I recently hit the Mt. Everest of our Isaiah preaching series (Chapter 53) and a woman hunger to learn and grow as a believer sent me the following question that I thought would be worth posting here on my blog for others who may be wrestling with the same difficult question or just want more clarity on the matter. She asked:
“I understand that through faith we our saved, and Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through his death, our faith and salvation is how we are made righteous and go to Heaven. My question is what if someone never learns about Jesus? Does that mean they go to hell? It’s hard for me to grasp that someone may go to hell because of where they were born, or because their family did not believe that and they were not exposed to the teachings of Jesus. It’s does not feel like unconditional love. Or are we all held to a different standard based on what we know and what we have been exposed to or taught?”
Here’s how I tried to help her … Perhaps it will be a help to you too:
It’s a good and hard question, and there is some “tension” in the answer. First a few key references: Acts 4:12 – “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” You are absolutely right in affirming that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation only comes through Jesus and his work on the cross. We call this the exclusivity of Christ … He alone saves. And yes, as you stated that is by faith in Him, not our works, religious acts, or “goodness”. So, first part of the answer – without Christ nobody can be saved, yes even those who have never heard. That’s the hard part … but there is more.
Because salvation is a work of God and not man, and He is the one who “opens” the heart to faith/belief, then God knows when (He created the when) a person’s heart is open (He opens it) and I believe He is always faithful to bring the truth and teaching of Jesus Christ to them. Romans 1:18-20 … I’ll not record it all here, but open your Bible and read it as I comment. The apostle Paul teaches that men suppress the truth of God – By their sinful nature (v18). He then goes on to say that knowledge of God is available to all men, so they are without excuse (v19-20). How is this knowledge available to all men? Through creation and in their conscience. We call the knowledge of God available to all men in creation – General Revelation. How does that work? Something like this I suppose — “Wow, check out those mountains, and that sun, and the birds … there is no way I could make that, or any man for that matter … there must be an amazing Creator God behind this in some way or another.” But that does NOT save anyone, because remember Acts 4:12 – they still don’t know about Jesus, and the cross, and their need for a substitute to deal with their sin and the judgment they deserve. Now, we call the knowledge of God needed for salvation – Special Revelation. How does that come? Through the Word of God and those who preach it, teach it, share it with others – Romans 10:13-18 deals with this issue very clearly (even quotes our Isaiah 53 passage). I believe that when someone responds to God with a soft heart to General Revelation that God supplies the Special Revelation. He brings a Christian friend across their path, directs them to church, etc.
But what about those who have no Christian witness? The “unreached” parts of the world? The tribes in the remote parts? Well, the same is true, they need more than general revelation, they need a witness to the person and work of Jesus. This is why we care so desperately about missions, and specifically missions to the unreached. People in NE OH have “access” to the Gospel if they choose to listen, ask, want to find out more (through you, me, and Leroy Chapel and other Gospel teaching local churches). But not everyone has that opportunity. So we hear the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:19- 20 – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Nations isn’t actually the geo-politic entities that have their own flags and national anthems, it actually means “peoples” or “people groups” and that is far greater than the nations recognized by the UN. For example Ethiopia alone has more than 70 people groups within its borders. Perhaps now you see why the work of missions is vital to the church, and why it so fills the story of God (“you will be a light to the nations”). Because God, like you, wants everyone to have a “fair shot” at hearing or having the opportunity to hear … and then they either choose to believe or reject.
And one last piece … I believe that this “preaching of the Gospel to all the nations” is why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Not everyone has had a chance to have a Gospel witness. Matthew 24:14 – “And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” So, He waits – lovingly and patiently – for the story to spread. We give ourselves to spreading the story … urging those who have an opportunity to hear the Gospel to respond (personal evangelism), and praying/sending/partnering with missionaries to take the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the earth (missions). And one great and glorious day – He returns and judges the living and the dead … those who have believed to life glorious and eternal, and those who have rejected to hell, awful and eternal.
I guess I’ve given you a whole other sermon on the subject. But I do hope it helps!