Many Ways to God?
My car was in the shop this week to fix an evolving A/C apocalypse. When the work was finished, a kind mechanic from the place picked me up to take me to my car. On the way, we talked about the things of God, and he asked me how could God send a good Jewish Rabbi to Hell? After all, he said, the Rabbi is only doing what he was brought up to do; he is doing his best to live up to the light he received.
This is a common objection to the Christian message. It deserves a compelling answer. What would you say? You might try something like this:
Yes, I hear that kind of objection often. Taken at face value, it certainly sounds very compelling. I mean surely a just God wouldn’t condemn an honest member of the wrong religion simply for not knowing what he couldn’t possibly know? Would that not be akin to a teacher failing an American first grade student for not knowing Chinese— a subject he had never been taught. From your perspective, I can totally see why that seems unjust.
But can I suggest that’s not quite the way things are. It seems to me, that this objection rests on a common, but significant misunderstanding of the human condition. It sounds like you assume most decent people want to find God and use religion as a vehicle for doing just that. May I suggest an alternative explanation, because I’m not sure that’s the picture the Bible paints of human beings. The Bible teaches that the normal response of human beings to God is one of profound hostility. As such, our efforts in religion do not really represent an attempt to find God, they actually represent an attempt to avoid him.
At this point, your conversation partner will probably say something like, “Well that makes no sense. If men are trying to hide from God, why bother engaging in religion at all— why not just be a straight up atheist?”
Yes, thats a good point. Perhaps, I might explain it by drawing a comparison between human sexuality and human spirituality. Human beings are sexual in nature. We are hardwired for sex, and instinctively long for intimacy. God’s plan for human sexuality is simple: the marriage of one man to one woman until death separates the union. Now, granted, most people in our society reject their Creator’s design for their sex life. What do they do instead? Do they become celibate? No they don’t. We have an instinct and an urge for sex we just can’t ignore; facts are, as they say, stubborn things. So what do we humans do? We please ourselves by designing our own version of illicit sexuality. We do that, not because we honestly want to discover God’s will in this area. No, we do that because our hearts are committed to suppressing and defying this truth.
Well it is exactly like that when it comes to human beings and their instinct for spirituality. As a person made in God’s image, we are built to know God and to worship Him. Calvin called this the “sensus divinitatis” or the “semen religionis” (the sense of the divine, or the seed of religion). For the unbeliever, however, this instinct is poisoned by profound enmity and feelings of deep resentment and hostility. He needs to worship something, but He just can’t bear to worship God— at least not the true One.
So what does he do? Well, just like we see with our sexual drive, human beings like to go it alone when it comes to their spiritual instincts as well. And so, rather than submit to God as He reveals Himself to us, the carnal mind prefers instead to make up a fantasy God together with fantasy ways of worshipping Him. Such a response, do you see, does not represent the opening of the heart to God, it actually reveals one that is already closed to Him.
This is why, when you confront “honest religious people” with the truth, they often don’t respond with gratitude, they actually respond with anger— an anger that represents their true posture towards God and His truth. We see examples of this everywhere: How do members of the LGBTQ&Q community respond when Christians commend and extol the virtues of Christian marriage? How do pro-choice activists respond when people argue that we ought not to rob babies in the womb of the gift of life? In each of these examples, do you see, people don’t want to hear the truth, because they have already committed themselves to the lie. People don’t want to believe they are lost, helpless sinners, in desperate need of salvation. People prefer to believe that things aren’t nearly that bad—that they can work their way back to God—that they can do something to redeem themselves—that they can make themselves worthy of Heaven—that they can at least take some pride in all the things they have done--that God should be grateful they spend any time thinking about Him at all! But none of those things are true. In truth, the Christian position is that human beings, you and I, are so bad that our only hope is for God, the Son to come in our nature, as our representative, and to pay the full ransom price for our redemption, etc., etc.
Now of course, while this is the information you must communicate, just “preaching” the whole message in one fell swoop is generally not the best tactic to use (unless you know on the front end that your time is extremely limited). Let me suggest you use well aimed questions to get them talking. It’s a much more effective pedagogy, and generally leaves our discussion partner feeling like he is in the driving seat, and therefore, feeling a lot less threatened.
Yes, I hear that question from a lot of people, it certainly has some teeth. But do you mind if I ask you, “What do you mean by an honest Jew who lives up to the light he was given?” Because I am not sure I live up to the light I have been given? In fact I am not sure I know anyone who does.
When you say, “He is doing his best to live up to the light he received,” what are you assuming about human nature? You might also ask a question to tease out the assumption that God has not clearly revealed himself to all men so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:16ff).
You might ask him if he has ever considered the following Scriptures (Romans 8:7-8; Colossians 1:21; Ephesians 2:1-10). It is good to memorize them so you can quote them without reference.
You might clinch the conversation by asking, “From what you have heard/read/studied in Christianity, have you seen anything unique?” Then you can be prepared to speak of the uniqueness of Christ—that unlike all the other religions that begin with an imperative “Do”—with what you must do for God in order to earn forgiveness, Christianity begins with the gospel indicative, “Done”—what Christ has done to redeem us. We receive this mercy as a gift by faith alone.
Full disclosure: I don’t think I spoke with such clarity in the car, my thinking has matured in the past couple of hours. This is an important principle for us all to remember: When you share the gospel with someone, come back and debrief yourself. How could I have been clearer, kinder, sharper in my logic? What would I say differently if I had a do-over? This is an important way to increase your evangelistic skill. And when all is said and done, don’t forget to pray! Salvation belongs to the LORD.