By Alex McFarland
Doubts and questions about God and the Bible are nothing new. There have always been skeptics. Some are sincere yet misguided, while others are unwilling to embrace the truth once they’ve encountered it. Others simply have an axe to grind.
A number of websites (many of which are aimed at teens) are devoted to debunking the Bible. Books like The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, or Bart Ehrmann’s Misquoting Jesus have generated media coverage for “the new atheism.”
Consequently, many of the questions raised by these high-profile skeptics are also on the minds of skeptics with whom I interact. During the course of planning this special conference at The Cove, here is one of the more common questions on the minds of people I encounter:
What about those who haven’t heard of Christ?
The Scriptures are clear that those who believe in Jesus will be saved (John 1:12). But what about those in un-reached people groups?
The fact is that God has not forgotten the un-reached peoples. I Timothy 2:4 clearly states that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Acts 17:26-27 says that God has determined the times and places for everyone to live “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
Scripture and contemporary missionary evidence support the claim that those who seek God based on the light they have will be given the knowledge of the Gospel in some way, even if this is supernatural (like the Gentile Cornelius, found in Acts 10). This conclusion has been held by Christian thinkers ancient and recent, such as Thomas Aquinas, James Arminius, to modern theologians like Ronald Nash and Robert Lightner. This view satisfies the claim that a loving God would make salvation universally available, but it avoids the problematic claim of inclusivism that people can be saved without knowledge of the gospel.
A striking example from modern missions that supports such a position is related by Don Richardson in the book Eternity In Their Hearts. A man named Warrasa Wange from the Gedeo people of Ethiopia cried out to “Magano” (his tribe’s notion of the highest and most benevolent Deity). Warrasa asked the Deity to reveal himself.
Almost immediately, he began having visions of two white men building shelters under a large tree in his village. A voice in the visions told him, “These men will bring you a message from Magano, the God you seek. Wait for them.” Eight years later, two Canadian missionaries came to Warrasa’s village and met him under the same tree he saw in his vision. The missionaries shared the gospel and Warrasa and many of his fellow tribesmen believed. I believe that this is a compelling example of God getting the Gospel to a person who honestly sought after Him based on the “light” he had. But what is important is that his salvation was based on the gospel he believed, not just on the “light” he had.
Beyond this the Bible does not clearly teach what will happen to those who never receive the good news of the Gospel but do attempt to seek God. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “The truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are.” The best a Bible-believing Christian can do is to trust in God’s wisdom, mercy and grace, and to suspend judgment salvation of the un-evangelized. As the editors of Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World conclude in their introduction, “These optimistic hints can never become a first-order control belief” because the Bible is just not clear on this subject.
In reality, there is only one person of whom you may speak authoritatively regarding the condition of their soul: yourself. As with so many things in the Christian life, C. S. Lewis offers practical wisdom for the situation: “In the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. . . If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them.” The bottom line is that we can trust that God, who loves the whole world, will take care of the questionable situations, but our job as Christians is to bring the gospel to a world that desperately needs it.
Learn more about apologetics with Alex McFarland, when he leads a seminar April 15-17 at The Cove entitled “When Worlds Collide.” Click here for more information.