OK. It’s time to jump into the deep end of the pool. As we finish Jesus’ statement, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” we must follow the next statement for true context. The next thing Jesus says is, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Believe it or not, this is a point of controversy in Scripture. So I want to dig deep. You may never get asked this question, but you may as you have discussions about Jesus Christ and Christianity. There are two opposing thoughts on this subject. They are inclusivism and exclusivism. These deal with the character of God and the revelation of God. So get your swim trunks on and let’s jump in.
Inclusivity is the belief that God would not condemn to Hell anyone who has not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ for no fault of their own. For example, if they live in a heavily militant Muslim area where Christianity is not only outlawed, but is punishable by torture and death, they may never encounter a Bible nor a missionary. The question of eternity for a person in this kind of situation is what we are dealing with today. This is dealing with the character of God. Would God really condemn someone in this situation or wouldn’t He have mercy on them?
On the other hand, exclusivity is the belief that the only way to eternal life with Christ is through faith in Christ. If this is the case, then the Lord would condemn someone if they have not accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the purpose of this series, we are examining Christ’s own words where He says that no one can go to the Father, that is Heaven, except through Him. As you can see, at face value, there seems to be a dilemma as to how the Lord would judge someone who has never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I believe the answer is found in the revelation of God.
Interestingly and not unusually, the passage above is used by both camps to support their belief so let’s walk through it. We are going to focus on the first verse I gave you today to read:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For 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 1:18-20)
Those who believe in inclusivism look at this passage to support that God has revealed Himself through other means besides Christ and therefore, a soul can be saved without the knowledge of Christ. However, if we dig deeper into this passage, the writer is teaching us that God has made Himself known to be understood from creation, what has been made. His invisible qualities being His eternal power and divine nature have been made clearly seen. So it is true that God has revealed Himself outside of the person of Christ according to this passage. However, if we keep reading, this limited revelation of who God is enough to not give people an excuse. But what does this mean that men do not have an excuse?
It says that they suppress the truth. If we keep reading, we see that we are not to pass judgment on anyone. In other words, I am not to decide that someone belongs to God or doesn’t, but God will pass judgment. His criteria is based on truth we see in the following passage:
You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. (Romans 2:1-2)
So we see that the people will be condemned by suppressing the truth and the idea of the truth here is wrapped up in behavior. Those who suppress the truth will engage in wickedness without remorse. Now, before you go thinking that wickedness refers to horrible things such as murder and rape, let’s look at the passage again.
They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. (Romans 1:29-31)
To suppress the truth that God has made plain to the whole world outside of the knowledge of Jesus Christ, a person will engage in things as common as greed, envy, strife, deceit, gossip, arrogance, disobedience to parents, lacking in love and mercy. Wow! Now these are things common to all of us. We are learning from this passage that God has revealed Himself enough without the person of Christ that we have no excuse when we participate in these things. Well, what about the excuse that we have never heard about Jesus? Nope, that is not an excuse. It says there is no excuse for this behavior just from the limited revelation of God through creation. In Romans 2, we see that God has created man with a conscience knowing right from wrong. This is the result of Adam and Eve eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. We know it by nature whether we ever hear about Christ or not. Let’s look at Romans 2 to see how this is written:
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. 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.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. (Romans 2:12-16)
In Romans 1 as we read above, God says that His wrath will be released on those who suppress the truth. From the same passage, those who suppress the truth engage in the activities I already mentioned and that every human being has participated in. Here in Romans 2, God says that as part of nature, every human being has a sense of right and wrong written on their hearts even if they have never read the Bible or heard about Jesus. And Romans 1 is saying that because God has made Himself known in this way, those who commit the sins of greed, envy, strife, gossip, arrogance, etc., etc., there is no excuse. The inclusivist would suggest that for God to condemn someone who has never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be unfair, unloving, contrary to the character of a loving God. But God Himself in Scripture is saying that He has revealed Himself enough through creation and our conscience that if we suppress the truth through the sins listed, we have no excuse.
Whew! Even for me as a believer, this seems hard and harsh. I trust the Lord, but I struggle with this because it does seem to go against the character of a loving God…that is until I consider the revelation of God. Here in Romans, He has told us that He has revealed Himself enough to know right from wrong and good from evil. We know that sin produces harm. In fact, all sin could be categorized as anything that causes harm to anyone. It is the opposite of love. Though all men, even those who have never heard of Christ, have a limited revelation of God through creation and their conscience, they sin and in their sin produce suffering. It is the way in which God uses the suffering of mankind that makes the thought that God is unloving by condemning those who have not heard of Jesus. Let’s read how God uses the suffering of mankind.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (NIV)
The natural way God has created us causes us to search for hope in the face of suffering. When suffering increases, we do not naturally give up. Instead, we hope for something better and we look for something better. Even in the worst suffering, we hold on to hope though it may only be a delicate as a whisp of smoke rising from the snuffing out of a candle. It is born into humanity to respond to suffering by seeking for something better. This is the basis behind the phenomenon of religion in humanity. There are thousands of religions. All religions whether to a false god or not, are symbols of this seeking for something better in the face of suffering caused by sin.
God has made it known through His invisible qualities that there is a higher power. He has built it into our nature to seek for something better and higher in the face of suffering. As sin increases, suffering will also increase and this increase will cause many to cry out searching with desperation something higher than themselves for rescue. First, we see that the Lord is looking for people who are seeking God. As this passage in Psalm 14 says, there are few seeking Him, but then we see in this second passage that for those who are, He makes certain they find Him.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one. (NIV)
I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me. (NIV)
We see this laid out plainly in the New Testament. A man by the name of Cornelius is a seeker of God. He is devout but He knows nothing of Jesus Christ. Let’s look at his story from the book of Acts.
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
When the angel who spoke to him had gone, Cornelius called two of his servants and a devout soldier who was one of his attendants. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa. (NIV)
Cornelius is a God-fearing man. He lived righteousness not suppressing the truth as we saw in Romans 1. He sees an angel that tells him to send for a man named Peter. Peter, of course, is going to come and tell Cornelius about Jesus. The inclusivist might say that even if Peter had not come to Cornelius, the Lord would not have condemned him because he was living right and fearing God though He did not know anything about Jesus. Cornelius was not a Jew. And at this time, many Christians felt Christianity was only for the Jew, and not the Gentile (anyone who is not a Jew). So when they hear that Peter went and presented Jesus to a gentile, they were not happy with him and so Peter begins to explain how the Holy Spirit had moved him to go to Cornelius and he tells those upset with him what the angel said to Cornelius. Let’s read it in the Scripture:
He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’ (NIV)
It is clear here that the message through which Cornelius would be saved was the message of Jesus Christ. But Cornelius was already a God-fearing man, not suppressing the truth, but living by righteousness. Yet, we learn from the Scripture that this was not enough. He had to hear the message of Jesus and accept it in order to be saved. This is the exclusivist belief. It goes along with Jesus words, “No one comes to the Father except by me.” And it says this in Acts, Chapter 4.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (NIV)
We see that the Lord has made Himself known on a limited basis through creation around us and our conscience within us. His invisible qualities are plainly seen. Nevertheless, mankind suppresses this truth and goes against what it knows to be right. This knowledge of right and wrong exists within us whether we have ever heard of Jesus or not. For those who seek the Lord by not suppressing the truth, Romans 2:7 says that God will give them eternal life because they are seeking glory, honor, and immortality. It is not their good life that saves them, it is their seeking. When they seek for something bigger than themselves, even though they do not know what they are seeking, the Lord God, in ways higher than ours, will make Himself known to them just as He did Cornelius. And for those who do suppress the truth by participating in wickedness, sin will produce suffering which will produce a hope and a seeking for something higher. And even if they do not know for what they seek, God honors their seeking by making Himself known. Perhaps it is through missionaries. Perhaps, it is through underground Christians. Perhaps, it is through dreams and visions (Do a google search for Muslims saved by dreams). We don’t have to know how God reveals Himself, but it is dangerous to move away from what is clearly taught in Scripture.
The final thought here is that if God, the Judge, who has set up this system, knew that no condemnation would come to those who have never heard of Jesus, why would He command the church to go to every area of the Earth proclaiming Jesus. According to the inclusivist thought, this only puts people in jeopardy of going to Hell where if they never heard anything about Jesus, they could go to Heaven. That seems to go against the character of a loving God if the inclusivist though was true, which it is not. We are commanded to go into all the Earth preaching Jesus because God is sending us to those who are seeking Him, though they do not know Him. Just as the angel told Cornelius, we are coming to bring them the message of Jesus through which they might be saved for there is no other name under Heaven given to mankind by which man must be saved but Jesus (Acts 4:12).