There are big questions in religion that have been discussed and debated for centuries by great philosophical minds. The question of God’s love for humanity is raised by several events discussed in the Bible. It is also raised by the consideration of heaven and hell. If God truly loves humanity why did God create a place of eternal punishment for some of humanity? Shouldn’t God’s love be as universal as God himself?
In the August 10, 2013 Sioux Falls Argus Leader, one of Billy Graham’s readers raises this question in a slightly different form. “If God loves everyone, then why won't everyone go to heaven when they die? It seems to me that if He really loved us, He'd overlook the bad things we've done and welcome us into heaven anyway. Or maybe He doesn't really love us.” You can read all of Billy’s answer here.
This is the kind of question that causes problems for apologists, that is, those persons who make a defense of a belief. Billy promotes the idea that God loves everyone but then must deal with the idea that God is going to punish some people.
The number of people being punished staggers the imagination, since a tenant of Christianity is that only those people who have been told about Jesus and have accepted Jesus as their personal savior are getting into heaven; everyone else is going to hell. God could have told everyone, telepathically, about Jesus, but instead, God decided to use human couriers who could only travel via walking, animals, or sailing ships. There was no way for these couriers to get to the people living outside Africa, Asia, and Europe*.
Since Christian preachers say that only by knowing of Jesus and accepting the gift of Jesus’s death can one be saved, everyone who lived before Jesus, everyone who lived after Jesus but did not learn of Jesus, everyone who follows another religion other than Christianity is going to hell.
Currently, only one-third of the world’s population is Christian. Based on an estimated world population of 7 billion about 4.667 billion of those living today are going to hell. (It gets worse, as many Christian sects believe all non-Christians and most other Christian sects are hell-bound.)
We could also do calculations for the number of people who were living before Jesus, who were living in locations inaccessible to missionary couriers after Jesus but before 1500 and for people living after Jesus in locations that had viable, alternate religions. This could add another several billion people to the “destination: hellfire” list.
Why would a loving God who knew what every human thought would be even before he created the world condemn most of them to hell just because they failed to be born at the right time or in the right place? It makes no sense for God to be that hypocritical. Why can’t God’s forgiveness be universal?
What justification does Billy Graham offer for this monstrous inequity?
First, Billy makes the stock claim of Christianity: that God sent Jesus to die for the sins of humanity. Even overlooking the fact that God did not need to do it this way, he is God after all and can do any he wants, the claim is always made that Jesus died for the “sins of the world”. Not the sins of those who heard about him, not the sins of those who accepted Jesus as their personal savior, but for ALL sins. The sins I have committed in 71 years of living and the sins I commit today and the sins I will commit in the next decade or two that I might live, have been forgiven.
Then, Billy twists the screw: God is not only loving, but God is just and holy. What does this mean? According to Billy, “evil will not go unpunished.” Billy suggests that this just God cannot ignore the acts of a Hitler or a Stalin. That this just God cannot overlook the evil of a child abuser, a terrorist, or a swindler.
Billy is shown to be wrong by his own book, the Bible. In Matthew 12:31, Jesus says, “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Unless Hitler, Stalin, the child abuser, the terrorist, and the swindler committed blasphemy against the Spirit (the Holy Ghost) they can be forgiven.
Here is a list of evil Christians:
•Hitler considered himself to be a Christian
•Warren Jeffs, the leader of a Mormon sect, was accused of rape and is still in prison awaiting trial
•Phillip Garrido, abductor of Jaycee Dugard, was captured 18 years later, while he and Dugard were handing out religious literature
Howard Porter, pastor of Hickman Community Church was convicted of murder, embezzlement, elder abuse, and attempted murder in 2006
•Hundreds of Priests have been convicted of sex abuse
•Father Charles Engelhardt, a priest for over 40 years was convicted of corruption of a minor and indecent assault
•Bernard Shero, a former teacher at St. Jerome School in Philadelphia, was convicted of rape, child endangerment corruption of a minor, and indecent assault
•Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was raised Roman Catholic
•Billie Sol Estes, a swindler, convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud, often delivered sermons as a Church of Christ lay-preacher
All of these people have had their sins erased by the death of Jesus. If they accept Jesus as their personal savior, even on their deathbed, they will not go to hell.
Some Christian apologists have claimed that these kinds of people aren’t actually Christians, because (wait for it) true Christians wouldn’t do these things.
Billy Graham is raising the 2200 year-old idea that bad people are punished for their misdeeds in the afterlife. The Hebrew theologians invented that idea, based on the Persian idea of the duality of good and evil, as a way of explaining why good people sometimes suffer and evil people sometimes prosper.
“Yes,” they said, “sometimes the righteous suffer in this life, but their reward is in heaven in the next life. And sometimes the evil prosper, but they will be punished for their sins in the afterlife.”
I suspect that the early church realized, just as the modern Christian churches realize that “forgiveness for everyone” does not pay the bills. If admission to heaven is universal, why spend any time in church? Why donate to the church?
If no one sees a need to support the churches, how are the preachers going to make a living?
The priests of the Hebrew Testament had a good racket. People would come to the Temple to offer a sacrifice. They would need their non-shekel money changed to shekels and the Temple staff got a cut of the exchange fee. A sacrificial animal would be purchased with the shekels and the Temple staff got a cut. Animals would be sacrificed and the Temple staff got many free meals.
The preachers and leaders of the new Jesus cult wanted similar perks. What is the point being a preacher if you could not earn a living from it? Universal forgiveness did not work. Only forgiveness conditioned on buying what the church was offering would guarantee a steady, life-long income for the new church’s preachers.
Billy and the preachers of the modern churches have built their presentation around this model. Scare the people with hell, entice them with heaven, and pass the collection plate. Baptize an infant so the babe qualifies for heaven - collect a fee. Consecrate a marriage so the couple can have legal sex and not go to hell for it – collect a fee. Bury a dead person to assist their entrance into heaven – collect a fee. Pray for rain, a good harvest, or a safe return from war – collect a fee. Bless some bottled water, the local football team, or farm animals – collect a fee.
This is why Billy argues that a just God will not allow sinners into heaven while at the same time arguing that the same loving God has sent his only son to die, insuring forgiveness from those same sins. Most people cannot partake of their cake and still retain a cake for later but apparently Billy and the preachers can claim Jesus died for everyone’s sins but most of the people in the world are going to hell.
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*The population of the Americas before 1500 has been estimated to be from 50 to 100 million. Using the smaller number and using a generation to be 33 years, in the time from Jesus to 1500, 45 generations of about 50 million people each lived in North and South America. That’s at least 2.25 billion people living and dying without knowing about Jesus and, thus, condemned to hell. Similar calculations could be done for other remote places.