The Unknown God

Sociologists tell us that every known people group worships something or someone.  It may be ancestors, invisible spirits, or a god, as they understand him.  As believers, we’re not surprised by that because we know that based on Scripture, every person on earth is aware of God.  In the mid-1600′s the French mathematician Blasé Pascal famously said; “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person.”  I’m sure he got it from the Bible because it says; “…God has planted eternity in the human heart…” (Ec 3:11)  This means that every person has an innate sense of something greater than themselves. In another verse, it says, “… In the past he permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but he never left them without evidence of himself and his goodness.  (Acts 14:16-17 NLT)

There are a multitude of stories from all over the globe that illustrate the truth of those Scriptures.  I’ve chosen a few examples some of which are well documented and at least one comes from personal observation.  The details of others are believed to be true but cannot be authenticated.  Those from the distant past are based on stories told from one generation to next.  They are included here because each has a common theme even though they originate in a different culture, time, and geography.

With more than fifty visits to Korea, it’s like a second home to me, so I’ll start with a bit of their history.  After several earlier attempts, Protestant Missionaries first landed in North Korea in the mid-1800′s.  At that time, it was known as the “Hermit Kingdom” whose people worshiped numerous unseen gods, demons, and ancestral sprits. (Shamanism)  The missionaries discovered that the people had many lesser gods but one they considered all powerful.  They knew nothing about him but gave this god above all other gods the name, “Hanulnim,” which means God of the heavensThe missionaries were wise and told them that the highest God which was unknown to them had made himself known by sending his son Jesus.  Over the years, the people increasingly embraced Jesus so when you hear them pray today the word they use for God is “Hananim.”  It’s a slight variation and means, One true God.  Today, the majority of denominations have their largest churches in South Korea.  I believe that the story of the Apostle Paul in Athens (details later) was the inspiration for the first missionaries in Korea.

China had its own version of an Unknown God, which they called, “Shang Di” which means, “The Heavenly ruler” or “Supreme Deity.”  He’s mentioned 175 times in the Chinese Classics, and the first reference was 2600 years before Jesus.  This is long before Confucianism or Buddhism influenced China.  Annually the emperors sacrificed a bull to “Shang Di” on the Altar Mound in the “Temple of Heaven.”  It is still well preserved in Beijing, but the practice ended in 1911 when the last emperor was deposed.  I have visited the place where this sacrifice took place and pondered, “What might have been?”  There were various developments over the years with missionaries arriving in 1807, but Marxist ideas started to take root in 1919.  When World War II ended, a civil war began which allowed Mao Zedong and his Communist Party to take control of the nation.  He expelled all missionaries in 1953, persecuted existing believers, and established atheism as the government’s official position.  In spite of this and at great personal risk, an evangelical house church movement developed and today is believed to number more than one hundred million members.

In the early 13th century, the Inca’s created the largest empire in the Americas.  Beginning in 1438 it was ruled by King Pachacuti who built the famous and majestic Machu Picchu fortress in what is now the nation of Peru.  It had a very violent culture and their worship of “Inti” the sun god, involved human sacrifices, including children.  At some point, King Pachacuti began to have doubts whether or not “Inti” was the true god.  He told the Council of Coricancha that the Sun God could not be all-powerful if a cloud or a man’s hand could block his light.  He asked his priests to research whether they had ever worshiped a God other than “Inti.”  After months of research, they returned with the following report.  In the distant past, they had worshiped Viracocha, a god who existed as three persons in one. (Trinity)  Pachacuti ruled that he and the other leaders would worship Viracocha from that day forward, but the people should continue to worship the Sun God.  In 1532, the Spanish conquered the lands of the Inca’s, and by 1618, they had ceased to exist because of a smallpox epidemic.

I was told the following story by The Honorable Preeda Pathanathurbur and verified it through research.  Preeda was born as one of the Karen people, but when I first met him twenty-five years ago, he was a Minister in the Cabinet of Thailand.  The word “Karen” was originally a derogatory term referring to non-Buddhist ethnic groups.  The Karen people do not have their own country but number about six million people on both sides of the border of Thailand and Myanmar. (Burma)  The Karen people had a tradition that their ancestors had lost the book that told them about “Y’wa,” the supreme God. (Awfully close to Yahweh) They believed that someday a white brother would come and return it to them.  In 1795, an English diplomat visited the Karen people, and they thought he was the white brother they had been waiting for.  The Englishman said he knew nothing of the book or the God “Y,wa” and left.  In 1815, another traveler visited, and he had a book.  We don’t know what the book was but seeing the fascination of the people for his book; he gave it to them and left.  They put someone in charge of the book and later that person became a priest, and the people worshiped the book.  They couldn’t read it but were sure that eventually someone would come and tell them what was in it.  In 1817, a Baptist missionary named Adoniram Judson came to Rangoon, Burma, 800 miles southeast of the Karen people.  One day a fugitive from the Karen came to Judson’s door looking for work.  They became friends; he responded to the gospel and was discipled by Judson.  This man returned to his people and became the evangelist that explained the book and saw several hundred thousand people come to Christ.  Today approximately 35% of the Karen people are Christian.

Now for one of the most interesting stories.  Socrates and Plato describe a major plague in Athens that happened six hundred years before Jesus was born.  It was in the category of the Bubonic or Black plague with hundreds dying daily.  They called a meeting of the Council Leaders and discussed what to do.  Someone suggested that they send for Epimenides, a prophet from the island of Crete because he was the wisest man that anyone knew.  When he arrived in Athens, he was amazed that the approach road was lined with the images of hundreds of gods.  They told him the situation and that they had sacrificed to all their gods, but the plague continued.  When they asked him what to do, he said, “I’m very tired and need to go to bed so meet me at sunrise tomorrow morning with Sheep, Stones, and  Stone Masons.”  The next morning a large group of people was waiting on the hillside below the Acropolis, and the preparations he requested had been made.

Epimenides addressed them as follows; “I am not certain what to do so I am going to make three assumptions.  The first is that there must be a god that you do not know.  The second is that this unknown god is powerful enough to stop this plague if he wants to.  The third assumption is, if we acknowledge our ignorance of his name and ask for his mercy, he may stop the plague.  Now release the sheep on the hillside and mark the spot wherever one lies down.”  They protested again, people are dying, and the sheep had been penned up all night, they’re hungry and won’t lie down until the afternoon.  He was not dissuaded from his plan, so they released the sheep, and within minutes, sheep started to lie down on the hillside.  They came back to him and said, what do we do now?  He instructed them to send the Masons and stones to build an altar where each sheep laid down.  In those days, an altar was similar to a coffee table.  After they had built a number of these altars on the hillside, they returned and asked, what name shall we put on each altar?  He replied, “That would be the height of arrogance because we said, we do not know his name, Just label each altar with, Agnosto Theo,” which means, “Unknown god.”  They did so, and each sheep that laid down was sacrificed to this “Unknown god.”  Within a week the plague had stopped.  Six hundred years later Paul addressed the Athenians.  You can read the full account of Paul’s message in Acts 17:22-32, but a short version is; Paul acknowledged that they were a very religious people because while he was walking around the city, he had seen many objects of worship.  One of them was an altar to an unknown god, and he used it to tell them that the unknown God had made Himself known by sending His Son Jesus.  You might wonder if he knew that Epimenides was involved with the altars to the “Unknown god.”  I believe that he probably did because he had obviously read his writings and quoted him in Titus 1:12; “…Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons.”

It’s an established fact that even the most remote tribes develop superstitions about the invisible.  Their desire to ward off evil spirits and appease a deity that brings good things is itself proof of a residual awareness of a higher being.  Additionally, they all have a moral code, which considers some things acceptable and other things unacceptable, so one must ask, where did that come from?  The answer is that God put it in the heart of every person as far back as the Garden of Eden when He created mankind with the ability to know right from wrong.  Even though our grandfather Adam made the wrong choice, humanity retains a moral nature, and every culture, however distorted, has moral standards.

These stories are proof that God has imprinted His existence on the human heart.  That makes me expect to find that God has been active in people’s lives before I meet them.  I’ll share one example of how that has been fleshed out in my life.  On my first or second visit to Seoul, South Korea, I met a wonderful Buddhist politician.  Over several years, he became a very dear and trusted friend.  We had many dinners and informal times together.  Early on, I knew that God had given me a love for him because while we didn’t have much in common, we forged an enduring friendship and as the years passed, we became increasing close.  We both knew that each of us was serious about our faith, but it wasn’t a topic we dialogued about.  I felt certain that the Holy Spirit would prompt me when He had prepared my friend to hear about Jesus.  One evening in one of the private rooms that are so common in Korean restaurants, I sensed God’s prompt that this was the night.  I asked his permission to ask him a personal question.  Not knowing what the subject would be he said, “I thought we already knew very personal things about each other.”  I agreed but said this one involves spiritual things and he quickly said, “No problem.”

Now a little background before I share the question I asked.  Buddhist theology is impossible to define because they have so many divergent views.  However, Buddha was very clear on one issue; “It is impossible to know if there is a god, so forget about the question.”  Buddhism is at best agnostic about the question of God, but it works out practically to be atheism.  So my friend had lived his life as if there is no god.  Knowing that and also knowing that God has put eternity in the heart of every person on earth (including Buddha), I asked; “At any point in your life have you ever had the sense that you needed to talk to God or that God was trying to talk to you?”  He thought for a minute and then said, “yes twice, once when I was a child and once during the Korea war.”  I responded by saying I was very comfortable asking you that because I believe that every person on earth has had that experience.  Then I told him about Pascal’s statement that; “In every heart, there is a God-shaped vacuum.”  I reminded him that a vacuum abhors a vacuum and longs to be filled.  Mankind has tried to fill it with power, success, money, pleasure, relationships, etc., but this vacuum is in the shape of God, and only God can fill it.  I kept tapping my chest trying to indicate the God-shaped vacuum in our heart.  It must have given him the impression that it is a little place in every person.  His response was; “Glenn I have very big one.”  I shared the good news of salvation in Christ, answered a few questions, and gave him the opportunity to receive Jesus.  He did and became my brother in Christ moving from agnostic to a believer because the impulse to respond was already there.  The important thing is to get in sync with God’s timing.

I’ve learned that the universal knowledge of God is especially evident in times of trouble.  When life and death issues confront people, a famous saying is usually true, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  There are exceptions of course, but it is generally true.  My dear friend Dr. Scott Kellermann had a patient who tried to convert everyone he met to his atheistic worldview.  One day his daughter while riding her bicycle was struck by a car and seriously injured.  As Scott worked on her in the emergency room he heard the father say; “Oh God don’t let my little girl die.”  That spontaneous heart cry of a father, even though he was an avowed atheist proved what he instinctively knew but had spent his life trying to convince himself wasn’t true.

Scripture tells us that God also uses His creation to confirm the innate knowledge that He placed in every human heart.  Romans 1:19-20 says; “For 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.”  (ESV)

Many years ago, I led Young Life clubs in several Sacramento high schools and often used stories and metaphors to make Scripture more understandable.  One night I read them these verses from Romans 1 and said, I made up a story to help you see how creation can reveal the existence of God.  To set the stage I tried to describe the ancient tribal culture of Australia 5,000 years ago.  Then introduced two 10-year-old Aborigine boys as the main characters of the story.  Their nightly activity of sitting around the campfire gave them a lot of time to look at the stars and talk.  One night one of the boys said to the other, “I asked my dad if he made the stars, and he said he didn’t, why don’t you ask your dad if he did.”  The second boy checked with his dad but came back the next night and said his dad did not make the stars.  They decide to ask their grandfathers, and when that didn’t provide the answer, they asked their great grandfathers.

You can imagine that the lack of an answer made them even more curious so on many nights they talked about the question, “who made the stars?”  One night they agreed that there must be something bigger than them so they asked their folks if that could be true.  The adults began a conversation among themselves and eventually conclude that it must be true, so they designed an activity to honor this unknown being.

When I meet people who tell me they don’t believe in God, I don’t believe them.  I don’t argue or debate, but I know that they know there is something greater than themselves and pray that they will eventually acknowledge it.  Sadly, there are numerous examples of people who live and die in rebellion to God.  Joseph Stalin’s daughter Svetlana wrote that she was with him during the atheistic Russian dictator’s last moments.  She said that on his deathbed, “He rose up on one elbow and shook his fist towards heaven.”  He didn’t believe in God, so you have to ask, what was that about?  The answer is that God put an awareness of Himself in his heart, but he refused to submit to Him and was defiant even in death.  Another example was Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist philosopher.  He said: “Life is like a bottle of very nasty wine and all one can do is hold on to unyielding despair.”  I am certain that his rejection of God led him to this kind of cynicism.

We started with the statement; “All people groups worship something,” and even though it’s been a cursory overview, we’ve shown some examples of that.  For some, that internal something that God put in every human heart has been dormant, but it’s still there.  Others have acknowledged it and made the only response they know how to make.  Still, others knew but rejected the prompting to acknowledge the existence of God.  These are still the responses of natives in the jungle, your next-door neighbor, your children, or the most educated person you know.  You might be asking the question, what difference does all this make to me?  Only you can answer that, but at a minimum, you now know that every person you meet has some level of awareness of God’s existence.

Most of us have both the innate knowledge of the existence of God, but we also know the good news about Jesus.  That good news is that God sent Jesus to tell us that He loves us and wants to forgive us and give us Eternal Life.  The gospel of John tells us that, “whoever has the Son, has life; whoever rejects the Son, rejects life.” (Jn. 1:12)  There are only two options; Eternal Life or Eternal Death.  Moses said in Deut. 30:19 “I set before you life and death, choose life.”  God gave us free will; I pray you have made the right choice.

Many people ask; “What will happen to the people who haven’t heard about Jesus and likely never will?”  Theologians say: “They will be judged based on the light they’ve been given.”  They get that from Romans 2:11-16, which says; “For God does not show favoritism.  All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law.  For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.  Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.  This will take place on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.” (ESV)  God judges men, not according to what they do not know, but according to what they do know.  That means that you and I will be judged based on our response to our knowledge of Jesus.