Someone asked me at school today how I can honestly think that the Lord Jesus is the only way to God when so many people in the world haven’t even heard the name ‘Jesus.’ I didn’t know what to say. Is God letting those people go to hell just because of where they were born? What do we say about people who have never heard the gospel?”
This is not an easy question and we should be honest with our children (and others) when we struggle with difficult questions. But we also need to have a ready answer for this issue because it is a commonly raised complaint against the Christian gospel. This article will show that according to Scripture, people do need to believe in the Son of God in order to be saved. Let’s begin by considering clear principles that the Scriptures explicitly teach.
The Character of God
“The Lord is righteous in all His ways and kind in all His works,” (Psa 145:17, ESV). There are issues we don’t fully understand, but we know God can be trusted to do what is right (Gen 18:25).
There is Only One History of Redemption
The Old Testament records God’s interactions with Israel. Some wonder if God arranged other salvation stories for other nations that are not included in our Bible. This is not possible because it is a direct contradiction to the Bible. In Amos 3:2, God says to Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth,” and the Lord Jesus said “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). Old Testament prophets revealed God’s plan of redemption and it was fulfilled in Christ.
There is no Salvation Apart from the Lord Jesus Christ
Old Testament believers were saved because Christ would die (Rom 3:25) and anyone saved today is saved because Christ has died. This is an exclusive statement, but must be insisted upon in light of clear Scriptures (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1Tim 2:4-6).
Another interesting Scripture to support points 2 and 3 above is Revelation 5:9, where it says that Christ has redeemed people of EVERY tribe, language, people, and nation. “God did not plan multiple saviors for multiple peoples. He planned one Savior for all peoples. His atonement is the means in every culture by which men and women become part of his kingdom.”1
At this point, objections are raised. “But how does God work it out? It doesn’t seem fair. I know everyone has not heard of Jesus Christ!” Accusations of pride and intolerance are feared. But their accusation isn’t really fair! We only base our claims on the objective truth of God’s revelation (not our own spiritual intelligence), so the pride really belongs to those who rely on their own understanding of spiritual reality and refuse to submit to God.2 With God’s revelation as the foundation, other principles from Scripture can then be supplied.
All the World is Accountable to the One True God
Romans 1 and 2 are key passages in this issue. Not only through the covenant (Law of Moses), but also through creation and the human conscience, something of the nature and standards of God have been communicated. Therefore, sin is inexcusable. However, the passage does not say that God can be known as Savior merely through this general revelation. There may be elements of truth in other religions and cultures (e.g., the concept of one creator god), but their knowledge needs to be expanded and corrected by Christian truth – they need the Christian gospel. In the Bible, God clearly frowned upon any other religion. “The God revealed in Christ in the Bible is unique and universal.”3
The Christian Gospel is Universal in its Scope
It is a message that is needed by all and relevant to all. Christ satisfied God’s judgment against sins (read 1John 2:2) and God wants everyone to be saved (1Tim 2:4). We are told to take the gospel to the entire world (Mark 16:15) and God will righteously justify any sinner on one condition – if they “believe in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).
Little Bible Knowledge is Required in Order to be Saved
All salvation is found in Christ, but how much does someone really need to know about Him in order to be saved? The Lord knows. The death of Christ for our sins and His resurrection are the basis of salvation (Rom 4:25). What is required for eternal life is faith in Him (John 3:36) and Him alone. As evidenced by the Philippian jailer, conversion can occur quickly when people are awakened to their need.
God Has Said Those Who Seek Him Will Find Him (Jer 29:13)
God is able to speak to people in a variety of ways. Romans 1 and 2 show He communicates through creation and conscience, and Job 33:15-18 shows He speaks through dreams. How He will work with someone who responds positively to His voice may not be clear to us. We must not limit God’s power, but we should maintain a desire to see the gospel communicated clearly throughout the world.
Consider Acts 10-11. Cornelius, though he feared God, was not yet saved. He was searching, and God worked miraculously to send him the message of the gospel so that he could be saved (Acts 11:14). Cornelius prayed to the one true God (Acts 10:42), but was not saved until he believed in Jesus Christ (Acts 10:43). While Romans 1 teaches that God speaks to people through means beyond the message of the gospel, Romans 10:8-15 (please read!) shows that hearing the Lord Jesus in the gospel is required in order to believe in Him and be saved.
It should be pointed out that the question about those who have never heard the gospel is often used as an excuse by an individual who doesn’t want to face the gospel himself. Some people raise the issue as an honest inquiry into the legitimacy of our faith; others raise it merely as a smokescreen. An attempt should be made to steer the conversation back to that individual’s own responsibility.
One doesn’t need to go to a distant land to find people who have never heard the gospel; there are probably some in your neighborhood. Granted, they likely have easier access to the gospel than people in Islamic nations or some remote tribe, but there are children growing up around us who don’t know what the Bible is. However, the fact that many more in other lands have less access to the gospel and do not know of our Lord Jesus has historically been a great motivator to missionary activity, and should continue to be so. The apostle Paul said in Romans 15:20-21 that he strove to preach Christ where He had not been previously heard of, and the early Christians were clearly interested in seeing the gospel spread to new areas. This spiritual desire seems to rise and fall through the years, but it is good to remind ourselves and our children of this great responsibility. “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15).
1 Piper, John p.57, Jesus The Only Way to God, Baker Books, 2010.
2 Goldsmith, Martin p.35, What About Other Faiths?, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.
3 Ibid, p.53