Sooner or later, everybody exploring Christianity wrestles with this issue. It can be especially difficult for a seeker because it raises suspicions about the very character of God. The question goes like this: If Jesus is the only way to God, what about all the innocent people who have never heard about Christ? Would God really punish them for something that wasn’t their fault?
Sometimes people raise this question as an avoidance maneuver; they look for difficult theological questions to validate their unwillingness to believe. But many skeptics have genuine concerns about worshiping a God who, from their perspective, is so unjust. Thus, we should not take the issue lightly, but seek to better understand how the Bible addresses it.
It’s important to recognize that the Bible offers little direct or sustained instruction on this matter. Related topics are discussed, which are helpful for constructing some valuable inferences, but the lack of direct attention suggests we should hold our conclusions tenuously. In addition, it’s misleading to use the word “innocent” when describing people who have never heard about Christ.
Like all other humans, they are sinful (Romans 3:10-12) and in need of forgiveness for their sins. So what is the plight of those who are so isolated (geographically or culturally) that they have not heard the gospel message or been given any opportunity to respond? The New Testament asserts that the work of Christ is the only way to a right relationship with God (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).
There is only one mediator between God and humans: Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). This is clear. Passage after passage in the New Testament presents Christ as coming to earth, dying on a cross, rising from the dead, and offering his life, death, and resurrection to all who would want to be restored to their heavenly Father. If there were other ways to God, then Christ’s sacrifice would have been in vain.
However, we should understand that Christ’s work is the basis for salvation. People receive this gift of grace when they accept it by faith, hence the passion Christians have for sharing their faith with others. But some Christian scholars have suggested that there may be special circumstances where God applies Christ’s atoning work to individuals who were, for various reasons outside their control, prevented from knowing about Christ. For example, God may be gracious to infants who die at an early age or those who are mentally incapable of hearing and understanding the gospel message.
In this sense, they are reconciled to God “through” Christ, but not in conjunction with an explicit affirmation of faith. Could it be the same for individuals who have not heard simply because of when and where they were born, and whom God discerns would respond positively if they did have the opportunity?
To be honest, we don’t know for sure. Perhaps this is not the case, and therefore it is imperative that Christians continue to share their message of hope with others. Perhaps God is so gracious to judge people based on what they could possibly know and nothing more. But this would not diminish a sense of urgency for both seekers and Christians. Transformation and a purpose in this life remains a motivation to place our trust in Christ and share the good news with others.
Ultimately, we trust that God is good, loving, just, and fair. The Bible says that, “the LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalm 145:8 TNIV). He does not want any to live self-destructive lives, but for all to turn from their sin and be reconciled to him (2 Peter 3:9). Therefore, we are faced with two choices. Will we trust him? And will we help others come to trust him?
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Extremely well written! Of the many things I appreciate about your post, first let me say that I respect your willingness to share your thoughts but also to leave room for honest questions and potential, but not concrete, answers. Oftentimes we as believers fail to realize that not being able to admit we don’t have every single answer to every possible question a person might have about God and or eternity is actually a turn-off to others. Our being willing to defer to God on issues over our heads can, and often does, serve the purpose of causing others to put their trust in Him. Second, I like that you pointed out our using the word “innocent” loosely. It reminds me of a talk show I saw back in late 80’s/early 90’s (I think it was Donahue) when the host asked his Christian guest, “You mean to tell me that God would send this sweet little old lady to hell?” The old lady he referred to was a random guest in the audience. And the Christian replied, “How do I know she’s sweet? I don’t know what that lady did in her heyday!” As a non-believer at the time I thought, “How true!” and it helped me to question the rhetoric non-believers often defer to when questioning Christianity. Finally, as I look at the comments of other posters in reference to the Romans 10 verses, I would also add Romans 2:14-15 “Indeed when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law…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.” Although it is speaking specifically about the “law,” it also gives reference to the fact that God indeed works in the hearts of unbelievers to impart truth even apart from those who are “sent.” I became a Christian through this same work, so I know we can trust God’s word is true without putting God’s grace in a box. “How will they hear without a preacher?” They can most certainly hear if the Holy Spirit decides to tell them. Salvation is through Christ alone. The fine print logistics, however, is for God to do what He will. As it is written “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy.” Great post.
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I have to agree with MT. In my mind there is no doubt about the issue based upon the Roms passage.
By the way… IF those who never hear of Christ are protected in Him then to send missionaries to them is the greatest injustice we could ever do. In doing so, we would only be giving those who are safe in Christ the option to condemn themselves by rejecting the gospel. This turns the entire issue of the purpose and necessity of proclaiming the gospel upside down.
Lord bless you brother. I’ve been enjoying your blog greatly.
Good post, Walter.
We who know God believe that He is just; He wouldn’t condemn people unfairly. I personally believe we’ll be judged by what we did with the knowledge (of God/Christ) that we had. The first chapter of Romans says that God’s law (His word) is written on our hearts; what philosophers call the “Natural Law.” The first chapter of John’s gospel tells us that Jesus is the word. So no man will have “an excuse” (Romans 1:20). In a sense we’re confirming what’s already in their heart when we share the good news with people.
It’s a good point you make Walter that the Bible leaves us knowing what is esential, while leaving us wondering about many other things. We are told explicitly that Jesus is the only way to reconcilation with the Father. Then we are told to “go.” We have the “Word of life.” When I read of Paul’s urgent and unyielding spent life to carry the gospel to lands where Jesus was not known, I have to conclude we’re to have that same sense of urgency. Do I? Here’s a thought I once asked a young man who was struggling with this question you entertain. “If we can find anyway to conclude that God saves those who have never heard, then aren’t we fools to send missionaries? Now we’ve opened the door for them to reject the good news.”
I try to put things in perspective by these words. “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? How will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things.” Rom. 10:14-15
Tough stuff you bring to the table today. Blessings good friend.