"He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end."
- Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV)
Imagine you're a missionary. You are sent out into the wild jungles of Borneo to a primitive people living in a primitive village. Your goal: to convert them to Christianity.
There you are, a 21st-Century American, raised on fast food and fast cars and central air conditioning and shopping malls. You swat the flies away from your face as you sit down on the dirt floor of a dark, smelly hut with the tribal chief, a dark-skinned nearly-naked little man with a name that sounds something like "Ogopogo." He seems to be ready to listen to what you have to say. You feel like you're visiting another planet.
You're beginning to think to yourself What in the world am I doing here? Maybe I should have stayed in college. The background, the upbringing of this strange human is so absolutely foreign, so alien. How can you possibly connect with him? He's going to think you're being disrespectful of his culture and his religion.
So, taking a deep breath, you begin talking (in his language, which it took you eight months to learn), explaining to him the Gospel: Man is separated from God by his sin; Jesus died for our sins; we must accept Jesus in order to have eternal life ...
And, to your amazement, Ogopogo begins nodding in agreement. Yes, yes, he says. This is from the legends of Long Ago. We've heard about this. It's one of the stories of the Elders.
And the next thing you know, you're praying with him to receive Christ. He's your first convert! He asks you to speak to the assembled village that evening. And it happens again: You begin preaching, and you get the impression that these people were ready for this, that they were just waiting to hear the Gospel. You connect.
Christian missionaries are reportedly having this kind of experience all over the world. They encounter primitive cultures where the people
1. Believe in some kind of god who is really three gods (a trinity, if you will).
2. Worship a god who is angry with them, and must be appeased, but they don't know how to appease him. They are somehow separated from their god.
3. Have a legend about a foreigner ("a light-skinned messenger," for instance) who will come from afar and show them the true way to their god.
4. Have an ancient custom or ritual whereby a person is dragged between the legs of several women, thereby being "born again."
5. Have an ancient legend about a god who sent his son to die, or became a human and sacrificed himself for the benefit of the people.
6. Have an ancient legend that they once worshipped the true god, but over the years had "lost" him.
For instance, the Lahu people of Burma believed that their god would one day send them a "white brother" with a book containing his laws. Some of the Lahu even wore cords around their wrists symbolizing (a) their bondage to evil spirits and (b) their need for a "divinely appointed deliverer" who would cut those chords from their wrists!
Don Richardson calls these "redemptive analogies" or "hidden keys" in non-European cultures. His thesis is that that God did this ... gave these primitive peoples little "foreshadowings" of the Gospel ... so that when the missionaries showed up, they'd be received and welcomed.
In other words, God set up everything thousands of years in advance — he "planted the seeds" so to speak — with these primitive cultures so that they'd be receptive when the white European missionaries finally showed up in the 21st Century.