Salvation for people who have not heard about Jesus

  • Question from NM, United Kingdom:

    “If Abraham was justified by faith (and not by the law – Romans chapter 4), does that mean other people could be saved without hearing about Jesus?”

    Most Christian theologians would agree that the salvation of humanity only comes through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. The question is whether a person has to be aware of this in order to be saved.

    The ‘exclusivist’ approach held by many Christians rests on particular passages that imply that there is no possibility of salvation without acknowledging Christ as Lord. For example, Jesus’ statement about himself as being ‘the way, the truth and the life’ with no-one coming to the Father (i.e. being saved) ‘except through me’ (John ch14). The ‘exclusivist’ ideal has been the driving force behind most of the missionary activity undertaken by both Catholic and Protestant wings of the Christian Church.

    However the problem with this view is that there is a universal salvation aspect to Christ’s ministry found in the New Testament. Jesus describes the resurrection and judgment of those who have gone before (John 5 vs28-9), while 1 Peter chapter 3 affirms Christ’s descent into Hell to (possibly) offer salvation to those who died in the flood. These people have not ‘believed in the Lord’, yet it would appear they have been saved by Christ’s redemptive work.

    Another approach is to say that Christ died, not for the whole world, but for those chosen by God to be saved, the ‘elect’. This viewpoint is usually linked with John Calvin and some of his followers have gone so far as to claim that God’s sovereign will is not dependent on whether one of the ‘elect’ has confessed Jesus Christ as their Lord. Jesus has saved them anyway through the cross and there is nothing a person can do to alter that. Calvin himself did not hold that view, believing that it was only through repentance and obedience that a person affirmed their status as one of the ‘elect’. In fact, Calvin was convinced that God’s graciousness was evident in the free will he gave human beings, in that human beings were able to ‘opt out’ of their salvation, which is why the doctrine of the ‘Perseverance of the Saints’ is so important in classic Calvinist thought.

    Karl Rahner, a Jesuit theologian has had a major influence on recent theological thought in this area with his theory of ‘anonymous Christians’. These are people who are unknowingly ‘in tune’ with Godly principles, follow their consciences and live good lives. Adherents of other religions who honestly try to live according to the limited truth those religious systems contain, believe in a divine power and seek to better their fellow human beings are therefore Christians even though they don’t know it and will be saved.

    Rahner’s theology is echoed by CS Lewis in Mere Christianity, and also in The Last Battle, the apocalyptic final book in the Narnia series. The following statement from Aslan (representing God) to a Calormene who had worshipped the false God Tash (representing Islam) is a neat summation of ‘anonymous Christianity’. “All the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me… no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for his oath’s sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” (The Last Battle, chapter 15)

    This argument is, for the main, total conjecture. The question “what about those who have never heard?” is always asked by those who have heard and the warnings in Scripture for those who hear the Gospel and reject it are quite clear. While it is an interesting point to discuss, those who have chosen to not follow Jesus have no excuse for their behaviour.

    The eternal outlook of those who have genuinely never heard of Christ is, however, hopeful. One of God’s attributes is his mercy and that allied to his omniscient sovereign will means that we can trust God to make the right decision. However, the only way to be totally assured of salvation is through acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord.

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