Sooner or later, everybody exploring Christianity wrestles with this question. It can be especially difficult for seekers because it raises suspicions about God’s character. The question goes like this: If Jesus is the only way to God, what about all the innocent people who have never heard about him?
Sometimes people raise this question as a way of finding a difficult theological question to validate their unwillingness to believe. But many skeptics have genuine concerns about worshiping a God who, from their perspective, is unjust. We shouldn’t take the issue lightly, but try to better understand how the Bible addresses it.
First, it’s important to recognize that the Bible offers little direct instruction on this matter. Related topics are discussed, which is helpful for making some valuable inferences, but the absence of direct attention suggests we should hold our conclusions with open hands. In addition, it’s misleading to use the word “innocent” to describe people who have never heard about Jesus. Like all people, they’re sinful (Romans 3:10-12) and in need of forgiveness.
So what’s the plight of those who are so isolated (geographically or culturally) that they haven’t heard the gospel message or been given any opportunity to respond? The New Testament asserts that the work of Christ is the only way to a right relationship with God (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). There is only one mediator between God and humans: Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5). This is clear. Passage after passage in the New Testament presents Christ as coming to earth; dying on a cross; rising from the dead; and offering his life, death, and resurrection to all who would want to be restored to their heavenly Father. If there were other ways to God, then Christ’s sacrifice would have been in vain.
But we need to understand that Christ’s work is the basis for salvation. People receive this gift of grace when they accept it by faith. That’s why Christians are so passionate about sharing their faith with others. Some Christian scholars suggest that there may be special circumstances where God applies Christ’s atoning work to individuals who were, for various reasons outside their control, prevented from knowing about Christ. God may be gracious to infants who die at an early age or those who are mentally incapable of hearing and understanding the gospel message. They’re reconciled to God “through” Christ, but not in conjunction with an explicit affirmation of faith. Could it be the same for individuals who haven’t heard simply because of when and where they were born and who God discerns would respond positively if they did have the opportunity? We can’t know for sure.
Most theologians lean between two predominant positions on this subject:
Inclusivism is the belief that though salvation comes through only Jesus Christ, there may be persons who are Christians without knowing it. Jesus may save some who never actively hear of him.
Inclusivists often cite Romans 2:1–16, a passage taken to imply that salvation is possible apart from God’s special revelation. That is, the content of general revelation—both in terms of the created order without and the moral law within—provides sufficient knowledge for salvation.
What matters to God is human faith responding to the “light” he has provided at a given time or place. It’s unwarranted, then, for anyone to claim to know with certainty the fate of the unevangelized. One pastor put it this way: “I believe the most Christian stance is to remain agnostic on this question. The fact is that God, alongside the most solemn warnings about our responsibility to respond to the gospel, has not revealed how he will deal with those who have never heard it.”
Many inclusivists appeal to God’s character in defense of their view. Because “God is love,” the argument goes, he’d never condemn someone who didn’t even have a chance to be saved.
In contrast to inclusivism, particularism is the view that redemption is possible through only faith in the gospel. This has been the predominant Christian position throughout church history and remains so among Bible-believing evangelicals today. Several texts are commonly cited in its defense.
First, though inclusivists sometimes employ Romans 1:18–23 to highlight the importance of general revelation, on closer reading the text seems to support the particularist view. Paul’s argument is that God’s revelation in nature is sufficient only to condemn, not to save. Though the man on the island “knows God,” he “suppresses the truth” perceptible in nature and is therefore “without excuse.” Humans aren’t guilty because they haven’t heard the gospel; they’re guilty because they haven’t honored their Creator.
Particularists also often point to Jesus’ declaration: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Though inclusivists sometimes object that this statement says nothing explicit about faith, particularists point out that the idea is surely implied. The whole aim of John’s Gospel, after all, is to convince readers to believe and be saved. John addresses belief no less than ninety-seven times throughout the book. In light of the entire context, then, particularists say, it’s likely that “through me” means “through faith in me.”
We trust that God is good, loving, just, and fair. The Bible says, “the LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love” (Psalm 145:8 TNIV). He doesn’t want any to live self-destructive lives, but for all to turn from their sin and be reconciled to him (2 Peter 3:9).
Will we trust him and will we help others come to trust him?