What About the Heathen?

heathenAnswering Some Objections to the Exclusivity of the Gospel

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.

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14 thoughts on “What About the Heathen?

  1. I’m quite interested in your obsession with my use of the phrase “eternal torture”.

    “Notice how he uses the concept of “eternal torture” to describe God’s just, eternal judgment upon unrepentant sinners?”

    What’s wrong with the phrase “eternal torture”?

    The dictionary definition of torture says that torture is “anguish of body or mind”, “something that cause causes agony or pain”, “the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish”.

    Notice that there is no “moral judgment” attached to this definition. The definition is not “the immoral infliction of pain” or “the unjust infliction of pain”. It’s just “the infliction of pain”. So, it’s entirely accurate to say that God eternally tortures. Torture is torture, whether it is moral or justified or neither. Even in an evolved world, pain is pain and torture is torture.

    So, why not call it what it is? According to your beliefs, God condemns humans to eternal torture. Why not embrace this? You know, the fact that you seem upset or disturbed by my use of the phrase “eternal torture” suggests that you understand that there is a problem here. There is a problem with what you believe God does. There is something wrong here, and you know it.

    “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.”

    I didn’t say this, at least not the part about “malice”, and “for the fun of it”, and “twisted”.
    Now, the torture is indeed “capricious” in one sense, and that is that one’s chances of being tortured depend to a very high degree on the randomness of place and time of birth. So, maybe the torture is capricious, but I did not say anything about malice or twisted.

    However, your reaction and your assumptions about what “eternal torture” suggests tells me that you understand that there is a big problem here with your versions of God. Deep down, I think that you see that the torture is capricious (and maybe malicious and twisted, too).

    “Man is in cosmic treason against their creator.”

    According to you, humans were created by God. God made the hardware and God programmed the software that produces a “treasonous” output. It seems to me that if 100 % of the created units fail, then the fault is with the creator and not with the units. When 100% of the units behave in such as way as to merit condemnation, then there is something seriously wrong with the design of the designer.

    “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.”

    So, how exactly does this work? How does God shed grace…without exception, and…given them a chance…if you must know Jesus in order to avoid eternal torture, but millions of people living over thousands of years had zero chance to know Jesus?

    Finally, I think that your simplistic analogies were not very helpful in addressing my points. For example, a little boy living in 2nd century China who steals a cookie deserves the same fate and/or is like “thuggish criminal serial killers who have broken into the king’s castle, raped and killed his wife and daughters”? Should the king burn the boy, too? Really?

    I’m afraid that you’ve failed to explain why your version of God presents a figure that should be loved and worshiped. Feared, yes, but that’s all.

    Well, as I said, it works for you, I guess.

  2. David writes,
    What’s wrong with the phrase “eternal torture”? … Notice that there is no “moral judgment” attached to this definition. The definition is not “the immoral infliction of pain” or “the unjust infliction of pain”. It’s just “the infliction of pain”.

    Just doing a basic check of on-line definitions, and all of them tie some concept of morality to the act. For example, the wackapedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torture notes that torture has been prohibited by international laws and states specifically that “National and international legal prohibitions on torture derive from a consensus that torture and similar ill-treatment are immoral, as well as impractical..” Note the word “immoral” which implies there is some “moral” standard by which the actions of torture are judged to be torturous by a consensus of nations.

    Moreover, the M-W online dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/torture defines torture as infliction of pain that is meant for punishment or coercion, or to afford sadistic pleasure.

    All of those definitions imply something that is not true in describing the biblical concept of eternal punishment as “eternal torture.” That being, God does not assign men to eternal punishment to coerce them, nor does He do so out of some sadistic purposes and those who experience eternal punishment do so justly and deservedly.

    Moving along,
    You know, the fact that you seem upset or disturbed by my use of the phrase “eternal torture” suggests that you understand that there is a problem here. There is a problem with what you believe God does. There is something wrong here, and you know it.

    I am neither upset nor disturbed by your use of that phrase. Nor am I thinking there is “something wrong here” with eternal punishment. Those who receive eternal punishment fully deserve it. Moreover, they don’t repent, nor would they. For if after a year of eternal torment (or torture to use your word) they were brought forth and asked if they would repent and turn to Christ, none would do so, because they hate God. So they receive their punishment justly and deservedly.

    Continuing,
    I didn’t say this, at least not the part about “malice”, and “for the fun of it”, and “twisted”.

    But you imply it with your own comments in reaction to my previous post and with this one, so it does not matter if you used the specific words “malice” or “twisted.”

    However, what you are missing in all of this is the reason why we ought to be disturbed by any notions of torture according to the constructs of your particular atheist worldview. You can chide my perspective and mock God as a failed designer all you want, but until you actually give me a reason WHY I should oppose torture or infliction of pain according to atheist logic, you really have no argument. Pain is painful, but so what?

    So, how exactly does this work? How does God shed grace…without exception, and…given them a chance…

    You seriously don’t know how grace works? Really?

    Concluding,
    For example, a little boy living in 2nd century China who steals a cookie deserves the same fate and/or is like “thuggish criminal serial killers who have broken into the king’s castle, raped and killed his wife and daughters”? Should the king burn the boy, too? Really?

    Yes. really. A couple of problems here. The little boy stole. He’s a thief. It doesn’t matter if it was “just a cookie” he is breaking the law. Now his fate may not be the same as the rapist, for there are degrees of punishment with eternal punishment, but stealing is still a crime particularly a crime against a holy God. Secondly, the crime of the little boy never really begins and ends with stealing a “cookie.” Like all sinners, his lawbreaking will continue to escalate and pile upon itself. Those serial killing rapist probably started out as little boys stealing a cookie here or there.

  3. One other thought…

    If you disagree with the Aminians on this subject (for example, you reject the “classic Arminian styled illustration”), then who should I believe? Who’s right? Is anyone right? Who knows?

    You assert with great confidence, but in reality, you don’t know.

  4. “Just doing a basic check of on-line definitions…”

    You are conflating two things or two questions here. One is…”What constitutes torture?” The other questions…”Is torture moral”. These are two separate questions.

    Torture is just an act that inflicts pain. One can argue about its morality, but basically, torture is just the inflicting of pain. You can talk about its morality if you’d like, but it doesn’t change the basic definition…torture is the inflicting of pain. You can add a more moral component if you’d like, but it’s not necessary. The totally morally justified infliction of pain is still torture.

    If Hell is a place of unrelenting pain, the Hell is a place of eternal torture. Are you going to deny that Hell is a place of unrelenting pain?

    “Moreover, the M-W online dictionary http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/torture defines torture as infliction of pain that is meant for punishment or coercion, or to afford sadistic pleasure.”

    The key word here is “or”, meaning that torture does not have to be for sadistic pleasure. It could be for punishment OR for coercion OR to afford sadistic pleasure. Do I need to also define the word “or”?

    Now, you’ve stated that God assigns men to eternal punishment. This punishment is painful, yes? Therefore, it fits the definition of eternal torture (infliction of pain that is meant for punishment).

    “Those who experience eternal punishment do so justly and deservedly.”

    Well, yes, I understand that you believe this, but I find the Sunday School answer unsatisfying for reasons that I’ve tried to explain.

    “I am neither upset nor disturbed by your use of that phrase.”

    Then why have you spent so much time focusing on my use of the phrase? You keep objecting to the use of the phrase, so something must bother you here. I’ve explained the definition, the phrase accurately describes what you believe happens to humans after death. So, embrace it.

    “But you imply it.”

    Oh, well, I guess that means I said it, right?

    “Until you actually give me a reason WHY I should oppose torture or infliction of pain according to atheist logic, you really have no argument. Pain is painful, but so what?”

    It’s not my logic that’s the problem here. It’s your logic. It’s the contradictions within your belief system that’s the problem.

    “You seriously don’t know how grace works? Really?”

    Apparently not. So, enlighten me.

    “Yes. really. A couple of problems here. The little boy stole. He’s a thief. It doesn’t matter if it was “just a cookie” he is breaking the law.”

    Well, if he broke the law, then he deserves eternal torture. Steal a cookie, kill a million people, it’s all the same. Eternal torture for all!

    “Now his fate may not be the same as the rapist, for there are degrees of punishment with eternal punishment”.

    Yes, I’ve heard this argument before, but it raises its own set of questions. How do you know that there are degrees of eternal pain? Can you describe the degrees of eternal pain? Do you mean that there some types of eternal torture aren’t so bad after all? How does that work? What would be a lesser form of eternal torture? What constitutes a mild eternal punishment?

    “Stealing is still a crime particularly a crime against a holy God.”

    Do you really believe in a god so small and so petty that the theft of a cookie is to be punished by eternal torture? What a childish deity. Again, you describe a deity that is not worthy or either worship or love.

    And again, you’ve failed explain why the “holy God” is not responsible for creating a creature that will inevitably do something wrong. If it’s not a cookie, then the little boy will absolutely, positively do something else that is “treasonous”. It built into the system. If you exist, then you will inevitably breathe, eat, poop and sin. One might as well be condemned for defecation. It’s the design that’s flawed, and the design was created by the designer.

    “Secondly, the crime of the little boy never really begins and ends with stealing a “cookie.” Like all sinners, his lawbreaking will continue to escalate and pile upon itself.”

    Not if he’s hit by a bus the next day. No more lawbreaking. Doesn’t matter, it’s still torture for everyone!

    Look, I understand the words that you are presenting here, and I think I understand what you believe (although I’m fuzzy on the grace thing). However, if you could just step back for a minute and really think about it, I think that you’d see that these answers just aren’t very satisfying. They really don’t solve the problem.

  5. David writes
    Then why have you spent so much time focusing on my use of the phrase? You keep objecting to the use of the phrase, so something must bother you here. I’ve explained the definition, the phrase accurately describes what you believe happens to humans after death. So, embrace it.

    David, you are being dishonest. You raised the specter of “torture” because torture has an emotionally charged meaning attached to the word. You know it does, so the reason why you keep pressing the use of that term.

    I am not denying that eternal punishment is pain free, or that the torment doesn’t equal the concept of torture. The nit-picking with definitions is that you are attributing something “immoral” to God inflicting eternal punishment against sinners who deserve it. So as much as you want to jump around the “definition” of “torture” and claim a distinction between the morality of torture as opposed to the bare idea of pain being inflicted, you still use the word because it serves your purpose to pass a moral judgment against God’s justice.

    But again, in an atheist worldview, one that you subscribe to, why is it immoral to inflict pain on another being to begin with? You have yet to explain that.

    continuing,
    Do you really believe in a god so small and so petty that the theft of a cookie is to be punished by eternal torture? What a childish deity. Again, you describe a deity that is not worthy or either worship or love.

    Again with the moral judgments. Are you ever gonna justify how you, an atheist, can make such moral judgments without borrowing from my Christian worldview to do so? Remember, we are all just evolved gene replicating machines according to your view of things. On what basis do you make the pronouncement that my God, who would judge a child for stealing a cookie is small and petty and childish to do so?

    If you can answer that, maybe I’ll be inclined to chase this around more with you, but until then, I really have no reason to interact with a mocking fool.

  6. “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.”

    Heh, heh. Their objection got all gummed up from the get-go with those two clarifying questions.

    One: Define innocent.
    Two: What is the judicial standard used to determine “guilty” vs. “innocent”?

    Blam! Original question totally loses its force.

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  9. Thanks for the invite, but I honestly don’t have the time right now, nor do I have an interest. Podcast arguments with a group of hostiles are really not my gig anyways. Have you tried the Backpack radio guys or even James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries? They probably hold to a similar perspective as I do on these matters and would probably make for better fodder for you all. I’d suggest Sye TenBen, but you all already interviewed him a number of times.

  10. If you were my next door neighbor, I’d have you over for dinner to discuss. But you are in England (at least to my knowledge), certainly not a sincere inquirer but looking to have a bit of sport on my behalf regardless of how much you will insist you’ll treat me nice and all, and I’d imagine you have had loads of Christians drop by to participate in similar discussions.

  11. The beauty of technology is that we don’t need to be in the same place to chat. I have no interest in sport, but I do have an interest in challenging views like those expressed above. I’m always interested in seeing how those who make such statements explain themselves when face to face in a live encounter.

    If you’re right surely you have nothing to fear from a talk with me?

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