Doctrine Ch.29 - Those who haven't heard

What if you don't have a Bible to read and can't find out about Jesus - can you still be saved? The Bible gives us a couple of unexpected clues.

Paul asked rhetorically: " And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (Rom.10.14). Even if we exclude those who have read about Jesus, there are many left who will never come across the good news during their life. And among those who have read, and heard, perhaps weekly sermons, there will be those who simply never 'got it'. You couldn't say that they have rejected Christ, though they had many opportunities to consider his offer. At what point does God draw the line and decide that his mercy does not extend to them?

       To some extent it depends on how important we regard human response to be – or rather, how important God regards it. If salvation really does depend on our understanding of the gospel, then perhaps even God cannot expunge the sins of those who haven't had an opportunity to accept it. This inability of God to forgive might be due to his moral character, or due to some agreement by which he has constrained himself, or due to some fundamental characteristic of the universe. The Bible doesn't tell us about such constraints, but it does tell us what God wants: he "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth".  

5-minute summary

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Like Cornelius

To examine how much ignorance will exclude us from heaven, we can ask: What about those who never hear about Jesus in the Bible? Clearly the Old Testament Jews were in a special category, but what about all the non-Jews? And those nations in the New Testament that evangelists hadn't reached?

       I envy Abraham, who was able to bargain with God about saving lives in Sodom. Like him, I’d like to ask questions of God: “But what if someone believes in the love and holiness of God, but doesn’t know about Jesus?” Or, “What if they love what they know about Jesus, but don’t realize he is God?” And also like Abraham, I’d want to repeat the question he asked: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

       We shouldn’t expect to find any answer to this question in the Bible. After all, it is written for people who are able to read it, so why should it tell us about those who can’t read it? Its purpose is to address those who can read it—who are reading it! However, there are a couple of clues, and one of them occurs alongside the third salvation message in Acts.

       Cornelius, who requested this message from Peter, was one of the many Romans who had found something genuine in the Jewish religion and attended synagogues to discover more. To explain why he’d called for Peter to come, he said: “I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter’” (Acts 10:30-32). The detail that jumps out to me is that God listens to the prayers of those who aren’t Christians.

       Because we are so familiar with the fact that access to God is through Jesus, we can easily forget that people in the Old Testament were able to pray and be heard. Cornelius was a pre-Christian believer, until the Holy Spirit fell on him, and this story shows that this category of people still continued to exist after Jesus’ death. God still listens to the prayers of those who don’t know (or understand) about Jesus.

How to please God

The second insight into pre-Christian believers comes in Hebrews, when it defines faith. It has a long chapter about people with faith (all before the New Testament, of course), and it starts by stating the minimum number of things we have to believe. There are only two! They are (1) that God exists and (2) that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This is so startling that it is worth reading over again: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6).

       This isn’t telling us how someone will be saved and receive the Holy Spirit—it is merely the pre-Christian or Old Testament faith. However, we shouldn’t look down on it, because someone with this faith can “please God”—which is quite an amazing thing to aspire to!

       These two items of faith are so minimal that they are worth our close consideration. To believe that “he exists” is a major matter today, when atheism is so popular, and many would regard it as an intelligent conclusion. But when this was written, there were extremely few atheists, if any. Even philosophers who thought that the universe ran without the action of any gods still believed they existed. So the fact that this is mentioned is impressive; it implies that the author really wants to give a full statement of what is required. The other item of faith, that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him,” implies something like a judgment or reckoning as well as an effort expended to “seek him.”

       This doesn’t describe those “good” people who think they deserve heaven because they believe they aren’t as bad as others they could mention. Hebrews describes people who are seeking God, and they are presumably all too aware of their shortcomings. This means you can be sure that as soon as they realize Jesus was sent by God, they will become a Christian. They are as ready for Jesus as Cornelius was.

       This little nugget of Scripture implies that God is still accepting people in an Old Testament way. However, we can’t conclude too much from it because, as I said above, we shouldn’t expect to find anything about such individuals in the Bible: if you have a Bible, you aren’t going to be in this category. So we are left with questions we can’t answer, such as: When or how are their sins forgiven? At a guess, I’d say they are like the Old Testament believers, who all benefit from the death of Christ, but not during their lifetime. Perhaps it happens soon after they die, or perhaps on their deathbed, when the barrier between heaven and earth is thinnest. We simply don’t know.

       These believers are missing out, as they themselves would agree when they learn the full truth. They would long to find Jesus and be filled with his Holy Spirit in this life. However, they are not despised or refused by God—Hebrews says that with their minimal faith and their seeking for him, they “please God.” That is a considerable achievement, and if I can achieve even that accolade in this life, I’ll be well satisfied.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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