–Daniel S. Ferguson
When I was 15 or so, there was one question about faith that burned through my thoughts for weeks, even months. I couldn’t think about anything else. It’s a hypothetical you’ve probably heard: “What if there’s some person who’s never heard of Jesus at all? Will they die and go to hell, even if they never had the opportunity to get saved?” To make the question hard for me to ignore, I gave the hypothetical person a name: Joan.
Joan’s question sat on my brain like a stone for the better part of a year. I didn’t have an answer that sat well with me. Jesus says some pretty excluding things, like “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV), and “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). And Paul says that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:20, NIV).
That’s not so good for Joan. It seems like she can’t be saved without Jesus, and that she therefore can’t be saved if she’s never heard of Jesus. That’s a tough reality.
Or is it?
First of all, I have mixed feelings about hell, which I’ve discussed before, but this post isn’t about that. This post is about the question of whether or not the Gospel is exclusive to those who have both heard it and believed it. In other words, is Jesus really the only way to be free of sin and death?
The easy answer and the right answer happen to be the same: unequivocally Yes. Let none of my Christian brethren hear me say that’s not true. It is.
But there is a more difficult answer, too, which is Yes, with provisions.
There are two key passages of Scripture that crop up when you read them. It’s actually the same passage twice. The New Testament one is in Romans 9:25-26, and it quotes the Old Testament, when God is talking through the prophet Hosea. God is rightfully upset that his chosen nation of Israel keeps violating their covenant with Him, worshipping idols and committing injustice. God is so mad that He wants to cut Israel off completely. He even says to Israel, “you are not my people, and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9). Israel was clearly outside God’s favor.
But then God does something extraordinary. He makes a promise in the very next verse. He says to Israel, who has hurt Him so many times, who has completely abandoned Him, whom He has said were no longer His people, “In the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God'” (Hosea 1:10, NIV), and later on, God says, “I will show my love to the one called ‘not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘not my people,’ ‘you are my people’; and they will say, ‘you are my God'” (Hosea 2:23, NIV).
What does that mean? It means that God pursues everyone, even beyond where we would think such pursuits could or should stop. God seems to spend every second loving after every soul, even those who haven’t ever heard of Him (Isaiah 42:6) and even those who have rejected Him (Hosea 11:8). Every second is after every soul.
That leaves the big question: is death really a barrier to that? Does a person die and then God is done pursuing them? Does God’s chasing love that longs for us stop cold once our lungs stop drawing breath? Is death really something that can stop the march of God’s love?
Absolutely not. Christ proved otherwise by resurrecting from the grave in the single greatest act of love toward humans ever. If death didn’t stop God’s love then, how could it stop God’s love now? Surely when Christ overcame His own death, He overcame all of our deaths, too. As Paul says,
“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:17, NIV).
Of course that raises the question, “Who has received God’s abundant provision of grace?” That’s a sticky question. Certainly that includes those who believe in Jesus. But that faith didn’t come from us; it was a gift of God. The Bible is clear about that. And if it is God who gives us faith and not ourselves, and if death is not a barrier to God, who’s to say that God cannot bless souls with faith after death? And if so, would not that faith be a saving one?
None of this is to say that the best thing for you isn’t accepting Christ today. It absolutely is. I can’t guarantee you anything positive before or after death except through Christ. He’s the path to eternal life and the path to the best life right now. That doesn’t change.
But I also don’t want you to fear. If you have doubts, that’s okay. If you have misgivings, that’s okay. If you have had such a bad experience with church that believing in God is absolutely the last thing you’ll ever do, that’s okay. And if you’ve never heard of Jesus, that’s okay, too. God still loves you, and He’s still pursuing you, and He won’t stop. Not now, not at death, not ever. God will love you with everything He’s got for eternity.
That’s good news for Joan, and it’s good news for you.