One of the most asked questions about Christianity goes something like this:
If Jesus is the only way to heaven, what about the people who lived before Jesus was born?
A corollary question is: What about the people who never had an opportunity to hear about Jesus?
I am no biblical scholar, but I have wondered about these things myself.
Jesus seems to leave us little wiggle room when he says things like, “I am the way, the truth and the light, and no one comes to the Father but through me.”
Some say that Jesus was a good moral teacher, but he wasn’t God. A person who made the claims he made (like he is the only way to God), however, doesn’t allow us room to consider him just good moral person, or even a prophet. As C. S. Lewis famously said, a person who makes the claims Jesus made is either a lunatic, liar or God. He not just a good man.
So if Jesus was right about who he said he is, what about the people before Jesus came who knew nothing about Jesus?
For starters, we need to consider the one way assertion in context. Jesus also said that God desires that no one would perish and that all people would be saved. John tells us “God is love”, and if God is love He loves all people. If God is God, He does not break His promises like people do. He is trustworthy; His word is true; and we can trust him.
If we can think of and are concerned about people who died before Jesus or never heard of Him, hasn’t God thought of that too? If God is love, He surely is more concerned than we are.
We see early in the Bible, in Genesis, that God made us in His own image. We are the crowning glory of His creation. He made us like Him; though we are finite, and He is infinite. He made us to love as well, though He also allowed us freedom of will.
We are not programmed robots. We are free to love, free to take our rightful place God that created for us, but we are free to rebel. We have the ability to submit to God as our Creator or to go our own way. We can accept Him or reject Him.
One area in which we are free to choose is the area of trust. Do we trust God? Do we take Him at His word? Do we trust that He is good? Do we trust that He loves us?
I dare say that, we tend to trust ourselves more than God, me included.
With that said, there are some hints in the Bible that suggest an answer to the question. Jesus himself suggests that there is a place for people to go when they died on this earth before Jesus’s time. Jesus describes the death of a beggar and a rich man in Luke 16. When the beggar died, the angels took him to Abraham, who was apparently in some place of comfort, while the rich man looked up to them after his death in a place of torment.
Abraham is called the father of faith by Paul. He is held up as an example of faith by the writer of Hebrews. Abraham died thousands of years before Jesus was born so we have some assurance that God has provided a way for people who died before Jesus and never knew Jesus to be included in heaven.
There are other clues in the parable as well. What was it that brought the beggar to Abraham in a place of comfort while the rich man found himself in a place of discomfort? The story suggests that the rich man ignored the beggar at his gate during life. Being wealthy, Jesus said Clearly, then the rich man had his reward during life, while the beggar received his reward when life was over. The story illustrates the importance of how we live our lives. I think there is more to it though.
Being heavenly minded is a clue. Abraham also is a clue. We don’t read much of Abraham helping people in the Old Testament. Abraham was also wealthy, though he lived in tents and never settled in one place to live. If we have no record of Abraham helping people, and if Abraham was rich, then what distinguishes Abraham as a man of God from the rich man in Luke 16?
We are told that Abraham did not settle in one place because he was holding out for something different, something better, an eternal city! By this, we see that Abraham was heavenly minded. He did not live as if this earth, this life, is all there is. More importantly, we are told many times over that Abraham had faith. He is considered the father of faith. He heard God, and he responded to God. He trusted and believed God, and we are told his faith was attributed to him as righteousness.
Clearly, then, the difference isn’t simply being nice to people and treating them well. God attributed righteousness to Abraham. It wasn’t something Abraham earned. Paul makes this clear in his letter. Righteousness comes by faith in the grace of God.
I like to think that “righteousness” means being right with God. Godly righteousness does not necessarily mean morally perfect. I believe people can be morally good and not be right with God at all. A morally good people can be proud, arrogant, self-righteous and may actually be opposed to God in their spirit, trusting in themselves, relying on their own sense of moral superiority. In fact, Jesus described the Pharisees as “white-washed tombs”. They were right on the outside but wrong (dead) on the inside.
Going back to Abraham, he is held out as the prime example of righteousness (rightness with God). It was Abraham’s faith and trust in God by which God considered him righteous. In Romans 4, Paul says that Abraham believed God, and faith was credited to him as righteousness (quoting Genesis 15:6). Paul also cites David, (in Psalm 32) that blessed are they to whom God credits righteousness apart from “works”. David was described as “a man after God’s own heart”.
Faith and trust in God, then, are the ways people were saved before Jesus, and it’s also the way people are saved who have not heard of Jesus. In fact, faith and trust is the way we are saved by Jesus today.
Sin and death is what we are saved from. Sin leads to death and separation from God. Jesus declared, “‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'” (John 6:35) Paul says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” (Romans 8:9-10)
But how is this true? Especially before Jesus if he is the only way to the Father? According to Jesus, he is the way all people are saved from sin and death, and by which all people are made right with God. Jesus is God’s litmus test. When he walked among people, people reacted to him in different ways. Some people were drawn to him; some people argued with him and opposed him; some people just hung back, not committing either way.
I believe the way people reacted to Jesus was how they reacted to God because he was God in the flesh.
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:10-14)
Meeting Jesus face to face triggers a reaction. Confrontation with the decision to accept or reject Jesus today also spurs a reaction. Not meeting Jesus or knowing about Jesus makes the reaction to God less visceral, but we all react to God in our lives whether we are conscious of it or not.
Paul tackled the same issue in Romans when he talked about the Law. The Jews were given the Law by God through Moses. The Jews were God’s chosen people – God chose to reveal Himself and the Law to Abraham’s descendants – but they did not understand what it was that God gave them. They thought themselves superior because of it. But Paul says,
“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)” (Romans 2:13-14)
We all have this thing called a conscience – the law of God written on our hearts. But the law does not save anyone! Quite to the contrary, the law condemns. It exposes our misalignment with God.
Paul speaks about the purpose of the law in Romans. In short, the law is meant to expose sin and the need for God’s mercy. The law is meant to dispel the idea that we are right (righteous) in ourselves apart from God. The law is meant to expose sin, which leads to death and decay, and to highlight our need for God, who gives us righteousness and life.
Both the Old Testament and the New Testament declare similarly:
- “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins.” (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
- “‘There is no one righteous, not even one….'” (Romans 3:10)
We all need a savior! We all need to throw ourselves on God’s mercy. We are not righteous in ourselves. We are not righteous apart from God. We cannot be right with God by our own efforts. We must trust Him and have faith in Him, and that is what saves us – putting our trust in God.
The way God saves us, and all who came before Jesus, is by the atoning death of Jesus on the cross by which Jesus took our sins upon himself – in effect they were nailed to the cross and left there – so that we can have the life that God has long promised for us going back to Abraham and David and all who have put their trust in God.
“[Abraham] did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Romans 5:20-25)
“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:21-25)
I believe that everyone, those who died long before Jesus and those who have never heard about Jesus, have God’s law written on their hearts. To that extent all people can recognize that they do not live up to that law if they are being honest with themselves. How we react to that is how we react to God.
Do we compare ourselves to others and become self-righteous, proud, arrogant, uncaring and unforgiving to others, relying on our own selves and seeking only our own benefit? Or do we recognize our frailty and need for forgiveness, becoming dependent on God’s goodness, showing mercy and forgiveness to others, as we have received mercy and forgiveness from God, seeking the good of others and considering others more important than ourselves? In those reactions lie our attitudes toward God.
The question (what about people who never heard of Jesus) is answered for me in one simple word picture. At the end of the Chronicles of Narnia books, C.S. Lewis describes the end of the world of Narnia. As the hills are being rolled up and stars plucked from the sky, all living creatures with souls were funneled to one gate where Aslan, the Lion (the Christ figure), stood. There was no choice but to pass right in front of him.
As people passed, their eyes locked on him, and in that instant, they were drawn or repulsed, they went right or they went left, depending on their reaction to Aslan. Each person went right or left based on their individual reactions in life that culminated in that instant when their eyes met. That reaction was the culmination of all of the conscious and unconscious decisions and reactions each person made when confronted with good and evil throughout their lives, and the tendency, the attitude, of their lives as their lives came to an end.
This allegory is not biblical. Lewis did not intend it to be anything other than a children’s story, but it has stuck with me since I first read it. I believe that we are either tending toward God or tending away from God through our lives. Each day, each moment, by each decision, conscious or unconscious, witting or unwitting, we are either drawing near to God or drawing away.
When our day comes, and this life ends, we will have that face to face moment with the author and giver of life, and we will either be repelled or drawn, depending on the posture of our lives when we die. Those who never heard of Jesus, will equally be drawn or repelled depending on their own postures toward God and the law written on their hearts.
Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one can come to the Father but by Him – through Him, past Him. He is the litmus test. But whether we must have heard of Him or have been given an express opportunity during life to have accepted or rejected Him is not something we can ultimately affirm or deny.
God is good. God is love. He desires that no one perish and that everyone have eternal life. We can take Him at His word, and we can trust Him. God is fair, and He is just. If we attempt to stand on our own righteousness, we will be measured by God’s justice and repelled. If we give ourselves over to God completely, relying on Him, and Him alone to save us, we will receive His mercy and be drawn.
I believe He provides us all the opportunity to accept Him or to reject Him during our lives, but when our lives come to an end, our way will have been chosen. Our attitude toward God will be set by all the little choices and the direction of our lives leading up to that moment. In that moment, when we meet face to face, it will be too late to change the course we chose during our lives. Our direction will be set. To the left or to the right, toward God or away from Him, we will be drawn or we will be repelled in that instant.
The question for all of us now as long as we live is…. What will you do today?
How will you react to God today?
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. ”
― C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce