The Problem of Exclusivity

In my previous post, I argued that the problem of religious pluralism (that the diversity of the world’s religions makes it unlikely for a non-pluralist religion like Christianity to be true) is derivative: the strength of this argument borrows its strength from the problem of divine hiddenness (that the widespread unbelief in God’s existence is improbable, if God really did exist).

Specifically, I concluded that the following ratio, measuring the strength of the problem of religious pluralism, is the same magnitude as the probability that God would choose to remain hidden:

\frac{P(G|E,K)}{P(\sim G|E,K)} \simeq P(H|G,K)

(Where G is the hypothesis that the Christian God exists, E is the fact of religious diversity in the world, H is the hypothesis that God chooses to remain hidden to some degree, and K is our background knowledge.)

This means that the problem of religious pluralism is only as good as the problem of divine hiddenness – and moreover, it isn’t independent of it. And the considerations that I brought up two posts ago, when I wrote about the problem of divine hiddenness, basically amount to reasons to think that P(H|G,K) may not be that low after all. (The relationship between the two problems also means that as long as there is value for God in allowing religious diversity – say, because the existence of contrasting viewpoints ultimately clarifies the truth in the long run – that adds further reason for God to remain partially hidden.)

There is one issue relevant to both of these problems that I haven’t addressed yet. What overriding reasons could God have to remain hidden, and allow religious diversity, if having certain correct beliefs about God is essential for salvation and eternal life?

That is, we can suppose that many of the reasons for God to allow non-belief (which come down to “more and better relationships in the long run”) are ultimately rooted in people eventually being able to receive eternal life and experience the greatest possible good. But if people are excluded from eternal life unless they accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour in this mortal life – in order to do which, they must believe that he exists – how can any of those reasons override the motivation for God to ensure belief? How can a loving God deny the opportunity for eternal life to so many people?

This is the problem of exclusivity in a nutshell. And to my mind it is the most significant problem underlying both the problem of divine hiddenness and the problem of religious pluralism.

The Fate of the Unevangelized

One of the core claims of Christianity is that eternal life is available through the work of Jesus Christ alone. The problem of exclusivity cuts particularly hard against Christianity if this means that only through conscious faith in Jesus Christ can someone be saved. This is definitely the stance that some Christians take, and arguably, it was at least a kind of “working assumption” for the apostles in the early church:

“For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” – the Apostle Paul, Romans 10:13-14

But if you were to ask Paul whether he meant that salvation was so exclusive that it’s only those who have heard someone preach about Jesus who even have a chance, I think he might point to what he wrote just a few verses later in that chapter:

“But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’” – the Apostle Paul, Romans 10:18, quoting Psalm 19:4

(“Their voice” in Psalm 19:4, which Paul quotes here, is referring to the way that God’s glory is revealed in what he has made, available for all to see.)

Here Paul seems to suggest that people can come to have the appropriate kind of faith to be in a right relationship with God, without having the particular knowledge of what Jesus has done. We have examples in the Old Testament of figures like Melchizedek and Job, who are portrayed as righteous, even though they are outside of God’s covenant with his people. And the Bible never affirms the notion that people are judged simply for not having heard of Jesus – rather, God judges us on the basis of what we have done with the knowledge and ability that he has given us. (This, I take it, is part of what Paul is saying in Romans 2:12-16 and Romans 5:13, for example.)

So there is room within Christian belief for at least a moderately inclusivist position: the idea that the salvation which is made possible by Jesus is accessible by having an appropriate kind of faith in God, and that this faith may not require conscious knowledge of what Jesus has done. God gives grace sufficient so that salvation and eternal life are available to all.

However, there is a little more that the problem of exclusivity can say against Christian belief. Evangelism is a central part of Christianity. (I must admit it is far more central than I act as if it is, to my shame.) Presumably this indicates that in some way, hearing the gospel gives a person a better chance of developing the right kind of faith in God by which they can be saved – otherwise the motivation for evangelism would not be as great. How then is it fair that God does not give this opportunity – the opportunity to hear the gospel – to everyone?

The concern here is that there are some people who never hear the gospel and are forever lost, failing to gain eternal life – but who would have been saved if only they had heard the gospel. On the face it seems very probable that if there is anyone who never hears the gospel, then surely some of these people would have been saved had they heard it. And then it seems that the eternal damnation that these people suffer is just a result of the various historical and geographical contingencies which led to the fact that they never heard the gospel.

I say that this concern seems very probable on the face, but the truth is that here we are again faced with epistemic limitations that make it difficult to assess the probability this claim. We cannot see inside people’s hearts and minds – often I think we have trouble discerning what is going on in the depths of our own hearts – and it is even harder to see what would be inside people’s hearts and minds were they to be in a different situation. So we have no direct ability to verify this claim. But then we can only indirectly assess it, by inferences and assumptions.

And an implicit assumption behind an assessment of high probability for this concern is a kind of inductive presumption of uniformity. It is the idea that if in one group of people a certain portion have a certain trait, then in a similar group of people we should expect a similar portion to have that trait. Since there are people who grew up without hearing the gospel who then do accept it upon hearing it, we expect that there should be people in groups who have never heard the gospel who would accept it upon hearing it.

Here now is the flaw in this concern. This kind of reasoning is powerful and very often valid – we use it all the time in everyday life and in science – but it is liable to not properly account for occurrences and circumstances that are intricately tied up with God’s providence over history. If there are reasons for God to choose some degree of hiddenness (such as those I explored a few blog posts ago), there is a way God can “have his cake and eat it too:” God can create a world in which he remains hidden, yet there are still no accidents of history or geography leading to people being lost who would otherwise have been saved.

Let me try to clarify what I mean. First, I am suggesting that people are able to enter into a right relationship with God without having heard of Jesus Christ (even though what Jesus did is ultimately necessary for that relationship to be possible). And second, I am then suggesting that, through his foreknowledge, God has arranged the world in such a way that there simply are no people who are “accidentally” lost – people who are lost, but who would have been saved if only God had put them in circumstances where they had heard the gospel.

On this proposal, someone who is lost without hearing gospel is lost not because they did not hear about Jesus, but because they failed to enter into a right relationship with God – something which was possible for them to do. And moreover, it happens that even if they had heard the gospel, they still would not have entered into a right relationship with God, and so the fact that they are lost cannot be chalked up to historical or geographical accident. And the reason why God would create the world in this way is simply that he is too good to create people without the possibility of salvation, and too good to create anyone whose failure to be saved is so circumstantial.

This suggestion basically follows what William Lane Craig propounds (for example, in this article; for a more nuanced possibility see Kirk MacGregor’s article here; and I think there is room for even more nuance and depth in that analysis, if there are any aspiring theologians or philosophers of religion reading this). If this suggestion is reasonably plausible on the assumption that God exists – and because of God’s goodness and the reasons he may have for remaining hidden, I think it is plausible – then it goes a ways towards removing the overriding reason against the plausibility of God’s remaining hidden.

Another possibility that gets around the concern about the fate of the unevangelized is that there simply are no people who never hear the gospel, because anyone who never had an appropriate chance to respond to God in this mortal life is given a chance in the afterlife. Some Christians believe that this is hinted at in 1 Peter 3:19, for example. (I am somewhat doubtful that this is the intended meaning of that verse, but see here for an article laying out this possibility.) Again, the reason that God would do this is rooted in his goodness, and if this suggestion is plausible, it eases the problem of exclusivity.

The Fate of the Lost

There is one more objection to Christian belief that is relevant for this post. That, of course, is what may be called the problem of hell.

The traditional belief within Christianity is that everyone who fails to receive eternal life – everyone who is excluded from experiencing the ultimate good – instead ends up in hell for eternity, in an unending state of suffering. And the horror of this idea provokes the question, how can this be good? How can a loving God subject any of his creatures to such a destiny?

There are a couple of things that I would say in brief response to that.

The first is that it is quite reasonable to think that not everyone can be saved. In order for heaven to be what it is – an eternity of experiencing the ultimate good of perfect relationship with God and with everyone else – the saved in heaven need to go on making the right choices, to maintain that state of perfection instead of marring it, and they need to go on making those choices forever. Nobody besides God knows perfectly how to make the right choices, so in order to enjoy heaven, one must submit to God’s will. There is no getting round that. And for the relationship with God to be fully good, it must be entered into freely, so God cannot force the kind of submission to him that the enjoyment of heaven requires.

But this means that anyone who will not freely submit to God ultimately cannot join the ranks of heaven, basically out of logical necessity. This makes it extremely plausible that universalism, the idea that everyone will be saved, is false. But then something has to be done with the people who are not saved. (Just what that something is, I will get to in a moment.)

The second thing is that the exercise of punishment, as an act of retributive justice against wrongdoing, arguably flows out of God’s goodness and is in no way contrary to it. It is an aspect of God’s goodness that he punishes evil. And despite what most everyone would say at this point – that they haven’t done anything so evil as to deserve eternal torment as punishment – the fact is that we tend to minimize and ignore the extent of our wrongdoing. We hurt others more than we admit. We do worse than we often recognize in hindsight, after we have edited our accounts with excuses. We transgress against the perfect goodness of God.

So much of the problem of evil is really the problem of our evil. This is not to say that humans are all bad all the time, but it is not a tenet of Christianity that humans are “basically good.” Our God-given potential can be used for both good and evil, and often and unfortunately, we use it for evil. God offers mercy, but if that mercy is spurned, his punishment, his justice, is not wrong. It is a righting of wrongs.

The third point is that the traditional Christian teaching of eternal conscious torment may not, in fact, be correct. There are Christians who hold that the suffering of hell is simply the miserableness of existence apart from God and the joys of heaven. (C.S. Lewis vividly depicts something along these lines in his work The Great Divorce.) And the folks at Rethinking Hell, among other places, make a good case that what the Bible actually teaches is annihilationism (also known as conditionalism or conditional immortality), which says that the ultimate fate of the lost is cessation of existence. If eternal conscious torment is incompatible with God’s goodness, that may just be a strike against that doctrine, not against the existence of God.

I won’t go any further into those in-house debates in this post. But my point is, when it comes to the fate of the lost, we can trust that God will act in a way that accords with his goodness and justice, whichever that way may be. (That trust is on the basis of our reasons for thinking that God is good in the first place; coming from the moral and ontological arguments in natural theology; from religious experiences; and from the teachings of Jesus and scripture via the argument from the resurrection.)


The responses I have given to the problem of exclusivity (and along with it, to the problems of religious pluralism and divine hiddenness) are admittedly speculative. But like my responses to the other atheistic arguments in the last three posts, I think they are sufficient to noticeably diminish the strength of this problem. Given these considerations, I do not think we can claim with confidence that the particularity of Christian belief is an overriding reason against God’s remaining hidden and allowing the religious diversity that we see.

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