Let me begin by affirming that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes unto the Father except by Him. (John 14:6) His is the only name given whereby we can be saved. The question we will explore in this post regards ‘how’ an individual can be brought to faith in Christ. Specifically, we will consider those individuals who, through whatever circumstances, were never clearly presented with the gospel of Jesus Christ before they died. Or, perhaps they were never presented with the gospel in a way that allowed them to hear it e.g. Jewish people who were relentlessly persecuted by those supposedly telling them the good news! Can such a one be saved?
God’s Progressive Dealing with His Old Testament People
Human beings dwell in darkness. God is light. Spiritual awakening comes as we encounter the light of God. In our darkness we are not even aware of what is wrong with us. Therefore, God’s first step in revelation is to make us aware of the fact that there is a problem and what the nature of that problem is. The Jews were given the Law of Moses, not to save them for by the works of the law shall no one be justified (Gal. 2:16), but to give them the knowledge of their sin (Romans 3:20). Paul says he would not have known what coveting was except the law said, “You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7). Conscience functioned in the same way for the Gentiles (i.e. all those in any religion other than Judaism), that is to make them aware of sin (Rom. 2:14-15).
Now it is abundantly clear that before a person can know a solution, he must first know what the problem is. Therefore, it was not until this initial light had been given, that God could bring forth the answer- the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. With it came the knowledge that our good works are not able to bring us into right standing with God. But it was necessary for God to first point out that mankind’s works were evil. Once armed with this knowledge, the natural thing for those who desire to please God is to try to do good and avoid evil. As stated above this is not enough, but what happens to the person who dies before he knows his good works are not adequate or that Jesus came to save him? He has not come into this more mature knowledge so has not put away childish things. Does God condemn a man or woman on the basis of the light they never received? Scripture seems to consistently affirm that we are judged, not on the basis of knowledge we do not have, but on the basis of our faith in God. Jesus brings us along the path of life, as we are able to be led by him. The Shepherd of love “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” (Isa. 40:11) Each one is given increasing knowledge of God as he o she is able to receive it until they can heartily accept Christ.
Let us survey biblical passages that indicate this principle of progressive revelation as it pertains to the non-Christian. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of God’s Old Covenant people. God first gave the revelation of himself to Abraham from whom came the nation of Israel. Next the law was given to Moses as a deeper revelation of divine things. However, in New Testament times, Paul clearly tells us in Galatians 3:23-25 that the Law was like a schoolmaster to bring us to faith in Christ. So the Law, with its animal sacrifices was unable to save anyone. Hebrews 10:4 tells us most definitely that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. “How then were the Jews saved? The next chapter, Hebrews 11, leaves us in no doubt that they were saved by faith, faith in God and what he had promised. So we see in God’s dealings with Israel a progression. First Abraham received the covenant of circumcision. Then, Moses received the Law and finally the Jewish people were brought to the glorious revelation of Christ. God brought more light and more knowledge, but from start to finish they were saved by faith (Rom. 1:17).
The Gentiles that Lived Before Christ.
Rom. 2:14-15 speaks of the Gentiles instinctively obeying the Law even though they didn’t have it. We learn that for them, the law of conscience functioned as the Law did for the Jews. Someone may object to this by pointing to Rom. 3:19-20 and saying, “Yes the conscience functioned like the Law, to bring all under the conviction of sin, to prove all guilty.” However we are still faced with the question then of how the Jews were saved. Clearly, though the Law brought them under condemnation, they were still saved through faith in the promises of God they had received. Why would the Gentiles who were convicted of sin by conscience not be given the same privilege as the Jews who were convicted of sin by the Mosaic Law? The main thrust of this passage in Romans 2 is to point out that there is no difference between the Jews who had the Law and the Gentiles who didn’t.
Not only did the Gentiles have the light of conscience, God was manifest to them through nature. Creation proclaims the glory of God (Ps.19:1; 97:6) Invisible things about God are understood by created things, even his eternal power and Godhead so that no person is without excuse (Rom. 1:20). In Acts 14:17, Paul, in speaking to Gentiles claims that God has shown His goodness by “giving rain from heaven and crops in their seasons” and by providing plenty of food and filling their hearts with joy. Somehow I can’t picture God blessing and filling with joy without at the same time giving the opportunity for the greatest blessing – salvation through faith. Would he be capable of leading people along in this way, getting their hopes up by blessing them, when all along he has planned to damn them when they step through eternity’s gates?
God’s Progressive Dealing with the Gentiles
We have already seen that God dealt progressively with the Jewish people. Now let’s consider this principle with regard to the Gentiles. In Acts 10we encounter the story of the Gentile Cornelius. In verse 2 we are told that he was God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. In vs. 4 we see that God accepted this as a ‘memorial offering’. Peter states as clearly as possible that “God does not show favouritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right” (vs. 34-35). Though all our works may be as filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), God, in his mercy, accepts our bumbling efforts to serve him. His response to Cornelius’ prayers and gifts was to bring him into the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. One may wish to argue that this is always the pattern – that where any faith in God is expressed, God will lead that person to Christ. This is true; the only question is again how they come to that faith. For now though, the point of the Cornelius episode is to demonstrate that God brings Gentiles also along the path of progressive revelation.
In Acts 17 we see this principle illustrated again when Paul preaches to the Athenians. He tells them in vs. 30 that in the past God overlooked such things as their idolatry but now he commands all men everywhere to repent. Clearly, Paul is saying that there are at least two distinct stages in God’s dealings with mankind. Prior to Christ, God did not have the same expectation of people as he did afterward. Now the question arises, “Does he mean after Jesus’ coming he commands all people, regardless if they have heard of him or not to repent?” or, “Does he mean, that after an individual has heard of Christ through the proclamation of the gospel he or she is responsible to repent?”
Gentiles Saved in the Old Testament
Before we attempt to answer that question, it should be pointed out that there are numerous instances of Old Testament Gentiles who are saved. Right in the list of the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 we find the Gentile Rahab mentioned. She escaped judgment because she exercised faith in hiding the spies. If it is argued that she then joined the nation of Israel, this changes nothing. It does not say she was saved because she became a Jew, but because, as a Gentile, she exercised faith.
Rahab is not alone. Of course, before Abraham, there were no covenant people of God. Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah etc. were not part of the Abrahamic covenant. They were saved by faith (as also were those of the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant and the New Covenant.)
Job is seen as righteous before God even though he clearly was not a Jew. In Gen. 20 God shows himself to be evidently in relationship to Abimelech. God displays His care for the Ninevites by sending Jonah to preach repentance to them. Jeremiah tells us that any nation that repents will be delivered from destruction (Jer. 18: 7-8).
Was Salvation More Plentiful Before Christ?
So it is clear that, as Paul says God ‘winked at” religious error before Christ and therefore both Jews, who had the Law, and Gentiles who had the law of conscience, could be saved according to the faith that they exercised. If we now say that after Christ, only those who explicitly accept him through the preaching of the gospel in this life will be saved, we have a serious problem. We are saying that it would be better for most people who have lived after Christ’s coming to have been born before he came because most people never heard of him. If they had only lived before Christ, they might have had a chance, but now there is none. This means his coming into the world cut off the possibility of salvation for millions of people. But this directly contradicts the scriptures which read, “For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn. 3:18). The angel’s declaration to the shepherds is anything but “good news of great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10). Rather, it is the most horrifying message imaginable, since now most of them will be cut off without ever hearing about this one who was born in a manger to save them.
Does Predestination Solve the Problem?
People who hold this view must defend it on the basis of predestination, that is, God predetermines everything. Some are in; some are out. If you heard the gospel and became a Christian, it’s because you were predestined to. If you never heard about Jesus, it’s because you were predestined for damnation. However, this position makes a mockery of all the scriptures that suggest we really do have an opportunity to accept Jesus. When the Bible says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life,” (John 3:16) it really means it. I can’t mean, “If you’re a chosen one, you’re OK and if you’re not, you’re damned.”
God doesn’t play games and secondly, God loves everyone and wants as many people as possible in his kingdom. To maintain that God damns everyone to hell regardless of whether they have heard the Gospel or not is to bring the character of God into serious disrepute. As one theologian put it, this kind of thinking “manages to make bad news out of good news. It casts a deep shadow over the character of God. At its worst, it can lead to awful consequences in terms of pride, arrogance, superiority, and intolerance as the ideology of election takes hold. It causes the church to become, not a sign of the unity of humanity in the love of God, but the sign of favourites in the midst of the enemies of God.” Is God’s mercy great enough to save a child-molester-murderer if he repents, but not great enough to save a person who exercises faith and tries to live for God the best he can but never heard the gospel?
It must be admitted that there are scriptures that appear to back up the idea that God predestines some and not others. However, one essential principle for interpreting the Bible is the rule that we interpret what we don’t know in light of what we do know. In this case, I do know that God offers salvation freely to all and I know that we have free will to accept it. Furthermore, we all act like we do have free will. If someone hits you in the face, you hold them to account that they could have chosen to do otherwise. I don’t know or understand predestination. Whatever predestination means, it is entirely within God’s view and no one else’s. Maybe God has some way beyond our human intelligence to predestine us even though we also have free will, but there’s no way for us to understand that. What we do know is that we have the opportunity to accept or reject Jesus now.
Is There Any Motivation to Preach then?
Allow me to deal with one common objection that is often raised to the sort of position I am taking. “If people in other religions have the possibility of being saved, then there is no motivation to evangelize them.” We should note that this is also a problem if you take the position of predestination. Why should we preach if everyone is predestined anyway?
There are three points I would like to raise in response. Firstly, when the first Christians came into being, they preached with exceeding zeal to a people who already had the possibility of salvation, namely, the Jews. Secondly, the motivation for the first Christians to preach was the glorious revelation of Christ. The love of God given to them was so glorious that the Old Covenant had no glory at all by comparison (2 Cor. 3: 7-11). They were motivated by the wonderful freedom that the love of God brought them into. Thirdly, consider the lot of those outside of Christ. They have no assurance of salvation and the favour of God. Living in uncertainty with regard to absolute questions of life and death means one can never be totally free. As Hebrews say, all our lifetime we were held in slavery by our fear of death (2:15). It was only the gospel that gave us the possibility of being liberated from it. The eternal destiny of those outside Christ is up to God; our responsibility is to love them and to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.
In conclusion then, I wish to affirm three principles concerning God’s love. Firstly His love causes him to reach out to all human beings with the offer of mercy and salvation. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Rom. 5:18 tells us that Christ brings the possibility of justification to all men. God wills all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:3- 4). “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men…” (Tit. 2:11). God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9). To say that only those fortunate enough to have come in contact with a Christian who preaches the gospel to them can be saved is to deny that God is offering salvation to everyone. This is not saying that all will be saved, but that all have the possibility of salvation.
Secondly, God brings everyone along the path that leads to “the Lamb upon the throne.” Our light grows until we behold the glorious vision of the Son of God, until we see him face to face. If there is something that characterizes those who have never heard the gospel but will yet be saved, it is the willingness to accept Christ once they do hear of him. Whether this happens just before death, or at the moment of death, I do not know. Somehow though, God, in His merciful kindness will bring all who trust in him to that marvelous day.
Lastly, the one thing God requires from a person in order for him or her to be saved is faith, not knowledge. Because a person never has the knowledge of Christ, this does not disqualify him from heaven. To say that salvation is based on knowledge is akin to Gnosticism. In my opinion, every person will be saved by the faith in God that they exercise, according to the knowledge of him that they have. That faith will ultimately lead them to Jesus Christ to be forgiven, cleansed and born anew of the Spirit of glory!