This is one of the most hotly-debated topics in all of Christian theology; however, it is only an issue if Jesus Christ really is the only way to restore our relationship with God and spend eternity with Him. Is this a basic tenet of Christian belief? If the Bible is our source of authority on the Christian faith, the answer is clear. For your own study, look at passages such as Romans 3:23, John 14:6, John 3:16-18, Matt. 11:27, Luke 12:8, 1 John 5:12, and 1 Tim. 2:5-6a. Peter says in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” When pressed on the issue, many Christians, including evangelical leaders, have a difficult time standing on the concept of Jesus being the singular way to God. It is hard for them to wrap their heads around the fact that only a small fraction of the world’s population (past, present, and future) will believe on Christ’s name and be saved. The vast majority will be condemned. But if you read Matthew 7:13-14, this is exactly what Jesus Himself anticipated.
Jesus’ exclusive claims to being the only way are not just an important part of his teaching, but the foundation on which all His teachings rest. No other religious leader made the type of claims Jesus did. Jesus was very narrow-minded in His teaching, thus, we should be likewise in our core beliefs. As many know, the disciples of Christ were called followers of “The Way” long before they were ever called Christians. This was based on the exclusivity of their claims.
Also, if Jesus is not the exclusive avenue to salvation, why did He die? Why would God send His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life of obedience and self-denial, and then suffer torture and execution in one of the most horrific ways imaginable, if there are other ways to be saved? Only a cruel and sadistic God would do such an evil act. No, it is made explicitly clear that Christ’s death and resurrection is the only way by which man can be saved. So this leaves us with a very real conundrum. What about those die never having heard the name of Christ? How is it fair for them to be eternally condemned without being given the opportunity to accept salvation?
There are bad answers to this problem, a possible answer, and then what I believe to be the best explanation.
First, the bad answers:
They can be saved through faith and obedience to their own religion or version of God. This takes away the exclusivity of Christ being the Only Way.
They are saved because they are not held accountable for what they do not know, similar to small babies who die. This takes away all rationale and urgency of missions, and leaves no motivation for evangelism at all. If this was the case, we would be better off not telling them about Christ. The worst thing we could do would be to share the gospel with a person who then has the opportunity to reject it. If that were to happen, he or she would be condemned. If the point is to have as many people experience heaven as possible, under this belief, we should let the majority die without ever hearing about Christ. The following are points of support from proponents of this belief:
God has called us to mission work and we should obey: This supplies no rationale as to why God would have issued such an apparently pointless command. It would just be blind obedience to a command with no rationale.
Missions is broader than just securing peoples’ eternal destiny: This brings us back to the idea of the Christian peace corps.
Missions should be positive, not an ultimatum: Yes, but this takes away any urgency surrounding mission work around the world. Why would a career missionary sacrifice the comforts of home, and bring their whole family to a foreign country to struggle as missionaries for most of their lives?
Christ is revealed to every person and given a choice sometime before their death. There is little to no evidence to support this belief; it also takes away the need, and especially the urgency of mission work, among other problems. (Important Point: Throughout history, God has chosen to reveal Himself to countless people through dreams and visions. We see this regularly, especially in nations that are largely Muslim. These dreams usually prompt the dreamer to seek out someone who has more information about Christ, and therefore hear the full gospel message.)
A possible answer:
They are lost because they never heard and therefore never believed on Christ, and will spend eternity in hell. Is this possible? Yes. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, people have been born with a sinful nature, a tendency toward sin. Every human is deserving of judgment and punishment for his sin in the face of a perfect and holy God. Think of the sun. The sun is good, allowing life to exist on earth. But it also burns, bearing down on us all, and rightfully so. A just God must punish sin. But God so loved us, that He introduced sunscreen into history. The sunscreen of salvation. He gave us His only begotten Son, so that those who believe in Him will not face the wrath of God’s righteous judgment. The people who don’t hear about Christ are still rightfully punished for their sin in hell. Some suffer this punishment because of the sin of others, such as Christians who have the Good News but are not willing to get out of their comfort zone to tell people about Him. God shows amazing love and grace in saving anyone at all. This explanation, though unsatisfying to many, still doesn’t actually violate the nature of God. Nevertheless, I believe there is a better answer…
The best answer:
First let me give credit where credit is due. My favorite answer to this age-old question is explained by Dr. William Lane Craig in his book “Hard Questions, Real Answers.” Most of the material below originates with him (and sections are direct quotes from his book).
We need recognize the concept of General Revelation. Although many people do not know the full revelation of the gospel, none of us are totally ignorant of him. Pull out your Bible and read Romans 1:19-20. Also, Psalm 19:1 says that “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The created universe speaks so clearly of a Creator. It is difficult to take a walk in the country or gaze at the night sky and not see something of God’s creative flair reflected there. Many have set ‘science’ against God, but science is simply better understanding how God designed things, and if anything, should make us more in awe of Him.
Then there is the witness of our conscience. Read Romans 2:14-15. Though defective since the fall, our consciences still function and give us a sense of a moral order, a morality that we generally know to be correct, even though we fail to live up to it.
Hence there is no one that is totally ignorant of God. According to Paul, all mankind can know through nature that a Creator God exists, and through their own conscience about God’s moral law and their failure to live up to it. Romans 1 and 2 indicates that God doesn’t judge people who haven’t heard about Christ by the same standard as those who have. He judges them based on the info he does have, as God has revealed it to all mankind in nature and conscience.
But the truth is that most ignore the Creator and morality, and go on to worship gods of their own making immersing themselves in immorality (we see this throughout Scripture). It is conceivable that a few might recognize God and His moral law, and turn to Him in repentance and faith and that God might accordingly apply to them the benefits of Christ’s blood so that they might be saved without the conscious knowledge of Christ. This is what happened with Old Testament figures like Job. He had no conscious knowledge of Christ, but still enjoyed a saving relationship with God in virtue of Christ’s atoning death. If their lack of knowledge before Christ’s first coming was not an absolute barrier to salvation, is there any reason why sheer lack of knowledge after this time should be an absolute barrier? Those who have really never heard the gospel today are in a similar position to those who lived before Christ. Is it not possible for them to respond to the knowledge of God they do have in the way those Old Testament heroes did?
I believe salvation is universally accessible to anyone at any time through a faith response to God’s general revelation through nature and conscience. But if we take Scripture seriously, and are honest with ourselves, these are the extreme exceptions. We know that very few people actually access salvation in this way. Most people freely ignore a revelation of only nature and conscience, but only come to Christ after they hear the gospel.
So we still have a problem.
How could God be all-powerful, and all-loving, yet for some people never to hear the gospel and therefore be lost?
More specifically, why didn’t God bring the gospel to people who reject the light of general revelation that they have, but who would have believed had they only heard the gospel?
Answer: How do we know there are such people? We know that not everyone believes the gospel and is saved when missionaries finally succeed in bringing the Good News to some previously unreached people group. We know that some people who never hear the gospel and are lost would not have believed in it even if they had heard. What if God has providentially ordered the world that ALL persons who never hear the gospel are precisely such people. In other words, everyone who never hears the gospel and is lost would have rejected the gospel and been lost even if he had heard it. As Dr. Craig says, no one could stand before God on Judgment Day and say “Sure, God, I didn’t respond to your revelation in nature and conscience, but if only I had the gospel, I would have believed! God would say, “No, I knew that even if you had heard the gospel, you wouldn’t have believed it. Therefore, my judgment of you on the basis of nature and conscience is neither unfair or unloving.”
What about missionary work? Why do it if all the people who are unreached would not receive Christ even if they heard of Him? This is an important clarification. We are talking about people who NEVER hear the gospel. God in His providence can so arrange the world that as the gospel spreads out from first century Palestine, he places people in its path who would believe it if they heard it. In His love and mercy, God ensures that no one who would believe the gospel if they heard it remains ultimately unreached. This makes missionary work a divine appointment!
Read Acts 17:24-28a! Paul describes God’s providential arrangement of the world’s peoples (both the time and place) with a view toward reaching out and finding God.
To sum up with a couple other questions that are raised when talking about this (again, from Dr. Craig):
Why didn’t God create a world in which He knew everyone would freely receive Christ and be saved?
It may not be within God’s power to create such a world. It’s a logical impossibility to make someone freely do something. Given His will to create free creatures, God had to accept that some would reject Him and be lost.
Why did God create the world, if He knew that so many people would not receive Christ and therefore be lost?
God wanted to share His love and fellowship with created persons. This is an immeasurable ‘good.’ He knew that this meant some would freely reject Him, but the blessedness and happiness of those who would accept Him should not be precluded by those who would freely reject Him. Those who willingly forfeit salvation should not have a ‘veto power’ over worlds God could create.
Why didn’t God bring the gospel to people who reject the light of general revelation that they have, but who would have believed had they only heard the gospel?
Perhaps there are no such people. God has so arranged the world that those who would respond to the gospel if they heard it are born at a time and place in history where they do hear it. Those who do not respond to God’s revelation in nature and conscience and never hear the gospel would not have responded to it even if they had heard it. Hence, no one is lost because of a lack of information or due to historical or geographical accident. Anyone who wants, or even would want to be saved, will be saved.
Is this answer theologically accurate? Only God knows. But even if it’s a possibility, then this question doesn’t create a theological non-starter for the Christian faith, and we don’t have to settle on one of the bad explanations given earlier.
Just remember, Isaiah 30:18, which says “Therefore the Lord longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the Lord is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him.”
Trust in that.