Thursday, August 04, 2022

The Mythical Native

So you’re speaking to someone about the gospel. And suddenly he gets that ironic glint in his eye. He folds his arms, steps back and says, “Well, what about the people who have never heard? What about people not born in Christian cultures, or even in cultures with some other religion? Hey, what about the native on some remote South Sea island, who has never even seen a white person and knows nothing about Western culture? If you have to believe the gospel to be saved, then isn’t that poor guy going to hell? And how is that fair? After all, he never even had a chance.”

He smiles smugly at you, confident you won’t be able to field that one. And you stumble.

Well, what about it? How can we believe in salvation if not everybody has a chance? How fair can it be to proclaim the gospel if the truth is that God simply doesn’t make it available to everyone? What about a ‘nice guy’ who isn’t, simply by virtue of birth or upbringing, even aware of the gospel?

How do we answer that one?

Not hard, actually. But if you’ve never thought about it, it might set you back on your heels. Maybe you’ve even pondered that question yourself. Do you think there’s an answer?


Firstly, before you try to respond you’d better check to see if you’ve understood. Sometimes the person isn’t really asking the question you think he or she is. Sometimes to ask, “What about those who have never heard” really means “What about my Uncle Phil or Aunt Audrey or my friend Tom who died suddenly and wasn’t a Christian?”

You don’t want to get into answering as if their question were merely hypothetical if it isn’t. You want instead to honor their personal investment, and to get more specifics so you can decide how to respond to very real grief and concern.

However, most times when you get such a question it’s not about any real person; rather it’s a kind of hypothetical brush off, or even a deliberate challenge intended to show God is not just or to prove your faith is irrational. After all, if God can’t at least offer a decent opportunity to everyone, then (so goes the logic) he surely is not fair or just, and no one is obliged to take him or the gospel seriously.

The Mythical Native

I call this objection “the Mythical Native Dodge”. It’s often used by unbelievers to take the heat off themselves when they are faced with the gospel. But it’s also a matter of some concern to sincere Christians who just don’t know how to think this issue through.

But I think it’s time to retire this old objection. And why? Well, for at least six reasons. There may be more, but I think these will do nicely. Let me have a run at explaining that and see where we go:

1/ The Mythical Native is Not a Real Person

When someone raises the above objection, you can be certain they have no particular case in mind. They really do not know any such situation. Ask them, and they won’t say, “Well, I was thinking of Matumbe” (or Jianfeng, or Jasminder, or whoever). They’re merely posing a hypothetical.

And truth be told, secular persons are not notorious for overseas charity work. It would be a stretch to suppose that they actually care a fig for the Matumbes, Jianfengs or Jasminders of the world — they just want to shut down their own creeping feeling of responsibility, not worry themselves over the eternal state of remote peoples.

Moreover, in this world of universal communication where even natives in rags carry cell phones, the number of people who could possibly fit the Mythical Native profile are scant indeed, and fewer by the minute.

Still, there could be some — hypothetically speaking — and perhaps in a spirit of charity (to our objector, even if not to any actual native) we should figure out a better response.

2/ The Mythical Native is Not Without the Knowledge of God

Contrary to the objection, a native in the jungles of Borneo is not without resources. Romans 1:19-20 tells us that the hand of God is written all over nature, and indeed, within the hearts of every member of mankind. It says that all of us DO know God, but some of us suppress that insight.

Now, how much we know, and precisely what content we know may be different for different people. No one thinks that an illiterate rural dweller has the same insight as a modern Western theologian, but God says that we all have an instinctive awareness of the existence of God and of our duty to him. It is not possible, therefore, for the Mythical Native to be completely devoid of awareness of God. No such case can exist.

The same surely applies to the mentally handicapped and children. According to the revelation within them and the witness of the world around them, and according to the measure of their capacity, they are morally responsible agents. We need not worry about that.

3/ The Mythical Native is Known Absolutely by God*

As human beings, we are limited by time and space. We are also limited by actuality. We speak of “what would have happened if X or Y had occurred” instead of what actually did happen, but no such real circumstance ever takes place, by definition. The hypothetical, the possible, and the alternate are always closed off from us.

Not so with God, of course. He knows all things absolutely: the actual, in all times and places, and the possible as well. He knows what would have happened if things were other than what they actually are.

Want proof? Okay: how about the men of Tyre and Sidon, or of Sodom. The Lord says that if they had seen miracles like his they would have repented. How could he make such a claim if he did not know what they would have done, even though they did, in fact, do otherwise? Likewise, we find in the story of the rich man and Lazarus that Abraham is able to tell the rich man what his relatives would do if a thing that is not going to happen actually did happen.

So God is not just God of the actual, but also of the speculative, the hypothetical and the possible. That’s what omniscience really means. Thus God knows who would or would not receive him, had they been given different information or circumstances than they actually experienced. And though as human beings we are not able to speculate on those things, God surely knows ALL that would or could happen.

Thus God knows if any Mythical Natives would receive him, and which ones never would. And he can deal with every one of them according to perfect knowledge of what they have done, and what they would have done had they a full revelation of the gospel as well. He won’t make any mistakes about that.

4/ God Speaks to Mythical Natives

Not only is the Mythical Native NOT without resources to know God, God himself intervenes to make his existence, power and authority clear to everyone. If being God means much, it means that he can overrule at least basic circumstances of time and space and reveal himself in particular ways to particular people.

And why not? He’s done it many times in history — to Abraham, to Moses, to Elijah, to Samuel, to Paul, to John … When God wants to speak, he does: and he picks out individuals when he wants to, and can reveal to them personally what he is under no obligation to reveal to everyone else.

So who knows what the Mythical Native does or does not know? God knows, but you can I are certainly in no position to say, and in no need of worrying.

5/ God Does Right, Even to Mythical Natives

Shall not the Judge of all the world deal justly?” asks Abraham, the father of the faithful. The question is clearly rhetorical. God does right by everybody, and by virtue of that is rightfully the Judge of all. That is what Christians have traditionally believed, and any account of God that doesn’t take that into account is not the Christian account.

Ours is a God of justice. He simply does not do things in an unfair or idiosyncratic way. We Christians, trusting in his goodness and knowing his character, wait for him in confidence that at the end of the day his judgments will all be shown to be perfectly right. If the final judgments of God are not completely to our satisfaction at present, then that is a very good thing for us all. It is because of this that the Day of Grace remains open, and there is still a chance for people (not just Mythical Natives) to believe the gospel.

Which brings us around to …

6/ You, My Friend, Are NOT the Mythical Native

If you’re speaking to someone who asks about the Mythical Native, the chances are very good he wants you to get away from speaking about him. He does not want to face his own situation of distance from God, the certainty of judgment or his personal duty to respond to God’s call of salvation. That is why he is professing concern for people he has never met, does not know, and really does not care about.

It’s a ruse. Don’t buy in. Having dispatched all the nonsense about Mythical Natives, turn again to your conversation partner directly.

Really, it matters very little what God does with Mythical Natives if God is speaking to you right now. It also matters little who does not know the gospel, when you, in fact, do. Whatever else we can say about the Mythical Native, his situation is not the one we have in hand. Instead, we have a living, breathing Christian, one sent by God to talk to you about your own situation, right now, standing in front of you, an educated and perhaps cynical unbeliever, pointing out that full moral responsibility falls on those who know the truth and reject it.

The question comes back to this: forget the Mythical Native — what will YOU do with the truth. When the Lord returns and judges, he will not ask you how you solved the problems of the Mythical Native, but what you did with his Son.

So Christians who find themselves in a conversation about the Mythical Native need to be gracious, but step up and drive the message home. Make it personal again. After all, it is a personal issue: what will you do with God’s Son?

Hope for Not-So-Mythical Natives

Okay, that’s my take on the Mythical Native Dodge. I hope it helps you sort though some of these issues. A final key thought, though: most objections to the gospel are just evasions. People do indeed know that God is speaking to them, and I have yet to meet the person who has never in the privacy of his or her own room and in the secret counsels of his or her heart trembled at the prospect of judgment.

I think we can count on that. The Bible says that’s the common human experience, and I have found it to be true. Christians have nothing for which to apologize when they draw that conviction to the surface. As painful as that might be, we are operating like physicians, pointing out the disease only in order to cure, not to induce hopelessness.

However, we must not provoke such awareness of sin without the intent to heal. And when we speak of these things, we must do all we can to deliver the medicine that relieves the pain we have identified. The Mythical Native is but one of the many dodges that the human heart throws up to defend itself against the gospel; but if we back off, that does not mean the pain goes away. It just means there is no solution on hand.

So keep the conversation going — as long as can be reasonably managed — in the ever-present hope that you may have the chance to speak the gospel into this person’s life. After all, God’s goal that all this world’s “natives” — bushmen and business people alike — may hear, respond, and ultimately become citizens of the kingdom of God.

* Credit to Dr. David Gooding for pointing out this one.


  1. This is in defense of the person asking the mythical native question.

    Naturally, I have asked that question myself and even on this blog site. There is really no ill intent or wanting to dodge or obfuscate something by asking that question. Rather, when, e.g., being confronted with the somewhat doctrinaire position of the Protestant (which might easily be misunderstood) that only Christian faith will save them the question becomes perfectly legitimate to the non- or searching believer since it suggests an impossibility for faith for certain population groups (especially closer to Christ's time because of poor worldwide communication). So some of what you suggest certainly clears that up, but maybe for the first time for many who have never heard it argued this way.

    I also agree that the native often, especially in today's communication rich time, is not all that mythical but can also be your materially successful relative who simply has not had a sense of ever needing or even wanting God in life. Let me stress though that he/she in spite of that has lived a decent, productive, and honest life and will most likely never change or even question themselves. Now, all their interactions with family, friends, acquaintances, business partners, etc., are friendly, above board and even loving. So none of those would even dream of condemning him/her to death or misery for any reason they can see. Should we therefore expect them to think of God as being less charitable and loving than they themselves are? Would they not one day ask God, oh, and where can I meet my predeceased relative and God would say you can't, he/she is in hell because of lack of faith. So, we have to be careful how we look at people and their situations in view of our own limited knowledge and assumptions.

  2. I'd question whether there's ever an "impossibility for faith" though, Q. Where there is less information, more faith is required. True faith is always based on some revelation, but where the revelation is smaller, more faith is required. And, as IC pointed out, there is always SOME revelation, even if it is only that "the heavens declare the glory of God", or that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."

    So faith is never impossible for any population group. It's just a question of how much they have.

    1. Tom, what I was suggesting though is that what all Cristian churches see as a requirement, namely, some degree of faith, does not seem to be there for some people even though those people live a quality of life similar to those motivated by faith. Therefore we do not really know how that faith and salvation thing really works for each individual. If we knew, we could be the arbiters of who would or would not be saved. The Catholic notion of purgatory is able to settle this actually very nicely since, being a decent person, just that there was no interest in God, would require a more extensive preparatory step before being in the presence of God. In other words, either in this life or the next life you will need to get acquainted with God. In a way any person, whether they admit to it or not, becomes acquainted with God in this life through their neighbor (fellow human being), aka, if you give to the needy even just a glass of water you gave to Christ. So, is this unaware, latent type of faith through common decency in play as well? We don't really know.

      Since I like to speculate, I would add that more concrete information is available, e.g., through near death experiences (NDEs) as the one I mentioned previously told by Dr. Mary Neal. (Her story is extremely solid since Christ gave her the exact day her young son would die (and she told him that day when he was more mature, and it exactly happened so (he got hit by a car)). There is no way that this could have just been a guess or suicidal on part of her son). Based on her retelling of her arrival on the other side, the first thing one sees and experiences is an indescribably beautiful spiritual realm, a continuum of our world. There she was taken to a beautiful arrival hall filled and busy with many spirits, the first stop and step, where one has to make a decision whether you want to be with God or prefer not to be in his presence (for eternity). In other words, any latent faith may actually also be given a chance when we get to the other side.

    2. The thing about faith, Q, is that all its value comes from that in which you place it.

      We can place it in the revelation of God (I recommend it, in fact, since it has remained remarkably consistent over the last 2,000 years, unlike all other options). We can place it in our own speculations (though I suspect the chances of finding truth via even highly intelligent speculation as low indeed). Or we can place it in the experience of others.

      Experience sometimes tells you what you want to hear.

      Then again, sometimes it doesn’t.

    3. Some dictionary definitions of faith:

      1. a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny

      2. complete confidence in a person or plan etc.

      3. an institution to express belief in a divine power (Baptist, Catholic, etc.)

      4. loyalty or allegiance to a cause or a person

      I will assume that your comment only pertains to definition 1 (and indirectly to 3). Based on that I agree concerning revelation by God. But I would also include the possibility of personal revelation in our own time that can be taken seriously. I also agree that our faith should be in proportion to the veracity of the source, and I would also say the methods used for establishing that veracity.

      I would modify your answer concerning speculation, perhaps because to me speculation is not necessarily always negative but can also be a way of thinking to arrive at valid conclusions (as valid as possible). Truth finding through speculation in the sciences is routinely engaged in and that can be in the sciences dealing with religion as well (history, archeology). Speculation then leads to hypothesis, testing, and results with some confidence or truth value that may contribute to firming up faith.

      Sure, experience of others must be examined but it is always the primary contributor to obtaining truth because most of our knowledge comes from the experience of others, as you know. That's why we have thousands of scientific journals with people sharing their experiences and conclusions. I see no problem at all with accepting valid experiences and conclusions by highly competent and trustworthy persons. Dr. Neal with her NDE experience certainly belongs into that group (a little research will show that). As a matter of fact any Christian does exactly the same by placing confidence in the recorded observations, thoughts and conclusions of biblical personages who were mostly not as qualified as Dr. Neal and can not be queried if needed.

      It certainly is also true that many people have built-in biases (that they may or may not be aware of) and therefore assimilate the experience of others in a biased way. As you say they hear what they want to hear. Clearly, and especially in today's times and with current events, we often see that these biases mostly revolve around the idea that one alone is already in the possession of truth.

      Given all that, it is nevertheless obvious that besides our own experiences, thoughtful speculation, evaluation and consideration of experience by others, are necessary to determine truth for ourselves.

  3. Going back to full width here:

    Hmm. I’m not sure I’m using “faith” in precisely any of those senses. I would use the word “trust” for Definition 2, and the word “faithfulness” for Definition 4.

    I’m using “faith” pretty much as a synonym for belief, which I think is how scripture uses it generally. Because faith is “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), it seems to me it is not necessarily limited to “a strong belief in a supernatural power”, but may be placed in things as general as fate or destiny. It arises, I think, in any situation in which there is not 100%, scientifically repeatable evidence in front of us. So you can place it in something shaky and intangible, or in something solid and trustworthy like the scripture.

    I have difficulty with the idea of personal revelation today. Jude talks about “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints”, which suggests to me that for us at least, that avenue is closed. I believe the Holy Spirit guides us into all truth (John 16:13), but that he does so by means of the written word we already have, not by means of new ideas or experiences.

    As for NDEs, I provided that link in my previous post (the one about the priest who believes God is a woman) to demonstrate that experiences tend to be contradictory and unreliable. I note that the article contained an opening disclaimer:

    “The Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, made a public statement this morning stating that Father O’neal suffered hallucinations linked to a near-death experience and that God clearly isn’t a female.”

    In doing so, the cardinal was making reference to something bigger than Michael O’neal’s personal convictions. He was referencing “The Faith” as he understands it. He tested Mr. O’neal’s experience by the standard of “The Faith” and found it came up short, so he disbelieves it. I would do something similar, though Mr. O’Malley and would probably not agree precisely about the content of “The Faith”, of course.

    As for speculations, I agree that they have their uses, but only when they lead to conclusions. If those conclusions involve actual data, we’re back to faith, which is DATA+BELIEF. If they involve no data, I’d suggest they are largely fruitless.

    1. In my opinion, I would consider miracles to be a form of private and sometimes private/public revelation. And I for one do belief that miracles still do and will probably always occur. I agree that teaching revelation is done and we have to rely on what has been passed on.

      With regard to NDEs, it is an interesting topic with nowadays quite a bit research on that. The topic and experiences are a mixed bag even including fraud. Please note though that I mentioned veracity of the source and material and for Dr. Neal that is excellent. A competent orthopedic surgeon with a stable background who can easily distinguish between real experience and hallucination due to situational and medical conditions and medication. One should read her book and then form an opinion. I am sure cardinal O'Malley would have a different opinion of an NDE if that person would predict the exact year and day of death 12 or more years into the future of a fellow priest, bishop or cardinal and if that happened exactly. I assign pretty much zero probability to anyone being able to do that. Yet Dr. Neal was given that date for her son, and for a purpose, namely to solidify the story of her experience. She was told that we are to learn from her experience. Her own words and book will best convey all that.

  4. My last paragraph above is imprecise. DATA+BELIEF (or faith) is the formula by which we arrive at most of our understanding of the world; that is to say, in any situation in which we don't have 100% knowledge available to us through our senses. "Faith" or "belief" is that percentage of our convictions that is not arrived at through the senses.

  5. I'm not going to start with the words, "in my opinion," or "I would consider." Instead, I'm going to begin with "Biblically, " because I actually believe that's really all that matters in these cases. There are lots of opinions; but the multiplicity of our views does not point to any multiplicity of truths. Only to divergence over truth. And if truth exists on these questions -- as you may be certain it does -- then God knows...and man is no source to trust.

    Biblically, there are "miracles," but then there are also "lying signs and wonders" designed to "deceive." (Matt. 24:24) And what is the difference? How do we know which we have in hand? Only biblically.

    I don't have any faith at all in the professed experiences of others. If their experiences are real, only they and God know: so their professed visions or experiences are no signs or wonders to me, or ultimately to you, if you're thinking clearly. For truth be told, you just don't know, Q, whether you are dealing with a) a clever liar, b) a self-deluded but sincere person, or c) someone who is telling the factual truth about what happened. And not knowing which it is, you would surely be irrational to invest any certainty in anything they said...unless, perchance, the words they speak conform to the Word of God (Is. 8:20). But when they clearly do not, as in the case of the Doctrine of Purgatory, you can be absolutely sure that the teller of these tales is a) or b), but never c).