You can often hear even very conservative Christians claiming that many people who have never heard the gospel message will nevertheless be saved for eternity.
The argument that they make goes in this way:
There are many people who are sincerely seeking God. They are unable to have faith in Christ because they have never heard the gospel. However, they are the sort of people who would accept the gospel if they were able to hear it. God will surely take account of that by granting them eternal salvation when they die or Christ returns. They will be saved on the basis of the work of Christ on the cross, just as all who have faith in Christ are.
So is this a valid argument? Is it really the case that many people who are never able to have faith in Jesus will end up in heaven? Or should we not expect people to be saved without faith in Him?
MAKING THE QU
Before we turn to consider this issue, I need to make a couple of preliminary points that will make the focus of our discussion more precise.
First, in what follows we will be asking only whether people who are morally accountable for their actions can be saved. We will not be asking if people, including the unborn, who have died before they are old enough to be morally accountable can be saved. Nor will we be asking if people who are never able to be morally accountable because of severe mental disability can be saved.
Second, we will be asking only whether people living in the Christian era who have not heard the gospel can be saved. We will not be asking how possible it was for people before the time of Jesus to be saved.
To be precise, then, in what follows we will be asking whether morally accountable people living in the Christian era who have not heard the gospel can be saved from hell. That is our question.
THE BIBLE IS OUR AUTHORITY
In order to reach a conclusion on this issue, it is essential that we see what the Bible has to say about it. Scripture is our authority for answering questions like this one, and what it says is key.
Let’s turn, then, to the Bible.
One very important passage is Romans 10:9-15, where Paul writes:
“9 Because if you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For one believes with the heart, resulting in uprightness, and one declares with the mouth, resulting in salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in Him will be put to shame.’ 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, and gives richly to all who call on Him. 13 For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’
14 How, then, can they call on someone they have not believed in? And how can they believe in someone they have not heard about? And how can they hear without someone preaching? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? . . .”
(Scripture quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.)
Paul’s words in this passage fit very poorly with the idea that we can expect many people to be saved with just a basic faith in God.
First, let’s consider the identity of “the Lord” in v. 13.
In v. 9 the Greek word kurios, meaning “Lord,” is explicitly used to refer to Jesus. This same word is used in v. 12, and nothing in verses 9-12 suggests that in v. 12 it refers to a different subject than it did in v. 9. It therefore looks very natural to understand the “Lord” in v. 12 as Jesus. And “Lord” in v. 13 is certainly the same as “Lord” in v. 12.
So in v. 13, when Paul says that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, he is apparently referring not to calling on God the Father but specifically to calling on Jesus.
Verse 13 is a quotation of Joel 2:32, and it is true that in this verse in Joel “the LORD” is a reference to God. However, the New Testament often takes Old Testament texts that refer to God and reapplies them to Jesus. And it appears that Paul has done this here.
It seems highly probable, then, that “the Lord” that people call on for salvation in v. 13 is Jesus.
Next we must take note of Paul’s train of thought in verses 13-14. In these verses he clearly sees an urgent need for Christian preachers, so that people can hear, believe, call on the Lord (i.e., Jesus) and be saved. This fits very awkwardly with the view that people who know nothing of Christ can often be saved by having a basic faith in God.
Even if, very improbably, we should take “the Lord” in v. 13 to be a reference to God the Father rather than to Jesus, the fact that Paul sees an urgent need for preaching suggests that the calling on God he refers to would be in a context of having a specifically Christian faith.
To sum up, then, Paul’s words in this passage strongly imply that we can typically expect people who have not heard the gospel to remain unsaved.
Another important passage for our topic is Acts 10:1-11:18. This contains the account of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends becoming Christians, and the report of this event to the church in
If ever there was a non-Christian in the Christian era who was seeking God, it was Cornelius. He is described as devout, upright and God-fearing, and he is praised for giving money away generously and for praying to God often (Acts 10:2, 4, 22).
Yet this account makes it clear that before they believed in Jesus Cornelius and those close to him were unsaved:
In Acts Peter tells Cornelius:
“. . . everyone who believes in Him [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”
Peter is clearly implying that Cornelius and those close to him are some of those who could potentially receive forgiveness by believing in Jesus.
And in Acts the words of an angel to Cornelius about Peter are reported:
“. . . he will give you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.”
This verse shows clearly that despite Cornelius’ devotion to the one true God, he was not saved until he heard the gospel and placed his faith in Christ.
Acts 10:1-11:18, then, strongly implies that we should not expect people without faith in Christ to be saved.
Acts is another important verse. Here we find Peter saying about Jesus:
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given to people by which we must be saved.”
Christians who claim that God often saves people without faith in Christ frequently argue in this way about this verse:
Peter says that Jesus is the only way to be saved. However, there is no reference to faith here. All these words imply is that Jesus’ death and resurrection are the basis of salvation for everyone who is saved, and we shouldn’t read more out of them than that. Nothing here contradicts the view that many are saved through Christ without having faith in Him.
It is true that Acts is not explicit that faith in Jesus is necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, believing in the Christian gospel is a major theme in Acts (e.g., in Acts 4:4; 8:12; 9:42; 11:17; 21:20). Furthermore, Acts 10:43 and Acts 16:31 refer specifically to faith in Christ and the forgiveness/salvation that accompanies this faith. So, in the light of Acts as a whole, Acts reads much more naturally as a reference not only to the fact that Jesus provides salvation, but also to the need for faith in Him to receive that salvation.
Another relevant text is John 14:6, where Jesus states:
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
Again, it is true that this verse is not explicit that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. Yet John’s Gospel is full of teaching about the importance of believing in Jesus (e.g., in John , 18, 36; , 40; ). And, in the light of that, it seems much more natural to understand Jesus to mean that no one comes to the Father except through believing in Him.
Sometimes those who claim that people are often saved without faith in Christ use some verses in Romans 2 to try to make their case.
In Romans 2:6-10 Paul says:
“6 He [God] will repay each person according to what they have done. 7 He will grant eternal life to those who, by perseverance in doing good, seek glory, honour and immortality. . . . 10 . . . there will be glory, honour and peace for everyone who does good, first for the Jew but also for the Greek.”
It is sometimes said that these verses suggest that many without faith in Christ will be saved.
In these verses, however, Paul seems to be referring to Christians. In his letters, as in the rest of the New Testament, we find a close connection between faith in Jesus and doing good deeds. Salvation is by faith and not by performing good deeds, but genuine faith is always accompanied by good deeds. And it seems that in these verses Paul has the good deeds of Christians in mind, in which case there is no implication that any who do not have Christian faith will be saved.
In Romans 2:13-15 Paul states:
“13 . . . it is not those who hear the Law who are upright in God’s sight, but it is those who do the Law who will be declared upright. 14 For when Gentiles, who do not have the Law, instinctively do what the Law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the Law. 15 They show that what the Law requires is written in their hearts, their consciences also testifying, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and sometimes defending them.”
This is another passage that is said to hint at the salvation of many without faith in Jesus.
However, firstly, when Paul speaks in v. 13 about those who do the Law being declared upright, he seems to be thinking about a situation in which the Law is fully kept. Yet he makes it clear in chaps. 1 and 3, and also parts of chap. 2, that no one does actually fully keep the Law.
It seems likely, therefore, that in v. 13 Paul is thinking of a purely hypothetical situation: those who fully keep the Law – although no one actually does so – are those who would be considered upright in God’s sight.
Secondly, in verses 14-15 Paul is apparently just saying that Gentiles typically do some things that don’t offend their consciences.
If verses 13-15 are taken in this way, there would be no suggestion in them that people can be saved without faith in Christ.
There is another possible way of taking these verses, however. Some scholars interpret this passage to be referring to Christian Gentiles who keep the Law in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Personally, I think this is less likely to be the right interpretation. However, if we were to take it in this way, the passage would be about Christians, so it would obviously not be implying that people can be saved without faith in Christ.
Regardless of which way we interpret this passage, then, it doesn’t seem to be suggesting that people without faith in Jesus can be saved.
In Romans 2:26-27 Paul asks:
“26 So if an uncircumcised man keeps the requirements of the Law, his uncircumcision will be regarded as circumcision, will it not? 27 And he who is physically uncircumcised and keeps the Law will condemn you who break the Law in spite of having the written code and circumcision.”
Again, this is a passage that is said to imply that many non-Christians receive salvation.
However, when Paul refers to “keep[ing] the requirements of the Law,” he seems, as in v. 13, to be thinking about a situation in which the Law is fully kept.
And as in v. 13 it is likely that he is speaking about a hypothetical situation. He is probably saying that a Gentile who fully kept the Law – although no Gentile actually does so – would be as acceptable to God as a Jew who fully kept the Law – although no Jew actually does so.
If verses 26-27 are interpreted in this way, they wouldn’t be implying that people without faith in Jesus can be saved.
As with verses 13-15, there is a second way of interpreting verses 26-27 that understands them as a reference to Gentile Christians keeping the Law in the power of the Spirit. And again, if this is the right interpretation, the passage would obviously not be telling us that people can be saved without faith in Christ.
REVELATION 5 AND 7
Two verses that are often quoted by those who say that many are saved without faith in Jesus are Revelation 5:9 and 7:9.
In Rev 5:9 the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders sing these words to Jesus:
“. . . You were slaughtered and with Your blood You bought for God people from every tribe, language, people and nation.”
And in Rev 7:9 John says:
“After these things I looked, and there was a huge crowd which no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the lamb. They were clothed in white robes . . .”
Those who claim that these verses imply salvation without faith in Christ argue in this way:
These verses tell us that those who are eternally saved come from every tribe. However, there have been tribes of people that have existed and died out during the Christian era without ever having been reached with the gospel. These verses therefore prove that some members of these tribes must have been saved without faith in Christ. So it makes sense to think that the same often happens today.
The big problem with this argument is that the Semitic culture of Jesus and the biblical writers means that Scripture contains more hyperbole than we are used to in modern Western culture. Hyperbole is a term that refers to deliberately exaggerated language that is used for effect and involves no attempt to deceive.
Often in the Bible “all,” “every” and similar words are hyperbolic and shouldn’t be understood literally.
For example, in Matt 23:2-3 Jesus teaches:
“2 The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore do and observe all that they tell you . . .”
In fact, we know from the Gospels that Jesus actually opposed some of the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, especially their strict rules that went beyond the written Law of Moses.
What Jesus means is that His audience should do what the scribes and Pharisees teach when their teaching is good. But the “all” here is clearly hyperbolic.
Similarly, in Mark 1:5 Mark tells us:
“And all the country of
Judeawent out to him [John the Baptist], and all the people of Jerusalem. And they were baptized by him . . .”
Actually, we know that there were many, including Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t go to be baptized by John. The point is that large numbers of people did so, but Mark expresses this hyperbolically.
Again, in Acts 2:5, referring to the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given, Luke says:
“Now there were Jews staying in Jerusalem, devout men from every nation under heaven.”
Clearly, there would have been many nations on earth at the time that would not in fact have been represented in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Nations in east Asia and the Americas are obvious examples. Luke’s point is that men from a wide variety of nations were present, but “every nation under heaven” is certainly a hyperbole.
Other New Testament texts that use hyperbolic “every” or “all” include Mark 7:3; Luke 1:10; 2:3; 5:17; 6:30; Acts 2:5; 3:24; 17:21; Rom 11:32; Col 1:20; Titus 2:11; Heb 4:15; Rev 18:24. There are also numerous places in the Old Testament where the phrase “all
” doesn’t literally mean all
Israel, e.g., 1 Sam 7:5; 25:1; 1 Kings 12:1; 2 Chron 12:1; Dan 9:11. Israel
In the light of these and many other passages, there is no need to take Rev 5:9 and 7:9 to mean that those who reach heaven will literally come from every tribe. These verses can easily be interpreted to mean simply that those who are saved come from a huge diversity of ethnic groups.
That concludes our analysis of biblical passages on this topic. So what have we found?
First, we have seen that some passages imply that without faith in Christ people will not be saved. Romans 10:9-15 and Acts 10:1-11:18 strongly seem to imply this. And Acts and John 14:6 suggest this, although not quite so clearly.
Second, we have looked at the passages in Romans 2 and Revelation 5 and 7 that are commonly used to support the view that many will be saved without faith in Jesus. We found that these passages don’t provide any real support for this view. In fact, there are no passages in Scripture which state, or even seem to imply, that in the Christian era any morally accountable person will be saved without faith in Christ.
NOT GOING BEYOND THE EVIDENCE
Despite the conclusions just reached, I think it is unwarranted to declare categorically that absolutely no morally accountable person living in the Christian era will be saved without faith in Jesus. In my opinion, that would be to go beyond the evidence. I think it is possible that there may be a tiny number who are saved without faith in Him.
There are a few reasons for this.
The Bible is not definitive
First, nowhere in the Bible are we told definitively that no morally accountable person living in the Christian era will be saved without faith in Christ.
Taking account of the unborn and babies
Second, there should be no doubt that at least some of those who have died before birth and some babies will be saved (I think probably all will be), and they are incapable of exercising faith. So in their case God waives the requirement to have faith. And if He does so with them, it is at least hypothetically possible that He may do so with some morally accountable people too.
Taking account of people before the time of Jesus
Third, there will be people in heaven who died before the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, who were not able to have faith in Him, and whose faith in God was less specific. The book of Hebrews lists some of these, including even the Gentile prostitute Rahab (Heb 11:4-38, esp. v. 31). Since God allowed such people to be saved with a looser form of faith, it is at least hypothetically possible that He may occasionally accept this sort of faith today.
Not pressing statements too far
Fourth, we need to beware of pressing statements too far by refusing to allow exceptions to the principle being outlined. For example, in Rom that we looked at above, Paul says:
“How can they hear without someone preaching?”
In fact, some people alive today have heard the gospel without hearing the message from a Christian preacher. There are numerous modern-day testimonies in which Christian converts from Islam tell of dreams they have had in which Jesus appeared to them to evangelise them Himself! I haven’t myself met anyone who claims to have had such an experience, but the reports I have heard lead me to believe strongly that at least some cases involve genuine experiences of Christ.
If there are exceptions to one part of what Paul says, i.e., the need for a Christian preacher, it seems reasonable to think that there could potentially be exceptions to another part, i.e., the need for faith in Christ.
Nevertheless, we need to be very cautious here.
Firstly, the fact that some people come to faith without a preacher in no way proves that anyone is saved without faith in Christ.
Secondly, even in the miraculous cases of people coming to faith without a preacher, the very goal of these miracles is faith in Christ. This doesn’t help support the view that salvation is ever possible without faith in Him.
Thirdly, the number of people who come to faith without a preacher is proportionally extremely small. And, even if salvation without faith in Jesus is ever possible, there is no reason to think that the number of people who are saved without faith in Him would be any greater than the number of those who come to faith without a preacher.
A FINAL CONCLUSION
All things considered, I think we are left with two possible options. Either no morally accountable person living in the Christian era who has not heard the gospel will be saved. Or a tiny number of such people will be saved. Any other conclusion simply doesn’t fit with what we find in the Bible.
If a tiny number is saved, I am hesitant to give a figure, since I am speculating. Nevertheless, in order to show how rare I think this would be, I will make a guess, which is one in a million.
For practical purposes, whether everyone who has not heard the gospel will end up in hell, or almost everyone who has not heard it will end up there, the motivation to evangelise should be the same. If someone has not heard the good news of Christ, it is at best almost impossible that they will escape eternal judgment, and Christians need to recognise this soberly.
If a people group is evangelised, we can expect many, many more times the number of people to be saved than if that group was not reached with the gospel. And it may well be true that without hearing the good news not even one of them would be saved.
GOD IS NOT UNFAIR
It is often said that God would be unfair to condemn people who have not heard the gospel to hell.
Of course, those who have never heard the gospel will not be judged or punished for rejecting Christ. How could they be?
They will, however, be condemned for the sins that they have committed. And there is nothing unfair in God punishing someone for their sins.
What is remarkable is that there are any people at all who escape that fate. However, the Christian gospel is that there is a secure escape route for anyone who has faith in Jesus.