Do Billions Who Never Heard of God
Prove There Is None?
On 5/14/10 P. Coyle commented on my posting entitled How the Improbable God Probably Works, which appears below. I quote here part of what he asserted, rather eloquently, and then reply to it.
“You may care, and you may reach out to unbelievers, but you are not God. Reaching out always seems to require human agency…. [Mr. Coyle gives a list the vast multitudes who were not reached by Saint Paul’s missionary journeys, including over 100 million in China and on the Indian subcontinent. He also cites the “600 human generations… before the ancient Hebrews decided there was only one god, and that they were his chosen people.” He continues:]
“The number of people to whom the Christian God failed to reach out runs into the tens of billions. Why? I have my theory -- there was no God to do the reaching out. What's your theory? Why did the Christian God, who supposedly cares so profoundly that people believe that he exists, never bother to make known to so many the possibility of his existence?”
Though I am a Christian I am not a Christian apologist. Many can defend Christianity better than I, so I generally speak here as a Pure Theist (to be defined in essays soon to be posted). My reflections on the Christian God may be unorthodox, but I’ll make a few as I argue the simpler case for a caring personal God.
You're right, God usually works through human agents. But he sometimes stirs the heart directly. Though even Christians admit that the Argument from Universal Belief is not conclusive, its premise is relevant here: “It is generally true that every people or tribe of men has had some kind of belief in a supreme being.” (Catholic Encyclopedia) Even you, P. C., might concede that the impulse to worship something greater than oneself has been widespread since the dawn of history and probably before. If the God of my hypothesis has implanted such a need and urge in humankind, he would allow for its expression in forms appropriate to the knowledge, opportunity, and mental capacity of each of his creatures.
A Pagan Aboriginal
If a tenth-century Australian aboriginal never heard of Christ or Yahweh, her kneeling down, extending her arms skyward in grateful wonder, and worshipping the sun would, for her, be as pleasing to my pure-theistic God (and I believe to the Judeo-Christian God) as attendance at a solemn high Mass.
If she stayed awake for long weary hours cradling her sick child, administering a potion of boiled roots believed to be medicinal, and intoning primitive incantations to the sun on his behalf, divine wisdom would see her as having fulfilled Christ’s two great commandments – to love God and love people – as admirably as Jairus, who implored Jesus directly on his daughter’s behalf.
The caring God of my hypothesis is not indifferent to any human creature of any era. Nor does he demand of the most afflicted and isolated, any more than their poor capacities and constricted circumstances allow them to do, be, or believe.
In judging moral culpability Church teaching contains the concept of “vincible and invincible ignorance” (ignorance that’s our own fault and ignorance that we can’t help). My tenth-century aboriginal was invincibly ignorant of everything proclaimed in the New Testament and therefore blameless for not believing in Jesus and his Gospel. She felt innate promptings to acknowledge a being of superhuman power, somehow related to her life, and responded by worshipping the sun. Her mate may have resisted those same promptings, and been unwilling to bestir himself, or sacrifice any comfort, to succor the suffering child.
A kind and omniscient God could apply the two great commandments to them, in their era and cultural milieu, as wisely and justly as he could apply them to me when, at age twenty, after fourteen years of Christian education, I renounced all I had once believed and became an atheist.
The All-Embracing Arms
God thus conceived could have existed through all the ages of the Earth, in the vast expanse of global cultures you point to, and had loving interactions with each of those nameless billions who groped toward him in their darkness. Though their literal concept of God was wrong, the earnestness of their effort to worship and connect was right.
Homage to a golden calf, by one who knew no better, might have been seen by a compassionate God as a metaphor for worshipping Him. And refusal to act on the worship impulse, by one who valued nothing beyond himself, might have been, in that time and culture, a metaphor for atheism. Was the One who inspired the Book of Genesis, whose Son called himself “the Lamb of God,” incapable of seeing truth in a metaphor?
This same large-hearted, all-seeing God could have planned and implemented an Incarnation, a Crucifixion, and a Resurrection, without excluding any who lived before or after them, from the ultimate beatitude of his love, unless they chose to exclude themselves. And those who exclude themselves, as I did, will feel persistent invitations – some silent, some quite audible – to return. He doesn’t give up on us lightly. Every time we glance at him he beckons.