• Greg

What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

I affirm that there is no salvation but through Christ, but must a person understand New Testament revelation to be saved? Throughout Church history, Christians have grappled with certain theological concepts, not the least of which is how much knowledge is necessary for a person to be saved. What must a person know? There are Christians that argue that people must hear, understand, and submit to certain New Testament truths to be saved. If they do not hear, that is just the way it goes; they will be eternally damned. If they hear but do not align themselves with Church “tradition”, then that proves they are wicked and in rebellion against God, some claim. Others find in the scriptures a different answer to this issue. There have been many who have been saved in times past who did not hear New Testament teachings about Christ, such as the saints of the First Testament and people across the world that have responded in submission to the light they had from God (Cornelius, for example, was a devout man that feared God). The saints of the First Testament may have held to messianic views, but they certainly had no idea what Christ would be like. They were looking for a militant messiah, not a suffering servant. Some would argue that the suffering servant spoken of in Isaiah 53, for example, is not a prophecy about Christ but a description of Israel, God’s servant, and how the world has benefited from God’s dealings with Israel his “son”, including from their sufferings. Certainly, one can look back and see an analogous fulfillment of this passage in the death of Christ, just as one could do the same in God’s declaration that “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” God was clearly speaking of Israel in the Book of Hosea, yet an analogous fulfillment occurred in the life of Christ (Matthew 2:11-15; Hosea 11:1-4).


People are saved only through Christ, even if they died not hearing about him or knowing about him, if they responded favorably to the light God had given them. Yielding to the light that one has been given is taken to mean that a person believes in God, in a simplistic manner apart from biblical revelation, and he seeks to do good by God and shows love toward others. Inclusivists claim that one does not have to have perfect theology in order to be approved by God (Acts 10:35), for we are saved by faith, not flawless theology. Ignorance of New Testament theology does not exclude one from being saved through Christ, if he responds to God’s inner witness in his life (Romans 2:6-16).


Inclusivism, with some variation, has been held by Christians such as Justin Martyr, Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, Billy Graham, and C.S. Lewis. What about those that have “heard” yet refrain from joining the ranks of “Christianity” today because of the actions of professing Christians? John Sanders writes:


“What about those who, after being presented with the gospel, choose to remain in their own religion? Would not all those seeking truth and goodness, those already sensitive to the promptings of the Spirit, become Christians when they have the opportunity to do so? One issue here is what it means to be evangelized. What exactly is to be believed? Another problem is that our understanding of the individual’s response may be skewed. For instance, a young woman with whom I spoke said she was not interested in Christianity. I later found out that she had been sexually abused by an elder in a church. Had she really been evangelized? What about Jews and Muslims who filter the gospel message through Auschwitz, Christian persecution, the crusades or Western imperialism? Moreover, people may have a response that is acceptable to God but not to us. We would likely not approve of someone returning to their temple or mosque for worship after affirming the gospel. However, the prophet Elisha gave his blessing to the Syrian military officer, Naaman, who affirmed faith in Yahweh but said that upon returning to Syria he would have to worship in the temple of the god Rimmon (2 Kings 5:18-19). There are many issues that may keep people from responding in the ways we see fit.”


And, he said:


“In my opinion, if God is not rather generous about the content of belief, we are in deep trouble.”


(Source)


To me, it is clear in the Bible that when one is presented with the truth of God, he must believe in Christ as Lord and submit to Christ’s rule over his life in order to be saved, but the question remains, what about those who have not heard, but they do respond to the light that God gives them? Also, while a person may not be interested in the churchianity that gets passed off as Christianity nowadays, this would be more like rejecting a false depiction of Christ and not Christ himself. I suggest reading Clark Pinnock’s book “A Wideness in God’s Mercy” for more information pertaining to this topic.


The Bible tells us that the grace that brings salvation has appeared to all men (Titus 2:11-12). It does not say that the gospel of Christ has appeared to all men as it appears in the New Testament. God’s grace, his divine influence, has appeared to all men through an inner witness (Romans 2), natural law, and creation. These are the Word of God, not in written form, but truth from God, nonetheless. If people are rejecting the Word of God in these forms, they will reject the Word of God incarnate, as well as the written Word. Those who respond favorably to the truth of God in these forms, position themselves to receive Christ as Lord. In Acts 13:48, the Bible says:


“And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.


Contrary to the teaching of Calvinists, this does not mean they were eternally decreed to believe while others were not. It means that the Gentiles disposed themselves, or aligned or positioned themselves, to hear the gospel of Christ and to submit to him as Lord. God’s influence on them, and their submission to God based on the light they already had, positioned them to follow Christ when they heard about him. Their disposition was favorable to further revelation from God. But some will not hear New Testament written revelation, after all, for how shall they hear without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? I would say there is a difference between ignorance and deliberate rejection of Christ. To deliberately and knowingly reject the Lordship of Christ, for any reason, is to reject God and to reject eternal life. There is a difference between ignorance and hearing the truth yet defiantly rejecting it. Many reject him because they do not want him to reign over their lives. But people do hear from God. Again, they hear God through an inner witness, the natural law, creation, and the gospel. When people hear the gospel, a decision must be made. Will I believe he is Lord, and will I follow him?


I believe there is truth to the teaching of inclusivism, and that there is a wideness in God’s mercy as the Bible says in Acts 10:35. However, this cannot be used to justify the idea that no matter one’s religion, he is saved if he is sincere. This I reject. All roads do not lead to God.


It is evident that many people in the world do not fear God, even though the truth of the Word has been widely disseminated. Stopping one’s ears to the truth is not the same as being someone that has never had the chance to hear. Many refuse to hear. God is love, yet many have rejected God’s witness, and the rejection of Christ, who is Love Incarnate, gives evidence of their selfishness. When Christ is presented to a man, the man is receiving the clearest Word from God that man has ever been given. In Christ we see the love of God manifested, and his life and teaching are the greatest reminders there are of our duty to love God and our fellow man. To reject Christ is to reject the Father who sent him. The Bible does not specifically address the fate of those who have never received the teachings of the New Testament, but the New Testament is dealing with people who have heard, or who have been given the chance to hear.


To whom much is given, much will be required.