Though the Christian claim is that God is most clearly seen through the life and person of Jesus Christ, that does not mean God is absent from the lives of people who participate in other world religions. In fact, Christians should assume that God is moving in the life of every person, in every place, at all times. The Christian position is that God cares for all of us, but many misunderstand what is really going on. Let me explain.
The book of Acts tells a very provocative story about the Apostle Paul’s visit to the city of Athens. Christ had never been preached there, and Paul is amazed at how religious the city was. It is full of idols and idol worship. At first Paul is “greatly distressed” (Acts 17:16). You get the feeling that as he walks around he is looking for something—it appears that he is looking for evidence of God’s kingdom in their midst. He ends up claiming that the Athenians are “very religious” because God is already at work in their culture. He points to an altar, which they had built to an “Unknown God” and says, “I’m here to introduce you to this God so you can worship intelligently, know who you’re dealing with” (Acts 17:23).
Imagine that. Paul actually tells the Athenians that God has always been with them—that he had even “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live” (Acts 17:26). This means God had destined them to be born in Athens, though it was not a Christian city. And Paul claims God did this so people “would seek him” and “find him” because he is “not far from each one of [them]” (Acts 17:27). Paul even claims that all the non-Christian Athenians were wrapped in God’s care while they were worshipping false gods—and tells them: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
God was present and working in that culture before Paul got there with the gospel! Though the gospel is the simplest and clearest way to reveal what God is up to, it does not have to be present for God to be working. The reason the Christian pushes back from other religions and calls them false is not because God isn’t involved with the people in false religions, but because the stories of false religions reinterpret real God-events into false metanarratives (stories). Hence, the true God remains unknown to them.
A classic example of this occurred when Paul was visiting the city of Lystra and healed a crippled man in the name of Jesus. It was a miracle of God, but the crowds co-opted the healing event into their own familiar Greek mythological god-story, claiming, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11). They thought Paul and his partner were the incarnated Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes, and they completely missed the true God. Paul told them that the event had nothing to do with their false gods, but was from the God who was revealed in Jesus Christ—the God who had always, in Paul’s words, “shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17).
Paul doesn’t get mad at the crowds for ascribing to their false gods what the true God had done. He understands they were mixed up theologically. That is how a Christian should look at those who live in other faith traditions. Christian tolerance must rule the day. The truth is, whether or not people get what is actually going on, God is still at work in every nation of the world, at every moment in human history, in every living man, woman, and child.
However, many co-opt God’s work into the god-stories they are familiar with—to the Hindu believer, God’s kindnesses are believed to be the result of good karma; to the Native American, the Great Spirit must be pleased with them; to the Australian aborigine, the demons must have been expelled; to the atheist, the good just “happened” because that’s the way the world evolved to be. Is that what’s really going on? No. But those outside of God’s kingdom build “altars” with what they are familiar with in order to describe the kindness of God they do not fully understand. What’s wild to me is that people’s confusion does not preempt God from moving in their lives—he is still there, working. He loves the world.
Paul saw his mission to preach the gospel as a kind of decoder ring that would help people rightly interpret and appropriately respond to the working of God in their lives. The appropriate response, as laid out by the gospel, would be repentance and surrender to the lordship of Jesus Christ. In this context Paul tells those in Athens that God commands “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). God wants them to understand who he really is—that he is seen most clearly in Jesus of Nazareth.
Our job as Christ-followers is to help people meet the Giver of all good, to help them experience his Person, not just his kindness. Jesus prayed, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Getting to “know” God through Jesus Christ is what causes personal transformation.
People are not far away from God when they believe false things. He is right there with them; they “live and move in him” (Acts 17:28). Paul told the Athenians, “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” (Acts 17:27). No Muslim or Hindu or atheist is far from God—God is right there within their reach! He is right there giving them all the good they know. They are just confused about it.
How would you and I approach others with the message of God if we thought this way? How would we approach our wayward children or relatives or Muslim neighbors? How would we share with those on the job who don’t embrace Jesus? We may be “greatly distressed,” as Paul was, when we survey the lives of those around us who are Christless, but are we looking for where God is working in their lives and trying to help them to see it? Or do we blow them off and treat them dismissively because they don’t know the truth? Maybe true evangelism is more about perspective than using a bullhorn to yell at people.
Paul deals with this riddle and suggests there is a loophole for those who have never heard the gospel when he writes:
When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences (Rom. 2:14–16).
A BUDDHIST CHRISTIAN?
Tony Campolo, in his book Speaking My Mind, tells a story that raises this same question. He writes:
A leading evangelist told me about an encounter he had with a non-Christian during a trip through China. While there, he visited the monastery, and as he entered the walled-in gardens of the place, he noticed one of the monks in deep meditation. At the prompting of the Spirit, he went over to talk to the man, and with his translator, he explained the story of Jesus. He opened the New Testament and showed him what the Bible taught about salvation. As he spoke, he noticed that the monk was visibly moved. Actually, there were tears in the monk’s eyes. My friend, the evangelist, then said, “Won’t you accept this Jesus into your heart and let him be your personal Savior?”
The monk answered with surprise, “Accept him? How can I accept him into my life when he is already there? All the time you were telling me about him, I heard his Spirit say, ‘He is talking of me! He is talking of me!’ I do not need to accept him. He is already in me, affirming the message of your Bible. I have known him for a long, long time.”
My friend asked me, “Was this man possessed by Jesus before I ever arrived? Was he a Christian before he knew the name of Jesus? And, if I had not come with the gospel message, would God accept him on the Day of Judgment?”
Questions. Uncomfortable ones, particularly for we evangelicals.