Your religious beliefs typically depend on the community in which you were raised or live. The spiritual experiences of people in ancient Greece, medieval Japan or 21st-century Saudi Arabia do not lead to belief in Christianity. It seems, therefore, that religious belief very likely tracks not truth but social conditioning.
— Gary Gutting
If I had been born in Iran instead of the United States, I have little doubt that I would be a Muslim today. And if I grew up in a predominantly Catholic, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist culture, I have little doubt that I would’ve emerged as one of those.
As a Christian, I found this fact a little unsettling. My geography seemed to have more to do with my religion than any kind of free will choice. The obvious problem with this is that if only one religion leads to heaven, then the odds of us finding that religion are greatly diminished when God places us into a “deceived” culture. God is effectively blocking us from salvation, He is saying, “I don’t want you in heaven, so I’m placing you over here.”
As Christians, we’d all like to think that if we had been born into another culture, God would eventually lead us back to Christianity, but how realistic is this? Especially when most people seem to take on their parent’s religion, or a religion that is prominently featured in their culture.
So how does God go about reconciling these inequalities? I can think of several possibilities:
1) Our souls are predestined, so it doesn’t matter where God puts us,
2) We have free will, but God is unfair,
3) God somehow makes allowances for these situations, or
4) God has nothing to do with it.
1) Predestination of the soul
If our souls are predestined, we might reason that God would place us into non-Christian homes because we were either designed to reject God, or He’s pre-cognizant of the fact that we would reject Him regardless of our circumstances.
“Before the creation of the world, he chose us through Christ to be holy and perfect in his presence.”
~ Ephesians 1:4
In many ways, predestination makes perfect sense. After all, if God creates the game, the rules, the players, the scenarios, and every atom in our brains, how could He not be controlling the final outcome?
But if God knows or controls the outcome, then the problem with predestination is similar to the problem of evil: if God designed you to go to hell, or He knew for certain you’d go to hell, why did He create you at all? Especially when it’s His desire that everyone become saved (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9)? If God knows all this, and creates you anyway, then isn’t He guilty of being evil?
The other problem with predestination is that it means we’re mere puppets, playing out roles that God has written for us. If that’s the case, why didn’t God just create some of us in heaven and some in hell, and skip this whole charade?
2) We have free will, but God is unfair
God may insist He’s fair (2 Thessalonians 1:6), but life certainly seems unfair. There is inequality everywhere you look: some children are born into wealth and others into poverty, some are born healthy and others are born sick, some are born geniuses and others are born developmentally disabled, some live to 8 while others live to 80, and some are born into Christianity while others are born into other religions. With all these variables, how can we say that God has created an even playing field, where everyone has the same odds of getting into heaven?
For example, if God knows that 99% of Muslims will never convert to Christianity, He isn’t giving us much choice when He delivers us to Muslim parents in a Muslim country. He has, in no uncertain terms, assigned us to Islam. And when we eventually die, is it fair for God to ask “Why didn’t you convert to Christianity?” Our response would be something like, “Seriously? You placed me in a culture that was 99% Muslim! You knew exactly what would happen! I should be asking you why you placed me in a Muslim culture if you desired a Christian! The Qur’an also taught that ‘For those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment in this world and the Hereafter,’ (3:56) so why should I be punished for believing what I thought you instructed?”
For the Christian, this would be like arriving at God’s judgement and being asked “Why didn’t you obey the teachings of my prophet Muhammad?” We would be in shock, not feeling like we had much say in the matter. “How was I supposed to know my religion was wrong? You placed me where I would be raised with the Bible, which teaches that it is impossible to please you without faith (Hebrews 11:6). Did you really expect me to investigate every religion, just in case it wasn’t faith that pleases you?”
3) God somehow makes allowances for these situations
If we have free will and God is fair, but our world is unfair, we can only assume that God must make allowances to compensate for all the variables encountered in each of our lives.
Perhaps, for example, God gives or takes away points based on every advantage or disadvantage we experience in life, thus compensating for all inequalities. And for the sake of example, lets assume you need 1000 points to gain access to heaven. Assuming that’s the case, God’s judgement would still seem unfair to the person with 999 points who gets eternal punishment, while someone with 1,000 points gets eternal bliss.
Even if God is giving allowances for all these differences, His all-or-nothing punishments now seem grossly unfair, especially when the final score is so close.
We can’t preserve God’s fairness without multiple levels of punishment and reward. In this example, the person with 999 points doesn’t go to hell, but they don’t get a mansion, either. Perhaps they’re awarded a nice tudor in a suburb of heaven, one without a private pool.
But even then, is it fair that God should levy eternal punishments for temporal infractions? Is there never any hope for reprieve? Even after 10 million years?
If God does make allowances, than this also suggests that our choice of religion doesn’t ultimately matter, since all roads can lead to heaven. (E.g. God realizes you never became Christian because you were surrounded by Muslims, so he makes an allowance for this and lets you into heaven anyway.) But many religions would vehemently disagree with this idea.
For example, John 14:6 says that “No one comes to the Father except through me,” so most Christians will not readily accept Buddha as a substitute for Jesus. And Muslims insist that believing Jesus is God will land you in hell, so they too are not about to say that your religious beliefs don’t ultimately matter.
While the idea that many paths can lead to heaven is now gaining in popularity, it still strikes me as an attempt to evolve religion into something new, and something more reasonable.
4) God has nothing to do with it
If there is no God, then the question is moot. These religions are all just human stories and explanations that took hold in various locations for various reasons. The stories you hear as a child are simply the ones that had the greatest influence on your parents or in your particular area. And the reason religious contradictions exist is because God had nothing to do with organizing them. (If God’s “spirit of truth” revealed the same truth to everyone, all cultures should share the exact same revelations.)
To avoid the need for all these special allowances, God should make all our experiences similar and our options clear, somewhat like He did with Adam and Eve, where the choice was simple: obey God and live, or eat the fruit and die.
Instead, we are born into a world with far too many complex choices. The world says to us: “Hi, and welcome to earth! Here are plans A through FF. One of these plans leads to heaven… or nirvana, or reincarnation, or your own planet, or 72 virgins, or something nice like that — we’re not exactly sure; and the others lead to eternal torment… or purgatory, or eternal isolation, or a lower level of heaven, or 2 ugly non-virgins with crabs, or unconsciousness — again, not really sure… in fact, we’re not even sure which plan leads to which! But it is important that you choose wisely, or you will suffer eternal consequences for being wrong. Good luck!”
“For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace.”
~ 1 Corinthians 14:33
The whole situation just seems nonsensical and unfair. A good and just designer should create a uniform test, yet God creates an inconsistent test that requires Him to make special allowances (or become unfair). And even accounting for these inconsistencies, God is then said to only levy extreme punishment or reward, with no hope for a reprieve. We excuse God by saying He only deals in absolutes, but He comes across as being absolutely unfair.
If there is no God, then there is no great equalizing event. It is nature that is unfair, though she can’t even comprehend her own unfairness, she rewards the strong (good or evil) and punishes the weak (good or evil). It’s only we humans that comprehend nature’s unfairness and try to make up for it, with religious explanations and other deeds.