What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part Two

We learned in part one of this series that the God of the Bible is a God who is perfect and holy, who demands that kind of perfection from all who would be in His presence.

God’s holiness explains why Jesus is so centrally important to the way of salvation.  Jesus fulfills the perfect standard of God.  And moreover, He was (and is) the only one who did or ever will!  Some biblical passages showing this might help at this point.  Consider the following examples:

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father but through me.”  In Acts 4:12 Peter states that there is salvation from sin in “no other name,” than Jesus’, for there is no other name (not Buddha, not Mohammed, not Confucius, not my own) given among humanity by which we can be saved.  In 1 Timothy 2:5-6 we read that, “There is one God and one mediator also between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, who gave Himself as a ransom” for sin’s penalty of eternal separation from God.  And as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Jesus Christ, who was perfect and “knew no sin,” to become a sin offering in our place so “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  In short, God took Jesus’ perfect holiness and righteousness and credited it to our account, simply because He loves us and wants to have a relationship with us (John 3:16).

Having said this, what can we do with all this information then?  Although some of the following will not be easy to hear, several conclusions can and must be drawn.  First, all people do have some information about God, but unfortunately, Romans 1:20 tells us they suppress, corrupt, and/or ignore it.

Second, we can affirm that God is always fair.  According to Romans 2:1-3, He judges people according to what they know and do not know, what they do and do not do, as well as by their own standards of right and wrong.

Third, we must admit that in view of Romans 3:23, no one—ourselves, most of all—is or can become perfect on our own.  Because God is holy and requires perfection (Matthew 5:20; 1 Peter 1:15-16; 2 Corinthians 5:21), all men deserve the just punishment of hell.  Thus, some people get what they deserve—namely justice—while others get what they don’t deserve—namely mercy.  However, no one gets injustice.

You must ask yourself honestly, “Do I really deserve to go to heaven?”  Who, then, does?  Can you point to someone who actually deserves to go to heaven, who earned enough “points” to please a perfectly and eternally holy and righteous God?  Chances are if you can, then your standard of holiness and righteousness is far different than God’s.  This is also called idolatry, creating God in our own image, rather than recognizing and worshiping God for who He truly is.

The fact is, Jesus Christ is God’s extreme and ultimately final expression of mercy to a lost and dying world.  Only Christ is both fully God and fully man, so only He could pay the eternal penalty for humanity’s profoundly radical sin problem.

One thing that could be brought up at this point is this fair question: Why are there so many other world religions and so many other people who adhere to high moral standards, some that appear to surpass the ethical lifestyles of Christians?  Two things can be said in response.  First, we must understand human nature made in the image of God, and second, we must understand the reality of an adversary called the devil who is doing everything he can to lure people away from the God who loves and wants to know them.

The multitude of world religions suggests a couple of things about humanity.  First, it suggests that we have an incurably religious nature that is constantly seeking to reach out to the transcendent unknown, to the immaterial realm of the spirit.  And I think that this is due to the image of God in man.  This image reaches beyond itself and looks for the divine.  Paul points this out in Acts 17, verse 27.  The result of this search, this extending beyond oneself, has been a myriad of religious perspectives.  But that only tells half of this sad story.

The fact is, human beings, because of the reality of Adam and Eve’s fall into sin (chronicled in Genesis 3), are no longer able to have an unblemished and unadulterated picture of who God really is and how a person can know and relate to Him.  Thus, God provided a special communication to us concerning Himself through what we call the Bible, and supremely through the person of Jesus Christ.  But while many know and embrace this special communication, not everyone believes in or has access to it.  Some are ignorant, some choose to ignore it, some choose to refute and destroy it, and some choose to twist and rewrite it.

All of this highlights the fact that Satan is a real threat to humanity’s ability to understand and know God.  The adversary delights in deceiving and drawing people away from God and His truth (see 2 Corinthians 11:3 and John 8:44, for example).  Thus, we would expect to find—and in fact do find—a multitude of counterfeits in the religious communities of the world.

The things I have just shared are potentially hard truths to face.  In part three, we will conclude with some encouragements and recommendations concerning the Christian’s responsibility given the fact that people can be saved through Jesus Christ alone.

Sometimes I see what the word of God says and struggle with it emotionally.  But as a Christian, I think it’s important to ask, am I willing to face this?  Am I willing to do something unpopular and stand up and say to the world that there is only one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ?


5 thoughts on “What about those who’ve never heard of Jesus? Part Two

  1. trpeverill

    Lew, This is an outline for the strong Biblical case for Christ being the only way of salvation. Do you plan to address the issue of whether salvation depends on a person’s knowledge of Jesus, and how much knowledge is necessary? Some people have concerns about children and the age of accountability or the mentally handicapped who cannot intellectual grasp the gospel. What about the faithful in the OT who could not have heard of Jesus? Is there some loophole for them? When does that loophole close? Does faith in Christ become necessary as soon as Christ was born, or when he rose, or when that first generation of witnesses passed on? Or, another issue is post-mortem opportunities for those who have never heard. There may be no answers to these questions, but they tend to untie our neat theological constructions.

    It may be better to say we don’t know all the answers, but we do know that the work of Christ was to redeem all creation, and in him we find salvation. We have no guarantee of any other way, and we cannot say exactly how wide God’s mercy is.

    1. lewinkler Post author

      Tim, I always appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you read and respond to my posts–especially the controversial ones! In answer to your question, unfortunately, I will not address in my posts the questions you raise. I do address these issues in my theology classes at EAST, but as you know, whole books–and good ones–have been written on this topic, like, for example, Millard Erickson’s How shall they be saved? This is one of the great disadvantages of blog posts. The really good and thorough ones do not often get read from start to finish. I guess that may be an indictment against the enduring value of my blog, but be that as it may, I can say a few things here in response. First, my main purpose for this series of posts is to give an explanation to Christians as to why sharing the gospel really does matter and why we have a responsibility to do so continuously and with boldness. I will emphasize that in the (third and final) post which follows this one. You may disagree with me, but I believe I am not misrepresenting Paul’s teachings on this in saying so. Second, there is wisdom in having the humility to say we honestly do not know the wideness in God’s mercy with respect to salvation. Clark Pinnock and most Catholics (for example) suggest it is much wider than most evangelical Christians (myself included) have wanted to admit. But in my estimation, the way in which these arguments are traced–and yes, I have read them extensively since this was a topic of my dissertation–do not do justice to the Biblical teaching on the matter. So the basic position I lay out here remains. I frankly would prefer from an emotional standpoint a more inclusive set of passages to hope in, but I have to be faithful to scripture as I believe it is presented to us in rather “particularist” expressions, to borrow a term from Harold Netland. We should be careful not to say too much, and perhaps you believe that I have, but at the same time, we must be careful not to say too little on matters in which the scriptures do speak. I believe that on balance, the scriptures speak to the need for all to hear about Jesus, “from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and even the remotest parts of the earth” and that it is the believer’s responsibility to take that mandate seriously. Third, you raise the issue of how much needs to be known in order for salvation to be granted as well as concern for OT saints, etc. Again, these are complex questions and are fair to be raised. You may disagree, but the scope of my blog discourages me from saying a lot about this. I give a nod in my third post to the fact that God judges all fairly, and that those who live in ignorance will not be judged as harshly as those who overtly reject the gospel of Jesus. We do not clearly know what God will do with children before the age of accountability and with the mentally challenged, but we do know that those who have advanced moral and mental capacities are held accountable by God. As for postmortem opportunities, even Pinnock admitted the scriptural basis for this is scant to none, but he chose to embrace it because he ardently wanted it to be true. Finally, the question about OT saints is complicated by several factors, but in an attempt at simplicity, in Romans 4, Paul teaches that they were saved by faith in what God had revealed to them up until that time. But keep in mind that the parallel between OT saints and those who are ignorant of the gospel is tenuous at best. People in the OT were largely part of the covenant community and so had been given revelation from God to which they responded–in faith or rebellion. Could God reveal Himself to those who seek Him today and who have never heard of Jesus? Of course, and I say as much in part three of this series. But I find that most (certainly not all!) Christians tend to use this as an excuse to alleviate their sense of responsibility to share the gospel boldly and frequently. At the end of the day, we may disagree about this, but I also know your heart for the lost burns brightly and so I do not see you in this category. You are likely in the category of genuinely concerned for the lost who never hear the gospel. I appreciate that, but at the same time, when I read the scriptures I cannot escape the sense that our passion for sharing the gospel is fueled, at least in part, but our understanding that apart from hearing about Christ, and embracing His love sacrifice there is little to no hope for salvation.

      1. trpeverill

        Wow. You have been very generous with a long thoughtful response. I don’t have answers to my questions about ignorant children and so on, but I just wanted to remind you that they are out there, and that these questions are useful thought experiments and goads to prompt us to dig deeper into the scriptures. We shouldn’t expect the scriptures to answer all our questions; that’s not what they are for.

        As I understand Pinnock, he didn’t have any definite Biblical answers about these questions either, but they helped his search for what the gospel actually is. The more I learn about the gospel effects, the more I learn about the fullness of the salvation that’s provided to us and the power of the cross for all creation. This motivates me much more than the worries about those who either haven’t heard or have a faulty theology of the cross.

        Time to read your third post. I hope your students there realize what a good teacher you are for them.

  2. Franklin Ko

    Yes, I do agree with you that Christ is the only way. But I also feel that you are not fully addressing your original question. Ever since my youth I have tried to create a whole theological basis of my Christian beliefs by tying up all the loose ends as much as possible. Your question was one of those loose ends. There are a lot of other questions and concerns that are tied to that one question such as is God fair etc. regarding the salvation of those who never had the chance of even hearing about Jesus due to the time and place of their short existence on earth. I also do believe that the Bible does address this question as well as all the other personal questions of mine. The real question is whether I accept the answer or not as satisfying. I have come to be satisfied or rather comfortable with having doubts on these issues that are more on the edges of my paradigm and not the core beliefs which is firmly established by the Grace of God. My answer regarding your question is rather simple: God saves whom He wishes to save ever since He created man. No one deserves God’s salvation nor can anyone earn it. This is true before Christ appeared on Earth 2000yrs ago and it is true afterwards. And it is true that Christ is the Way of Salvation for everyone who is chosen by God to be saved. I am not in the position to argue with God about fairness as echoed in Job. And that salvation gives us the responsibility and ability to respond to God’s mercy by obeying Him which would include telling others about God’s plan of salvation which is only through Jesus Christ. Thanks for your blog and I look forward to your part 3.

    1. lewinkler Post author

      Franklin, thanks for this thoughtful reply and for taking the time to read my posts so carefully! I hope part three will give some food for thought. You can also have a look at my response to Tim Peverill above for a more nuanced explanation of what I’m trying to say. I genuinely appreciate the feedback!


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