The good news of the gospel is that Jesus came to be our Saviour (1 Timothy 1:15), to rescue ‘us from the coming wrath’ (1 Thessalonians 1:10), and to give us eternal life (John 10:28).
That is something that all who have responded in faith and repentance to God’s gracious invitation through Jesus Christ may have full confidence in.
But what about those who have never heard or understood the gospel message?
1. The argument of legalistic literalism
Jesus said, concerning himself, ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son’ (John 3:18), and, ‘I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life’ (John 6:47).
On the basis of these affirmations, some have asserted that it is perfectly clear that a person who does not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will not be saved.
Regardless of whether or not they have ever heard the gospel, regardless of whether or not they have understood the gospel, and regardless of whether or not they are of an age to grasp the message of the gospel, they are eternally lost!
One can understand why this is so emphatically stated; indeed many biblical verses could be (and have been) used to justify such an inflexible position. For example:
- Acts 16:31, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. ‘
- Romans 10:9, ‘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.’
- Hebrews 10:39, ‘But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.’
- Romans 1:16, ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.’
- 1Thessalonians 5:9, ‘God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.’
- And especially, John 3:14-16, 18, in which Jesus states, ‘… the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. … Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’
The argument is strong – believing in Jesus = salvation; not believing in Jesus = damnation!
But are those equations strictly accurate? This is an important question.
2. The argument of ‘Christian’ universalism
The central affirmation of Universalism is that all humans will ultimately be saved. This position is argued on two principal bases:
(i) The character of God, the universal Father
This is argued with such verses as Matthew 18:14, ‘… your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost’ Luke 6:36, ‘Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful’ 1 John 3:1, ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ and particularly, 1 John 4:8, ‘God is love.’
(ii) The revelation of the breadth of that love through the ministry of Jesus Christ
The following verses indicate this:
- Romans 5:8: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
- Ephesians 2:4-5: ‘But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.’
- 1 John 4:9-10: ‘This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.’
The claim of Universalism is that in the sending of his son and through the Son’s ministry, God’s plan of universal salvation is revealed. No one will we left unsaved.
This argument is also strong. God’s universal love is clearly taught in the scriptures. Indeed the message of the book of Jonah centres upon the breadth and depth of God’s love – even for the people of Nineveh who were renowned for their depravity. Universalism maintains that nothing triumphs over God’s love. It is, however, a theological belief built on the foundation of emotion and speculation. As one slogan has stated: ‘I’m a Unitarian-Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.’
I find both (i) and (ii) theologically deficient!
The first argument is simplistic and fails to consider the whole revelation of God in the scriptures. And the second, which is an appeal to emotion rather than divine revelation, is deliberately misleading in that it fails properly to exegete the scriptures and therefore misrepresents what those texts actually say in context.
3. A third argument – let God decide!
I want to affirm that I believe that –
First, Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
Secondly, the work of Jesus on the cross was necessary for our salvation (Romans 1:16).
Thirdly, Jesus accomplished all he came to do (John 19:30).
Fourthly, Jesus is the only Saviour (John 14:6 and Acts 4:12).
Fifthly, repentance and faith in Jesus (Mark 1:15) ensures for us a place in God’s family (John 1:12).
Sixthly, our salvation is secure. (John 10:28).
(i) What about those who have never heard the gospel?
But what about those who have never heard about Jesus – are they eternally damned? And what about those who cannot understand the message of salvation – babies, young children and the mentally handicapped – are they eternally damned?
Usually, when we consider those who have never heard about Jesus or have had the gospel message shared with them, we think that this principally refers to those living in evangelised nations. But what about some of the great men and women of God who are mentioned in the Old Testament, such as, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Rahab, Esther, Ruth, David, Daniel and others?
They never had heard of Jesus! They never had the opportunity to respond to the gospel! They never were given the opportunity to place their faith in Jesus Christ! Can we therefore conclude that they are all forever damned? I really do not believe that we may assume this is a correct conclusion!
It is inconsistent with the character of God as revealed in the scriptures to believe unquestionably the argument that those and only those who have heard about Jesus and who have heard and responded to the gospel will be saved. The Bible, and particularly the New Testament, gives us an insight into the breadth of the love of God and the magnificence of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, but it does not tell us everything that is in God’s heart or wholly explain the full significance of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
(ii) A partial insight
Perhaps a partial insight to the question, ‘What about those who have never had an opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel?’ may be found in the fact that God has never left himself without a witness.
Paul wrote, ‘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).
The cosmos itself bears witness to some of the attributes of God. As one of the early ‘Fathers of the Church’, Tertullian whose life bridged the 2nd and 3rd centuries, wrote, ‘It was not the pen of Moses that initiated the knowledge of the Creator … most of mankind, never heard the name of Moses, let alone his book, but they know the God of Moses none the less.’
If – as we may reasonably conclude – the Old Testament saints are indeed saved and are therefore recipients of the atoning work of Christ (albeit in a reaching back effectiveness, as people today are saved by a reaching forward effectiveness), there is a universal and timeless significance in the redemptive work of Christ.
How the outworking of that significance takes place, particularly regarding those who have never heard and those who have never had the capacity to understand the gospel, is beyond our ability to understand. And that lack of ability is clearly God’s will!
(iii) God’s secrets!
In Deuteronomy 29:29 we read, ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.’
In other words, God has revealed to us what he wants us to know. What God has not revealed is not our concern and therefore it is unwise to speculate (much less to form doctrines on) the ‘secret things’ that belong to the Lord.
God has not revealed everything to us, but what he has revealed assures us that his judgments and his decisions are perfect, loving, merciful and just.
It is best therefore to leave those decisions with God.
In his well-researched Grace Revisited he reveals grace as having a strong active meaning and is like a many faceted diamond out of which shines a greater understanding of the great God we worship. Normally $35 but obtainable from the author for $25 (plus postage). Link/orders/enquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org