The Authority of the Universe has declared there is only One Way to Him. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. The narrow way offered by Christ is the only way God has offered as a way to come to Him. Now you may remember there was another way through the Jews, but with Christ that way was completed and abrogated in favor of this One Way.
Is God unfair? Shouldn’t He offer at least an alternative? As a matter of fact, He does, but you aren’t going to like it. There is one alternative hinted at throughout Scripture, and it is based on the idea of “age of accountability” or the idea that one has to mature sufficiently to be able to have faith in God. We know there is an age when children grow up and can grasp abstract concepts like faith, God, sin, and sacrifice. There is the suggestion in Scripture that children who die before this age, or people who never attain this kind of abstract reasoning (i.e, the invalid, the incompetent, the mentally challenged) are all excused. We reason this out because we believe God is a gracious God and would extend grace to those who cannot accept Him by faith.
Of course, this flies in the face of those who insist on original sin. To some extent, we all receive the consequences of sin from our parents, as our bodies are still able to die, even in utero. Even Jesus, who knew no sin, still died on the cross. But I also believe in original grace. I don’t believe God sends someone to hell who never consciously and willingly sinned against Him. So the alternative suggested by theology and the Scriptures to belief in Jesus as the one way to Heaven is to have never been able to believe in Him and thus be excused from this requirement. I imagine all of my readers have passed this point.
So that leaves faith in Jesus (and baptism in Him) as the only way to be free from condemnation and enjoy everlasting life with God.
This is the point I hear about the “what about’s”, those possible exceptions to the rule that people have come up with over the years. The most popular by far is the scenario where someone in “deepest darkest Africa” (it’s usually Africa, but it could be anywhere) has never heard about Jesus. What about him? Would he still need Jesus to get into heaven? The short answer is “Yes.” But how could God judge him if he never heard about Jesus? The answer is that God judges everyone based on the Law. For the Jews, it was the law of Moses. For everyone else, it is the Law of their own conscience. Within everyone is written a set of laws, written deep down in their soul’s code, that prohibits certain behaviors. For example, everyone, regardless of culture, upbringing, or social history, knows it is wrong to murder another human being in cold blood. Everyone knows, regardless of where they live, knows it is wrong to steal another person’s property. We usually recognize something is wrong when we have to practice secrecy or concealment to do it. Some cultures do stretch the limits on each of what we usually refer to as the Ten Commandments (refer to my Source Code series for more info about this), but every culture at some level knows these things are wrong. And this is the basis for God’s judgment. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3)
So what is the man in darkest Africa to do? Travel five miles to the nearest missionary? Honestly, there are few places in this world where the gospel, at the very least the basics of the gospel story, has not reached. The people groups who have not yet been reached are still significant, but fewer now than they were. And the work is still ongoing. I encourage you if you are interested to pursue this topic as you can. There is still much work to do. For if you care about that man in darkest Africa, you will make every effort to see that he receives the gospel and that he’s not just a hypothetical exception for you. For if anyone is to be saved from judgment, even by their own conscience, it is only through Jesus Christ. Only Jesus saves us from the unbearable burden of our own sins.
Another stated exception to this rule, one which I still struggle with, is the number of people who lived after the resurrection who still died, but long before the gospel could ever reach them. My son and I were talking about this a few months ago. What about the person who died in China in AD 33 mere minutes after the Resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem? Was that person subject to the New Covenant rules? Did that person need salvation through the name of Jesus, because he just happened to die a few minutes after Jesus rose again? This is more of an historical take on the hypothetical noted before. But I believe it is far less hypothetical. It took some time for the gospel to reach the known world, maybe about 40 years. What about the world outside the Roman Empire? What about your African soul in AD 40? What if the gospel had not reached you yet, and you still died?
This is why I struggle with this second one: I have both a gracious God and a holy God. He extends grace through His Son Christ Jesus, but He is also holy, and will not tolerate any sin in His presence. Our souls need to be covered in the blood of Jesus to be able to stand in God’s presence in heaven. We cannot get there on our own. All of us have sinned. That’s an axiom in Scripture. All of us need Jesus. That too is a constant. So how do we consider both God’s grace and God’s holiness in the interim between Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem in AD 30 and the time it takes for the gospel to reach the ears of men and women all over the world?
I wish I knew the answer to this question. I know God’s nature hasn’t changed, and He still judges people based on the Law He has imprinted in their souls. But I have to think God still engages in the same process we see illustrated in Acts 10, where Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, has a dream about going and getting Peter so that Peter can tell him the gospel. I believe people in far-off people groups, if they have responded in faith to what they have already received (the testimony of Natural Revelation, i.e., the world around them) that there is a God and He cares about them, then God sends them a similar dream or vision or motivation to seek out His missionaries because, in the end, the gospel is only transmitted through the lips of His people (both past, the Bible, and present, Christians). We are His ambassadors, not the trees or the earth or the universe. God is far more creative and inventive than we are. I give Him the credit to come up with ways of inviting people to His truth that we would never come up with.
I hope this has been helpful. Don’t give up praying, because often stories of people in far-off people groups coming to faith in Jesus has been coupled with stories of faithful Christians praying for them. If you care whether Timbuktu receives the gospel, then be praying today for those people. God made them too. He loves them. As he said to Jonah, “Shouldn’t I care for those people in Nineveh?”
Heavenly Father, though I have not been very good at mission work and spreading the gospel outside my humble place here, I know You are working even now on some lost soul in a place I’ve never heard of. Father, I pray for that man or woman even now who has an inkling of faith, a mustard seed-sized faith that there is a God who loves them. I pray that a way is found that the gospel finds its way to them so that they can be saved and rescued from death. Please, Lord, I pray this in the name of Jesus, Amen.