Is Jesus really the only way to God? And if so how is God going to deal with those who have never heard of Jesus? Is there hope for them? What insight do the Scriptures shed on this troubling question? There are several things we can say.
1. God is just (Psalm 96:13)
We can be certain that in dealing with such people God will be absolutely fair, because God cannot act contrary to his character. Many passages in the Bible affirm God’s justice. Psalm 96:13 is especially appropriate because it affirms God’s justice as he renders judgment upon the peoples of the world.
2. No one will be condemned for rejecting Jesus Christ of whom he has never heard.
But that doesn’t mean these folks are off the hook, it just means that the universality of man’s guilt doesn’t reside in our failure to respond to Jesus Christ. Man’s guilt lies in at least two other areas.
In Romans chapter 2 we learn that the person who has never heard of Jesus Christ will be condemned first of all for violating his own moral standard.
Paul affirms here that while not everyone has the same privileged exposure to God’s moral will as revealed in the Scriptures, God has equipped each one of us with a built in moral compass called a conscience. And as a result everyone has a sense of “oughtness” and “oughtnotness”—that is, we are aware that there are certain things we ought to do, and certain things we ought not to do.
And Paul goes on to argue in the rest of chapter 2 and into chapter 3 that everyone violates their own personal standards, and on that basis stands guilty before God.
But there is a second area in which man’s guilt is located. It has to do with his rejection of God the Father. The question is this: “What if a person who has never heard of Jesus Christ, has heard of God the Father and rejected Him? Is rejection of God the Father as serious a sin as rejection of God the Son?” The Bible seems to indicate that it is just as serious, if not more so. The fact is, all men know God the Father, even those who claim that they do not.
This is clear from Romans chapter 1.
3. All men know God the Father
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Here Paul gives us a description of what theologians call general revelation. The nature of this revelation is “general” in two respects: with respect to content and to audience.
The content is general in that it doesn’t give us a detailed description of God. For example, you won’t discover that God is a Trinity by observing creation. You will, however, learn something of God’s invisible attributes, divine power and nature.
The audience is general in that all men receive this revelation. In other words, God doesn’t reveal himself only to an elite group of holy men and women. Everyone is privy to this revelation.
In reflecting upon this passage in Romans chapter one, Dr. R.C. Sproul has made several important observations about general revelation.
1. It is clear and unambiguous.
The text says that God made it evident or plain to them. (vs. 19)
2. This knowledge gets through…it finds its mark.
The text says that they “knew God” but they failed to honor him or give thanks.
3. This revelation has been going on since the “creation of the world.”
It is not a once for all event, but continues in a constant way.
4. This revelation comes by way of creation.
God’s invisible nature is revealed through “what has been made.”
5. This revelation is sufficient to render man inexcusable.
No one can claim that he is ignorant of God’s existence. No one will ever be able to say to God,
“The reason I didn’t worship and serve you is because I didn’t know you existed. Had I known, I would have been your obedient servant. I just didn’t think there was enough evidence to affirm your existence.”
So according to Paul, the person who has never heard of Jesus Christ isn’t off the hook. They may be able to plead ignorance to knowledge of God the Son, but they cannot plead ignorance to knowledge of God the Father.
Now you may be thinking,
“But doesn’t the religious activity of people living in remote parts of the world remove them from any danger of God’s wrath? If they are raised in a culture that worships cows or totem poles, or their dead ancestors, how can they be expected to do any differently?”
It is precisely at this point that general revelation is so devastating! If Paul is correct, the practice of religion doesn’t excuse the “religious,” it compounds his guilt. “How can that be?” you may be wondering. Well, Paul continues his treatment of general revelation by explaining that religion isn’t a sign of man’s thirst to know the one true God, but rather is a sign of man’s rejection of the one true God.
4. Religion is not a sign of man’s thirst to know the one true God, but a sign of man’s rejection of Him.
Look again Romans 1, beginning at verse 22.
22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them.
25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.
Pagan religion is really a distortion of the truth, where an exchange takes place between the truth about God and a lie. In pagan religion the glory of the creature or of creation is substituted for the glory of God. And the Bible calls that idolatry. In fact, in Biblical parlance, to worship anything other than the one true God is to be an idolater, and is a great insult to God.
So rather than “religion” being an indication that people are seeking after the one true God, it is proof that they have rejected him, and substituted some lesser god in his place.
So the person who has never heard of Jesus Christ is guilty on at least two counts. He has guilty of violating his own moral code, and he is guilty of rejecting God the Father.
So where does that leave the person who has never heard of Jesus Christ? First of all we can say that there is no indication in the Scriptures that someone living after the cross can be saved apart from trusting Jesus Christ as their Savior.
5. There is no indication in the Scriptures that a person living after the cross can be saved apart from trusting Jesus Christ as their Savior.
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.
12 “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.”
But now that raises a question. If people must hear about Jesus in order to enter into a right relationship with God, how will they hear about him? The Apostle Paul answered that question in the 10th chapter of Romans. There he asks,
6. How can people hear of Jesus?
14 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?
15 How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!”
If we are really concerned about the salvation of those who have never heard of Jesus Christ, and I believe that we are, we should be doing all that we can personally and as a church to tell others about him.
To pose the question about the eternal plight of those who have never hear of Christ, and yet be unwilling to take the steps God would have us take to assure that they do hear about him is to be disingenuous.
As we consider the plight of those who have never heard, let me give you some hope from the Scriptures. First of all you need to realize that…
7. God judges people according to the light they have. If they respond to the light God has given, (general revelation) he gives more light.
We have two great examples of this in the New Testament.
• Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8)
• Cornelius (Acts 10)
In both cases these men responded to the light God gave them, and in response God sent men to share the gospel with them. God knows the thoughts, intentions and yearnings of people’s hearts. And if someone is seeking to know the one true God, God will reveal himself to them. The history of the church is replete with examples where God sovereignly and miraculously moved to bring the gospel to seeking men and women. It is not uncommon today in the Muslim world to hear of stories where Jesus appeared to people in dreams and visions. But all of this is the work of God.
What is our responsibility to those who have never heard? Well, the church is commanded to share the message of Christ with everyone.
8. The church is commanded to share the message of Christ with everyone.
In Mark 16:15 Jesus says,
15 …. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.
We are Jesus’ ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:17). We have the privilege and responsibility of pointing people to a God who loves them so much he sent his Son into the world to die for the guilt of their sin. The question is, “Do we love them enough to them of God’s love. Will we share the good news of Jesus’ substitutionary death, burial, and resurrection? I’m in, how about you?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions about this important and thought provoking topic!