CHAPTER 1 of 2 – Longer than a tweet, shorter than a book This is a question many non-Christians wonder about, if they think about God and world religions at all, and there seems to be a dearth of Christian responses to it.
It also relates to the huge number of people who believe that all religions ultimately lead to the same God, and that it really doesn’t matter too much what you believe as long as you are sincere. Sounds good on the surface, except that it would leave one’s head spinning in total confusion trying to understand how the same God could have spoken all that.
Basically religion represents man’s efforts to find God, hence all the confusion; while it appears self-evident that the God who created beings that, love, hate, communicate, and hopefully desire to find their way in life, HAS SPOKEN to his creatures, giving them (us) some information about who he is and what we are to do.
But the most fundamental problem of all is that the confusing array of non-Christian world religions totally fails to deal with the root and the results of sin (mankind’s rebellion against the way God has told us to live).
Since I do believe that the Creator-God has spoken to his creatures, and has chosen to speak through the Christian Bible (which is the ancient Hebrew Scriptures combined with the “New Testament,” including the life of Jesus of Nazareth, the history of the early church, and the teaching of early church leaders) … because of that, I am taking the Bible as my source to seek answers to this question.
For that same reason, there will be some questions I don’t answer. The Bible has given us what we need to know, and there’s no point in endless conjecture beyond that.
John 3:16 is quite probably the most-quoted Scripture out of the Bible, and since it tells us that God loves every single person (“the world”), and that he sent Jesus to save all who would trust in him, this question is a very valid one for people seeking truth to ask. If you’re Christian, please don’t get mad at the following. I’m trying to state the dilemma from the viewpoint of a person who is confused about religion and God and religious systems. One of our most basic assumptions about God is that he would not play favorites. He’s not throwing darts with our names on them at a heavenly dart board to see into which circle they land, representing what our eternal destiny will be. Like whether we’ll be born into a Christian nation or a Muslim nation. I mean, as children, we trust our parents, and the culture around us, to teach us about life, and as we grow older, those teachings become very deeply ingrained in who we are. And now, or so it would seem, some zealous person comes along and tells us, “You’re going to hell if you don’t convert to our particular religious system.” Or, even worse, you go through life never hearing about any other way, and then after you die you wake up to hear the horrible news that you didn’t make the cut; you are condemned to eternity in hell. This seems so unlike a God who is absolutely just!!! The Christian Scriptures tell us, “For God shows no partiality.” (Romans 2:11 ESV)
The Apostle Paul, traveling around the Roman world to spread the gospel of Jesus, arrived at Athens. He went to the Jewish synagogue, as he typically did, to speak to them about their Messiah, but he also went to the marketplace and reasoned with whoever happened to be there. This created quite a stir, and he was brought to the Areopagus so he could explain further this strange new teaching he was bringing.
Continuing from Scripture: [Acts 17:21-27 New Living Translation (NLT)] — (It should be explained that all the Athenians as well as the foreigners in Athens seemed to spend all their time discussing the latest ideas.) So Paul, standing before the council, addressed them as follows: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about. “He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since he is Lord of heaven and earth, he doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve his needs—for he has no needs. He himself gives life and breath to everything, and he satisfies every need. From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries. “His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him—though he is not far from any one of us.”
From this we conclude that God, in addition to loving everyone (as we saw in John 3:16), desires that all people everywhere would look for him and find him.
This leads us to the question, “What things about God can people know, even if they have no Bible, 10 commandments, or Christian teachers?” This in turn brings us back to Paul’s letter to the Romans, which is his systematic presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ. First, we see that people can look at the things God has made and know that he is there. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Romans 1:19-20 ESV) David, in the Psalms, tells us to just look up! “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” (Psalm 19:1-2 ESV) However, mankind took a horrible path downward, away from the knowledge of God, into every kind of sin, both against God and against one another. (described in Romans 1:21-2:5)
At this point, we come to a difficult passage. Difficult because it gets interpreted in various ways. And probably our best tool for understanding it will be to see what the Bible says in other places on the subject. First, here is the passage, continuing from Romans 2:5 mentioned above: “He [God, v.5] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:6-16 ESV)
And, since Scripture is consistent with itself, we see this principle elsewhere as well. Here, from the prophet Jeremiah, long before Jesus came to earth: “‘I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.'” (Jer. 17:10 ESV) And from Jesus Himself, in that famous discussion He had with Nicodemus: “’This, then, is the judgment: The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who practices wicked things hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.’” (John 3:19-21 HCSB) In speaking to people who had great religious knowledge, Jesus compared them to those who know nothing at all, spiritually speaking: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father.” (John 15:22-24 NKJV)
Does that mean that Jesus wants people to remain in spiritual ignorance? No, he was simply making a point. But we must realize that with increase knowledge comes increased accountability to God. If leaving people in spiritual ignorance is better, why did the Apostle Paul go through horrible suffering persecution to get the Good News out to those who had never heard?
Here’s a little bit from his letter to the believers at Ephesus — “And you were dead in your trespasses and sins in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:1-10 HCSB) But that gets ahead of my story…
CHAPTER 2 GOD INTERVENES IN HUMAN HISTORY
At just the right time, God sent the long-awaited Messiah whom He had promised. But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 KJV) Later, after Jesus had been crucified for our sins and raised from the dead for our justification, the Apostle Paul was making a missionary journey through what is now Turkey, when the following events happened: “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
“From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days. “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there.One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:6-15 NIV)
In this account, we see that God went to great lengths to divert Paul from his planned itinerary and direct him to a specific area. Lydia and other women were gathered there, as Paul understood, for the purpose of prayer. Lydia in particular is described as a worshiper of God. God built on the faith she had by sending her Paul to explain to her more fully about the God whom she already worshiped; that is, the good news that He has sent us a Savior.
Two other examples of this in the Book of Acts are the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter 8, and the Roman centurion Cornelius in Acts chapter 10. In the Ethiopian’s case, God gives very specific leading to Philip, directing him to his divine appointment with this man (Acts 8:26-40). In Cornelius, we find a God-fearing man who was definitely ready: “In Caesarea there lived a Roman army officer named Cornelius, who was a captain of the Italian Regiment. He was a devout, God-fearing man, as was everyone in his household. He gave generously to the poor and prayed regularly to God.” (Acts 10:1-2 NLT) In the rest of that chapter, we see first that God needed to do a special work in Peter’s heart to prepare him for this mission. Once that was done, Peter became God’s missionary to Cornelius, by very specific directions given both to him and to Cornelius.
Peter, doing the unthin”So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. ” (Acts 10:34-35 ESV) These are the people to whom God sends his word, because he knows they are ready!
As we see in Romans chapters 3 and 4, the people in the examples above weren’t saved by being “good enough,” they were saved by their faith in God. They were sinners just like the rest of us, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. (Rom. 3:23 ESV) They sought the true and living God, and He revealed Himself to them. To have been saved by good works, they would have to have not sinned even once. (See James 2:10-11) Clearly it was their faith in God, however much or little they may have known of him, that led them to do deeds of righteousness. Jesus also brings this out, in his discussion with the people who had seen him do a great miracle: “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” (John 6:45-48 ESV)
And, as we would expect, God is still very active today! See Don Richardson’s great book, Eternity in Their Hearts – Startling Evidence of Belief in the One True God in Hundreds of Cultures Throughout the World. Chapter 3 Other Bible Examples After Jesus gave his famous Sermon on the Mount, when he had come down from the mountain, some people came to him with requests for healing. One of them, a Roman centurion, gives us a great example of an “outsider” coming to the Lord, and the importance of faith: Matthew 8:5-13 KJV — “And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed. For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it. “When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel. And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven. But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. “And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.” As Jesus made his application of this miracle, it’s clear that this faith wasn’t just about a healing, it was about being in God’s kingdom, and that “many” will come from the east and the west and enjoy God’s kingdom along with the Jewish patriarchs. Other interesting Scriptures: Heb. 11:31 ESV- “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.” Since she and her family were spared and taken into Israel, we can hope that she also learned that prostitution was wrong; at any rate, the point here is her faith in the living God. Limitations and disclaimers:
If you ask questions that God does not answer in His Word, who I am to venture an answer? We are on earth and He is in heaven, and we won’t really know all the answers until we see Him face to face…. or, maybe then it won’t even matter any more, as we stand totally overwhelmed beholding His glory. Read His Word; hasn’t He given us an abundant revelation there of His nature? I am deliberately not entering into debate about Calvinism, hyper-Calvinism, and Arminianism. Those are great debates for those interested in them, and, while related to my question here, they do not solve it. Conclusion and Application What are my purposes in writing? 1. For any who have not yet chosen to follow Christ, that you would be helped to realize that God is indeed totally fair to every person who has ever lived. And, going beyond “fair,” He loves every person He has created with a love so powerful that we can never humanly understand it. Peter, as he answers those who scoff at the fact that the Lord has delayed His promise to return to earth, states “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 ESV) 2. For Christians, that we should live every day to its fullest, ready for Divine appointments so as to share with others our faith in Christ, never overlooking the “little” things in our focus on the “great.” That we be willing vessels, ready for the Master’s use. 2 Timothy 2:20-26 (HCSB) — “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver bowls, but also those of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. So if anyone purifies himself from anything dishonorable, he will be a special instrument, set apart, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. “Flee from youthful passions, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels. The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient, instructing his opponents with gentleness.Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will.”