On the issue of salvation, one question often posed to Christians is, “What about those who’ve never heard of God?” I’ve wondered this too when I was younger, such as, “God acted in history in the Middle East. But what about all those natives in Europe and the Americas and Asia and so forth who never even heard of the God of Israel?”
Questions like this were first posed by John Sanders and Clark Pinnock. Their false soteriology is called inclusivism, which postulates that the unevangelised will receive salvation based on their understanding of God of how they knew Him. This is why Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and other pagans will be saved, they say.
This is simply a twisted form of universalism and is by no means scriptural. At its worst, it is merely another form of paganism. At its best, it is a theodicy attempting to defend God’s justice and sovereignty that does not need to be defended in the first place. Asserting that those who never knew of God are saved in some obscure way is not the testimony of Scripture. If we want to confess Scripture—which literally means to “say the same thing as”—we have to say what Scripture says. So, what does Scripture say on this matter?
Reinstituting Christ as the Only Way
One of the core doctrines of the Christian faith is that Jesus is the only way, truth, and life (John 14:6). Both Christians and non-Christians take issue with this claim because of the following question they pose: “What about all the people through history who never had a chance to know about God during the Old Testament period or those who never heard about Jesus?” Douglas Groothuis, prominent Christian apologetic and Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, supplies eight basic points to answer this question. (I will only be covering seven. I find his second reason to be irrelevant, which is the Christian’s duty to evangelise. Evangelism being at the core of Christianity does not help answer the question why some are left unevangelised. That is, excluding a Christian’s laziness not to evangelise, in which case it should just be left at that.)
1. Christianity is Antithetical to Other Religions
First, “the Bible should not be twisted in order to synthesize its revealed teachings with those of non-Christian religions” (Groothuis, 587). As a Christian, the only responsible decision is to proclaim God’s Word is truth along with Christ (John 17:17); the only other alternatives to this is to abandon Christianity altogether or blend it into another religion, which no longer makes it Christianity but some other twisted form of paganism, which is altogether still an abandonment of Christ’s proclamation of God’s Word as truth. Christianity is antithetical to all other religions. When it is blended with other religions, it becomes incoherent.
2. The Moral Law & Imago Dei
Second, “Although Christianity cannot be reduced to a common core that it shares with other religions, it can still find some common ground with respect to the individual beliefs held by other religions” (587). All human beings are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27), and as such all religions will contain “some truth about morality, humanity, and the sacred” (cf. Romans 2:15). Buddhism, for example, affirms the reality of suffering and emphasises compassion for people. This is also true of Christianity, but “they still need the promised Messiah for their salvation” (588), which Buddhism deems merely as a way toward Nirvana.
These similarities are called God’s Moral Law, which is inscribed on all human hearts (Romans 2:15). This is why we will find a myriad of cultures who share similar morals with Christianity that murder is wrong, theft is wrong, etc. But their fundamental lack is Jesus Christ the Messiah.
We also need to make a distinction between the wide sense and the narrow sense of the image of God (imago Dei) in the sense of which image of God was lost at the Fall. The wide sense of imago Dei is man’s rationality—his ability to think logically, live in a community, and exercise his dominion/stewardship over creation. Man still retains this after the Fall. The narrow sense of imago Dei is true knowledge and service of God. Man has lost this at the Fall: “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Romans 8:7). Hostility toward God is the natural state human beings are born into. Because true knowledge and service of God was lost at the Fall, this is why a) it required God to reveal Himself to us in His Word and ultimately in Christ, and b) why we seek after other gods and thus condemn ourselves.
3. Unbelievers are Without Excuse
Third, “Because of the Fall, human beings, apart from special revelation and regeneration, will twist the deposit of truth knowable through general revelation into false religions and philosophies” (588). Paul details this in Romans 1:18-32:
…the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So, they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honour Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (vv. 18-20, emphasis mine).
According to the Apostle, God has made Himself known in creation (i.e. general revelation/natural knowledge). That is, creation is evidence of the Creator—a Divine Being. Therefore, he says, those who fail to acknowledge God are without excuse; the evidence is laid before them. And those who did recognise some essence of a Divine Being, in their unrighteousness, attributed the Divine Being to manmade gods. This is the direct result of the Fall, through which “idolatry eclipsed the truth known through nature and the result was judgment (vs. 24-32)” (589).
As Mark Twain once said, “God made us in His own image, and we return Him the favour.” We do not want a God whom we cannot understand or manipulate; we want just the opposite. So, we create our own gods, and they look a lot like us.
Many will say to this, “That’s not fair!” But it is. It is just. We had true knowledge of God until we rebelled against Him; thus, human beings dying “without knowledge of God” (even though the evidence is before them) is our own fault—this condemnation is our just punishment for our rebellion. Yet God chose Israel to be a light to the nations to gather them toward Him, which they failed miserably. So, again, it is our own fault. Thanks be to God that He reveals Himself fully in Jesus Christ.
What is also worth noting is that no apostle affirmed any pagan religion as holding any truth whatsoever. When Paul was breaking the hostility between Jewish and Gentile (pagan) believers in Ephesus, for example, he did not ignore the fact that the Gentiles were lost apart from Christ. He reminded them that before they knew Christ, they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). These Gentiles did not solve their separation from God through their own pagan religions, but rather “by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13). Therefore, any religion apart from Christ is alienation from God and does not have salvation.
4. God Does Not Save the Ignorant
Fourth, “The Bible nowhere claims that people will be judged according to what they do not know or could not have known. Rather, God holds people accountable for the knowledge that is made available to them and how they have responded to it” (589). When people ask the question, “What about those who never had a chance to hear about God or Jesus,” they are being ignorant of the reality of sin.
In a fallen world, all deserve death (Romans 6:23). There is nothing in the Bible that remotely suggests people are exempt from God’s judgement merely because they have not heard of Him. As we have already seen, there is no excuse for unbelief. In a fallen world, people are indefatigably bound to worship other gods—or no gods—thus damning themselves. Even the Old Testament confirms this: “Various Hebrew prophets (Amos, Isaiah, Jonah) spoke against the immorality of the pagan nations surrounding Israel, even though these nations were not beneficiaries of the law of Moses. This assumes that the pagan nations had sufficient knowledge of moral truth to render them accountable before God” (589-590).
5. Salvation is not a “Right”
Fifth, “No one is morally or spiritually worthy of redemption, nor can anyone claim it as a right or entitlement” (590). The claim that people have the “right” to salvation is based on the assumption that people are inherently good and thus it is unfair for God to condemn such people. Yet the Scriptures are clear, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We don’t have a “right” to redemption. Humanity willingly gave that up—his perfect relationship with God—at the Fall.
All human beings certainly have a capacity to do good because, as stated earlier, all human beings have the Moral Law written on their heart. However, a distinction needs to be made according to the sphere in which good works belong: the civil sphere or the spiritual sphere.
Prominent Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper notes that the good works of pagans (unbelievers) belong in the sphere of civil righteousness. “In this sphere they deserve high praise… But as to their value in the spiritual sphere, they are to be rated as sin” (Pieper, III:44). In other words, their works before other creatures are considered good because it benefits them (civil sphere), but before God they are considered not good, i.e. sin, because they lack the fundamental quality that requires God to be pleased by their good works: faith (Hebrews 11:6) (this is the spiritual sphere).
Only the works of Christians are truly good before God—in the spiritual sphere—because God deems them good on the basis of their justification by faith. Works cannot elicit or sustain faith, even for the Christian; rather, it is faith that elicits and sustains good works for love of the neighbour.
6. Being “Good” yet Unaware of God does Not Guarantee Salvation
Sixth, “Whatever position we hold on the fate of the unevangelized, given the truth and rationality of the Christian worldview it is impossible that anyone can be redeemed except through the mediation of Jesus Christ” (Groothuis, 590). Scripture makes the way to salvation explicit. It testifies Jesus Christ as the only one who can bring us this undeserved salvation (Matthew 11:27; John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5).
This teaching of Scripture does not suddenly become null in the face of those who are or were too ignorant or unaware of the God of Israel. The Scriptures say, “So, faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). We are saved “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8-9), which comes through the hearing of the Word of Christ. Therefore, if people can be saved without knowledge of Christ, and Christ is the only way, then Christ came and died for nothing if there were other ways to salvation, or if “being good” (i.e. good works) could guarantee salvation.
7. Do Not Water Down God’s Word Just Because It Makes You Uncomfortable
Lastly, “Christians cannot sidestep the biblical insistence that some will incorrigibly resist and rebel against the knowledge of God provided them, whether they are privy to special revelation or not. Those who are finally unrepentant are beyond redemption and will be consigned to eternal punishment” (590). In other words, Christians must not water down the Word of God, especially in matters pertaining to salvation. If this makes you uncomfortable, good! Go out and evangelise! Tell all your friends! But also do not underestimate the predictability of hardened hearts to God’s message.
The Bible does not testify, “Jesus is the only way. But if you never heard about Him, you’re absolved.” God reveals to us in His Word that we are rebellious sinners before Him who deserve not redemption, but eternal punishment. It also reveals God has taken His wrath upon Himself in the incarnate Christ so we do not have to suffer His wrath. The reality is also that some people will indefatigably resist the Holy Spirit and be condemned to eternal punishment whether they hear His Word or not.
Whilst this message must not be watered down, it is also not the central message of the Bible. The central message of the Bible is that Jesus Christ took your place on the cross as the propitiation for your sins—He took upon God’s wrath that you justly deserve. There is no way for you to earn this; you cannot be good enough. It is merely a gift to you, and then you are free to live as God created you to live (i.e. doing His Law for love of your neighbour).
Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
Pieper, Franz. Christian Dogmatics. Vol. III. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953.