“Are you saying that only Christians will go to heaven?” asked the person indignantly. “What about people who didn’t grow up in a place where Christianity was taught? What about people who have never heard the name of Jesus or at least had Him explained well? Are they condemned to eternal suffering? How is that fair?!”
This issue is among a handful of questions which make nearly every Christian squirm. In fact, it’s not just non-Christians who ask this question – many Christians wrestle with it too.
I’m aware that by even bringing up this question I’m walking into a theological minefield. Any answer I give will be unacceptable and probably even offensive to multiple groups. There are no easy answers. If you have one, please hand it over. I too want to believe that everyone has an equal chance to find salvation through Jesus. Anything less seems unfair and unbiblical (more about that in a moment).
I will now disappoint my first group by admitting that I don’t have a solid, well-defined answer to this question. Nor have I been satisfied by the confident solutions proposed to me by theology books and articles. For reasons I will discuss, they leave me dissatisfied. So what I will attempt to give you today is not a final answer, but an effort to put the issue in as plain a light as I can so that we can deal honestly with our limitations on the subject, while trying to come to at least a livable solution.
Factors to consider when dealing with the issue of those who have not had a good hearing of the gospel of Jesus Christ
Factor #1: The Bible leaves a certain amount of mystery about this subject
One reason we argue so much over this issue is that the Bible doesn’t fully explain to us all the factors which we’d like to know. Is general revelation (God speaking through nature and reason) enough to damn people, but insufficient to save them? Can God speak clearly enough through the Spirit, apart from Scripture, to bring them to salvation? Is an open heart toward God enough to guarantee that He will reach to the seeker? Each major theological group, it seems to me, attempts to answer the tough questions by sliding the mystery around to a different location, but none removes it altogether. This leads to my second assertion:
Factor #2: God is as clear as He chooses to be
The mysteries of Scripture are not accidental. God does not even try to address all of our questions in the Bible. He leaves out some pieces of the puzzle. Deliberately. This doesn’t mean, of course, that God Himself is unsure of all the right answers. He understands everything perfectly. But He has not allowed us the same privilege. Why? I suspect that, at least in part, it’s done to humble us and remind us of our human limitations. It also pushes us toward faith; toward trusting God beyond what we can understand. And, I suspect as well, that our human minds are incapable of completely comprehending all of God’s ways. Admitting mystery where it exists is part of honestly facing these sorts of issues.
Factor #3: God loves every human being
Can we agree on that? Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:44-44) because He’d wanted to draw them to Him as a hen draws her chicks but they were unwilling (Matt. 23:37). John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world. . .” By “loves”, I mean that God cares about each person and wants what is best for them, which, for me, must include the next factor, otherwise it’s not love:
Factor #4: God wants to save everyone
A large group of believers will fall away from me after this statement. They believe that we can only be saved with God’s help (which I too believe), but that God only chooses to give this absolutely crucial help to a small group called “the elect”. Those outside of that group lack even the potential to be saved and that’s by God’s choice. They’re born stuck and out of luck. In love, I must reply that I cannot buy that perspective. It goes against the grain of so much in Scripture, in which God constantly pleads with rebellious people to repent. Furthermore, it’s hard to reconcile with verses like 2 Peter 3:9, which tells us that God is “patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” A universal invitation makes no sense without a universal capability to respond positively. I realize that there are sophisticated arguments which disagree with me here, but I’ve heard them and come away unconvinced. My last two statements lead to the next:
Factor #5: God provides each person with sufficient resources to be saved
This is where I choose to place the mystery in the salvation dilemma. If God wants to save everyone, then everyone must have a fighting chance to accept or to reject that salvation; otherwise, the universal invitation is a hollow, meaningless one – like offering to sell a 30 million dollar mansion to a beggar. Why? Because God is just (Ps. 98:9b), and justice requires a fair chance. Furthermore, I’m unwilling to believe that God’s plan to save someone will be foiled if the church fails to do its part; that your salvation ultimately depends on me – that either Tim does his job or Joe goes to Hell – lots of Joes in fact. I believe that what God commands, he always enables, even if it involves plans B, C, or Z.
So what is this “sufficient resource to be saved”, if it’s not a full presentation of the New Testament gospel? The Bible does not answer this question directly. It does tell us, however, of a large number of Old Testament saints who never heard about Jesus; His coming to earth, His dying on the cross for our sins, and His resurrection. Yet they’re still saints. In fact, two of them, Elijah and Moses, spoke with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. It tells us of people who didn’t even have the Jewish law, like Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18), and possibly, Job, who, nevertheless clearly had a saving relationship with God. So is it possible that the Spirit can save anyone open to Him even if they haven’t heard the name of Jesus? Before I make my final comments, let me set some firm boundaries.
First, without Jesus and his work on the cross no one would be saved. There is no alternate Savior or plan of salvation. The Bible makes this clear (Acts 4:12, John 14:6). Second, we’re held responsible to boldly share the good news about Jesus wherever possible (Matt. 28:19,20).
So how do I come to peace with the issue of those who have never heard? Although I must admit that the Bible does not specifically say this, in the end I want to believe that the Spirit reaches to all, and that all who respond positively to His invitation, He will save. God’s love, His ways, and His creativity are deeper than we can imagine. If we care about every lost person, He who sent His own Son to die on the cross, must care far more.