What Happens After Death to People Who've Never Heard of Jesus?
"If God Exists, the God of the Bible doesn't appear that loving." That was the opinion of more than one person I've met with. "What makes you think he isn't all that loving?" I'd ask. "If he is so loving, how can he send nice people, or those who have never heard about Jesus to Hell?
Let's be honest, the idea that God would send an otherwise nice person to Hell, even if they've never even heard about Jesus, or the gospel does appear unloving and unfair. The Hitlers and Stalins of this world, sure, of course! Hell is too good for them. But some kid who dies of typhoid in a village in the middle of nowhere, where no missionary has ever visited, and he's going to Hell? If that's the God you want me to put my faith in, no thanks.
If you're an older Christian, chances are you grew up simply accepting your church's explanation for this theological dilemma. Yeah, that appears untair to you also, but that's what your church says that the Bible teaches. So you've just chalked it up to one more theological mystery Christians accept by faith.
Where does that idea come from?
So, let's take a deeper look at why the requirement to, "knowing the gospel and believing in Jesus," is so widely held. Christians haven't just pulled this idea out of their hat. Christians believe that contrary to popular thinking, people arent naturally good. Some are better than others, to be sure. Nevertheless, we believe all humans are born sinful. Naturally, that raises the question, "How does this happen?" Are humans born with a 'sin gene?' Or as infants did we figure out if we cried we could manipulate our parents into giving us what we want, so sin is a learned behavior?" The Bible isn't terribly clear how this comes about.
However, can we agree that no matter the source, all humans far too often act selfishly, are unkind and unforgiving and sinful. And Christians believe all humans have this sin problem which only God can resolve and his only solution, his salvation plan was that people needed to hear about Jesus, believe in his message, and accepted him as their Savior. Here are just a few of the many verses serious Christians have relied on to support their views.
"If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved." Romans 10:9, 10
"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 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?" Romans 10:13-14
"Jesus is the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved." Acts 4:11,12
"There you have it! You need to profess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord 'and believe 'God raised you from the dead.' and "there is no other name." 'That means you need to know Jesus' actual name and if no one ever tells you about him, then you are spiritually lost forever."
Historically, conservative Christian have always universally accepted this explanation. Christians aren't hard hearted toward the lost- those who don't know about Jesus. They truly do care about them. That's the very reason Christians spend hundreds of billions of dollars and have sent millions of missionaries all over the world for 2,000 years. This is why we pray for the lost. It's not just that we don't want people to go to hell. Christians want ever person on this earth to know the love of God in this life! But most Christians just don't believe God has given them any other option based on the Bible, for people to come to faith. And I have to agree that a straightforward reading of the Book of Acts and Paul's Letters has led most pastors and theologians to the same conclusion.
However, younger people find these ideas if true, hard hearted of God and antithetical to the idea of the gospel and a loving Jesus. "Why in the wold would you ever want to worship a God that cruel?" they ask.
Could God Have a Plan B?
But is this as black and white as it appears? Not for me, or for many thoughtful Christians and theologians who take the Bible very seriously who also believe Christ is the only way, but believe it's possible that God is far more gracious and fair than most Christians give him credit for.
We believe the Bible leaves open the possibility that some people can receive the gift of salvation without ever knowing the giver, (Jesus) or the precise nature of his gift (the forgiveness of their sins on the cross at Calvary). In other words, the saving grace of Jesus may not be limited to followers of Jesus in the Christian church who have this information and believe it, but may include others who have never even heard of Jesus.
Having said that, we do not believe that other religions are vehicles of salvation or "another way to God." But some people who respond to God to the extent that he's been revealed to them and/or the moral laws of God written in their hearts, who practice some other religions, may actually be saved even now. (i.e. Buddhism is not another way to God, but some moral Buddhists who have not actually rejected Jesus may in facts have been saved by him.)
So, where is the biblical support for that idea, you might ask?
"All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people's secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares." Romans 2:12-16
"Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God." Ill John 11b
What these verses appear to be telling us is that because all humans are created in the image of God, they already possess a sense of right and wrong. And even if they never heard about the moral laws written in the Bible, they are "written in their hearts." And if they act on them, it is evidence that God has "declared them righteous."
Liberal or Loving?
And lest you think there are only a few super liberal Christians who believe this, consider these quotes from two of the most respected theologians at Dallas Theological Seminary.
"A person's habitual conduct, whether good or evil, reveals the condition of his heart. Eternal life is not rewarded for good living; that would contradict many other Scriptures which clearly state that salvation is not by works, but is God's grace to those who believe (e.g. Rom. 6:23; 10:9-10; 11:6; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5) However, a non- Christian who is kind, generous or forgiving may be doing so because God has already saved him, caused him to be born-again, and this may be happening completely without any conscience decision on his part, but is acting virtuously as a result. Such a person, redeemed by God, has eternal life. Conversely a person who continually does evil and rejects the truth shows that he is unregenerated and unsaved, and therefore will be an object of God's wrath.
Regarding Romans 1 and 2, the Jews looked down on the Gentiles partly because they did not have the revelation of God's will in the Mosaic Law. But, as Paul pointed out, there are moral Gentiles who do by nature things required by the Law. Such persons show that the Law is not to be found only on tablets of stone and included in the writings of Moses; it is also inscribed in their hearts and is reflected in their actions, consciences, and thoughts. The Law given to Israel is in reality only a specific statement of God's moral and spiritual requirements of everyone. Moral Gentiles by their actions show that the requirements (lit., "the work") of the Law are written on their hearts. This is confirmed by their consciences, the faculty within human beings that evaluates their actions, along with the thoughts that either accuse or excuse them of sin."
The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament Walvoord and Zuck, pages 445 and 446 (Professors at Dallas Theological Seminary)
Then C.S. Lewis writes this: "There are people who are slowly becoming Christians though do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by him, so that they are his in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand. There are people in other religions who are being led by God's secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it."
Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis (Harper San Francisco, 2001), pages 208-209)
How might this actually work?
If what these theologians believe is true, this process isn't at all clear in scripture. It may happen something like this; God could have chosen to elect, or save a certain Aborigine in Australia 1,000 years ago, before the gospel ever came to that country. Because of God's love, the Holy Spirit first began to move in that person, in-dwells them and declares them righteous, without them ever really understanding what God has done in them, or for them. Salvation always begins with God moving first. As a result they begin supernaturally living out the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, that is acting more morally and includes acknowledging a creator God from what they observe in the natural world, without ever even knowing the actual commands of God or the name of this creator.
Does this sound far-fetched? Then consider how people in the Old Testament were saved before Jesus. While most knew about God, Adam, Eve, Noah, this Abraham, not even Daniel or Isaiah knew Jesus name, that he would die on a cross for their sins and be raised again on the third day, some day in the future. They had the mosaic law and so they knew exactly how God expected them to live and a general understanding of a Messiah, but very few specifics. Christians have always believed these pre-cross believers were saved by Christ's sacrifices applied to them, without their knowledge, before Jesus ever lived and died. They "never heard the name of Jesus" either! Nevertheless, Old Testament believers who were chosen by God began to act morally and spiritually to whatever revelation God had given them, and it was evidence that they were saved in their lifetime, not simply that they would be saved in the future.
"By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel." Hebrews 11:24-28 Moses "regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ," without ever knowing the name of Christ or his salvation offer!
No Salvation Apart from Jesus
So, let's be very clear. Christians have always believed there is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ's salvational work. But it's consistent with what the Father has done in the past to think that he could likewise credit the righteousness of Christ to some, but not all who have never heard this good news! Having said that, almost all Christians and I reject "Universalism," the idea that in the end God will grant salvation and heaven to everyone, no matter their religion or no religion. However Christians also believe that if a person has been exposed to the Gospel and actually rejects it and dies, they can have no more hope of salvation.
Here's what all Christians have also always believed. God is loving, kind and just. Therefore I will trust the fate of those who have never heard into the hands of such a God and I urge you to do that as well. This mystery may well be a prime candidate for Ant Language.
Next week let's talk about Hell. What is this place like for those who are not saved?