How can those who never heard about Christ
by Ernest Valea
This question is a natural outcome when Christians state that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only possibility for human salvation. From the very beginning, we have to emphasize an important aspect when assessing this issue: Such a question can be raised only by those who have heard about Jesus Christ. So none of us belongs to the category of those who never heard about him. Therefore posing this question can be either a way of justifying one's adherence to atheism or to other religions (since the answer is not easy at all), or the way of expressing a genuine interest for understanding how one's Christian faith can be reconciled with the claims of other religions. Whatever the case might be, finding a proper answer to this question is important.
Two extremes must be avoided when addressing the salvation of those who have never heard about Christ. First, if humans can be saved only after hearing about him, the multitudes which never had this chance during their lifetime would necessarily be damned to eternal suffering in hell. It is obvious that such a cruelty would not be consistent with his love for us, which sent Christ to die on the cross for our sins. If God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful, he must have a solution for those who have never heard about his final revelation in Jesus Christ.
Second, if all other religions were valid ways to God, the Christian claim that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the only possibility for human salvation should be rejected. If humans could have worked out their salvation by carefully following any available known religion, God shouldn’t have admitted the crucifixion of Christ. Christianity would have been a mere extra alternative to reach God to those already existing, and Jesus only one religious teacher among others.
However, Jesus himself claimed to be the only possibility for our salvation and reconciliation with God. He said: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14,6). He commanded his disciples to go and proclaim this truth in the whole world (Matthew 28,18-20; Mark 16,15-16). If other religions were as good as Christianity in attaining salvation, the effort of Christian missionaries would be absurd. Why would so many have sacrificed their lives? Only to proclaim one of the many alternatives to reach God?
Therefore we cannot sacrifice the uniqueness of Jesus’ atonement on the altar of modern syncretism. According to Christianity, salvation is provided only as a result of the specific historical deeds of Jesus Christ in his life, death on the cross, resurrection and ascension. What he did is absolutely essential for the salvation of any human being who has ever lived, whether thousands of years BC or nowadays. And no human being is excluded from God's plan of salvation. The Apostle Paul states: "God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2,4). This is what Christianity holds.
But then we face a difficulty: Is possible that only those who have heard about Christ can be saved? Or is salvation also available for those who haven't heard about him? The element which solves this dilemma is the criteria according to which God will judge those who never heard about Christ and grant them salvation. The Bible states that God is holy and will judge humans with justice (Acts 17,31), according to the available measure of revelation they had and their response to it, expressed through their deeds (Romans 2,6), words (Matthew 12,36-37) and thoughts (Hebrews 4,12). The amount of revelation one has determines a consequent measure of responsibility on his behalf (Luke 12,47-48). In the Western world, almost anyone has elementary knowledge about Christianity, and therefore the terms of one's salvation are clear. As for those who never had the chance to hear the Christian message or heard a perverted version of it, it is obvious that their judgment will require other criteria than responding to the historical Jesus Christ.
Grace attributed retroactively
Surprisingly, in Hebrews 11 we can find a whole list of people who never heard about Christ but still are saved. Before analyzing these cases, we must acknowledge that if salvation depended exclusively on how much information one had about Christ, we would affirm a form of Gnosticism (salvation through attaining the right knowledge of spiritual realities). But God does not limit his grace to those who have enough information of him. The examples mentioned in Hebrews 11 prove that the salvation of those who never heard about Christ depends on two basic requirements: 1) their response to the amount of revelation they had, which is their responsibility; 2) the retroactive conferring of Christ’s sacrifice on the basis of their faith, which is God’s responsibility. Let us see how this works.
This text gives many examples of people who lived before Christ and were saved without hearing about him. Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, David and others, are all considered heroes of faith, despite the fact that none of them heard about Christ. Jacob (Genesis 49,10), Moses (Deuteronomy 18,15) and David (Psalm 22) prophesied about his coming, but had a very limited understanding of its meaning. Others like Rahab (Joshua 2,1-21; Hebrews 11,31), Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5,1-19; Luke 4,27), Melchizedek (Genesis 14,17-20; 7,2,15-17) and Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses (Exodus 18), were saved although they didn’t even belong to the people of Israel. They responded with faith to the small amount of revelation they had, and as a result God conferred on them retroactively the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Faith is the key element here. Not knowledge saves us, but God, as we respond in faith to his revelation, no matter how limited it might be. Faith means trusting the promises of God and responding to him through effective action (Hebrews 11,1-3). It is not a mere understanding of the doctrine of salvation.
Let us notice what these people of the Old Testament were asked to do and how they responded to God's call: Noah was warned about the imminent coming of the flood; his response proved his faith in God’s promise to save him together with his family (Genesis 6-9). Abraham trusted God’s promise that he would be blessed with a son and become the ancestor of a big nation (Genesis 12-22; Hebrews 11,8-19). God proclaimed him righteous because of his faith: "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15,6). Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the descendants of Abraham, trusted in God and were blessed. Moses trusted that God would free the Jewish nation from Egyptian bondage and lead them into the promised land (Hebrews 11,20-22).
Not only people belonging to the chosen people of Israel are said to be saved, but also Gentiles. Melchizedek is a mysterious character who had no family ties with Abraham, but still was called "priest of the God Most High" (Genesis 14,18). He worshiped the same God, and Abraham paid tithes to him. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, finding out what God had done through the Jewish nation, accepted by faith that the God of Moses was the true god. Rahab, the prostitute (!), risked her life in order to hide the Jewish scouts (Joshua 2,1-21; Hebrews 11,31). This was the effective way she expressed her faith in the true God and therefore was counted among the heroes of faith. Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5,1-19; Luke 4,27) banished his pride when he understood who the true God was, proving his faith by the decision to abandon idolatry.
None of these people of the Old Testament were saved through their merits, but through the grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, retroactively attributed to them. Their faith was the channel through which God granted them salvation. Today he uses the same channel for all people who accept the sacrifice of Christ as the atoning solution for their sins (Hebrews 11,39-40). Although today we have available the final revelation of God through Christ, the object of faith has always been the same - God himself, and the basis of his forgiveness was always Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Whether one lived before or after Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s forgiveness was always granted through grace and not by one’s own merits, and the proper way of accepting grace was always faith.
Salvation for those who never heard about Christ but accept the importance of grace
The above considerations do not imply that all those who don’t know anything other than their native religion are rejected by God. There have been many spiritual masters who recognized the necessity of grace and the impossibility of attaining salvation by one's own efforts. Ramanuja and Madhva are brilliant examples in the Hindu tradition, as is Shantideva in Mahayana Buddhism. The spiritual trend called prapatti in Hinduism and the Pure Land school of Buddhism focus on grace as the only solution for attaining liberation. According to them, the whole merit for being saved belongs to the god (in Hinduism) or bodhisattva (in Buddhism) they worship. There are also many cases of tribal religions in which grace plays a key role in salvation.
The God who reveals himself in the Bible knows one’s inner attitude and motivation for performing certain religious duties. Any efforts which aim at self-justification are of no value, no matter how impressive they might be. The proper attitude is one of humility and openness towards God's grace, which he offers unconditionally. We have observed this attitude in the prapatti devotional trend of Hinduism, which demands giving up the control of one's personal life to the god Vishnu and leaving to him all responsibility for attaining salvation. The follower of this trend has to acknowledge that he is not good enough to attain liberation by performing rituals and moral obligations. The whole prapatti philosophy can be summarized in the following verse, written by Vedanta Deshika, a 14th century follower of Ramanuja:
The same is the case with the Pure Land School of Mahayana Buddhism, which flourished in Japan. According to its doctrine, the bodhisattva Amida (the Buddha of Infinite Light) is able to save even the most despised sinner by his grace (tariki). Heaven (Amida's Pure Land) can be reached only by his grace, not by human efforts such as meditation or performing good deeds.
Such spiritual trends in other religions prove that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, convincing people of their sin and limitations and turning their hearts toward God's grace. According to the character displayed by the God of the Bible, we can expect that he will save such people, by the grace available for all in Jesus Christ. They will be saved not through their native religions, but despite them, not because they didn't hear about Christ, but despite the fact that they didn't hear about him, as a reward for their humility and recognition of the need for grace. In other words, it is not Vishnu or Amida who saves them, but Christ through his grace, as a result of their need for grace expressed towards Vishnu or Amida. Whether there are many or few people in this category we cannot know.
A classic example of how people belonging to cultures foreign to the Judeo-Christian world can still have a revelation of God and meet him is the Magi from the east mentioned in Matthew 2,1-12. Despite the fact that they were astrologers and probably believed that human destiny is shaped by the stars, which is contrary to biblical teaching, they were still granted a special revelation from God regarding his intervention to save humankind from sin. They worshiped Jesus as king of the Jews and brought him gifts worthy of a king. Their coming to Bethlehem was obviously not customary. It was not a rule for the Magi to worship a new king born in Judea. Their visit was rather a surprise for all, and a serious reason for Herod to feel his throne threatened. This example shows that God can use unorthodox methods to reveal himself to those who are completely foreign to his revelation in the Bible. He has sufficient means to do it all over the earth. Again we can notice that the most important factor in defining faith is human response to his revelation. The Magi could have ignored the Bethlehem star. However, their journey proves their faith and this faith brings them to worship the true God.
The problem of humanity has never been the lack of revelation, but rather pride and the refusal of grace. People do not respond to the amount of revelation they already have; they know what to do, but refuse to do it. Most of Jesus’ contemporaries rejected him because they refused to believe despite all fulfilled prophecies, miracles, healings and even despite his resurrection. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16,19-31) is extremely relevant here. People are given everything they need in order to be saved, but if they refuse the available revelation, they are fully responsible for it and cannot be justified at God’s judgment. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ tells us that humans cannot please God by their own efforts and that God’s grace is an absolute necessity for us.
One more aspect must be addressed here: If people can be saved without hearing about Christ, does it mean that Christian missions are futile? By no means. There are two important reasons for Christian missions in the world. First, Jesus himself commanded it (Matthew 28,18-20). He is the final revelation of God and his message of salvation has to be proclaimed "to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1,8). That people can be saved without hearing about Christ is only a temporary solution, which operates only until his message will reach all people. Second, all people should share the fullness and blessings of the Christian life, not only in eternity, but also during this present earthly life. Jesus came to redeem our earthly life as well, so that we could start to experience his love now, in a personal relationship with him and also in the Christian community.
If the salvation of tribes living in remote areas depended entirely on missionaries’ preaching, a lot of people would suffer eternal damnation in hell only because Christian missionaries didn’t manage to reach their part of the world in time. In many cases the disobedience of Christians to go into remote parts of the world would be responsible for that. Even worse is the case of missionaries that have reached remote parts of the world but didn't preach the "right" Jesus. Remember how the New World was colonized. Christian missions have not always been inspired by love. They haven't always preached the message of love, but one of greed and hypocrisy. Therefore, God could not condemn people to hell only because his so-called followers perverted his message. This wouldn't be at all consistent with God’s perfect justice and love for the lost.
God didn’t leave the world without a proper testimony about himself (Acts 14,17) and doesn’t condemn anybody without first revealing his grace. Although this article may not offer an acceptable answer to the question in the title, nobody’s salvation depends on how convincing such an answer could be. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross is and remains the only ground for human salvation. Rejecting it (by those who have heard about him) cannot be justified by the lack of intellectual satisfaction one gets from polemical debates.