Saturday, January 14

What About People Who Have Never Heard of Jesus?

On a lone island in the Pacific Ocean sat a young man of Asian descent. The island he lives on is a small one, but inhabited by a small group of people, with his father as the tribal leader. As he sits on the beach and stares at the great expanse known to us as the ocean, the young man wonders what his purpose in life is. He wonders if there is anyone else out there, across the blue expanse. Greater yet, he wonders if there is someone in the great expanse above, known to us as outer space. Observing his surroundings, the young man ponders some of the big questions in philosophy. For him, they are but momentary wondering as the dark ocean sways to and fro, and the great stars light up the night sky before being called back to his home by his father. This is a fictional scenario, but a plausible one. While details may differ, nevertheless, there are people who live in corners of our world who have yet to hear of Jesus, and what He did on this planet. According to the Bible, mankind can only be saved through faith in Jesus. "But," we may object, or wonder, "What about people who have never heard of Jesus?" (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons under public domain; NASA/ESA)

The question is indeed valid, and while it is true that there are other questions which apologetics answers more adequately and which are more prominent in the minds of men and women, this is nevertheless a question which we ponder, and one which deserves an answer. What does the Bible tell us on the topic of salvation? It conveys that our ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed a direct command of the Creator (Genesis 3) and led to the corruption of all of creation, the entirety of the universe (Romans 8:19-22). God, being holy, perfect and infinite, cannot allow beings made in His image yet corrupted by sin to enter His presence. For those who would object concerning Satan's sin, note that Satan is not said to have been made in the image of God, and Satan seemingly lacks a true corporeal form, whereas mankind is bound by corporeal forms. Bearing this in mind, God's Word is clear that we have all sinned (Ecclesiastes 7:20; Romans 3:23), and as finite beings, we cannot pay an infinite payment for sin. This is why God became flesh, as the infinite being, He became the infinite payment (1st Peter 2:24). Concerning salvation, it is made clear that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:29; 14:6). This teaching was also found among by early Christians (Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9-17).

A small island in the Pacific Ocean
According to God's Word, all other ways fall short of trying to reach God (John 3:18, 8:19; Acts 13:38-39, 17:30). Evidently, we are not saved without a knowledge of Christ and faith in Him. It is difficult to have faith in someone whom you knew nothing about. However, ignorance of Jesus Christ does not excuse us. If that were the case, it may be better not to tell anyone about Jesus at all, for fear that they would take the chance to reject him. It is sin which makes us guilty before the just and righteous Creator, not ignorance of Jesus. According to Romans 10:2, even the Jews, who were given the Law, "have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge," and are not justified by the Law (Acts 13:38-39). However, "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). God is patient with mankind, "not wanting any to perish" (2nd Peter 3:9), demonstrating His patience and love in this: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The infamous John 3:16 bears repeating, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." God, in His sovereignty, has provided and acted in wondrous ways to spread salvation to all creation (Acts 5:12-16, 8:26-40, 10:1-43, 16:6-10).

To be sure, however, "The Bible does not speak of any special provisions for those who have not heard of Christ. The Bible is simply silent on this matter. The Bible is written so we'll know Christ and engage in the task of preaching Him to all peoples."[1] Yet the question still remains, "what happens to those who have never heard of Jesus, who never hear of God or are able to read the Bible?"  Just as with ancient believers, pre-Christ, they are saved by faith through grace. Each of us is responsible for the information that we do have, not the information we do not have. There exists a doctrine called "progressive revelation," which deals with the unveiling of God and His nature over time to mankind, rather than all at once to Adam and Eve, or Abraham, or Moses. Over time, progressively, if you will, God revealed Himself as the Father, the Son and the Spirit. This was how God was able to appear to men and women on earth during Hebrew Bible times.

The men and women knew and understood that to see God meant death (Exodus 33:18-23; Judges 13:20-23), yet God appeared several times in a physical form to man. While some had seen the Father in heaven (Isaiah 6; Daniel 7), having gone through a kind of cleansing, this was in Heaven, and not in earth. They were also likely "in the spirit" (cf. Revelation 4:2). However, for those who had seen God in physical form, the overall flow and clues throughout both Testaments provide that the physical appearances were of God the Son, known as Christophanies, or pre-incarnate appearances of Jesus Christ. More often than not, these appearances were under the title of the "angel of the Lord." Jesus was and is not an "angel," as the Hebrew word for angel can also mean "messenger." There are many examples in the Hebrew Bible, but one of the better known examples is when this messenger of the LORD appeared to Moses in the burning Bush (Exodus 3).

Here, “the angel of the LORD appeared to [Moses] in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up” (v.2). Verse 4 says, “When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush...” verse 5 notes that it is God speaking, and verse 6 continues, “’I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.” When Moses asked God what name He would tell the Israelites, “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you’” (v.14). From this passage, it is clear that the angel of the Lord, also rendered the messenger of the Lord, is God Himself. This angel – or messenger – appears many times in the Hebrew Bible, and is also called God several times. Having appeared in physical form, being called God, and claiming to be God, “I AM,” shows that the angel of the Lord can be no other than God the Son. Interestingly, Jesus claims to be “I AM” in John 5:58, hence why the Israelites attempt to stone Him. It is also worth noting that in some early manuscripts of Jude 5 we read, “Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that Jesus at one time delivered His people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe.” Later manuscripts render “Jesus” as “Lord,” although Romans 10:9 says, “Jesus is Lord.” Jesus is the “I AM” who spoke to Moses in the burning bush. Note also that the word used for angel in Hebrew is mal’ak, which does mean messenger. 

Again in Judges 2:1-4, "the angel of the LORD" claims to have been the one who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, yet many other passages in the Hebrew Bible declare that it was God. Jesus himself said, "God said to you, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'" (Matthew 22:31-32). If God exists as a Trinity, this further elucidates and sheds light upon the passages. If not, we have a theological mess to sort out, seemingly unlikely to unravel. Again, it is faith by grace that we are saved, both believers of antiquity, those who have never heard of Jesus, and those of us today. As aforementioned, we are responsible for whatever knowledge of God we do have. Our salvation is not determined by how "complete" our knowledge is of God. "Who among us has a truly 'complete' faith? If you are a Christian, are you 'completely' knowledgeable regarding everything that could be known about God, his Savior and the plan of Salvation? How much of a theologian do you have to be to be saved? Must your faith be 'complete' or is there some level of ‘sufficiency’ required? How much do you need to 'know' to 'know' if you are saved? Can you answer every question about the Trinity, for example? Do you completely understand how it is that Jesus could be completely human yet completely God at the same time?"[2]

"Does your lack of 'complete' understanding disqualify you from Salvation? Each of us is expected to do the most we can with the information that we have. Someday, each of us will be held accountable for the information that we have received from God. We will be asked, 'What did you do with what I revealed to you?' Just like us, the saints of the Hebrew Bible did the most they could with what was revealed to them. They placed all their faith in all that God had given them. And this faith in God and His promise of a future Savior was sufficient for them to be included in the family of God."[3] Ancient believers were responsible for the information that they had available to them, just as we are responsible for the information God has revealed to us. None have "complete" understanding of God, so information about God does not condemn us, but sin. The young man on a lone island mentioned in the earlier scenario may not have "complete" information of God, indeed, he may never have heard of Jesus, or of anyone mentioned in the Bible. If he has never heard of Jesus, then in all likelihood he has never heard that Jesus is the only way to the Father. What happens to this young man?

Credit: NASA/ESA
Finally, when we come to the point of understanding about sin, God's nature, salvation, and other topics touched upon, we come to understand what will happen to this young man. Before being called by his father, the tribal leader, the young man is watching the dark ocean's waves, as well as glancing up at the star-lit sky above. This vast expanse, filled with the stars created by the Word of God (Psalm 33:6), is part of God's creation. As King David said, "When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" (Psalm 8:3-4). Just as David observed the "heavens," so too has this hypothetical young man observed God's creation. He sees the ocean spread out before him, vast and spacious. He sees the sky above, filled with the brightness of God's night-lights. He has likely caught fish before; "the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas" (Psalm 8:8). The young man has seen other humans, and is able to observe the intricate design of which God has fashioned us. In other words, this young man has the evidence of design before his eyes!

According to Romans 1:20, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." St. Paul, writing to the Romans around AD 57-58, has echoed a truth found throughout the world: from the depths of the ocean to the deepest cave, from the tallest hill to the highest mountain, from the jungles of Africa to the lone island on the Pacific Ocean, God's creation can be clearly seen in some way. While there are, of course, those who would disagree with us, the young man is without excuse, being able to discern that an intelligent force is behind nature. Also, according to Jeremiah 31:33, the moral law is written on our hearts. When we do something wrong, more often than not, most people recognize that they have committed a wrong act in some way. While there exist some people who are what society calls amoral, someone who is "having no moral standards, restraints, or principles; unaware of or indifferent to questions of right or wrong,"[4] regardless, the law is written on the hearts of all men and women. If one were to contend that that such individuals lack morals, regardless, they are able to view God's creation, and are "without excuse." If someone was blind and unable to see God's creation, they would have the moral law written on their heart.

Therefore, we are able to draw a few conclusions based on this information. First, none of us are in a position to judge God's actions as fair or unfair. Whatever information about God you have in this life, whether you are a scholar of Biblical texts for sixty years or simply able to observe God's creation through sensory information, we are each responsible for the information available to us. God is just and righteous, and not a single sinner will be able to protest, in honesty, to God that they wanted to get to know Him but were not allowed. In countries such as China, while Christians face persecution, and are "not allowed" to practice, they are not physically or mentally hindered from coming to Christ. They would face persecution, yes, but ultimately, each of us are given a chance in this life to come to faith in God. Sociologically, we are aware that isolated cultures have developed a concept of God, although it is usually polytheistic or pantheistic as opposed to the monotheistic view presented in Scripture. Nevertheless, it demonstrates, in part, the notion that observable creation can lead to belief in God. While the true answers essentially evade us, we are able to draw some conclusions about the matter. 

Troy Hillman 

[1] Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet, et al.. Apologetics Study Bible for Students. 1st ed. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009. 989. Print.
[2] "How Were People Saved Before Christ?." PleaseConvinceMe. N.p., Jan 2012. Web. 6 Jan 2012.
[3] Ibid.

[4] "amoral." Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 14 Jan. 2012.