Thoughts to Ponder

What happens to people who have not heard the gospel?

This question comes up often. We need to look at several things, but before we do, let me explain what I am not saying. I am not saying that there are multiple ways to heaven. I am not saying that if you are good enough you can get to heaven. I am not saying that if you worship a false god but do so with all your heart, you will be saved. I am not saying that all humans will get to heaven. I am not saying that the road to heaven isn't narrow and only a few will find it.

I agree with everything the scriptures say, Jesus is the only way to the Father, only a few will continue onto eternal life. However, I am also saying we need to be careful not to limit God in our view. We know He is a loving, compassionate, merciful and long suffering God, who loves all mankind and wants all to come to know Him.

So with that in mind, I want to see if it is consistent with God's nature to condemn those who have never heard the gospel for not believing something they never heard. First there is no doubt that no one gets to heaven without going through Jesus Christ as He stated:

(John 14:6 NIV) Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

But we need to understand exactly what Jesus meant by that statement. Most people will say that unless a person knows Jesus Christ they cannot get to heaven. I am not sure that is 'exactly' what Jesus meant and I will try to show you why I say that.

To understand this point we must go back to the Old Testament. The question is this, how did the Old Testament people get saved? It could not have been that they knew Jesus, because He had not yet come to earth as a human being for them to know. So how were they saved? Many people would say they were saved by following the Law, until Jesus came and then everything changed. But is that what the Bible says? Let's look:

(Romans 3:28 NIV) For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

(Hebrews 11:4-19 NIV) [4] By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.
[5] By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death; he could not be found, because God had taken him away. For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. [6] And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
[7] By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.
[8] By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. [9] By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. [10] For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.
[11] By faith Abraham, even though he was past age-and Sarah herself was barren-was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise. [12] And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.
[13] All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. [14] People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. [15] If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. [16] Instead, they were longing for a better country-a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
[17] By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, [18] even though God had said to him, "It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned." [19] Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.

We today realize that we are not saved by following the Law, but rather we are saved by faith. Well the Old Testament Saints were saved by faith also. Our faith is in Jesus Christ, but their faith was in God. Faith that He would provide a Redeemer to take away their sins. Look at this quote from Job:

(Job 19:25-27 NIV) [25] I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.
[26] And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
[27] I myself will see him with my own eyes-I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job had faith that his Redeemer existed and that He would one day stand upon the earth. In other words he had faith that God would send His perfect lamb to die for Job's sins. Even though these people did not know what Jesus' name was or was going to be, they still had faith and trusted God to redeem them. So they were saved just like we are today, by faith, not by works. Now the Law did have something to do with their salvation, but not in the way most people think. The people were attesting to their faith by following the Law that God commanded them to follow. If they had refused to follow the Law then they would have been saying they no longer had faith in God and no longer believed He would deliver them. I believe that is still true today. When a person goes back into sin and does not follow Christ they are in effect saying they no longer have faith in Him. But that is a different discussion.

That brings us back to today. We who have heard the gospel must either come to Christ or we are forever lost. But what about those who have never heard the gospel? Is there a way for them to be saved without knowing who Jesus is? We have already established that there was a way in the past, by following God and believing Him. But does that mean anything today?

First we must look at the question of whether a person can know God without hearing about Him from someone else:

(Romans 1:20 NIV) 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 men are without excuse.

We see that no one has an excuse. Now if no one has an excuse but yet not everyone has heard of Jesus Christ that would make me think that there is a way to do what the people in the Old Testament did, believe in God and serve Him, even without knowing who Jesus is. But we must look further.

(Romans 10:14-15 NIV) [14] How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? [15] And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

Now this passage would seem to say that people can't believe unless they have heard. It is in the very same letter to the Romans as the first passage I quoted. Is Paul having trouble figuring out which is true? No, the problem is our understanding of what is being said. We need to keep digging.

Paul goes on to quote from the Old Testament:

(Romans 15:21 NIV) Rather, as it is written: "Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand."

Many people also try to claim that God had no salvation plan for anyone in the Old Testament other than the Israelites, but that is not true either. The whole story of Jonah was about God sending him to preach to Nineveh. Why didn't Jonah want to go preach to them?

(Jonah 4:1-3 NIV) [1] But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. [2] He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. [3] Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live."

He didn't want to preach to them because he knew God would forgive them if they repented. What kind of message did Jonah preach to them finally?

(Jonah 3:4-5 (NIV) [4] On the first day, Jonah started into the city. He proclaimed: "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." [5] The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

He didn't preach a message of repentance, he just told them they were going to die, yet they "believed God" and repented. What did God do? He did not destroy them. My point is that Jonah did not give them the Law, he did not tell them what they could do to be saved, he just preached that God was going to destroy them. He did not even tell them there was a God, other than in saying that Nineveh would be destroyed.

You might be asking, what does any of that have to do with people today? Well I believe that God is still sending His message around the world. Maybe not in physical form like Jonah, but in a way that the people understand. That brings up a very good book on the subject; Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson. In the book the author tells the stories of many different peoples who have had God's witness. I can't remember specifics off the top of my head, but I can give you a couple of examples.

A missionary visited a tribe up in the mountains of a remote region of Asia near India. The missionary was a white man and the tribes people were dark brown. They had been isolated and had never seen a white man before. The missionary hired another native from a surrounding village to lead him to this tribe. When he arrived the villagers got very excited. When he asked the guide to tell him what was happening he was told that they wanted to know if he was the one who was going to give them "the Book?" He asked what book they were talking about and he heard a story that gave him goose bumps.

The villagers had handed down from generation to generation the legend that one day a white man (remember they had never seen a white man before) would come and give them a book which would tell them how to be reconciled to God. Now they had another name for God, which I can't remember right now, but their legend said that they used to know God, but had become separated from Him and needed someone to help them gain that relationship back again. For generations they had had faith that one day God would send a white man to them with a book that would explain what they had to do to be reconciled with God. Of course the missionary showed them the Bible and taught them about Jesus Christ.

Now here is the question. What happened to those who died before this missionary arrived to give them the gospel? Remember how the Old Testament Saints were saved; by having faith in God to send a redeemer to reconcile them to Him. Isn't that what these people had faith in too, even if it was stated a little differently?

The book has many stories of isolated tribes of people who had legends pertaining to God, and which they followed generation after generation. Now I am not trying to say or teach that there are multiple ways to God, there is only One way and that is through Jesus Christ who died for our sins. However, I am saying that I believe that God is merciful and just and compassionate and will judge people on what they do know and not what they don't or can't know.

I have tried to show that the Old Testament Saints were saved by faith in God, even though they did not know who Jesus Christ was and had not heard the gospel as we know it. And I believe that model shows that people can trust God and place their faith in Him, even if they have not heard the gospel. But how does that square with this statement from Jesus?

(John 14:6 NIV) Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

As I said I believe that verse too. Let's look at the Temple in Jesus' day. There was a section called the Holy of Holies. This was where the ark of the covenant was and on the ark was the mercy seat where God's glory rested. This area was off limits to everyone except the High Priest and he could only go into it once a year with a sacrifice. No one else was allowed into the presence of God.

Now look at what happened at Jesus' death:

(Matthew 27:50-51 NIV) [50] And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
[51] At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.

The curtain that had kept everyone out was split from top to bottom, thereby opening up to everyone the presence of God. But that is not all that happened:

(Ephesians 4:8 NIV) This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men."

Who were these captives and where were they? We need to look at some other things that Jesus said.

(Luke 23:43 NIV) Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

This is what Jesus said to the thief on the cross. But where is paradise or I should say; where was paradise. Again we can look at what Jesus said:

(Luke 16:19-31 NIV) [19] "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. [20] At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores [21] and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
[22] "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. [23] In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. [24] So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'
[25] "But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. [26] And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
[27] "He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, [28] for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
[29] "Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
[30] "'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
[31] "He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"

Now we know from extra-biblical Jewish writings, such as the Talmud, that the Jews believed that Hades had two compartments. One compartment was hell, where the unsaved went to await judgment. The second compartment was called both Abraham's bosom and paradise.

Now why would believers not go to heaven when they died? Why would they go to paradise? Because their sins had not yet been paid for. They were captives waiting for their redeemer to set them free. Going to heaven would have meant going into the presence of God and as we showed with the Holy of Holies no one was allowed to do that. But when Jesus paid for our sins, He opened the way to the presence of God the Father. So the curtain was torn and He took those who were waiting in paradise to heaven to be with the Father.

So all those Old Testament Saints who had never heard of Jesus were taken to heaven and into God's presence through and by Jesus. Just as Jesus said, no one could come to the Father except through Him. So now we go back to the present. Since Jesus is the one who opened the way to God the Father, if God offers salvation to someone who has not heard the gospel because they placed their faith in Him, even though they did not understand the whole gospel, wouldn't it still be true that they got to the Father through Jesus Christ who opened the way? I believe that to be true today, just as it was true in the Old Testament.

That also brings me to the idea of those who are mentally ill or who are aborted as unborn babies, etc... They too have no way of hearing the gospel or understanding it, yet I believe that God is merciful and loving to them and will only judge them for what they do know not what they don't know. Now I will be the first one to say that with God anything is possible, so it is possible that God knows what decision they would have made if they had heard the gospel. I believe that is true of those in isolated countries who have never heard the gospel too. However, I think that if God did allow those who were mentally ill or killed before they reached the age of reason into heaven it would still be through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I don't claim to have all the answers, nor do I claim to speak for God, but I do think I understand His nature because He has showed it to us in His word. Just as Jonah explained: "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." Therefore I believe my view is consistent with His nature and with Scripture. No matter what, I know that God is fair and loving to His creation.

I am not trying to make a doctrinal stand, just showing how I feel God can be merciful and loving even to those who have not heard the gospel, and yet be consistent with all men only being able to come to Him through His Son.

E-Mail Ralph

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June 2011