What about the unreached?
“A god who condemns an Amazonian tribesman who never even had a chance to hear of him to an eternity of suffering is not worthy of being worshipped.”
The heart of the the gospel is that one is saved by faith alone, in Jesus Christ. This seemingly simple truth that welcomes all who will just believe in him into eternal life with God is actually a major stumbling block for many who reject Christianity, like the commenter I’ve quoted above. Because instead of including all it appears to unfairly exclude a huge chunk of humanity….those who have never heard the gospel.
The simple gospel of putting one’s faith and trust in Jesus for salvation is really not very simple at all when laid like a pattern on the entire fabric of human conditions, situations, locations, and times. Some will get cut out. Or so it would appear.
In this 3-part post I want to carefully, prayerfully, examine the doctrine of salvation…how it is that any of us find ourselves in heaven after we pass from this life. Because just dogmatically asserting that you either believe in Jesus or you’re out sounds biblical but actually fails to adequately account for reality and the whole of God’s revelation, and, I believe, also fails to apply proper biblical interpretation. Worse yet, it brings disrepute to God’s name when he is, understandably, seen as cruel, unjust, and unworthy of worship.
But what about…?
What seems fairly clear, and I am convinced of, is that we are saved by faith, as opposed to works. (True saving faith will be demonstrated by works, however, but that’s a topic for another post.) Multiple verses in the Bible attest to this, such as,
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16
For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. – Romans 3:28
But what does saving faith look like, who specifically needs to be the object of our faith, and what about those who through no fault of their own are unable to respond to the gospel because of when they lived, where they live, or their level of mental competence? This Venn diagram illustrates the reality that the unbeliever finds objectionable and the believer must account for. How can those who lived B.C., before Christ, be expected to have known of him in order to put their faith and trust in him? What about the poor souls in remote locations unreached by the gospel or otherwise kept from hearing the name of Jesus because of a religious or cultural milieu that excludes him? And is a little child or a severely mentally-handicapped person of any age to be expected to understand that Jesus is God’s Son sent to die for our sins and if we submit to him in faith as our Lord we will be saved?
Some necessary qualifications
It’s this last category specifically that gives me confidence that there are “exceptions to the rule.” In order to believe a proposition, i.e. the gospel, one must have the mental capacity to receive and process the information, making the connections between what is heard and what one already knows, so that some level of comprehension is achieved. Little babies haven’t the capability nor enough background knowledge to understand and believe the gospel, even if they were Baby Einstein himself. Are we to believe that God would judge and even condemn them for their failure to do so?
This unconscionable potentiality is on the table because some Christians have held to a doctrine of original sin that says infants come out of the womb condemned and are in need of saving simply because they are Adam’s “seed” born with the stain of sin. But I say, No, No, most emphatically No! Whatever Scriptural verses are used to support this view can and must be understood differently because such an extreme punishment of ones who have never sinned themselves clearly opposes God’s justice. But again, that’s a matter for a separate post.
But even if infants did need saving, or toddlers who hit and bite and lie about getting into the cookie jar, I believe God applies to their account his own righteousness through Christ apart from any act of faith on their part because they are incapable of it. Just as he exempted the “little ones” from responsibility when judging the Israelites in the exodus (Deuteronomy 1:39), so too does he exempt them from accountability when judging mankind for how we respond to his revelation.
So the question is, if those who die as young children enjoy the blessing of eternal life with God without making some kind of faith commitment to him, are there other necessary qualifications to the doctrine of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ?
I’ll continue exploring this question tomorrow.