by Millard J. Erickson
The Bible gives us evidence about the basis on which those who have never heard of Christ will be judged. We have sufficient light on the matter– not to stop us from going but to show us what our responsibility is.
The Bible gives us evidence about the basis on which those who have never heard of Christ will be judged. We have sufficient light on the matter— not to stop us from going but to show us what our responsibility is.
I was sitting at my desk one evening as my wife was putting our nine-year-old daughter to bed. Their conversation drifted in from the adjacent room: "Mommy, when people who have never heard of Jesus die, what happens to them? Do they go to heaven or to hell?" I anticipated the reply: "Let’s ask your daddy. He knows a lot about things like that."
The question she raised was not unique to her. It is being asked by many persons today. When I taught undergraduates in a Christian liberal arts college, this was the second most troublesome question facing these young people (surpassed only by the problem of evil). The problem arises because Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, the only way to fellowship with the Father (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). Yet, our knowledge of the goodness, justice, and fairness of God leads us to ask how he could condemn those who have never heard of Christ and thus scarcely have had a chance to believe. In addition, the stated impossibility of anyone being saved by works seems to leave the heathen in a very unfortunate predicament: lost without any chance of realizing the potential of salvation. Is there any hope for such persons?
Theologians’ opinions have been expressed on both sides of the issue. Charles Hodge taught that there was no possibility of the salvation of such persons.
The call in question is made only through the Word of God, as heard or read. That is, the revelation of the plan of salvation is not made by the works or by the providence of God; nor by the moral constitution of our nature, nor by the intuitions or deductions of reason; nor by direct revelation to all men everywhere and at all times; but only in the written Word of God.1
A different posture on the issue is found in the theology of Augustus H. Strong.
The patriarchs, though they had no knowledge of a personal Christ, were saved by believing in God so far as God had revealed himself to them; and whoever among the heathen are saved, must in like manner be saved by casting themselves as helpless sinners upon God’s plan of mercy, dimly shadowed forth in nature and providence. But such faith, even among the patriarchs and heathen, is implicitly a faith in Christ, and would become explicit and conscious trust and submission, whenever Christ were made known to them (Matt. 8:11, 12: John 10: 16; Acts 4:12; 10:31, 34, 35, 44; 16:31).2
We must look closely at what the Scriptures say on this subject. It is in the book of Romans that the most extensive treatments of the issue are to be found. In chapters 1 and 2, Paul indicates that God has made certain truths about himself known in such a way as to be accessible to all men. Herein may be a clue to the possibility of a saving knowledge of God for those who have never actually heard the name of Jesus Christ. In Romans 1: 19,20, Paul says that God’s power and deity (presumably at least his existence and capability) can be seen from the created world about us. Not only is this knowledge of God available, but he indicates that they actually knew God, and thus are without excuse. Further, Romans 2:12-16 suggests that what God requires of them is (or should be) known to them, because God has written it upon their hearts. The evidence of this is found in the fact that their consciences accuse or excuse them (v. 15). What can be known apart from the specially revealed law, then, seems to be two major tenets of faith: (1) God exists and is powerful and creative (ch. 1); (2) God is a holy, moral God, who requires certain actions of men (ch. 2).
It is on the basis of such knowledge that these people will be judged. This implies that they are responsible, that they should be capable of pleasing God. But what could this possibly mean?
It should be apparent from Romans 3:19, 20, as well as numerous other passages, that Paul neither believed nor taught that one can be justified by works of the law. What is true of works of the law should be true of the inner conscience-law as well. Rather, what the law does is not to make a man righteous but to bring knowledge of sin.
We might pursue further this parallel between the justification of those who have the law and those who do not. For the person with the law, it functioned to make him conscious of his sin, or to "convict" him of sin. Salvation comes not because man deserves, merits, or earns it, but by God’s free gift or grace. When one discovers from the law that he is a sinner, it should bring him to reliance upon God for his salvation. This must then be the pattern (or a similar one) involved in the possible salvation of those who have only the natural law. Paul definitely is not asserting that men are justified by works. If they are judged for not being righteous, it must be that they fail to be justified by faith (or by grace, whichever be the perspective. Faith emphasizes the means of appropriation; grace emphasizes the source or the basis).
But the problem arises concerning how this could be possible for these, who could not have heard of Jesus Christ, in whom this salvation is found. Since man’s redemption is accomplished through the death of Jesus, and is received through faith in that atoning death, is it not necessary for them to hear of the Savior, in order to be saved? This, indeed, seems to be the thrust of Paul in Romans 10, especially verses 14-17.
When we look closely at 10:18, however, we see that Paul says that men have heard, that "their voice has gone out to all the earth. " The quotation here is from Psalm 19:4, which is one of the most famous of the nature psalms. Paul appears to say that men have heard through this means. If that be the case, then perhaps the essential nature of saving faith can be arrived at without the special revelation. Perhaps, in other words, it is possible to receive the benefit of Christ’s death without conscious knowledge- belief in the name of Jesus. What, then, is the essential nature of the gospel message? Several elements are involved:
(1) The belief in one good powerful God. (2) The belief that he (man) owes this God perfect obedience to his law. (3) The consciousness that he does not meet this standard, and therefore is guilty and condemned. (4) The realization that nothing he can offer God can compensate him (or atone) for this sin and guilt. (5) The belief that God is merciful, and will forgive and accept those who cast themselves upon his mercy.
May it not be that if a man believes and acts on this set of tenets he is redemptively related to God and receives the benefits of Christ’s death, whether he consciously knows and understands the details of that provision or. not? Presumably that was the case with the Old Testament believers. Their salvation was not based upon works. It was, as with all who are saved, a matter of grace. The grace, in turn, was manifested and made available through the death of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament saints, however, did not know the identity of the Redeemer or the details of the accomplishment of salvation.
If this is possible, if Jews possessed salvation in the Old Testament era simply by virtue of having the form of the Christian gospel without its content, can this principle be extended? Could it be that those who even since the time of Christ have had no opportunity to hear the gospel, as it has come through the special revelation, participate in this salvation on the same basis? On what other grounds could the fairly be held responsible for having or not having salvation (or faith)?
An objection may be raised to this parallel. The Old Testament believers could be saved without the knowledge of Christ because he had not yet come. Now that he has come, however, the situation has changed. Therefore, ignorance is no longer an excuse. Jews of today are responsible for believing in the Messiah who has now come, and so are all Gentiles.
In my judgment, this may not be a significant problem. It rests upon time as man conceives of it. This, however, may not be God’s view. An eternal God does not necessarily view events sequentially. Thus, the person who has never heard because he had no opportunity to hear of Christ’s life and death may be treated the same as the person who did not hear because Christ had not yet lived and died.
Nor is the motivation for the missionary enterprise undercut by this position. If what has been said here thus far is correct, then what Paul is saying in the remainder of Romans is that very few, if any, actually come to such a saving knowledge of God on the basis of the natural, revelation alone. This is explained as their own suppression of the truth (Romans 1:18-32), or the blinding work of Satan (2 Cor. 4:3, 4). Thus, the effect of this revelation is simply to make them responsible and hence rightfully condemnable. To be sure, there is biblical intimation (Luke 12:41-48) for holding that their judgment may not be as severe as that of the person who has heard the gospel, as specially revealed, but they are nevertheless judged. In view of this, it is urgent that the gospel message be taken to them (Romans 10:14-17), thus increasing the likelihood and improving the opportunity of their. entering into the relationship which is requisite for true fellowship with the Father. If they are really to have a chance for faith, we must inform them.
1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1952), Vol. 11, p. 646.
2. Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Westwood, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1907), p. 842.
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