Is Christianity unfair to those raised in other faiths? (part 2)

“How can God judge people simply because of what they believe about Jesus? Some people never hear about Jesus and others were raised in religions that taught them not to believe the way you Christians do. None of us were alive then, so how can we be expected to know what really happened anyway.”

In my last post I began to think about how we can answer this question in a loving an honest way, especially in cases where it is not merely an exercise in philosophy but the sincere grappling of an earnest seeker. We saw that it is important to empathise with concerns of those around us to be honest when those concerns are valid.

It is my aim in this post, not to formulate a reply, but to understand how these objections fit in with the teaching of the Bible. Here are a few thoughts about how we can resolve some of the tension by rooting out the misunderstanding of the Bible’s teaching on judgement and salvation.

It is not true that God judges people simply because of what they believe about Jesus. 

The reason this person is struggling with a sense of injustice is because they are misinterpreting the gospel message. Jesus is not presented in the Bible as the correct answer on a multiple choice question ranging between 1-10 (only counting the major world religions). If we begin to think that God has set a test, and will bring us to judgement for getting the answer wrong, then no wonder it comes across as a little sadistic. If this is how we understand the gospel then we should experience anguish over those who are raised in parts of the world who do not even have “Jesus” as an option on the answer sheet. This however, is not the message of the Bible.

How should we understand God’s judgement?

The Bible doesn’t say that we will be judged because of what we believe about Jesus. Rather it is clear that we will be judged because of our sins and because of our sinfulness. Sins are our acts of disobedience and rebellion against God. We all commit these acts because we have disobedient and rebellious hearts. We are corrupt with evil and we commit deeds that are evil. This is the problem we have as people before a holy God. God cannot ignore immorality, nor can he excuse it, he must execute judgement otherwise God has no right to call himself just.

This is as true of those who live next door to churches as it is of those who live in places where there is no church. All people will be judged with justice according to what they are, and what they have done. Nobody will be punished for something they did not deserve. This is the problem: No matter where we grow up, or who our parents are, we face God’s just judgement as those who are guilty.

How should we understand salvation through Jesus?

Rather than thinking of Jesus as the correct option on a multiple choice exam, we should think of him as a lifeguard.

We are all drowning in sin and guilt. We are being swept away in a current toward God’s judgement. So how will we escape? The answer of all religions is to “swim faster”; do more good than bad and you may be able to swim yourself out of the current and safely to shore. The problem with this is that it is not the way justice works. If you commit a crime, you must be judged regardless of how much you give to charity afterwards.

Jesus is the lifeguard sent to a drowning world. We have no hope of surviving judgement on our own. The message of salvation in Jesus Christ alone, proclaimed by Christians, is like the outstretched hand of the lifeguard who is willing and able pull us from the water and take us to the shore.

Therefore we do not face judgement simply for “not believing” in Jesus. We are going to face judgement anyway, and to refuse Jesus, is to refuse the only one who can save you.

Is Christianity unfair to those raised in other faiths? (Part 1 – learning to be honest)

The Challenge of the Global Village

The world is becoming a smaller place and more people are being exposed to the various cultures, religions and practices contained within it. This, I would argue, is a good thing. When I moved to London from a fairly sheltered community in South Africa, it was one of the first things that struck me about the city. I was exposed to the cultures of Europeans, Africans, Asians and even Americans. My experience stretched me and I am all the better for it.

Globalisation (as they call it) does also present its challenges. For example, this is a summary of a real question asked by someone engaging with the truth claims of the Bible.

“How can God judge people simply because of what they believe about Jesus? Some people never hear about Jesus and others were raised in religions that taught them not to believe the way you Christians do. None of us were alive then, so how can we be expected to know what really happened anyway.”

Some groups within the church have been reflecting on this question over the last few weeks, I thought it may be helpful to jot down some of those reflections in the hope that it may be of some help to those who have asked, or been asked, similar questions.

Trust God enough to be honest

When I encountered this particular comment I was surprised at just how defensive my reaction was. I immediately wanted to let out the doctrine guard-dogs and watch them tear the objection to pieces. When I dug a little deeper I realised that my defensiveness betrayed a deep sympathy for the seeker. Defensiveness often betrays our vulnerabilities.

The truth is that I have asked myself this question many times. It has disturbed me in the past and continues to lay siege to the stronghold of my beliefs. This too is a good thing. If the Bible cannot withstand a few honest questions then it cannot be God’s Word. However, when we truly engage with these issues and allow the Bible to present its own defence, our confidence in it will not be weakened. That is my experience anyway. No matter what doubts have come against my faith in the Bible, the walls have held. In fact, my faith has been strengthened through earnest wrestling with doubt.

The point I want to make here is that we can and should sympathise with those who are genuinely perplexed by these things. I believe this puts us in a much better position to help them.

Do unto others…

When Jehovah’s Witnesses come round to the house I generally allow a bit of time to converse with them. Most of the time, I wonder why I bother. I feel that particularly when I don’t believe they have actually engaged with any of my questions. So often it feels like vague well-rehearsed answers or changes in subject. It is worth noting this phenomenon is not limited to JW’s. I have had the same experiences with Muslims, Atheists and, in more polemical contexts, other Christians.

In one particular conversation I became so frustrated that I blurted out a simple question; “Do you ever have doubts about what you believe?” Their response was without hesitation, “No, never.” I knew at that moment that I was wasting my time. I cannot take seriously the views of those who claim never to doubt their beliefs. They are not being honest with themselves, so how can I expect them to be honest with me.

Yet, to my shame, I have to admit that I have fallen into this trap as well. I’ve never claimed to be doubt-free but sometimes I act as if I am. We think that sympathising with the questions of non-Christian friends are displays of weakness and that to vocalise our doubts are a betrayal of our God. Ironically when we do this we reinforce the presupposition that Christians are brain-washed and beyond reason. There are times when we should keep our doubts to ourselves but we should never make it seem as if they do not exist.

Speak the truth in love

If we love those of different faiths and want them to know the good news about Jesus then we need to learn to be honest and sympathise. If it frustrates us to deal with rehearsed mechanical answers, why should we expect others to respond differently to our own versions of the same. Trust God enough to let them know that you recognise the validity of their questions before you raise attempt to answer them.