Last time in the Jesus Who? series, we saw that salvation is found only through a relationship with Jesus.
So if salvation is through Christ alone by grace, what about those who have never heard the name of Jesus?
The answer to this dilemma is found in the knowledge and sovereignty of God. God knows each individual intimately and completely from the moment of creation before each has lived even a single second. I speak of God’s knowledge in the present tense because God is not confined to any particular time or place.
While God is omnipresent, and there is nowhere that we can go that He does not see, the essence of His existence is spirit, and all of time and space is a creation separate from his being. He is present at all times and all places simultaneously but distinctly.
Before we can look at specific scenarios where an individual’s knowledge of Jesus may be in doubt, we need to look at how and why God created us.
God created us for a relationship (See also Eternal Relationship), one in which we would freely choose to love Him, worship Him, and desire His interactive presence. The Bible teaches that He created us in His image, with emotions and feelings that imperfectly mirror the balance that He possesses. If I were the one receiving worship, it would be preferable and more meaningful to me if it came from someone who had a choice in its offering.
It makes sense to me that God would want the same thing, and the Bible teaches that we do bear ultimate responsibility for our actions. Being God, He could do what He wanted. If He wanted to create a world in which He had absolute control, forcing individuals to act with no choice about anything, He could have.
However, there is also no reason that He couldn’t have created individuals with the ability to make free choices if the benefit of doing so maximizes the relational benefit and ultimate Glory that He would receive, and He chose to do so. It is true that creating free beings limits the possibilities for the world God creates, but it is God’s prerogative to disregard scenarios that are impossible with free will.
The establishment of mankind’s moral responsibility is important because the acknowledgment of the existence of free will provides the best explanation that enables us to reconcile the pages in scripture, events in Earth history, and the person and attributes of an almighty God. If God wanted free moral beings, He was and is fully capable of making it happen. The teachings in the Bible and the daily events we observe in the world provide ample evidence that He did just that. Additionally, personal experiences feel like my decisions are mine to make, and I must live with the consequences.
The Bible is clear that we are responsible for our actions, that salvation is by faith, and that we are without excuse concerning the evidence for God that He presents to each individual.
16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” 18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 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 people are without excuse. (Romans 1:16-20, ESV)
I believe that there are two basic categories of people who have never heard the name of Jesus. The first are those who lived before the birth of Jesus, including all of the Old Testament saints. The second includes all who live in locations where the message of the gospel has not reached.
Before looking more closely at either of these groups, we need to be clear about one important point. No one deserves salvation.
10 As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV)
Because every human inherently possesses a sin-nature, all deserve to live and die eternally separated from God. It is only by God’s grace that He saves some. So for any individuals who live their entire lives without an opportunity to decide on the position Jesus holds in their lives, assuming there are such individuals, spending eternity in hell is what they deserve. It may be unfortunate, but there is no injustice done.
Next time, we will take a closer look at the person and attributes of God regarding those who have never heard of Jesus.
Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.