One of the awful recurring conversations of my teenage and early adults years as a young Christian usually began with a question like “what about all the people who never heard of Jesus because of where and when they lived?”
The reason that I find this an awful conversation, in retrospect, is because a bunch of the assumptions behind it. For example: God is the only meaning in life, so if you don’t have God, your life is meaningless. Worse still, hell is a thing, and that’s the awful default choice for where you go if you’re not connected to God. And you get connected with God when someone tells you about Jesus and you respond in a certain way. So what if you live in one of the many, many times or places where no such opportunity arises? That hardly seems fair!
Here we were, as young Christians, responding to our own spiritual experiences of love that meant the whole world to us, and that pushed us to want to love all people, and yet the belief system surrounding those beautiful experiences was one that assumed a whole bunch of people would suffer intensely and unendingly for something they had no control over.
Now, the conversations weren’t that awful, because for the most part, we were trying to find ways to morph the beliefs back into something more loving, that more closely matched our experiences of love.
I remember clinging to the story of a guy’s near death (or actual death?) experience which apparently involved a supernatural deathbed opportunity to connect with God despite being an atheist until that point. Maybe everyone gets a chance and no-one goes to hell unfairly after all!? Eventually we’d start hearing rumours that maybe the “hell” story isn’t as clear cut as we thought, and when Rob Bell wrote “Love Wins” a bunch of people felt relieved to hear someone articulately argue that we don’t have to believe in the punishment thing. (Disclaimer: I haven’t actually read the book, and many people said he’s a heretic for it, but I love Rob Bell. Any “heresy” he’s pushing I’m likely to agree with him on!)
But even aside from the question of hell, do we really think God is completely absent from humans, except through some of the organised religions?
Back then I studied the bible a lot, and over time some verses that aren’t commonly talked about in evangelical circles started standing out to me, like this little aside from Paul in Romans 2:
Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.Romans 2:14-15 (NIV)
So there’s the most prolific writer of the early church, Paul, acknowledging that sometimes God is interacting with people who’ve never had any conscious interaction with the visible religions that are officially representing God. God just gets in and connects with them anyway, and doesn’t wait for the religion to make its way across the world first.
Eventually, I found myself paying attention to Paul’s sermon to the people of Athens, recorded in Acts 17. After a few years away from church, and when I was not even sure if I’d call myself Christian, this sermon felt really compelling to me:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’Acts 17:24-28
For any century you could be born in, for any country you inhabit, “Got is not very far from any of us”. And God’s whole motivation in placing us here on this world… that we would seek God, perhaps reach out for, and find God. God desired relationship, and thats been available – “not far from” – all people in all nations at any point in history.
And this rings true for me: the same God I’ve known, I’ve seen showing up in other parts of the world which hadn’t had exposure to the same Christianity I had.
I remember learning about the Boon Wurrung people in the Kulin Nations, what is now called Melbourne. Their creator taught them to always welcome guests and care for them as for their own, and that duty of hospitality is a key part of Derrimut’s story in protecting early European arrivals. That teaching might sound familiar to people who’ve read Leviticus: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself“. There’s so many examples like this. The golden rule wasn’t unique to Jesus.
A few years ago I discovered Karen Armstrong’s book “The Case For God”, which does a beautiful job depicting how cultures across the world have tried to reach out to “the unknown God”, and showing common threads of mystic encounter and a deep ethic of compassion emerging from all different parts of the world.
She’s gone on to start the Charter For Compassion, and perhaps that’s a fitting place to end this post. The love that me and my friends felt so strongly, that made us want to question any belief system that sent innocent people to suffer, that love was the real deal. And that same love is emerging all over the world, in all sorts of communities, religious or not. Making sure your religion – both the spiritual experiences and the belief system – drive you towards love and compassion is absolutely crucial.
We therefore call upon all men and women to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.Charter for Compassion
Edit: 15 Dec 2022: I’ve since discovered the name for this topic: The Fate Of The Unlearned. There’s even a wikipedia page, which explores the same passage in Romans 2. The page lists a range of viewpoints from Christianity and Islam, and my upbringing probably sat on the “harsher” side – many traditions do have theologies that are more inclusive for those who outside the formal religion. Even with that though, I think there’s a lot of the behaviour I described us also doing: trying to find justifications to drag their beliefs back to the reality of the love they’ve experienced… but the starting point for the beliefs is often still out of line with the experience of infinite love. I think our theology can be better than that, we can have belief systems that are more reflective of our experience of infinite love. We should strive for that.