Defending the Faith: What about those who have never heard?

Published: Thursday, June 13 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

I could imagine worshiping such a being out of terror, I said, but I could never picture myself reverencing him out of love. Any earthly father who arbitrarily picked one of his children to inherit everything—and then beat the others mercilessly, incessantly, year after year—would be judged criminally insane. Whatever my own flaws as a father, I said, I would never treat my children that way. Nor would I happily worship a being morally inferior to myself.

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Years ago, accompanied by two friends, I had lunch with a conservative Protestant clergyman and his wife who were visiting from out of state. Personally friendly and pleasant, they were nonetheless outspoken critics of Mormonism who frankly considered its claims about God “blasphemous.”

Our conversation ranged over many topics, but, at one stage, it turned to the ultimate fate of the unevangelized, those who hadn’t heard the message of Christianity during their mortal lives. To make the question specific, I proposed the hypothetical case of a medieval Chinese peasant who, in the course of his lifetime, had never traveled more than perhaps 20 miles from his home and who had never so much as encountered the name of Jesus.

“He’s damned,” the clergyman said, flatly. Somewhat surprised by his decisive answer, I responded that such a fate seemed terribly unjust, since this Chinese peasant had never had a fair chance — actually, he’d had no chance at all — to hear the gospel. At this point, his wife, who had been silent for quite a while, spoke up. “Maybe God hates the Chinese,” she offered.

Shocked by her comment, I carefully examined her face for any sign of humor, any hint that this was just a very bad joke. But there was none. She was serious.

I think I remained calm, but I was pretty direct. The clergyman and his wife were strongly inclined toward Calvinism and had expressed uncertainty about whether even Roman Catholics are Christians, so I pointed out that their God seemed not only to hate the Chinese — not to mention Africans, residents of the pre-Columbian New World, and sinful, unredeemed humanity in general — but to be inordinately fond of the (historically Calvinist) Netherlands and Scotland.

“You say that my view of God is blasphemous,” I observed. “But your view of God seems to me infinitely worse. You believe that he created us out of nothing. He was under no obligation to create us, but freely chose to do so. Then, historically speaking, he put the overwhelming majority of us into situations where they could never possibly have accepted Christ. And, because those people haven’t accepted Christ, he intends to torture them forever. Forever. He could have given them another chance. Or, barring that, he could simply have snuffed them painlessly out of existence. But no, he keeps them alive eternally in order to punish them forever. Pointless torture. Not to teach them a lesson from which they’ll ever profit: They’ll never escape hell, not even billions of years after the slowest learners among them have mastered whatever lesson they needed to grasp.”

I could imagine worshiping such a being out of terror, I said, but I could never picture myself reverencing him out of love. Any earthly father who arbitrarily picked one of his children to inherit everything—and then beat the others mercilessly, incessantly, year after year—would be judged criminally insane. Whatever my own flaws as a father, I said, I would never treat my children that way. Nor would I happily worship a being morally inferior to myself.

“Maybe God’s justice is different than our justice,” proposed the clergyman. “Yes,” I said. “It sounds much more like our injustice.”

Now, I understand, since this is my account and the others can’t tell their side of the story, that some will suspect me of attributing all the good lines to myself while my conversation partners are left speechless with awe at my irrefutable reasoning. But I’ve tried to relate the exchange as it really happened. It impressed me deeply — and unfavorably. And the issue it raises represents a genuine problem for mainstream Christians.

A story is commonly related about an early eighth-century Frisian chieftain named Radbod, who very nearly accepted baptism into Christianity. Just before his baptism, he asked the Christian missionary who was to perform the rite where his dead forefathers were. “In hell, with all other unbelievers,” came the reply. At which Radbod decided that he would rather be damned with his ancestors in hell than to “dwell with the little starveling band of Christians in heaven.”

One of the very many aspects of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that I treasure is its belief in the vicarious redemption of the dead. Long before our shrinking world made the salvation of the unevangelized an acute problem for mainstream Christianity, Joseph Smith offered a fair and solid solution to it.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, edits BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs http://www.mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.

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