A frequent atheist commenter left some challenges under this POST. I thought I would bring my initial response, along with some other thoughts of mine, up to the front page for others to see.
To give a little background, I had mentioned in my review of a panel discussion between two atheists and Doug Wilson that one of the questions thrown at Wilson by an audience member was “why does God condemn to hell those innocent people who never heard of Jesus?” I didn’t provide Wilson’s response, but simply wrote that it was a good one.
My atheist commenter wanted me to elaborate on that remark, so I will pick it up with his initial question and my initial response, slightly edited and expanded, and then respond to his follow-up to my response.
What is your particular answer to the question about “why innocent people who never heard of Jesus are condemned to hell for never having heard of Jesus”?
That is a common objection from not only atheists, but also Christian believers. The problem with the question, however, is that the inquirer typically makes a couple of axiomatic mistakes.
First, he assumes there is such a thing as “innocent” people. To start off, rarely, is the concept of “innocent” truly defined; nor is there any stated judicial standard to delineate what constitutes “guilty” as opposed to “innocent.” With just those two immediate problems, the question is dead in the water.
However, looking to Scripture, the Bible tells us that all men are guilty sinners in rebellion against their creator, and not only that, they know they are (Romans 1-3, for instance). The picture many people have in their minds of a “noble savage” is mythological, for there are none.
Secondly, the inquirer assumes that men are condemned just because they never heard about Jesus. So it is erroneously concluded that Christians are saying that a sweet, Chinese peasant woman way out in the hill country just north of Mt. Everest, who lived and died in the 4th century, who lived an otherwise “good” life, is condemned to hell just because she didn’t pray a sinner’s prayer and invite Jesus into her life.
But as Paul writes in Romans 1-3, all guilty sinners are condemned because they know in their hearts that they are rebelling against their creator. They recognize their guilt for their sin as Romans 2:14-15 states. Additionally, their religiosity confirms their innate knowledge of their condition because they have concocted every false religion imaginable to assuage that guilt through rituals and sacrifice. God, as Paul writes, will judge them according to those works. The problem is that those “works” cannot ultimately save them before a holy God.
Other sinners, like my atheist antagonist, attempt to suppress what they too innately know to be true, that there is a God who will judge all mankind (Romans 2:16). However, they develop various excuses to deny that accountability. But they will be judged just like those others who may be religious.
The Gospel, then, is that God has made a way for all sinners to deal with their guilt, receive the forgiveness of their sins, dwell in the presence of God, and receive eternal life, and that is through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Now, in anticipation of a typical follow up, the inquirer will complain, Well, people still need to hear the gospel in order to be “saved” and those who are geographically challenged as to that message are unfairly left to be condemned. But this challenge falsely assumes God “owes” everyone a “chance” when that is not the case. God owes no sinner anything. It is solely by God’s grace that the message of salvation comes to anyone. If God “owed” everyone a chance, then grace would be nullified.
Now, in response to my comment, my atheist commenter provided some additional challenges. I wanted to zero in on a couple.
So, let’s see if I follow. Everyone sins. It’s inherent, it’s inevitable, it’s unavoidable. It’s as human as eating, breathing, etc.
And the only way to deal with the guilt (avoid eternal torture, etc.) is to receive the forgiveness of their sins and receive eternal life and that is through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. That’s it, that’s the list, that’s the only way.
Notice how he uses the concept of “eternal torture” to describe God’s just, eternal judgment upon unrepentant sinners? Of course, this smear against God grows from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the human condition. Again, it is wrongly believed that sinners are really helpless, innocent victims being slain by a cruel, mean-spirited deity. It’s akin to the odious injustice a woman in Iran receives when she gets stoned for being gang raped because it is concluded she must have dressed provocatively and made those men attack her.
It is also a fundamentally flawed understanding of God’s character. “Eternal torture” suggests that God capriciously, and with forethought of malice, tortures innocent human beings just for the “fun of it” like some sick, divine version of those twisted Hostel movies.
[BTW, I have always found it odd that a number of atheists who would decry God justly punishing unrepentant sinners who flagrantly violate His moral laws and spread death and destruction to their fellow man, are the first ones to decry the death penalty against serial rapists and murderers who so clearly deserve it. But I digress].
Building on that theme, my challenger continues,
God can condemn a person to eternal torture for something inherent in the species, a species that God designed and created. But God doesn’t have to offer that person the only way to avoid the consequences of the inevitable sinful act?
This is a loving god, a just god? This is a god that one is supposed to love and worship? You really believe this?
I should pause a moment and point out that here we have revealed the glaring inconsistency among atheist objectors to my Christian faith. Notice he continues to press the idea that God is “eternally torturing” someone. Complaining against the act of “torture” involves making a moral judgment. Making a moral judgment in turn implies there is some stated and agreed to moral standard by which we can all say such an action is “torture.”
Given the atheist’s naturalistic, a-supernatural, molecules-to-man understanding of our world and life upon it, what really is “torture?” Additionally, what is the point of speaking against “torture?” Is it “torture” for example, for killer whales to toss about a live and panicked baby seal in order to train their young? Is it “torture” for a suffering, wounded elephant to be slowly eaten alive by lions?
If all life evolved and humanity clawed its way to the top of the food chain to become the apex predator of all apex predator,what one considers “torture” in one context may not be in another, at least from an atheist perspective. To even raise the complaint of torture by God is laughable giving what atheists promote as a worldview.
Be that as it may, the glory of the Gospel is that God, who owes no sinner salvation, graciously grants that salvation. Man is in cosmic treason against their creator. They are not like that classic Arminian styled illustration where some fun loving boys decide to go swimming in the big pond that is marked by a “NO SWIMMING” sign on the farmer’s land. They all begin to drown and the farmer goes out and attempts to rescue them all but only is able to save one or two.
No. The better picture is that of gang of thuggish criminal serial killers who have broken into the king’s castle, raped and killed his wife and daughters and then set the building on fire with no way to get out. The king has every right to just let them burn, but graciously saves one. None of them deserve any mercy for they are all guilty criminals, but one is shown mercy.
I would expect the man who hates God to mock His decrees and purposes in salvation as being unfair and unjust. However, the fact that God is our creator and we are rebel sinners against His laws means none of us deserve any favor from Him. But the reality is that God has shed His grace on some. The Apostle John writes in Revelation 5:9 that it is a multitude of the ransomed people of God who come from every tribe and language and people and nation. So contrary to what my atheist commenter suggests, God has shed His grace to millions from all over the world without exception, and has not only “given them a chance” but has absolutely and with certainty, saved them to the uttermost.