Eskimo: If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?
Priest: No, not if you did not know.
Eskimo: Then why did you tell me?
I'd found the exchange within a list of quotes relating to atheism, and it sparked my memory of when I'd thought of this problem as a child. I was brought up in a loosely Christian family, and it occurred to me that there probably were a lot of people in the world who didn't know anything about God and Jesus. That fact made me a bit worried, because I wondered what would happen to all of them if they died before anyone had told them the "truth." As I grew older and learned about ancient civilizations, my worry grew. Here were entire civilizations that surely went to hell for believing in the wrong god or gods -- all because no one who knew better had been there to warn them.
I brought this up to a few adults, and I always got the same response: Of course God doesn't send people to hell who've never been told about Him or Jesus. It's the same with babies who die in infancy; they obviously didn't know about God or Jesus yet, but they still got into heaven because they never had the chance to know.
So, that comforted me for a time, and I became an atheist long before realizing the horrible implications of the above free pass from God, or before I realized that there isn't actually anything in The Bible that lays out such a free pass for those who haven't heard The Word.
This is Why Missionaries Are Assholes
So, what are these horrible implications I spoke of? Well, the implications aren't horrible for non-believers, of course -- who wouldn't want to get into heaven without having to waste time with religion? If they try their damndest to stay ignorant of Christianity for their entire lives, they're home free! But therein lies the elephant in the room; if people who've never heard about God still go to heaven, why in the fuck would anyone tell them?
Here are the possible scenarios, along with the problems inherent within them:
- God sends all non-believers to hell, regardless of whether they've ever been told about Him or Jesus.
PROBLEM: God is supposed to be just, and sending someone to suffer in hell for eternity for breaking a law that they didn't know existed is supremely unjust.
- God sends people to hell if they don't believe, unless they die before having heard about God and Jesus, in which case they don't go to hell.
PROBLEM: This means that people who have heard of God and Jesus have a choice between believing and going to heaven or disbelieving and going to hell, while people who never have heard of God or Jesus have no choice, they definitely go to heaven. Put another way, by telling someone about God and Jesus, you're taking away their Get-Into-Heaven-Free card and replacing it with an obligation that they have to fulfill to get into heaven. So, all of these missionaries of the past who explored new lands and missionaries of the present who travel to far-off, secluded locales preaching the gospel are huge pricks who fuck people over by exposing them to the possibility of eternal damnation where there was none before.
- Regardless of which scenario above is valid, God surely sends people to hell who've heard of Christianity and still don't believe.
PROBLEM: Different parts of the world believe in different religions based on culture and upbringing. Over thousands of years this fact hasn't changed; religion still is very much segregated geographically. This means that simply by being born in a certain part of the world you are predisposed to go to hell. Christians will say, "Well, they have their entire lives to convert to Christianity if they want to be saved," but that's not a fair argument. Why would they give up the baseless religion of their country and their parents and friends for the baseless religion of strangers? There's nothing about your religion that's more convincing than theirs -- in fact, your religion is far less convincing simply by virtue of the fact that everyone around them believes the same thing they do.
- Regardless of which scenario is valid between Nos. 1 and 2, God surely doesn't send good-hearted, charitable people to hell, even if they've heard of Christianity and still don't believe.
PROBLEM: Actually this wouldn't be a problem if it were true, but The Bible very explicitly says that it's not true over and over. Good works alone do not get you into heaven, you've gotta believe in Jesus, too. (Actually, as with most things, it depends upon which parts of The Bible you read...)
What Does it Say in The Bible?
Romans 1:20 -- For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.
There it is, in (relatively) plain English: Even if you've never heard of Christianity, you nevertheless sure as hell (pun intended) better believe in the God of The Bible. If you can't look at nature and realize that God exists, you definitely deserve to go to hell -- no excuses! And there are other passages that say (or strongly imply) the same.
67-day-long night, at least you can take comfort in the thought that a god you've never heard of is going to condemn you to an eternity in the much-warmer-than-where-you-are fires of hell because you didn't see his telltale signature in the freezing snow that surrounds you.
So, missionaries aren't assholes after all in this scenario. (Although God is another story entirely.)
Can I get an "Amen"?
-- The Atheist Apologist --
PS. Atheist Apologist reader Joe Sieveking suggested the book Humanity's Gain From Unbelief, by Charles Bradlaugh for further insight into this topic. "It's a great little book, and it includes a few recorded conversations between unbelievers and religious men and women. It covers this point quite well in it. It's a good read, get it if you can."
And you certainly can get it. Amazon sells both a print version of the book, as well as a free electronic version for the Kindle. (On the right and left below, respectively.) Thanks, Joe!