(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 10: “Is Jesus the Only Way to God?”)
Normally I hate it when people give away the plot, but today I’m going to make an exception. I’m going to give away the plot behind the “Christian exclusivism” argument that William Lane Craig is making. When Craig says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, he’s not being as humble and pious as he’d like everyone (including himself) to think. He’s not exalting God and abasing man. The whole point of Christian exclusivism (or “particularism,” as he calls it) is to put Christians in the position of having a unique monopoly on what people are supposed to believe and how they must behave. Religious pluralism is anathema to him precisely because it allows people to believe and obey things Christians haven’t approved.
The problem with Christian exclusivism is that, from God’s perspective, there’s no reason for it. If, as the Gospel claims, God were a loving heavenly Father Who earnestly wanted all of His children to be saved, the last thing He would want to do is to tack on some arbitrary and often impossible requirements that severely limit the number of salvations. Craig expends a fair amount of effort trying to defend his exclusivist position against the obvious charge of injustice, but he can’t really explain why God ought to limit salvations in the first place. Shh, don’t tell anyone: the real reason is first and foremost to establish the dominion of Christians like himself.
Craig begins by asking whether it would be unfair of God to send people to hell when they’ve never heard the gospel, or when they’ve been misinformed about it. After all, it would hardly be fair to accuse them of rejecting God’s salvation when they’ve never had a chance to respond to an accurate version of it.
But again, this doesn’t seem to me to be the heart of the problem. For according to the Bible, God doesn’t judge people who have never heard of Christ on the basis of whether they’ve placed their faith in Christ. Rather God judges them on the basis of the light of God’s general revelation in nature and conscience that they do have… Someone who senses his need of forgiveness through his guilty conscience and flings himself upon the mercy of the God revealed in nature may find salvation.
Craig rushes past this point, but this is really a huge theological problem. In trying to defend Christian exclusivism, he’s admitting that there is, in fact, another way for people to get into heaven apart from believing in Jesus. That’s huge. He’s admitting that Christian exclusivism isn’t really true! But he’s kind of stuck in this corner, because there are too many people—including all the Old Testament prophets and patriarchs—who have died without ever having heard of Jesus. To say salvation requires accepting Jesus in this life, you have to say that God is going to send all those people to hell because they never accepted Jesus. Not even Craig can swallow that one, so he has to admit that Christian exclusivism isn’t really true.
There’s an even bigger consequence to this concession though: if it’s easier to get into heaven when you’ve never heard the Gospel, why preach the Gospel? If preaching Jesus means exposing people to a danger they would not otherwise have faced, then it is criminally negligent to preach the Gospel! But if you don’t preach the Gospel, how can people find out that they need YOU to tell them what to believe and how to behave? Sure, it would be to God’s advantage to let more people be saved through general revelation, but how would that establish the dominion of Christians over everyone else?
Craig has to make it sound like it’s really a bad thing for God to open up additional opportunities for salvation. Notice he says that one who throws himself on the mercy of God MAY find salvation—not will find it, but just may find it. There’s just enough of a possibility there so that God can be rescued from the charge of unfairness, but, ho ho, not nearly enough that we could reasonably expect the lower standards to produce more salvations. Silly us.
Unfortunately, the testimony of the New Testament, as we’ve seen, is that people don’t generally measure up even to these much lower standards of general revelation. So there are little grounds for optimism about there being many people, if any at all, who will actually be saved through their response to general revelation alone.
So the men who wrote the New Testament also used the same self-serving argument. And thus the supremacy of Christians is once again assured. Craig admits that it’s possible for God to legitimately save people by applying “much lower standards,” and it would definitely be to everyone’s benefit if He did, but somehow, inexplicably, this doesn’t seem to work. Gosh, what a shame, I guess we’ll all have to turn to William Lane Craig, and believe and obey whatever he tells us, if we want to be saved. It’s a humbling responsibility, but I’m sure he’ll heed God’s call and bear his burden without complaining. Poor man.
Oy. Let’s move on. He said he doesn’t think this is really the heart of the problem, so what is?
[It] seems to me that the real problem is this: If God is all-knowing, then He knew who would freely receive the gospel and who would not. But then certain very difficult questions arise:
(1) Why didn’t God bring the gospel to people who He knew would accept it if they heard it, even though they reject the light of general revelation that they do have? …
(2) More fundamentally, why did God even create the world, when He knew that so many people would not believe the gospel and be lost? Since creation is a free act of God, why not simply refrain from creating any free creatures at all? …
(3) Even more radically, why didn’t God create a world in which everyone freely believes the gospel and is saved? Such a world must be logically possible, since people are free to believe or not to believe. So why didn’t God create a world in which every person freely chooses to place his faith in Christ and be saved?
I think he’s leaving out a few of the very difficult questions. For example, why do we have unbelief and pagan beliefs in the first place? That’s not such a hard question: these things are the result of God failing to show up in real life. As a loving Father Who earnestly desires the salvation of His beloved children, He knows that His children need what all children need: consistent, personal, 2-way interactions with their Parent. To so neglect Your children that they don’t even know You exist—it’s just unthinkable. Very few dads are such deadbeats that their own kids don’t know they have a dad. So the difficult question is, why is God’s name on this very short list of extremely deadbeat dads?
Another difficult question is why God allows the unsaved to exist in the first place. Jeremiah 1:5 says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you…” Normal sperm count is in the tens of millions of sperm per milliliter, and God knows some of them would result in the birth of a saved person and some would result in the birth of an unsaved person. Even if only one sperm out of all those tens of millions of sperm would result in a savable person being born, just arrange things so that that one sperm is the one that successfully fertilizes the egg.
Or don’t allow the woman to get pregnant. You don’t have to have a baby every time you go bump (Rick Santorum notwithstanding). Nor does this need to put undue constraints on the perpetuation of the human species. If a woman has sex, say, 100 times over the course of her entire life, and there’s tens of millions of sperm each time, that’s billions of opportunities per woman for God to find those few, select people who are destined to be saved. That’s bound to be a fair number. (Otherwise, if the rate of salvation is less than one out of multiplied billions, there’s probably not more than a few dozen saved people total. Count up the number of famous and/or biblical saints, and there’s not much chance of any of the rest of us being saved.)
It’s clearly in everyone’s best interests for God to arrange it so that only the elect are ever conceived, since this saves every soul without impacting anyone’s free will. Plus a life doomed to eternal torment in hell is literally a wasted life, not to mention unconscionably cruel on God’s part. If you see someone about to walk in front of a speeding bus because they’re texting and not paying attention, and they’re within an arm’s reach, and you simply choose not to grab them and pull them out of harm’s way, you’re guilty. How much more is God, Who allegedly sees every evil thing that is ever going to happen, and has the power to prevent each and every one of them, and wilfully chooses not to?
There is no way to reconcile the idea of an all-loving, all-wise, and all-powerful God with the idea that anybody, even one person, ever needs to go to hell. When God is all-powerful, all sin is preventable. But Craig’s going to try and bamboozle us anyway, and he’s going to use the tactic of assuming he’s right, and putting the burden of proof on his opponents. This allows him to hide behind the excuse of human fallibility and ignorance.
[The] pluralist claims that the following statements are logically inconsistent:
1. God is all-powerful and all-loving.
2. Some people never hear the gospel and are lost.
Notice how Craig oversimplifies the problem by leaving out his assumption that God is the sole self-existent Being, that God is just, and that where God is not just, He is merciful (to the point that all salvation is the product of God’s mercy). If God is the sole self-existent being, then there is no pre-existing constraint, contrary to His will and His nature, that could force Him to deny His children salvation. If He is all-loving and merciful, there is no constraint in His will that would force Him to deny them salvation. And if He is both all-powerful and just, there is no constraint in His nature that would deprive Him of the opportunity to find some way to save them given the extenuating circumstances.
But now we need to ask, why think that 1 and 2 are logically inconsistent? After all, there’s no explicit contradiction between them.
Here Craig’s choice of terms drives his argument. The reason the explicit contradiction is absent from his terms is because he deliberately omitted mentioning the fact that God is supposedly willing to save His beloved children (implicit in the term “all-loving”) and able to save them (implicit in the term “all-powerful”). By incorporating these crucial terms implicitly rather than explicitly, he creates a pretext in which he can make the artificial claim that there is no “explicit” inconsistency. Literally true, given his contrived presentation, but blatantly deceptive. He then turns around and claims that the pluralist is guilty of making hidden assumptions.
I must say that I’ve never seen any attempt on the part of religious pluralists to identify those hidden assumptions. But let’s try to help the pluralist out a bit. It seems to me that he must be assuming something like the following:
3. If God is all-powerful, He can create a world in which everybody hears the gospel and is freely saved.
4. If God is all loving, He prefers a world in which everybody hears the gospel and is freely saved.
Obviously, these additional assumptions are straw men, constructed to help Craig, not to help the pluralist. If we accept premise 1, then there is no limit on the number of ways God could arrange things to achieve His stated goal of saving everyone. Being loving, He would necessarily prefer one of those alternatives over any alternative that put a greater number of His beloved children in Hell. Thus premise 2 is inconsistent with premise 1. Craig tries to dodge this issue by imagining a couple scenarios under which he can make it sound like God has either no choice (i.e. He’s not really all-powerful) or else no desire (i.e. He’s not really all-loving), but that doesn’t really help. Finding some contrived scenario that won’t work doesn’t mean there’s no alternative that will. The other alternatives are the problem, and that is why Craig is dodging them and putting up straw men instead.
I hate to break stride in mid stream here, but at this point Craig really goes off the rails while trying to explain how an ostensibly all-powerful God has no power to save most of His own children, and why an all-loving God wouldn’t want to. It’s a whole post’s worth of garble in just a few paragraphs, so I’m going to reluctantly save it for next week. Stay tuned.