[2014-04-08: see update at the end]
There are certain common questions that get brought up again and again in the world of Apologetics. Why is there so much suffering? How can you claim your religion is the one true religion? And many others.
One of the perennial questions is, “what about those who have never heard about Jesus?” What follows is not so much an answer to the question, but my own not-quite-half-baked theories that I have been mulling for some time. Use the comment box to provide some feedback whether you agree or disagree.
The question stems from a few passages in the New Testament that cause folks a bit of concern. Here is a sampling.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
(Joh 14:6 ESV)
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
(Act 4:12 ESV)
No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.
(1Jn 2:23 ESV)
And there are others. The basic idea seems to be that there is an exclusive connection between Jesus and salvation. One cannot enter Heaven by any means other than Jesus. This is an inescapable fact of the Biblical data, so please understand that everything that follows fully embraces and supports this reality.
The basic point seems to go something like this:
All those who enter Heaven have received Jesus’ forgiveness.
It’s a pretty simple causal relationship, really. Entry into Heaven is exclusively found through the forgiveness that Jesus offers. If a person enters Heaven then it is guaranteed that Jesus reconciled them to the Father. But then the question becomes, “what conditions led to the forgiveness?” The Bible seems fairly clear on that too (from the above passages).
If a person asks Jesus for forgiveness, then Jesus will forgive.
And, of course, the opposite scenario.
If a person rejects Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, then Jesus will reject them.
But what I find interesting is the middle option; a person who neither asks for forgiveness nor explicitly rejects Jesus’ offer. This applies specifically to those who never even know about Jesus’ offer; how could they ask for, or reject, that which they are unaware of? What about them?
While some people would suggest the Bible is explicitly clear that they fall outside the grace of God, I am not so certain. First let’s consider this from a strictly logical perspective, using the above summary statements.
P1) If a person asks Jesus for forgiveness then Jesus will forgive.
P2) Person X does not ask Jesus for forgiveness, therefore,
C) Jesus will not forgive Person X.
Logicians will recognize this as the logical fallacy of “denying the antecedent.” If it is a logical fallacy then the conclusion is false. What about the other example?
P1) If a person rejects Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, then Jesus will reject them.
P2) Person X does not reject Jesus’ offer of forgiveness, therefore
C) Jesus will not reject them.
Based on the previous example one should be able to immediately recognize this as another example of “denying the antecedent.” If we take these two logical fallacies together then we should immediately be aware of the fact we are making a logical error if we draw any firm, universal and binding conclusions about the fate of those who have never heard about Jesus. If we assume they are all condemned, we are drawing a fallacious conclusion. If we assume they are all saved, we are drawing a fallacious conclusion.
Could some be saved?
Here is where an interesting possibility emerges; could some of those who have never heard of Jesus be saved? It seems safe to conclude that we are committing a logical fallacy if we conclude that either NONE will be saved, or if we conclude that ALL will be saved. The middle ground – namely that SOME will be saved – seems to be the only remaining alternative.
But how? This is where the “not yet half-baked” nature of my theory becomes apparent. I don’t even have a theoretical mechanism in mind. Quite simple, I don’t know. But the possibility that a person could enjoy the benefits of something that the person knows nothing about seems entirely plausible. Consider, for instance, flight. For something that is heavier-than-air (be it an airplane, a helicopter, a bird, etc) to lift off the ground, some kind of pressure differential needs to exist. The wing of an airplane, for instance, produces a higher pressure on the lower surface and a lower pressure on the upper surface. It is this difference in pressure that acts on the wing and produces a net force away from the earth.
Birds utilize this every single day but do you think even one of them has any idea about air pressure? Is there a bird on the face of the earth that knows about Bernoulli’s principle? In the same way that birds enjoy the effects of something they know nothing about, it seems entirely possible that some humans may possibly enjoy God’s grace, even though they know nothing about it.
In fact, Christian theology has long wrestled with the question of infants and the mentally “simple.” The general consensus seems to be that God’s grace, at least theoretically, could extend to them. They could not possibly understand enough to respond to the message of the cross, but we believe God leaves the door open for people like this. It seems equally plausible that God leaves the door open to those who have never heard, but does not guarantee entrance to all those who have never heard.
Some more Biblical data
Since this issue stems from what the Bible says it seems only prudent to consider a few other passages from the Bible that allude to a “bigger picture.”
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
(Rev 7:9 ESV)
The book of Revelation describes the demographics of the New Earth as including some from every tribe, language, people and nation. One should rightly ask about the best method of interpreting the book of Revelation (it is highly metaphorical, after all), so I offer this comment with some trepidation, but it seems to me that there have been plenty of tribes, peoples and languages that have never heard about Jesus, and they are now extinct. Depending on how literally one understands this passage, it would seem to open the door to the possibility that some from each of those people groups will stand before the throne of God.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes—his eternal power and divine nature—have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse.
(Rom 1:20 ISV)
The key part here is the concept that people are “without excuse.” That phrase (or that concept) appears in all the translations I have access to. The idea seems to be that it will not be possible to claim, on the judgment day, “how was I supposed to know?” Ignorance will not be an excuse. Thus, if ignorance is not an excuse, then even ignorance about the name of Jesus will not be an excuse. But if it is not an excuse then that implies God has somehow made provision for those who do not hear about Jesus. If ignorance is not an excuse then it is possible for a person who is ignorant (even about Jesus) to still receive God’s grace.
This seems further alluded to a little later in Romans 2:1-16. Notice, in particular, verses 6 through 8.
I will be the first to admit that I have been unable to find anything in the Bible that specifically supports the view I am considering. With that in mind I offer three brief observations:
- As any good logician will point out, absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. In other words, just because there is no clear and direct support for this idea in the Bible does not mean the idea is false. By way of comparison, the word “trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but Christians are still right to adhere to that doctrine.
- The verses that seem to oppose this theory are not quite as opposed to the theory as they appear at first glance, as I described above.
- A major theme of the Bible seems to be God’s eagerness to extend mercy absolutely anywhere and everywhere that he possibly can without backing down on his holiness. Thus it seems conceptually consistent with the major thrust of the Biblical data that God would “find a way” for at least some of those who never heard about him.
Some objections considered
I can imagine some problems or questions that people might raise against this possibility. I will try to deal with a few of them here.
Isn’t this universalism?
NO. As I said above, it seems to be logically fallacious to assume either that everybody, or nobody, who does not hear about Jesus will be saved. It is my theory that universalism (all people go to Heaven) is false, and so is the theory that all people who do not hear about Jesus are automatically condemned to Hell.
Does that mean people can be saved through other religions?
As with the previous question, I would answer with a hearty, loud and emphatic, NO! It is true that every human being goes through life with a set of ideas about how the world works. If it is not a Christian set of ideas then the ideas they hold belong to some other religion or philosophy. Therefore, if God allows a person into Heaven who has never heard of Jesus it seems inescapable that they adhered to some other religious / philosophical worldview.
But I would argue that God saves them in spite of their beliefs, not because of them. For instance, if God’s grace covers a Muslim in a nation where evangelism is strictly outlawed, then God’s grace is extended to them for reasons other than their adherence to Islam. I suspect God’s grace is inversely proportional to their dedication to other religions. In other words, God is far more likely to extend his grace to a Muslim who accepts Islam very loosely and with serious doubts about its truth (their “acceptance” almost certainly being largely a product of social pressure) than he is to extend his grace to a Muslim who emphatically endorses Islam and all that it entails.
What’s the point of evangelism?
I could imagine some people might object that there is no point to evangelism if people can be saved without hearing about Jesus. That assumes that a person is equally likely to be saved whether they know about Jesus or not. I would reject that assumption. If, for instance, 50% of people who hear about Jesus will accept him, but only 10% of those who never hear about Jesus will find themselves under God’s grace (however that happens) then the case for evangelism is still self-evident.
Furthermore, there is something to be said for enjoying the benefits to be found in this life by knowing, and living according to, the truth. Even if a person is equally likely to make their way to Heaven with or without knowledge of Jesus (which I doubt, as described above) it is still better to live a life in accordance with truth than deceived by error. Or, put another way, it is better to live with a more compete knowledge of truth rather than only a partial knowledge of truth.
I’m not putting my neck on the line to say “I believe this” with certainty, but I think there is sufficient reason to consider the possibility that God has made some kind of provision for those who never hear about Jesus. This possibility, even if true, is far from a guarantee of salvation for everybody who lacks knowledge of Jesus, and should not in any way detract from our duty to share God’s love with those who do not know about him.
What do you think? Drop me a line in the comment box.
[2014-04-08 – In researching my response to some of the comments below I came across this fascinating insight from the Pulpit Commentary. My emphasis are in bold. Under Romans 2:6 it reads, “It is further evident from [the word translated “every man”] and still more from all that follows, that all such will be so rewarded, whether before Christ or after his coming, whether knowing him or not knowing him. Nor is the inclusion of the latter inconsistent with the doctrine that salvation is through Christ alone. For the effect of his atonement is represented as retrospective as well as prospective, and as availing virtually for all mankind … Hence the narrow doctrine of some divines, who would confine the possibility of salvation to those who have had in some way during life a conscious faith in the atonement, is evidently not the doctrine of St. Paul.” – http://www.studylight.org/com/tpc/view.cgi?bk=44&ch=2. A further exploration of the Pulpit Commentary makes it clear that the authors are not Universalists.]