Perhaps one of the biggest flaws I have yet encountered in the existence of God is the argument from locality. As many might have noticed, religions seem to be worshiped regionally; Islam is largely practiced in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Christianity is largely practiced in Europe, North America and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania. Hinduism is largely practiced in India along with Sikhism and Jainism, and Buddhism is largely practiced in Southeast Asia. Each religion clearly has a de facto geographic center, and some religions have a de jure geographic center like Vatican City and Mecca for Christianity and Islam, respectively. What makes this observation salient is that prior to the internet and the rapid industrialization in the twentieth century, there were very few Muslims living in Europe. Or very few Christians living in Korea. Or very few Hindus living in Africa. Your faith, if you had any at all (and you would have professed one, lest you be ostracized), was largely determined by ethnic or racial background. Poles, Hungarians, and Italians were overwhelmingly Catholic, Germans were overwhelmingly Lutheran, the Scotch-Irish were overwhelmingly Presbyterian, and Persians were Zoroastrian.
Some archeologists report that the earliest evidence of permanent settlements and agriculture date back perhaps 8,000 years in Northern Asia. By 500 BCE when the Old Testament was written, all around the world, civilizations were thriving in Meso-America, China, and Africa. And yet millions of people, spanning hundreds of generations lived and died without ever having the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ. They had never heard of Him and could not have heard of Him unless a missionary trekked across the planet to find their remote corner of the world. Up until the modern era, millions of people had never seen a bible or been to a church. Did those people who could never have learned about Jesus Christ go to hell? There is a big difference between someone who had been given the opportunity to accept Jesus and turned it down and someone who was born destined for hell without any way to save themselves. A truly benevolent God wouldn’t have condemned so many people to hell merely for the sin of being born too early or too far from Bethlehem to be worth offering salvation. Especially when we consider God is meant to be immortal and outside of time. Wouldn’t a God who wanted to give people the opportunity of salvation extend it to all of his creation? Why wait millennia after humanity began before offering us a chance to save ourselves? Why present the opportunity for salvation to desert-dwelling bronze age nomads and no one else? It certainly seems to belie the notion that all is the best in the best of all possible worlds or even that God loves everyone. Maybe He just loves some people more than others.
But, wait! Anecdotal evidence to the rescue. Say there are rare examples of people living in far flung locales who have visions of Christ years before Christian missionaries even arrive. Surely this must mean that it is possible people can accept Jesus Christ without having ever heard of Him or needing to meet one of His missionaries. This means that all of those who died in other parts of the world before they encountered Christianity could have avoided damnation, too. No one needed the missionaries to come in the first place. The problem with this line of reasoning is that it makes missionaries and proselytizers all but obsolete. If people are meant to rely on divine revelation alone to save them (as millions of people would have had to prior to the modern era) then missionaries aren’t essential to the salvation of others. Missionaries who proselytize have to accept the burden of proof as to why they even need to exist and do the work that they do. Why would God call upon them to spread the word of Christ when people are meant to rely on divine intervention?
Otherwise, the only other conceivable option is that Christians aren’t the only believers who go to heaven. In fact, Robert Putnam and David Campbell highlighted in their work American Grace, that overwhelmingly, Christians in America believe this to be the case, despite the lack of any scriptural basis for that belief. Putnam and Campbell refer to this unusual finding as the Aunt Sally effect. In America, religious pluralism is the norm, and combined with a high degree of religious interactions across the country means that most people know someone of a different faith. The idea that someone dear to us like an Aunt Sally who might not share our theological leanings would be denied eternity in heaven is too distressing for most Americans to bear. For many, the thought of enjoying eternal bliss is unthinkable if their loved ones aren’t there to share it with them. Rather than abandon the idea of heaven and hell, Americans seem to amend their beliefs to reconcile reality with views they are more comfortable with. Even though there is no scriptural basis for these beliefs, Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other faiths can get into heaven or hell (chapter 15).
Despite the clear statistical evidence that political conservatism is linked to religiosity (chapter 12), few pastors talk openly about political issues in their sermons. This may be surprising to some, who view people with certain stances as primarily motivated by their faith. Yet, it’s too simplistic to say that pastors tell their congregation what to think and that congregants simply follow. And in fact, this is a common misconception. Statistically, when Americans grow uncomfortable with the teachings of a particular denomination of Christianity (like the fact that their Hindu neighbor is going to hell…) they simply change to another faith. It seems unusual certainly that when faced with unpleasant truths about their faith, most people do simply abandon their church. More often than not, they simply adopt a new church with a pastor, reverend, or priest who expresses views that fit better with their own. In that way, churches become echo chambers for congregants; like-minded congregants form cliques within a church and interact with other like-minded churchgoers. The issue comes with the implicit or explicit rule of obedience to scripture. Because those in charge of relaying the truth in the Bible to their congregations are expected to be uncritically obeyed, there is little to no resistance from the congregation.