How can we know that God exists in an illiterate world?

Literacy has been the exception for most of human history — not the norm.

As Our World in Data explains,

While the earliest forms of written communication date back to about 3,500-3,000 BCE, literacy remained for centuries a very restricted technology closely associated with the exercise of power. It was only until the Middle Ages that book production started growing and literacy among the general population slowly started becoming important in the Western World. In fact, while the ambition of universal literacy in Europe was a fundamental reform born from the Enlightenment, it took centuries for it to happen. It was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that rates of literacy approached universality in early-industrialized countries.

To illustrate what this means: “In the diocese of Norwich, which lies to the Northeast of London…the majority of men (61%) were unable to write their name in the late 16th century; for women it was much lower.”

This is quite a contrast with our environment! Of course, you are literate if you are participating in the UP Community! You can read this post, and you can write a response!

Therefore, when we consider how we could know that God exists, we start within the framing of literacy. Our assumption might be that we would need written arguments that could be rationally evaluated and appropriately lead us to the conclusion, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”

For some skeptics, the predominance of illiteracy is a good reason to think that God does not exist. The question becomes, “How reliable can the gospels be if there were written in a time when few people knew how to read or write?”

That’s an interesting question for a literate community to discuss!

But in this Topic, I want to ask another question. Assuming that God exists, and that he wishes to save all people, whether or not they are literate, then how might he accomplish that goal?

It seems to me that the primary emphasis would be God’s direct revelation, by the work of the Spirit, to reveal to a human being who bears his divine image, that Jesus is Lord and Savior - all to the glory of God.

Further, the principal means by which the Spirit would reveal that specific message is through men and women who had already come to know that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

And since this is a message about God’s love for us, it would best be delivered and communicated when God’s people loved their neighbors. Then their transformed lives and their unusual love for others would legitimate their message of God’s unusual love.

Sometimes we try to divide “what we do” and “what God does.” But this is a dynamic process. As the Holy Spirit is working within the lives of believers, our natural response to God’s work is to love God and love our neighbor, including our willingness to announce the gospel.

It seems to me that this is the logic we find in 1 Peter 3:8-22. To summarize this passage, Peter tells the believers they are to live holy lives, love one another, and love their neighbors - including even their enemies. As God’s people become “devoted to what is good” they will even suffer for the sake of love.

Through this suffering love, they will be humbled and broken in a way that gives them gentleness and respect as they share their hope in Christ with others.

All that to say: in God’s plan to bring salvation to men and women across the globe, throughout all generations, this is enough.

It had to be enough. Because it had to ‘work’ even in illiterate cultures.

That gives me the confidence to believe that it is still enough today.

The primary extension I see is this: Take, for example, the situation when a literate person asks for the kind of evidence that would be expected, within a literate culture, for the claim “Jesus rose from the dead.”

In that scenario, then, because we love God and we love this literate person, we will give them a literate answer. We can dialogue about the gospels’ reliability, the evidence for the crucifixion, the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and so on.

However, even in this case, our primary argument that “Jesus is risen” remains the transformation of our lives, the distinctive love within our Christian community, and our sacrificial love for others.

To my literate friends: how does the predominance of illiteracy change how you think about God’s primary plan to see “his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?


Hi Carson,

Very thought-provoking Question that will not have a short answer. It’s the same conundrum we have with us when we are illiterate because we don’t know another language when we engage with a foreigner for a period of time. We can learn it but takes a lot of time. will meditate and ponder this question then respond.



This is interesting because I do not often think of illiteracy as a hinderance to the Gospel. Sure it can be a massive hinderance for interpersonal connection to be illiterate in world that relies heavily on literacy (like our world today), but it’s not insurmountable. After all, how do we make accommodations for the blind?

God’s revelation is ultimately communication. Literacy – reading and writing – are just two of a number of ways in which humans communicate with one another. Though helpful, they are not required.

One of the most beautiful things to me about God is that he accommodates us. He comes to us where we are and “speaks” to us in ways that we can understand. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to emulate…though communicating in ways that can be understood by others is more difficult!

We hold that throughout human history, God has been able to communicate with his creation…and with people particularly. He doesn’t need us to be literate because the Gospel is also proclaimed via spoken word and action.

Tangentially, if the conversation is more about trusting the oral tradition in Jewish and Christian history, Australian historian/theologian John Dickson is an excellent resource on this. He has an excellent sidebar on oral tradition in his book, Hearing Her Voice, which he has made available for free here. See pages 35-48.


It might be worth noting that some folks would argue that literacy is a good reason not to believe the Gospel.

Here is a link that will support the idea of oral tradition. My finding of Kenneth Bailey’s article was a result of reading a book by NT Wright, who cited the article in his book, Jesus and the Victory of God. I have found Bailey to be very helpful in my understanding of the parables of Jesus,
Oral Tradition — Kenneth


Your post reminded me of a point that Thomas Sowell made in his book, Discrimination and Disparities, but for different reasons than the Gospel; it was for social, and economic, not religious, but I believe that it is relevant to the conversation.

Scotland was for centuries one of the poorest, most economically and educationally lagging nations on the outer fringes of European civilization. There was said to be no fourteenth-century Scottish baron who could write his own name. And yet, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a disproportionate number of the leading intellectual figures in Britain were of Scottish ancestry—including James Watt in engineering, Adam Smith in economics, David Hume in philosophy, Joseph Black in chemistry, Sir Walter Scott in literature and John Stuart Mill in economics and philosophy.

Now here is the interesting part. It was the Protestant church that encouraged literacy at the common level.

Among the changes that had occurred among the Scots was their Protestant churches’ crusade promoting the idea that everyone should learn to read, so as to be able to read the Bible personally, rather than have priests tell them what it says and means.

And the last thing to mention was the secular move to adopt the King’s English.

Another change was a more secular, but still fervent, crusade to learn the English language, which replaced their native Gaelic among the Scottish lowlanders, and thereby opened up far more fields of written knowledge to the Scots.


Yes, this is an area where Christians have a mixed record. On the one hand, “Christian” slaveowners forbid enslaved people from learning. I think it’s best to frankly acknowledge and confess how wrong this was rather than try to avoid it or explain it away.

On the other hand, as the academic David Jeffrey argued in Christianity Today, there are a few core commitments within Christianity that encourage literacy. In his article, he notes the form of the Gospels, intended to be for everyone, as a popular text. Second, the Great Commission led to global missionary outreach. Third, the commitment to spiritual formation required literacy so that new disciples could read the Scriptures, as well as the devotional and theological reflection written about the Bible.

I would add, as a people whose greatest commandment includes the requirement to “love the Lord your God… with all of your mind” it is logical, fitting, and good that Christians take an active role in supporting literacy. We aren’t afraid of people becoming educated and informed as if that would threaten faith. No, we believe education is a means to love our neighbors so we can grow in our allegiance to God.


Hey @Carson my initial reaction is to look at Christ’s model of engaging lost humanity. He chose to incarnate within the culture and their society. I think that is a great way to communicate cross culturally. So if I think of engaging people, regardless of their literacy level, in those terms I should go to their where they live. Not just in terms of location but also in terms sharing life with them. If they’re literate or illiterate, I adjust the engagement to align wherever they are. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 aligns perfectly with this mindset. Especially how Paul summarizes it by saying,

I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

I think literacy has been used throughout history by those in power to help maintain their power. Even those that profess to be Christians, or “God’s people” if we include Pharisee types, have leveraged the literacy level of those they have power over. That behavior consolidated their power because the people had to come to them to “hear” from God, thus leveraging the institutional church to maintain their power. Conversely, those that have taken an incarnational approach have elevated and even celebrated the priesthood of the believer and saw the institutional structure of the church as a means to serve those they were called to declare the gospel.

I might even go so far as to say that those that are “literate” are still vulnerable to those that would leverage Biblical ignorance to sway and mislead people away from the truth of the gospel. I’d say that they do that by centralizing knowledge and understanding around the few in power or positions of authority.

I feel that the way to mitigate the above is to promote the priesthood of the believer and faithfully obey Matthew 28:20 by teaching disciples to obey Christ’s commands. Which is another way to say that we should promote biblical literacy fueled by the power and presence of Jesus.


There is, must, be a greater effort to reach those who are illiterate and pray for more laborers to collect the harvest which God will increase as we lose the ability to read and write which has been happening for a while at an alarming rate. As you read this, the greatest tool in the hands of God is me, if I am in the hands of God. Our primary witness to this is Christ who was literate, dealt with, interacted with those who weren’t.

Basically, most Jewish males were schooled in the word and learned by learning the torah, and scrolls they had. Few were learned men or women as we have today, He knew that and kept His teachings from being too philosophical. We try to dig out the spiritual truth, with deep study and research but He spoke plainly about the simple things of life in present day and, trusted that in time revelation would come. John 16:13 reveals this to me as it is His words.

Finally, I will confess, I must pray more, for the Lord of the harvest to Compel us His last days laborers, to step up, step out and begin the work at hand.



Such an interesting conversation, thank you everyone!

Whilst I read all this, I became aware of the emphasis in the general church about reading the Bible daily as an important part of maintaining our relationship with God. Daily Bible readings are encouraged for us to know God more, to give us direction and wisdom for our daily lives, as well as the means to understand and share the gospel with others. Given the reflections here about illiteracy in the past few centuries, I have wondered how people in the past felt they were achieving these goals if they were illiterate. I sometimes read stories to my children about people in the last few centuries where Bible reading featured in daily routines. For example, in ‘The Children of the New Forest’ by Captain Marryat, the forester Jacob Armitage reads scripture to the children every evening. In stories like this, we see that it is the natural responsibility of the literate to read the Bible to the illiterate in times gone by.

This leads me to consider how I have been concerned about Christians who I know that don’t read the Bible each day, perhaps rarely read the Bible ever. I have worried that perhaps they might not grow in spiritual maturity without reading the word of God for themselves. Perhaps this thread is a good encouragement and reminder that God is always communicating with us, with or without the written word. As @kathleen said,