Ask a follower of Jesus how a person gains admission to heaven, and the standard answer is something like this: “Put your faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Son and your Savior.” I’m sure you could state it more eloquently, but you get my drift. Heaven is gained through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
But that statement raises a thorny question. What about all the people who lived and died before Jesus came to earth? What about all the people who have never heard the name Jesus? In the words of Rob Bell, “what if the missionary had a flat tire?”
What happens to people who live and die without ever hearing about Jesus?
I’d love to say that I have the definitive answer to this question, but I don’t. However, in a serendipitous moment during my sermon preparation this week, I think I gained some insight into how God might deal with this kind of circumstance. The sermon is from Genesis 20, which is the story of Abraham passing his wife Sarah off as his sister. Without preaching the sermon to you, here are three insights I learned that could apply to this question.
1. Ignorance is not an excuse for sin.
King Abimelek had no idea Sarah was Abraham’s wife when he took her, yet God said, “You are a dead man because you took a married woman.” The principle is that it doesn’t seem to matter whether sinful actions are intentional or not. Sin is sin, and God will treat it as such. Therefore, if this principle is universal, sin counts as sin, whether you have heard of Jesus or not.
2. You can know about God without hearing about Jesus.
In Romans 1, Paul makes a startling statement about people who, because of a wicked lifestyle and mindset, want to suppress the truth about who and what God is. Here are Paul’s word:
“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 1:20)
If Paul is right, and the created world is a testimony of God’s nature and qualities, then it seems reasonable to think that though people have never heard of a man named Jesus, they can look at creation and understand the existence and qualities of a Supreme Being- to the extent that they will have no excuse for their unbelief. But the problem is not yet solved, because knowing about God isn’t enough…
3. God gave Abimelek a chance to repent before he suffered judgment.
This fact snuck up on me. King Abimelek was a pagan- he neither knew about nor served God. Yet in spite of the fact that he didn’t know God and was guilty of a sinful action (which was about to cost him his life), God didn’t pronounce immediate judgment. He gave Abimelek a chance to return Sarah to her husband (which Abimelek did).
So how does this impact the original question? I don’t know for sure. Nothing here addresses the issue head on. But there are some principles that, at least for me, shed light on the question. I believe that ignorance is not an excuse for sin, and God still holds violators accountable. I believe that even though people might not ever hear the name Jesus in their lifetime, God has revealed Himself through creation and through life, and His presence is undeniable. And I believe God is a God of justice, and in His own way, deals fairly with the sin problem of every man and every woman, whether they hear the name Jesus or not. I don’t know for sure what His method might be, but whatever He chooses, it will be right.
This is a complex issue with many layers, and there are viewpoints different than my own that are persuasive. How do you go about dealing with this issue? What are your thoughts? I’d be honored if you shared them.