What If They Never Heard of Jesus? - Part 1
If Jesus is true, and Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn 14:6), then what does the Bible say about the devout Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jew? What about those who died before Jesus was born? What about all the babies who died? Does an answer seem to make evangelism unimportant, make God look ugly and unjust, or do we "punt" and say we do not know what the Bible says on this? This tract attempts to give a brief, yet balanced answer.
The issue here is not what God "has" to do about these people; God can do whatever He pleases. The question answered here is what has God chosen to do? There are two complementary answers. The first is what God actually told us in the Bible. The second answer lists speculations that go beyond the Bible. Part I focuses mainly on the first answer, and Part II mainly on the second. Before giving an answer though, there are some concepts to be understood.
Varying Degrees of Judgment
For those who reject God's way, there are varying degrees of judgment. In Mt 10:15, Jesus said it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than it will be for those towns that actually saw Jesus and yet rejected Him.
2 Peter 2:21 says of evildoers, "It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them." Jeremiah 42:19-22 also shows that if you are not determined to obey God, you are better off not asking what God's will is. So in judgment not only is the amount of evil a factor, but also how much truth one has.
Varying Rewards in Heaven
Everyone who goes to heaven does not have the same reward, as Mt 5:12, Lk 6:23, and Eph 6:8 indicate. 1 Cor 3:11-15 says, "If any man builds on this foundation [Jesus] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he was built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. "
Degrees of Knowledge
C. S. Lewis gave an interesting speculation of the effects of knowledge. Suppose choosing your destiny was like choosing to travel towards one of two points. Now people who have fully heard and believed gospel, may be close to the heavenly point, and those who have fully heard and do not want to believe may be very close to the hellish point. Both may be thought of as in different places on a line connecting the two points. Those with limited opportunity to hear the gospel may be traveling towards the heavenly point, but they are farther from both the heavenly and hellish points than those with better know-ledge. Perhaps both their temptations and rewards may be less. Opportunity determines how far one is from the line connecting the two points. What they did with the opportunities determines which side of the barrier between the two points they are on.
So varying degrees of punishment, rewards, and knowledge, show how God can be just to people of varying circumstances. We still have not addressed the question of if any who have not heard the name of Jesus can be on the "heavenly side" of the barrier separating the two points.
Is There Any Other Way?
"Can any other religion save people?" This question is plainly and simply answered by both Jesus and Peter: No religion can save people; only Jesus and His blood can save.
Acts 4:12 says, "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." This echoes Jesus' own words in John 14:6 and 10:7-9. Thus either Jesus and His apostle Peter misled us terribly for 2,000 years, or else they are correct. Thus if someone has rejected God's one way to go to heaven, there is unfortunately no other exit from the path to Hell.
What about the Jews; can they be saved? Certainly, as Paul mentions that he is a Jew in Rom 11:1-6. So Jewishness and Jesus go together today as they did for the apostles and early, predominantly Jewish, Christians. However, even in Old Testament times, it was understood that wicked Jews who rejected God would be rejected by Him (Psalms 95:7-11). Can Jews or others who choose not to accept Jesus be saved? Original Judaism was given by God; it is closer to Christianity than other religions. Yet to the very religious Pharisees Jesus said, "if you do not believe I am He, you will indeed die in your sins." (John 8:24) See also Acts 20:21; 3:23; 13:45-46; 18:6; Mt 23:29-33; Jn 8:21; 10:7-8,14-16; Rom 9:27.
What of Other Religious People?
Even though religion cannot save, can people be saved by Jesus despite trusting in another way of salvation?
Hebrews 11 gives examples of many who went to Heaven without hearing the name of Jesus: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and others in his family, Rahab, and many Jews in the Old Testament. This does not mean that a person's chances are better if they never heard of Jesus. Otherwise Jesus did mankind a great disservice by commanding us to spread the Gospel. These people who were saved without knowing the name of Jesus were still saved by Jesus, according to Heb 9:9-10:8, John 8:56, Luke 2:29-31, 1 Tim 4:10, 1 Pet 1:10-12.
So 1) some who never heard of Jesus' name were saved. 2) It is still preferable for all to hear the Gospel, and 3) all the saved, even those who never heard of Jesus, are saved through Jesus. Let's look at two cases of non-Jews who were saved.
Job and His Friends
No one is declared righteous by following their conscience, because Rom 2:12 and Rom 3:9-20 show that no one is declared righteous in God's sight by obeying what they know of God's law. Furthermore, nobody on their own seeks after God (Rom 3:11, Ps 4:1-3). However, God seeks and calls people from every nation (Acts 10:34-35), and five people who followed God were Job, Bildad, Eliphaz, Zophar, and Elihu. There is no indication that they were Jewish.
These people understood that there was a Creator, who was good and just (Job 1:22). They understood the importance of living an upright moral life (Job 1:4-5), yet that they needed God's forgiveness (Job 7:21) and made animal sacrifices to God. (Job 1:5)
Abraham, the Friend of God
"Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." (Rom 4:3 Gen 15:6). Perhaps he could never have discovered God, His righteousness, and His need for a Covenant and sacrifices on his own, but God made sure he learned. John 8:56 indicates that God even told Abraham of a Savior yet to come.
Seven Things the Bible Says
1. God's Righteousness: God is Holy, and only those Holy and perfect can dwell in Heaven with Him. All who are unwilling to be transformed, go into the cosmic trash heap-the Lake of Fire.Mt25:31-46;Rev20:15
2. God's Justice: God judges our motives, hearts, and actions. He is understanding; sin, while present, is not counted where there is no law (Rom5:13;4:15). None are condemned for not accepting the Savior they were unable to hear of (Rom2:6-11). All were given some knowledge of the Creator (Rom 1:19-20, Ps19) and know some of God's Law through their conscience (Rom 2:12-16). There is at least for kids an age before which they do not "know to refuse the evil and choose the good" (Is7:16). God is both kind and stern (Rom 11:22).
3. Our Despair: Nobody gets to Heaven based on obeying what they know, for nobody fully obeys what they know. With God's standard of perfection, Heaven would be empty of human beings (Rom 3:9-24).
4. God's Way of Grace: Though nobody sought God, God came to us (Rom3:21-26; 5:6-8). When it was impossible for people to come to a Holy God, God made a way by coming to us through Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to forgive us, that all who desired could live forever with Him. (Rom 10)
5. One Way: There has always been only One Way to God, and that is through God Incarnate, our Savior Jesus (Acts 4:12, Jn 14:6, 10:7-9, 1 Tim 2:5, Col 1:15-22).
6. God's Arrangements: Before Christ came, God had an "understanding" for those who believed and loved the True God, such as Abraham, Job, and Noah.
7. God's Promise: The gate of Jesus is narrow (Lk 13:23-30; Jn 10). Yet all who persistently seek to serve the Creator and follow His way will find it. All who are self-seeking and suppress the truth will not (Rom 2:7-8).
Perhaps you have seen the emptiness of a life without the One True Creator and have felt God drawing you to Himself. Do not refuse God who speaks (Heb 12:25). God has not necessarily told us all the arrangements He has made, but we know that all arrangements lead to the cross of Jesus.
What If They Never Heard of Jesus? - Part 2
Part I Recapped
Part 2 briefly lists various speculations and their pros and cons. Part 1 laid out what the Bible said about those who have not heard the gospel. There were seven points:
1. God's Righteousness: God is Holy, and only those Holy and perfect can dwell in Heaven with Him. All who are unwilling to be transformed, go into the cosmic trash heap-the Lake of Fire. Mt25:31-46;Rev20:15
2. God's Justice: God judges our motives, hearts, and actions. He is just; sin is not counted where there is no law (Rom 5:13; 4:15). All knew something of the Creator (Rom 1:19-20, Ps19) and of God's Law through their conscience (Rom 2:12-16).
3. Our Despair: Nobody gets to Heaven based on obeying what they know, for nobody fully obeys what they know. With God's standard of perfection, Heaven would be empty of human beings. (Rom 3:9-24)
4. God's Way of Grace: Though nobody sought God, God came to us (Rom3:21-26; 5:6-8). When it was impossible for people to come to a Holy God, God made a way by coming to us through Jesus Christ. He died on the cross to forgive us, that all who desired can live forever with Him. (Rom 10)
5. One Way: There has always been only One Way to God, and that is through God Incarnate, our Savior Jesus. (Acts 4:12, Jn 14:6, 10:8, Rom 11:1)
6. God's Arrangements: Before Christ came, God had an "understanding" for those who believed and loved the True God, such as Abraham, Job, and Noah.
7. God's Promise: The gate of Jesus is narrow (Lk13:23-30; Jn10). Yet all who persistently seek to serve the Creator and follow His way will find it. All who are self-seeking and suppress the truth will not. (Rom 2:7-8).
Jiminy Cricket and Salvation
"And always let your conscience be your guide" is what Jiminy Cricket told Pinocchio in the story. Some try to read into Rom 2:12-16, that some can deserve Heaven by following their conscience. However, Rom 3:19-20, says that nobody will deserve to go to Heaven based on their own deeds.
A doctrine some Catholics used to espouse until 2007 is of a third place, between Heaven and Hell, called Limbo. Limbo is not the place for those who know the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, but rather for those who never engaged in the contest. It is a simple, satisfactory answer with one key shortcoming: one should be wary of postulating things never mentioned in scripture.
An alternative to believing in Limbo is that there are different levels of Heaven as Paul mentions in 2 Cor 12:2. Perhaps those whose home is in a "lower" part of Heaven have no punishment but few if any rewards. Also, it is possible that babies who die go to Heaven, remaining as babies.
A five year old girl once asked if she could see babies in Heaven. Those who believe in Limbo might say no, because a separate place implies people cannot travel from limbo to Heaven and vice versa. Those who believe in a lower level of Heaven might say yes, because a Christian could travel through all levels of Heaven.
Even if a lower part of heaven exists do all babies go there? Do all, some, or none of those who have not heard go there?
The Bible shows there are various rewards and punishments, God's way is just towards those who have not heard, yet Jesus is the only way. However, God made arrangements with the Jews, with Abraham, Job, Noah, Enoch, and others. God can make whatever arrangements he wishes for Jesus' salvation to come to His children.
So while Limbo is an explanation that many think does not go against scripture, scripture is totally silent about it. Limbo does not seem necessary once we understand there are differing rewards in Heaven.
Why Purgatory is Wrong
Purgatory is a place first made up by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and is still believed in by many Catholics today. Even from 1050 A.D. on, there were communities of Christians, called Waldenses, that rejected the concept of purgatory. Purgatory is said to be a fiery, painful temporary place that (almost) all believers go to be purified from venial sins.
1 Cor 3:13-15 is used to justify purgatory. Notice though, the purpose to test (not purify) the work (not the believer) with fire. If purgatory is required to cleanse believers from sin, why could believers could skip purgatory completely if they fought in the Crusades? Mary rescues, weekly, everyone from purgatory who died wearing a special garment. Offerings to the church and prayers to Mary can shorten someone else's stay. If fiery purgatory is needed to cleanse believers, then how can church offerings free someone who was not aware of the bribe? Paul said in 2 Cor 5:8 shows that for believers "away from the body is at home with the Lord." 2 Pet 1:1 says that believers "will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom.", not warm or fiery one.
Augustine and Ambrose's Opinion
Ambrose said that infant baptism opens the kingdom of Heaven to them in On Abraham 2:79. Augustine taught in four places that that baptized dead infants went to Heaven. Unbaptized ones went to Hell solely due to Adam's original sin. However in Hell they received only the lightest of punishments. Having a cooler spot in the Lake of Fire does not seem like much consolation, though.
If this were true, imagine two babies who are communicating across the gulf.
1st baby to 2nd: Why are you suffering?
2nd baby: I did not ask to be created, I was not aware of anything I did wrong, I had no opportunity to turn away from God in the slightest degree. I don't understand why I am being punished. Why are you in Heaven?
1st baby: People I dimly recognized, believing what I did not know, did what I do not remember. Isn't God's grace wonderful?
2nd baby to 1st: Yeah... Wonderful...
A Five-Point Calvinist Opinion
Five-point Calvinists say Jesus did not die for everyone's sins, but only for the elect. Billions have died with no opportunity. There was no point to them knowing since they had no free will to choose anyway. Calvinists still preach to all because only God knows who the elect are.
Non Five-point Calvinists cannot reconcile this opinion with scripture's clear teaching that God offered salvation to all (1 Jn 2:2, Acts 17:27,30, Jn1:7) and the God wanting no one to perish (2 Pet 3:8, Ezek 18:32). 1 Tim 4:10 says that in some sense Jesus is the Savior of ALL men, though salvation is only applied to those who believe.
However, a great number of Christians disagree with all the preceding opinions.
A Post-Death Salvation Opinion
This view hinges on two verses: 1 Peter 4:5-6 and Eph 4:8-10. 1 Peter 4:5-6 says that after Christ died he preached to the spirits in prison. Prison is not a term that describes where the righteous dead (like Abraham) went before Christ. Rather it describes either where lost human souls went before Christ or else other souls (some demons and/or Nephilim) were before Christ. Rather than simply informing them of what happened on earth, Jesus preached so they could make the same choice they would have made on earth. It does not mean there is a second chance after death, rather there is a first chance for those who never had a chance.
The Millennium Opinion
This answer is very similar to the Post-Death Salvation View. If you put the question "what happens those who never heard" next to "why will God resurrect people who have not made a decision for him", the two questions then answer each other.
This Life Only Opinion
This view does not say all go to Heaven or that there are many ways to God. It says that even if you are on a wrong road that does not lead to God, God may still honor your sincerity if you are truly seeking the True God and you have not rejected the available truth. This does not apply those who could have investigated Christ but never chose to or thought it important enough.
A Summary of Christian Opinions
Excluding Jiminy Cricket, Limbo, Purgatory, Augustine, and Five-point Calvinism, there are four possibilities for those today who were not told of the Gospel.
a. The only hope is if they hear the Gospel and accept before death, but God makes sure all who need to hear it do.
b. Hear the Gospel and accept after death.
c. Hear it and accept in the millennium.
d. Be saved like Abraham and Job by seeking the true Creator, realizing their need for forgiveness, seeking God's mercy and salvation, and obeying what they know.
As you ponder which views may be acceptable or not, remember, the question is not how God had to do things, but rather how God freely chose to run His universe.
For more info please contact Christian Debater™ P.O. Box 144441 Austin, TX 78714 www.BibleQuery.org
by Steven M. Morrison, PhD.