Serial killer David Berkowitz was fortunate. He lives in a country where people freely talk about Christianity. Someone told him about Christ's offer of forgiveness, and he says he has confessed his offenses and put his faith in Jesus. But what about people who live in places where the gospel isn't routinely discussed or where its dissemination is actually outlawed?
"Isn't it unfair to condemn them when they never heard about Jesus and merely followed the religious traditions of their parents?" I asked.
Zacharias reached over to pick up his Bible. As he opened it and flipped to Acts, I caught a glimpse of the many places where he had highlighted key verses in yellow.
"The Bible says first of all that nobody will be in the presence of God apart from the fact that the person and work of Christ made it possible. That's the price it took: Christ's death on the cross as our substitute, paying the penalty we deserved to pay. Now, some people are born into one culture or another, but the apostle Paul said something very interesting about that when he was speaking to the Athenians."
Zacharias lifted his reading glasses out of his pocket and slipped them on so that they perched on his nose. Then he read part of a passage where Paul was debating some Greek philosophers:
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.21
Removing his glasses, Zacharias looked up at me. "This is important," he said, "because he's pointing out that there's a sovereign plan in creation, where each person is assigned a place of birth. God knows where we will be born and raised, and he puts us in a position where we might seek him. We are clearly told that wherever we live-in whatever culture, in whatever nation-he is within reach of every one of us. There is always the possibility of a person crying out on their knees, 'God, help me,' and if that happens there are ways in which God can minister to them that are beyond our understanding."
"For example, he might send someone to share the gospel with them. Or let me tell you what happened in the case of a Muslim woman who worked for a very well-known institution in her country. She told me how she was leaving her office at the end of her day's work and was very unhappy in her heart. As she was walking, she muttered, 'I don't know why I am so empty,' and after that, out of the blue, she said, 'Jesus, can you help me?' She stopped on the sidewalk and said to herself, 'Why did I name him?' Well, that woman ended up becoming a Christian.
"In her case, I think God saw a heart that hungered for him but did not know how to reach him in the cloister of her existence. I think this was God breaking past the barrier's of her environment because she was already breaking through the barriers of her inner life, seeking after him. Thus, God can reach into any cultural situation in response to anyone who wants to know him.
"Another way of looking at this issue comes from Romans, where Paul says God's infinite power and deity are revealed to everyone through creation.22 Then Paul says God put the law in our hearts and our consciences that we might seek after him.23 And he talks about the word of Christ that is necessary for a person to come to know him.24 I think more and more that this word of Christ comes within the framework of different cultures.
"What do I mean by that?
"I have spoken in many Islamic countries, where it's tough to talk about Jesus. Virtually every Muslim who has come to follow Christ has done so, first, because of the love of Christ expressed through a Christian, or second, because of a vision, a dream, or some other supernatural intervention. Now, no religion has a more intricate doctrine of angels and visions than Islam, and I think it's extraordinary that God uses that sensitivity to the supernatural world in which he speaks in visions and dreams and reveals himself.
"One of India's greatest converts was a Sikh, Sundar Singh, who came to know Christ through an appearance of Christ in his room in a dream one night. It had a tremendous impact on his life and he became a Christian. So there are ways that God can reveal himself that go far beyond our own understanding.
"Now, if God is able to give the word of Christ in various settings in ways we can't even understand-if he's not far from us wherever we are, if he is able to speak through the general revelation of creation and through our conscience-then we have to accept the fact that we are without excuse. Every human being will know enough truth so that if they respond to that known truth, God will reveal more to them. Does that mean they have to have as much of a volume of truth as someone in another setting does? I don't believe so."
I tried to summarize his point. "You're saying that regardless of where a person lives in the world, regardless of the culture in which they live, anyone who responds to the understanding that they do have and sincerely seeks God will in some way be given an opportunity to respond to him?"
As I spoke, Zacharias was weighing my words with care. "I believe so," he replied. "We have to be very careful here, but I believe that if a person genuinely and sincerely seeks after him, there will be some way God makes available for that person to hear of him. If that person would not have responded to God under any circumstance, then perhaps he will not hear of him. But all people know enough to condemn them; they do not need to hear John 3:16 in order to be lost. They are lost because they've already rejected what God has spoken to them through creation, their conscience, and other ways. Because of that, we will all stand accountable before him."
"So sincerity is important?
"Sincerity is not salvation," came his response. "But I think sincerity brings about the possibility of God revealing himself to you. Some may seem sincere and when Christ is presented to them, they reject him. They fail the test of truth."
I said, "You believe, then, that the amount of information a person needs to have concerning Christ can vary widely?"
"Yes, I believe so. The danger of a Western perspective is thinking that if something isn't neatly packaged, it's no good. And unfortunately, some Western Christians think that unless a person says the creed just like they do, they don't know God.
"Yet what does an infant know of his mother? He knows she nourishes him, she changes him, she embraces him, she kisses him-she must be a friend. That child doesn't know his mother as well as he will when he's eighteen. But he knows her enough to love her. I believe that as God reveals himself there are levels of understanding that are bound to vary."
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