. The Bible’s attitude is to see religion as insincere for religions are attempts to run away from the demands of the almighty and secondly, sincerity is not sufficient. 
But many of our naïvely arrogant contemporaries ask or suggest that all the different religions are really teaching the same thing and heading in the same direction. It is naïve because it ignores what God says about idolatry and other religions. It is naïve because it ignores what other people say about their own religions. It is naïve because it ignores the mutually contradictory nature of many of the claims of religions.
For example, Christianity claims that Jesus was crucified and that he rose again. The ‘death and resurrection’ of Jesus is absolutely fundamental to Christianity. If it did not happen Christianity is false according to Christianity’s own teaching. Yet Islam claims that Jesus was not crucified. In Christianity it happened and in Islam it did not. Furthermore, it is the Qur’an that says Jesus crucifixion did not happen and so if it happened the most holy book of Islam – the very words of Allah – would be wrong. Unless we move to the relativism that “nothing means anything”, we are committed to the view that either Islam is correct and Christianity is wrong or Christianity is correct and Islam is wrong or they are both wrong (e.g. Jesus never lived). But whatever other options are available they cannot both be correct.
But this argument has an arrogance about it, which is quite unnoticed by its proponents. It comes out most clearly in the old illustration of many roads leading up to the top of the mountain – i.e. many routes to God. Each person on their own road cannot see how the other roads are going to get there and so only has confidence in their own route and can even warn people of the inadequacy of the alternative roads. But if you stand back and look at the whole picture you would see that each road is equally valid way to the top of the mountain. The person who stands back like this and sees the whole picture is the one who proposes that all roads lead to the same destination. But notice the arrogance of their position – for they are not like the rest of us on the mountain struggling up our road – they are in a helicopter or on the top of the mountain or in a neutral vantage point of superior position. They can patronize the poor strugglers of each religion while being themselves superior in their knowledge and lack of struggle. They can judge everybody on their ignorant foolishness while being above and beyond judgement by anybody else – for only they understand the truth or are even in a position to see it.
But to the naïve person recently imbued with the wonders of sociology or anthropology there is the argument that people cannot evaluate Christianity except in the terms of their culture and society. This culture and society prevent them from seeing Christianity as being the truth unless they have been raised in a Christian culture and society. Thus your Buddhism or your Christianity or your Hinduism is an expression of your cultural roots rather than a statement of the truth of any of these systems. That is, if you were raised in India you too would be a Hindu.
Some problems to this kind of thinking
1 It is self-defeating
Only those who are raised in a sociologically aware society would come to those kinds of sociological conclusions. If the basis of all your reasoning is always an expression of your cultural roots then reasoning itself is a purposeless exercise. No more purposeless than sociology.
2 The weakness of sociological determinism
It is an assumption based upon the methodology of sociological investigation that people’s mindsets, character of life etc are determined – and that by their culture. It is not however, the conclusion that comes from an examination of the evidence. Many people in many cultures have come to believe and live in a pattern quite different to their parents. Undoubtedly the majority of people go on living in the same way as their parents, especially as they have had no real reason to change. However, the vast evangelization of the world through the preaching of the gospel, that has seen millions change religion, screams out against a determinism that seems so absolute in sociological and anthropological texts. I do not wish to argue that we are uninfluenced by our culture but the denial of the freedom of the will to choose even in opposition to your culture is too much to swallow.
3 The evidence of creation
The third problem with this line of argument is that within the life, culture and understanding of a Hindu, a Buddhist or a Muslim is the evidence of creation. The evidence that speaks of an almighty God undermines the religious system, which consistently denies him. Thus the revelation of God is present in every culture and system preaching against the religion that seeks to run away from the truth.
4 A wrong assumption about a problem of knowledge rather than a problem of will
This line of reasoning assumes that the problem of belief is a problem of knowledge rather than a problem of will. ‘If people knew the truth then they would believe it to be the truth’, is the thought of some so-called Christian apologists and many non-Christian arguers. However, the Bible says that other factors are involved such as man’s sinfulness, the devil’s deception and the work of the Holy Spirit in opening people’s eyes. To omit these factors is to distort the analysis.
Undoubtedly, people are influenced by the societies in which they live. Those societies, which prevent the preaching of the gospel, keeping missionaries out and executing converts have much to answer for. It is important that we encourage freedom of religious expression, as we have nothing to fear from the proclamation, discussion and analysis of truth.
So what should we do?
When talking to those who would raise these problems we must be aware of the real issue and concern that some people have for others and for their concern for the justice of God. However, we must not let people hide behind these questions and concerns so that they turn away from the implications of the gospel for themselves by hiding behind hypothetical people in some unknown region of the world or back onto God Himself. We need to say to the questioner that “Even if those people in deepest, darkest wherever are all right because of their ignorance, you to whom I speak now, are still confronted with the necessity of response.” We can trust God to judge justly, fairly and mercifully and that includes those who hear the gospel and refuse to respond. If we are genuinely concerned about the spiritual welfare of others in remote parts of the world, then we will support financially, prayerfully and in person the missionary enterprise. If we do have an unfair advantage then surely we should be going into the world to bring the gospel to them, for to those who are given much – much will be required.
A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.