What About Those Who've Never Heard of Jesus?
(Part of the "Predestination vs. Free-Will" series)
“But,” you might wonder, “how can it be possible for all people to come to Jesus if some people have never even heard of Him, such as those who live in the jungles of a primitive island or those who grew up in another religion and only heard the name of other gods? How can they be saved if the Bible says that only those who call on the name of Jesus will be saved, and yet they have never even heard of Him? You can’t call on a name you never knew about.”
I have always been interested in sorting this question out in my mind – how (and if) salvation can come to those who never heard about Jesus. When I was a Calvinist in my teens (a tiny, baby Calvinist that never grew up), I used to think "Oh well, that's just the way God determined it, that they should be lost. Who are we to question Him?"
But I think I understand it differently now. (I do not know if I am accurate on this, but it’s what I think so far.)
First off, keep in mind that there is a difference between those who have never heard of the Bible or Jesus and those who have heard but who reject it (such as atheists or those of most other religions). And I will look at each group separately.
Some people think (as I once struggled with) that since the Bible says that Jesus is the only way to God then that must mean that if you've never heard of Jesus and cannot call on His name then you cannot be saved. And they think this is how God works, that those who were born at the wrong time and in the wrong place (a primitive island) are “elected” by God to be unsaved.
However, I do not think this is the case. As I have said, I think everyone has the potential to be saved, that no one has been predetermined to go to hell. I think that people who have never heard the name of Jesus can still, in fact, become saved. And it keeps coming back to this verse, among others.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
“. . . He has also set eternity in the hearts of men . . .” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
God says that He has made Himself abundantly clear through His creation. And He has set a knowledge of eternity in the hearts of men. So we all – no matter where and when we live – can know that He exists and can find Him. And no one has an excuse for why they did not turn to Him, for why they turned away from the revelation of Himself in nature and from the knowledge that He has imprinted on our hearts.
"God did this [created men, nations] so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each of us." (Acts 17:27)
God created men to seek Him and find Him. He is not far from anyone. He is within reach of everyone. We all have the chance to find Him because of the knowledge He places on our hearts and the evidence of Himself in nature.
This leads me to believe that God judges the heart and how we respond to the knowledge and the revelation that He has given us. And that it is indeed possible for those who never heard of Jesus to turn to God. As we’ve already seen in other posts, God expects us to seek Him. And there is no excuse for why you don’t seek Him because He is clearly seen in His creation. (And I don’t think the Holy Spirit is limited by geography and someone’s accessibility or lack of accessibility to the printed Word.)
But if it was necessary to know the name of Jesus in order to turn to God and be saved and yet you lived in a time and place when you had absolutely no contact with the outside world and no knowledge of the Bible or Jesus, then you would have a great excuse for why you never turned to God. Because you never had the chance to hear about Him!
But the Bible says that no one has an excuse, which leads me to believe that everyone has a chance to find God . . . because God has made Himself clear to all, through nature and the knowledge He puts in our hearts to a certain degree, but most clearly and fully through Jesus. Yet all of those things point back to God.
While we might not always understand how God works, we can trust that He loves all people, desires all people to be saved, has revealed Himself to everyone in one way or another, and that He will judge each person's response to Him fairly in the end.
But, you might ask, are you saying that Jesus is not the only way to the Father then? How can you say that people who have never heard of Him can be saved when the Bible clearly tells us that Jesus is the gate, the only way, the name we have to call on to be saved?
Yes, I emphatically believe that Jesus is the only way. But I think that when it says that we cannot come to the Father except through Jesus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to know His name but that His death is what makes it possible for any of us and all of us to be reconciled to the Father. His death paid for the sins of mankind.
“ . . . so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ death] was justification that brings life for all men.” (Romans 5:18, underlining added)
“who gave himself as a ransom for all men . . .” (1 Timothy 2:6, underlining added)
Does this not also include those who never heard of Him? Did His death not cover their sins? Are they beyond God’s grace and mercy, simply because they were born in the wrong place, at the wrong time? If someone grew up never hearing of Jesus, are their sins not paid for by Him ... but then as soon as they hear of Him, all of a sudden their sins are paid for? At what point do our sins become "paid for"? (I would say, "At the cross.")
If you say that people who've never heard of Jesus are automatically consigned to hell and have no chance to be saved, then you would have to say that Jesus’ death never really covered their sins and that He never made life possible for them.
But that’s not what Scripture says. Scripture says Jesus's death paid for all sins of all people.
(Calvinists change "all people" to "all of the elect" or "all kinds of people." But not "all people." That way they can say that Jesus didn't really die for all people, so therefore not everyone can come to Him but only the "elect." Wicked! Wicked! Wicked! They ought to tremble with fear at the idea of standing before God in the end, giving an account for what they taught others about Him and about Jesus's sacrifice! The world attacks Christianity from the outside. But Calvinism is an attack from the inside. It's Satan disguised as an angel of light, lies disguised as truth, death disguised as life. It's a wolf in sheep's clothing. And it relies on one of Satan's best tactics - using God's own Word against Him, to lead people astray! Wicked! Wicked! Wicked! Have I mentioned how much I hate Calvinism!?!)
I think that at the most very basic, primitive level, we are all responsible for the knowledge of Him and the truth of Him that He has placed in nature and in our hearts. We are responsible to respond to the call He places on our hearts and to turn toward Him. And we are accountable for if we do not, if we turn to some other “god.” (And the God of the Bible would not support, condone, or reveal Himself through any other man-made god or false religion, so you cannot say that it doesn’t matter what your “god” is, as long as you believe in something and are sincere. It matters greatly! Just read the Old Testament. Primitive or contemporary, you cannot substitute a god of your own making for the God who is, as He reveals Himself to be.)
A person in a primitive, unreached, illiterate community can be saved (at least I think so) if they respond to the truth that God placed in their hearts. It might be difficult and unlikely, but I think they can look up into the sky, know there is a Creator, and cry out to Him and be saved. (This is far different than those who make up their own gods and their own way to heaven because they don't know what else to believe.) And they can still walk through the right gate by listening to God and following His leading, even if they don’t know the exact name of the gate. Because Jesus’s death covered their sins, too, and bought life for them. Even if they don’t know His name. And even if they don’t know the name of the One who made salvation possible for them, God does! God knows that Jesus's death paid for all sins of all time.
There is a story I once heard (although I don’t remember where I heard it or the exact details) of a small child who was raised in a strictly-atheist home. And one day, he asked his mother how the world was made. And she gave all the scientific, atheist answers. But at the very end, she nonchalantly added, “And then there are some people who think that God created the world.”
And at that moment, the little boy smiled and began to dance around, saying, “I knew it! I knew it! I knew it was Him!”
Even though this child had no chance in that atheist home to hear about God, he could still sense in his heart that there was a God, that He is real, and that He is the reason we are here. And he could respond to the truth that is deep within all of us, buried in our hearts by our heavenly Father.
But, you might counter, you have to say the name ‘Jesus,’ don’t you? Doesn’t Romans 10:9-10, 13 say “if you confess 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 confess and are saved. . . . ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”? Doesn’t this mean that if you don’t or can’t call on His name then you cannot be saved?”
I don’t think that this verse about saying “Jesus is Lord” is meant to be taken so literally. Like it's a “formula” that must be followed. If so, then the only ones who are saved are those who have actually said “Jesus is Lord” at the time of their conversion. And those who used some other words – “Father, I need You . . . Lord, save me . . . Help me, God . . . I want You in my life . . .” – are not saved. But does this sound right? Seriously!?! When we have a God that searches and judges our hearts? If that were the case, the majority of us Christians would be unsaved, simply by our choice of wording.
I don’t think this verse is meant to be so literal. Remember that the thief on the cross next to Jesus never said, “Jesus is the Christ” or “Jesus is Lord.” In Luke 23:42, he simply said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Yes, he used the name Jesus, but he never said that Jesus is Lord. He simply saw the truth before him and he responded and reached out, just as one can do when they see God in nature and then reach for Him because of it (not reaching for nature as God but for God as the Creator of that nature).
But I do think this “Confess that ‘Jesus is Lord’” verse is sharing the basic truth that Jesus is the way to God. And that those of us who have knowledge of Him are accountable for that knowledge. We are required to answer this question: “Is He Lord or is He not Lord?” And anyone who denies that Jesus is Lord is not saved.
But you cannot deny someone you never heard of. A person who never heard the name ‘Jesus’ is not denying Him when they do not say His name. But a person who has heard of Jesus and refuses to acknowledge that He is Lord is denying Him. (And the vast majority of us nowadays have heard of Him, no matter our religious upbringing.)
You have to remember that Romans 10 is not necessarily talking about those who are from unreached, primitive cultures and who have no knowledge that there is such a thing as the Bible, Jesus, or even other countries out there. This chapter is not about those who haven’t heard about Jesus but about those who have heard and who have rejected Him.
Romans 10:3 is about a people who deliberately ignored the truth, who refused to see it and who refused to do things God’s way, choosing instead to do things their own way. And they have passed this stubbornness and resistance and denial of the truth down to their children. And the children have willfully clung to falsehood.
I think there is a difference between those who have never had a chance to hear the Gospel (and the name of Jesus) and those who know about it but reject it. And the difference is that those who never heard can still be saved if they respond to the call and the truth that God places on their hearts, even if they do not know the name of the One who paid for their sins . . . Whereas those who know but reject the truth or who are from a religion that expressly rejects Christ can be saved if they turn from their stubbornness and their erroneous thinking and embrace the One that they have previously rejected.
“Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ.” (1 John 2:22)
“But he who disowns me [Jesus] before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:9)
“This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God.” (1 John 4:2-3)
The Word doesn’t say that we are condemned for never hearing the name Jesus. We are condemned if we refuse to respond to the call that God places on our hearts. And we are condemned if we reject Christ, implying that it is referring to those of us who have heard of Him, because you can’t reject someone you've never heard of. In fact, we all stand condemned before Him until and unless we respond to the call of God, whether it’s the call He places on our hearts and in nature or whether it’s that we have been given access to the Word and the knowledge of Jesus.
So then, why is evangelism necessary if primitive people can simply respond to the truth that God has placed on their hearts and it isn’t necessary to know Jesus’s name?
While I think it's possible for someone who's never heard of Jesus to find faith in God, I do not think it's likely. More often than not, people who don't have the Word are easily led astray into worshipping other "gods" or no god at all. It’s so much easier to find the way if someone points it out to you, if someone turns on the light and gives you a map instead of leaving you to find the way out of a dark room all by yourself.
Many more will be reached by hearing the truth and by having the Way clearly explained to them than by leaving them to find it themselves. Plus, Jesus paid an enormous price on the cross and that precious truth deserves to be shared with others. It is a much greater thing and will be a much sweeter relationship with the Father if you know Who to thank and what to thank Him for!
I’m not saying that everyone has the same amount of easiness in finding God, but that we all have the chance and opportunity to find Him and be saved because He has revealed Himself to all and because Jesus’s death paid for all of our sins. But due to our upbringing or geographical location, some people will have a harder time and more resistance, and some will have an easier time and less resistance. Yet everyone still has the chance and the responsibility to respond to God’s call, whatever form that call takes.
And for those who know the name of Jesus and who reject Him (or come from a religion that rejects Him), they need to be warned about where this rejection will lead them. Unlike those in a dark room who are left to find the right path themselves, they are in a well-lit room and can see the right path but have refused to walk down it. And they need to be told why this path is the only one that leads to heaven. They need to be shown the consequences of rejecting the only way to heaven and the only One who can save them. Their souls depend on it.
Both groups – those who haven’t heard of Jesus and those who have but reject Him – can find salvation if they respond to the truth that God has shown them. And salvation is possible for them because Jesus’s death made it possible when He paid for all of mankind’s sins and bought life for all men. It’s just up to each person to accept the truth God has revealed to them or to reject it!
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