From The Clarity of God’s Existence by Dr. Owen Anderson
Attempts to Avoid the Need for Clarity
While it may seem that it is non-Christians, or atheists, who mainly reject the idea of the clarity of God’s existence, it is also Christians who often attempt to avoid this requirement. Such a requirement is said to be too strict, or out of the reach of most people, or not what God wants. In this chapter we will consider some of the most popular attempts to avoid the clarity of God’s existence.
The claim that all humans need redemption is central to Christianity. It is this that its many divisions share in common. Historic Christianity has been exclusivist on this point, asserting that redemption can be achieved only through the atoning work of Christ. It asserts that the need for redemption is universal among humans, that all have sinned. In its early years this set Christianity in contrast to religions based on heredity, the inclusivist/pluralist polytheism of Rome, or secret knowledge available only to a few initiates.
The Christian claim is that all humans need redemption from sin. Redemption and sin are necessarily joined. Redemption does not mean simply growth or maturing. Growth does not require redemption—it does not require payment and forgiveness. Nor is redemption merely an escape from suffering. Redemption is a purchasing out of a position of guilt by another. Persons in the state of sin and guilt cannot redeem themselves. Another is required to act as redeemer. Hence, any discussion of redemption must include a discussion of sin and guilt.
In Christianity, sin has been defined as any want of conformity to God’s law. The first act of non-conformity would be to deny that there is a God or a law of God. This is unbelief. Unbelief as the first sin is the originator of other sins. A decree against unbelief is implicit in the first commandment. Jesus summarizes all of the commandments in “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Paul asserts that “He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). Christianity affirms that unbelief is sin and requires redemption.
To conform to God’s law requires that one can know God and the law. If God is unknowable then the claim that all humans need redemption from unbelief becomes indefensible. Redemption assumes that there is sin and guilt. But if humans cannot know God, then they cannot be guilty in failing to know God. It may be the case that there is a need for help from God, but not redemption. If humans have an excuse, such as that God is unknowable or very difficult to know, then there is not guilt for unbelief. Paul sees this and asserts, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). According to Paul and Historic Christianity, God is knowable by all and consequently unbelief is inexcusable. To say that there is no excuse for failing to know God is to say that the alternatives are not rationally acceptable (for instance, are contradictory). Christianity must be able to prove that there is a God in order for its message to be meaningful.
It could be asserted that unbelief is not what matters, but rather that actions like theft and sexual immorality are what incur guilt and require redemption. Paul certainly does not hold this, but rather asserts that unbelief is the beginning of all other transgressions. This is the darkening of the mind; it is not seeking and not understanding that results in not doing what is right. And it is worth noting that the Ten Commandments begin with two commands about knowing God. The theistic traditions all affirm that unbelief is in fact a sin. More generally, if it is clear that God exists and humans have the capacity to know this but do not, then they are failing in their responsibility to use reason to know the truth. This failure to know the truth bears a certain kind of blame that makes unbelief a kind of sin.
Historic Christianity presupposes the principle of clarity. Historic Christianity affirms that unbelief is culpable ignorance. Traditionally, the clarity of God’s existence is spoken of as being known through general revelation. General revelation is what all persons can know about God at all times, in contrast to special revelation (scriptures).
General revelation is so called because everyone received it, just by virtue of being alive in God’s world. . . . God has now supplemented general revelation with the further revelation of himself as Savior of sinners through Jesus Christ. This revelation, given in history, and embodied in Scripture, and opening the door of salvation to the lost, is usually called special or specific revelation.
Historic Christianity presupposes that there is a clear revelation of God. It is the failure to know God through general revelation that requires redemption and the message found in special revelation. “Scripture assumes, and experience confirms, that human beings are naturally inclined to some form of religion, yet they fail to worship their Creator whose general revelation of himself makes him universally known.” To deny the clarity of God’s existence is to render the message of redemption unintelligible, and to undermine the basis for needing special revelation.
The debate between exclusivists (only one path to God), inclusivists (multiple paths to God), and pluralists (God is only one form of the ultimate) rests on whether general revelation is clear.
Exclusivists hold that salvation is available only in Jesus Christ to the extent that those who have never heard the gospel are eternally lost. . . . For pluralists, other religions are legitimate means of salvation. Pluralism involves a positive and a negative element: Negatively, pluralism categorically rejects exclusivism (and often also inclusivism); positively, it affirms that people can find salvation in various religions and in many ways . . . inclusivists hold that while salvation is ontologically founded on the person of Christ, its benefits have been made universally available by the revelation of God.
The exclusivist can consistently maintain that unbelief is inexcusable and requires redemption because there is a clear general revelation for all humans. However, exclusivists have generally not held that it is clear that God exists from general revelation. Consequently, inclusivists and pluralists have pointed out that it would be unjust for persons to be condemned for unbelief when there was no way for them to overcome their unbelief. For the exclusivist to assert that God will condemn whom he will is inadequate because it separates God’s condemnation from that which is deserving of condemnation. God condemns those who are guilty. The guilt of unbelief presupposes that God could have been known. It is because of this that unbelief as sin is condemned.
The modern trend in academia has been toward inclusivism and pluralism. “Exclusivism seems so unrealistic in the light of our knowledge of the wider religious life of mankind.” The awareness of the variety and sincerity of the world’s religions make either inclusivism or pluralism appear to be more consistent than exclusivism. To the inclusivist and pluralist the claims of Historic Christianity to exclusive redemption through Christ are unintelligible. Exclusivism is said to contradict the justice of God due to the fact that some are unfairly condemned because they did not know God and yet could not have known God.
With regard to a more positive and tolerant attitude toward other religions, we should not ignore the radical transformation of intellectual climate brought about by the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment and the rise of classical liberalism that followed, most people took it for granted that an exclusive claim to the superiority of Christianity needed no extensive justification. The Enlightenment eradicated major pillars of orthodoxy, however, and left theology and the church to rethink major doctrines and convictions. Even those who followed orthodoxy could not go back to the pre-Enlightenment homogenous culture but had to give their testimonies in an intellectually more tolerant and permissive cultural milieu. There was a shift from dogmatic definitions to a new appreciation of the ethical life and love of neighbor as the essence of religion.
However, it is also true that Historic Christianity is neither pluralistic nor inclusivistic. Consequently, for those interested in Historic Christianity the question of the clarity of general revelation must be viewed as important, indeed essential.
Exclusivists must show that there is a clear general revelation of God to all humans. It is circular to try to establish an exclusivist position by appeals to tradition or the Bible. Such attempts have been ineffectual. However, if it is established that there is a clear general revelation of God then unbelief is inexcusable and is sin, and this sin and the accompanying guilt deserve condemnation. This makes sense of the exclusivists’ claim and is consistent with the justice of God.
The current challenge for Historic Christianity is to give justification for its claim that all humans need redemption through Christ, by showing that there is no excuse for not knowing God—that unbelief is culpable. In order to establish this, the clarity of general revelation must be shown. In order to highlight this need, seven attempts to avoid clarity will be considered and shown to contradict the Christian claim about redemption. While the point is to show that such attempts are inconsistent with clarity and therefore with the inexcusability of unbelief, it will also be relevant to show that they are not insurmountable problems for establishing the principle of clarity.