Of course. Class over.
No, I’m kidding. It’s a really good question. I’ve wondered about it constantly, and of all the questions that are out there, this one has been the toughest for me to come to grips with. Doesn’t seem right that people would grow up being taught different religions, never hearing about God the way I do, or Jesus, and then go to hell for eternity. I have no problem with the really bad people going to hell, of course, but what about the well-meaning folks who just didn’t know? It doesn’t sound fair.
I know the usual answers. Here’s a couple of them:
“No one is innocent, everyone is a sinner.” True, but c’mon, don’t I have a rather large advantage since I’ve been taught about Jesus dying for my sins? Even if someone recognizes they are indeed a “sinner,” how would they know what to do about it? Or as the Bible says:
“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?”
“They all have the creation that testifies to them about the Lord.” Better. That’s in Romans 1:20 and Psalms 19, but isn’t that saying they can be saved without knowing about Jesus, or knowing about repentance, or knowing about baptism, or without realizing the “god” they believe in DIDN’T create it?
The creation testifies to God’s power, His existence, and His divine nature. It does not testify specifically about Jesus. As the Bible says:
“Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” – Romans 10:17
I mean, fine. You notice the stars and you think, there has to be a god… Does that save someone? How does it all work exactly?
Isn’t it a bit frightening that churches all across America will conclude that people are going to hell for…. in no particular order….
allowing musical instruments to be played in church,
not baptizing by immersion,
not baptizing by pouring,
believing in baptism for salvation,
not believing in baptism for salvation,
baptizing someone more than once,
baptizing them just once,
taking communion too often,
not taking communion often enough,
taking communion without being a member of their particular branch of Christianity (Hey Catholic Church how ya doing?),
speaking in tongues,
not speaking in tongues,
allowing women to speak in the first place,
believing the wrong thing about Revelation,
believing in the Trinity,
not believing in the Trinity,
having a Sunday School class,
having a kitchen attached to the church building…..
*catching breath* -just to name a few.
So if we sometimes condemn people to hell for not doing or believing some detail correctly, what chance does someone have when all they know is a sunset is really beautiful and perhaps “God” made it?
Do you want the short answer or the long one?
I’ve got a sermon to write, so here’s the shorter version:
God is perfectly capable of forgiving and saving someone who has very little knowledge of Jesus, or the Father, and who have little understanding of what they should do about it in the first place. For instance, many people throughout history were obviously forgiven of their sins and saved by God even though they had no idea who Jesus was.
Like Adam. Or Noah. Or Noah’s sons. Or Joseph, Solomon, Hezekiah, or the myriad of characters that are written about in the Old Testament who did not live to see or know about Jesus. They did not live to see or know about baptism, or the church, and many times may have been no different that Jesus disciples who often did not even quite understand what God was doing. But we consider them “saved.” Why?
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Notice, the verse says these people (the writer had been speaking of all those Old Testament characters who lived before Jesus arrived) were all commended for their “faith,” and that “together with us” they would be “made perfect.”
So in regards to being “made perfect” or in other words, our spiritual condition before Almighty God, something brings us together with those who lived beforehand. That something is Jesus.
Here’s how it works: The New Testament teaches God saved them with the sacrifice of Jesus, even though they had never heard of Jesus. Evidently, Jesus death and resurrection not only works for people who lived afterwards, but for the people who lived beforehand….
“God presented him (Jesus) as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice,
- because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-
Since the people who lived before Christ were not exactly perfect people, any more than we are, it is fitting that Jesus sacrifice on the cross would be for the whole world for all time. It is fitting that God, looking forward to the day when Christ would sacrifice himself for sin once and for all, would leave the sins beforehand unpunished. Thus Abraham’s sins were paid for by Christ, just as mine were. And yours.
You and I take hold of that forgiveness by faith or trust in Jesus, because that was/is the message that was preached to us. That is the message that God is preaching to the entire world right now before He comes in judgment.
Abraham, however, did not have the message of Jesus preached to him. Nevertheless, it’s not that God was silent toward Abraham. God simply reached out to Abraham in a different way, and Abraham took hold of God’s mercy by putting his faith in God. He was made righteous before God by his faith in God.
“Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
It becomes clear that the Bible teaches us that God, throughout history, has revealed himself to people in various ways. The Bible says exactly this:
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways,
The people who responded in faith and obedience to the message God spoke to them, (in whatever form it took) are the ones who are “saved” so to speak. It would be logical to conclude that if this is how God dealt with people in the past who hadn’t heard the message of Christ, then surely God is perfectly capable of dealing in much the same way with people today who haven’t heard the message of Christ.
Still… isn’t there a second half of the verse in Hebrews? Yes there is:
but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.
This appears, at first glance, to say that God is no longer speaking to people in any other way than Christ, and that no matter what God did in the past, the only way to be “saved” now, is by responding to the message of Jesus Christ. And I agree that Jesus is the reason anyone and everyone is saved in the first place… -but do they have to specifically respond to the correct preaching of Jesus?
Well, first, that would seem unfair wouldn’t it? Not everyone gets the chance to respond to the message of Jesus because not everyone has heard the message. Fortunately, the verse above doesn’t go that far. It says is “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” And that’s true. Jesus is the final message. The culmination of everything.
After all, Jesus is the means of salvation, the propitiation (payment) for the sin of the entire world -even those who lived before they had a chance to know him, and lived in places that never had the message preached to them. He is “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”-Hebrews 1:3
And because Jesus is such a significant message, since He is the culmination of God’s plan, and the radiance of God’s glory… the conclusion becomes apparent…
Think about it now.
Jesus is God’s shining example and message to the entire world, that He will preach to every corner of the globe so as to be just and righteous in His Coming JUDGMENT.
Or as Paul said:
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance…,” -Acts 17:29-30a
See, see, God can deal with ignorance… He can deal with people fairly who have never heard about Jesus…
“but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”
“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” -Acts 17:31
God is commanding people repent and turn to Christ specifically because this is humanity’s last message. After this comes the judgment. Jesus came as a lamb, but He is returning as a conquering lion. The message is tied to the judgment.
So what about those people who have not yet heard this final message about Jesus and know very little about God. Are they automatically sent to hell? The answer? No. Where they stand with God is determined by their response to whatever message God preaches to them. God can overlook ignorance. We know this because He has in the past. God judges the heart.
he knows the secrets of the heart -Psalms 44:21
“Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD does not count against him…” -Psalm 32:1-2
Then why do they need to become Christians? Why respond or preach the message of Jesus? The answer? Because God is going to judge the earth, but before He does, He commands all men everywhere to repent, and put their faith in Christ. Jesus is the culmination of God’s dealing with mankind. He is the final message. Judgment comes next.
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.
-(Jesus) Matthew 24:14
As Paul stated above in Acts 17, God has “set a day” for judgment, but because of His love for mankind, God has also decided to offer His Son as a sacrifice, to preach the message of His Son, and command the entire world -one final time- that they should repent.
It’s not that God hasn’t or can’t “save” people who have never heard of Jesus. He can. He has.
It’s just that God is also, now, giving mankind one final message before judgment. The message of Jesus.