Skeptics sometimes say “If Jesus is the only way to heaven, then God is unjust, because some people have never heard of Him.” Between the Scriptures, the oral message, creation, dreams, visions, and the myriad of other ways that God speaks to man, there is probably no one who actually has never heard.
By Mark D. Harris
The discussion last Sunday, centered around how someone can be sure of his salvation and focused on Luke 23:32-43, the story of the thief on the cross, engendered some lively discussion. One issue which came up, which always comes up in lessons about salvation, was the question about what God is going to do with people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus.
The Bible teaches that everyone is a child of God, in the sense that we are all created by Him (Genesis 2:7), but some people are His children in the sense that they live in good relationship with Him (Galatians 3:26, 1 John 3:10). It also teaches that every person will live forever, some people with God and some people without Him (Matthew 13:40-43, Matthew 25:31-46, Revelation 20:11-12). In that sense, all religions and even non-religion lead to God because every person will stand before Him in judgment. To use a human analogy, every person is a child of their parents because they were “created” by them but not every person lives in good relations with their parents. Bible believing Christians hold that Jesus is the only way to eternal life; defined as everlasting life in good relations with our Heavenly Father.
Using the best hermeneutic techniques, considering the linguistic, geographic, and cultural contexts, it is hard to believe otherwise. As recorded in the Bible, Jesus statement “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6)” is exclusive, leaving all other religions out. Peter’s words “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, but which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)” are equally restrictive. It also seems to leave out everyone who lived and died prior to the life of Jesus, since they obviously could not have known about someone who hadn’t been born yet.
Needless to say, such exclusivism was not popular in ancient Rome and is not popular in modern America. It seems arbitrary and cruel for God to condemn to eternal punishment those who never had a chance to follow Jesus, and even bigoted to exclude “good people” who happen to practice other religions. Some people ask this question honestly, but like many other difficult questions, many ask it to confound Christians, to justify their refusal to follow Christ, and to encourage others to reject Him as well.
This is a difficult question which will find no comprehensive answer here, but there are some oft neglected factors which help us to understand it better. We can do nothing for those who refuse to believe, but for those willing to learn, these ruminations may provide insight they haven’t enjoyed before.
Arguments must first note the underlying assumptions. Our fundamental assumption is that God exists and that He is best revealed in Creation and in the Bible. Also, the Bible should be taken as it is, no part can be ignored, and it should be interpreted using the most careful analysis and techniques of interpretation. The Bible says what it says and we must understand it not as we wish it to be but as it is (2 Peter 1:20). Those who are not willing to at least temporally accept these assumptions will probably gain little from reading this and may as well stop.
God is just, and our human understanding of justice necessarily derives from His divine justice. Though human justice is an imperfect reflection of divine justice, through analogy we can understand this aspect of God’s character. Restated, God’s justice is like human justice and so when we say that God is just, we have some real idea of what we are saying and that idea, while imperfect, is accurate. We cannot say that He is unjust and also cannot say that we can have no idea of what His justice might be. God would not eternally punish someone for rejecting Him when they had no other choice. However, in His justice He will also not let evil go unpunished.
God is also love (1 John 4:7-8). As with justice, humans would have no concept of love, much less be able to show or feel it, without Him. God’s love is selfless, caring, and perfect in every way (1 Corinthians 13). Human love, by contrast, is based as much on need in the lover as beauty in the one loved. Rarely does any human truly and selflessly love another person when that person is lacking in virtue or beauty.
Does God really love all men? He loved the Ninevites whose armies destroyed and terrorized local neighbors (Jonah). He loved Manasseh, the worst king in the history of Judah who late in life turned to him (2 Chronicles 33:10-13). God loved Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon who utterly destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and may have followed Him in his later days. Time and again the Bible, Old and New Testament, portrays God as loving people who are totally undeserving of His love. He is Love, but we are not.
Man is valuable, having been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28); but he is morally bankrupt, unrighteous to the core (Romans 3:10-18). This does not mean that humans are incapable of doing good but that every thought, word or deed of man is tainted by sin. For example, who among us does what we do, even the noblest things, with completely pure motives? Is there not a little selfishness or vainglory in even our highest acts?
Man is capable of reason and has real knowledge; but his best thoughts are foolishness compared to the surpassing wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 3:18-20). Man is finite, but God is infinite. Man is corruptible, but God is incorruptible. Man derives all the good he has and does from God, who is the source of everything good.
Considering all of these things, if there is anyone’s understanding that we should mistrust, it is ours, not God’s. Human ruminations have value but in areas of confusion, we must give precedence to Scriptures over human reason. Then we must continue our investigations. There are things in science that we do not understand but know to be true and the same is true with the Bible. Humans must approach God’s creation and His word with equal humility.
If man is truly as bad as the Bible says he is, then no one deserves to go to heaven; to enjoy eternal fellowship with the Almighty. Skeptics argue that God is unjust if He sends innocent people to eternal punishment, but no one except Jesus Himself is innocent. Given no other factors, God’s justice and man’s moral depravity would result in everyone “going to hell”. When we cry for God to be just we do not really know what we seek, because if God were perfectly just and only just, no human would escape everlasting punishment. The wise man asks God for justice but even more for mercy (Luke 18:13).
The real wonder is that God saves anyone at all from everlasting punishment, often referred to as “hell”. Just as He did not need to create us, He does not need to save us. The Lord does both because of His love (John 3:16). People who complain that God is unjust if He condemns people who don’t know Jesus, ostensibly because of their great compassion, should remember that God’s compassion is infinitely greater than their own. As the Creator, God is intimately involved in the operations of the world and the lives of everyone in it. He loves us far more than we could possibly imagine; even more than those people who use this argument as a way to oppose God.
How are men saved?
The next question to ask is “how are men saved, how are they restored to the eternal, perfect relationship with God?” According to John 14:6, men are saved through the work of Jesus Christ. We see the process of salvation detailed in Luke 23:32-43, the story of the thief on the cross.
- The thief begins by mocking Jesus just like everyone else (Matthew 27:44, Mark 15:32).
- As he experiences the pain and fear of his impending death and watches the spectacle around him, he begins to see the contrast between his unrighteousness and Jesus’ righteousness.
- As the Spirit works in the thief’s dying body, he begins to understand his responsibility for what he has done and the justice of his punishment (vv 40-41).
- The thief realizes that Jesus, the man dying next to him, would have no earthly kingdom in this life but would have a heavenly kingdom in the next.
- Finally, he asks the Lord to remember Him. Jesus responds by promising him that he would join Him in paradise.
This story illustrates how men are saved; how they are restored to their proper relationship with God and guaranteed, as Jesus promised, eternal life. In every other case of salvation in the New Testament, the process is basically the same: Admit our sinful state and need for salvation, Believe in Jesus Christ as the One who can save us, and Repent, turning away from our selfish lives and following Him in everything.
Is there another way to be saved?
This question could be restated, “Are there examples of men in the Bible being restored to a right relationship with God without acknowledging the name ‘Jesus Christ?’” The answer is “yes”, because the Old Testament saints were clearly children of God. They had a right relationship with Him and yet had no way of knowing the name Jesus. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph did not even have the sacrificial system of Moses, foreshadowing the coming Christ. The Biblical character Job was probably a contemporary of Abraham and lived completely outside the Abrahamic tradition but was nonetheless clearly “saved”. Paul revealed how these men were saved when he quoted Moses in writing “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3).” The Evangelists portrayed Elijah and Moses in their glorified state talking with Jesus during the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13). Though these saints could not articulate the name “Jesus”, they were not saved apart from Christ. Without His substitutionary atonement none of them could be saved, but they were saved by His work without actually knowing His name. What we discover is that salvation is no different in the Old and New Testament; those who believe God have it counted to them as righteousness.
What about non-Biblical examples? The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) who reigned around 1353-1336 BC rejected the polytheism of his nation and instituted monotheism. His reforms did not survive him but one wonders if he “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” If so we may see him in glory. Socrates (469-399 BC), as revealed in the writings of his student Plato (424-348 BC), spoke of monotheism and even said things that seem almost proto-Christian. Will he be in heaven?
The majority of people in the world today have had an opportunity to hear the gospel from the pages of the Bible; they start with the clearest earthly knowledge of salvation. The thief in Luke 23 was undoubtedly exposed to the Law, the Writings and the Prophets in his life and he met Jesus, so he had knowledge as well. Saints after the Law of Moses but before Christ knew of God’s plan of salvation only as a shadow, longing to see more, but still believed (Matthew 13:10-17). God-fearing men and women before Moses had even less information, but were able to walk with God on the basis of what they knew (Genesis 5:24, 6:8-22). The history of Christian missions reveals that the Father uses even the indigenous folk traditions of peoples throughout the world to bring people to Him. Finally, everyone who has ever lived has had at least a basic knowledge of God from His works; creation and His image revealed in each of us. Because of this basic knowledge, no one has an excuse for not knowing something about God. The problem is not that we don’t know it but that we suppress it (Romans 1:18-23).
Is this route still open today?
It should be clear that no one can be restored to a right relationship with God without Jesus’ work but that, at least in times before the Incarnation, it was possible for men to be saved without actually knowing His name. Peter wrote “there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” We must now consider the nature of a name.
Webster’s defines the word “name” as:
- A word or phrase by which a person, thing or class of things is known, called or spoken of.
- A word or words expressing some quality considered characteristic or descriptive of a person or thing.
In modern America we often give little thought to how we name children but in other cultures and in the ancient world, the character of a man was considered to be summarized in his name. A name, therefore, was shorthand for the essence of the person; a description of who he really was. The closest we may come to this in our culture is branding. Manufacturers brand their product to communicate in short hand the key characteristics of that product. A Ford Mustang or a Plymouth Voyager confers images to the customer of the nature of the car.
The name of Jesus, therefore, refers more to His character and person than to a string of Greek letters on a page (Ἰησοῦς Iēsous). To believe in Jesus is to believe in the character of God as revealed in the God-man Jesus Christ. To do something in the name of Jesus, therefore, is to do something consistent with the character of Jesus, as described in Scripture. Historically, missionaries have focused on the work of God in the Incarnation as the route to salvation. We can summarize:
- In the Old Testament, Abraham believed God, knowing Him and His work, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
- In the New Testament, God the Father’s work was completed in the person of God the Son, Jesus Christ. To believe God and His work will be counted to men as righteousness.
So can a Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, or someone from another belief system be saved?
To be saved is to enter in love to the presence of God, now and for eternity. God has revealed Himself perfectly in Jesus Christ; Christ is the only path given by the Father to approach Him. Anyone who rejects or fails to accept Jesus Christ cannot be saved. However, if someone cannot articulate the name “Jesus” but knows the Arabic “Yasu” or “Isa”, the Russian “Yeshua”, or another such name can be saved, because they refer to the same person. Anyone who knows the sinfulness of his own character and the righteousness of God, who takes responsibility for what he has done and accepts the justice of his punishment, who realizes that salvation is only found in the perfect work of God through Jesus, and who asks God to be saved, can be saved. People who do not do this will not be saved, and God will judge them according to their knowledge and capabilities. Remember, He loves everyone and desires our restoration to Him more than we ever can or will.
If a man or woman looks at the general revelation of God in creation and accepts the knowledge of God that this revelation provides, He will provide more revelation. It may be through a Scripture tract, a dream or vision, a missionary, or even genuine knowledge of God found in another religion. If he or she trusts and obeys that part of the Lord’s revelation, discarding error, He will bring more revelation. Ultimately if a man or woman follows what God teaches, He will bring enough knowledge of Christ to save them.
Imagine how this might have worked in the life of Afshin, a fictitious Persian peasant in the late 7th century. He could not help but see the glory of creation, and would have to decide whether to attribute that glory to several deities, to an impersonal universe, or to one God. Arab armies had recently brought Islam into Persia and if Afshin had been exposed to the religion of Mohammad, he might decide that this glorious universe must have been created by one God. As Afshin further asked the Lord to reveal Himself, he would be confronted with the depth of his sin and the glory of the Creator. Recognizing the hopelessness of his situation, Afshin would ask God for answers. Eventually he might have a dream, leading him to find the Scripture, a Christian, or both, thus introducing him to the work of Jesus. If Afshin remained true to God, he would follow Him. In this episode, the Father would have used Creation, Islam, a vision, and maybe a believer, to lead Afshin to Himself. Jehovah is truly God, and such a scenario has undoubtedly played out millions of times in history.
What about mythology?
Romans 1 tells us that God put the truth in every heart, and that man’s greatest sin is to suppress that truth. Not only do we have a desire for God and an innate sense of right and wrong, but God uses even mythology for His own glory and purposes. Comparing mythology across the globe, from the Sumerian Enuma Elish to the Polynesian origin tales, we discover that most every world myth contains the following elements:
- Primordial waters/chaos/non-being
- Primordial egg/giant
- Primordial hill or island (land separating from the water)
- Father Heaven, Mother Earth, and their children (4 or 5 generations)
- Heaven is pushed up (away from the earth)
- A human, typically a woman, does something which breaks the fellowship between humanity and God.
Note how many of the key ideas above are similar to those found in Christianity. Though no one can enter into the right relationship with God apart from accepting the work of Christ, God can and has used cultural redemptive analogies to form bridges to the gospel. Don Richardson used the Sawi concept of the Peace Child to explain the work of Christ to the tribe. As a result, many accepted Jesus. The Lord is generous with His grace, and has scattered His truth in every religion, nation, and tongue. Nevertheless, only Jesus Christ bears all truth. Those who have never heard, unless they are actively suppressing God’s truth, may be closer to a saving faith than those who have heard but have rejected Christ.
What about evangelism?
Does this mean that Christians should not proclaim the gospel of Jesus, because by giving people more information we are giving them greater condemnation if they reject? Not at all. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, and so it is impossible for humans to fully comprehend the character and work of God without seeing it lived out in Jesus. The myth of the Peace Child needed to be completed by the Gospel of Christ to bring saving faith to the Sawis. Recall the steps to salvation:
- Know the sinfulness of one’s own character and the character and righteousness of God
- Take responsibility for what one has done and accepts the justice of his punishment
- Realize that salvation is only in the perfect work of God
- Ask God to be saved
For a man to take these steps requires a significant knowledge of God which is ultimately found in the person of Jesus. Evangelism therefore becomes more important, not less. Trying to earn your way into heaven by good works is futile – we are too far from God’s perfect standard. Believing that we can earn God’s favor and obligate Him to admit us to heaven because of our deeds is a common trap. The revelation of God in Jesus can help people avoid that trap.
In the final analysis
The goal of salvation is eternal life. Only one person in history, Jesus Christ, resurrected from the dead into eternal life. Therefore it is safe to say that He is the only one who can lead us into eternal life. Truly, no man comes to the Father but through Him. No one who has heard the name of Jesus and rejected Him can have eternal life. For those who lived before Jesus such as Abraham, God has provided knowledge of Himself through creation, the conscience, His image, and other means. Since the coming of Jesus, no one can be saved without Him, whether they call Him Isa, Yasu, Yeshua, Jesus, or something else. The Lord expects us to act on what we know and will judge us on how we obey what He has revealed to us. No one other than God knows exactly whose name remains written in the Book of Life, but only those who follow the example of the thief on the cross will be there.