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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Is it possible for people who never hear about Jesus to be saved?
Christians have offered different answers to this question. I will offer some thoughts that have helped me reach my own conclusions, examine some biblical evidence, and make some remarks of a theological nature.
1. Salvation Through Christ and Mission: Some Christians deny that there can be salvation apart from a knowledge of Christ. This could be called the exclusivist answer. Some biblical passages appear to support this view. For instance, Jesus said: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3, NIV). Peter reaffirmed this conviction: “Salvation is found in no one else” (Acts 4:12, NIV). In fact, the gospel commission requires that the knowledge of salvation through Christ be pro-claimed to every person (Matt. 28:18-20; cf. Rev. 14:6-12). Salvation requires faith in Jesus (Rom. 1:16; 10:9; Acts 16:30-34). The saving death of Jesus and the exclusive claim that salvation is only through Him is the very foundation of the mission of the church. This is what the Lord commanded us to do, and we, in humble submission to Him, go and fulfill the mission.
2. The Mission Remains God’s Mission:Another aspect of this question is this: Mission did not originate with the church, but with God; and it remains His. He initiated it by sending His Son as our Savior (John 3:16). Every aspect of the earthly ministry of Jesus was a fulfillment of God’s saving mission for the human race. At the close of His ministry, Jesus said to the Father He had completed “the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4, NIV).
The Spirit is personally involved in the divine mission. Jesus was filled by the Spirit in the fulfillment of His mission (e.g., Isa. 11:1-5; Matt. 3:16, 17). The church itself was empowered by the Spirit to fulfill its mission (Acts 1:8). The deep connection between the church and the Spirit indicates that, although the church was brought into existence for mission, the mission is God’s mission. It is being fulfilled by the Spirit through the church. In the presence of believers the Spirit, in agreement with divine design, uses them to accomplish God’s mission.
3. Mission and the Spirit: But what would God do in the absence of Christian believers? I propose that the Spirit continues to be responsible for the realization of the mission. When the visible expression of the people of God is not accessible in a region of the world, be it for political, religious, or any other reason, God’s saving mission to the world is not deactivated. God “wants all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4, NIV). A good example of this is found in the experience of Cornelius, a gentile who feared God but who did not have a Christian to teach him. In that situation the Lord directly spoke to him in a vision and guided him to Peter (Acts 10:1-10). God has not left Himself without witnesses among nations living in spiritual darkness. At times He raised prophets among them and divine light reached them (cf. Num. 24:2). Jesus, through the Spirit, continues to be “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9, NIV). This suggests that non-Christians who live out of contact with the people of God, when touched by the Spirit, sincerely yearn for something better (cf. James 1:17). They then experience the saving power of God on the mind and character. Their knowledge may be extremely limited, but they have been transformed by His grace and unknowingly became children of God through Jesus. The Spirit implanted the grace of Christ in their hearts and without knowing about Jesus they have been blessed by His saving grace.
This work of the Spirit does not legitimize non-Christian religions or allow for religious pluralism. Of course, in His work the Spirit could use fragments of truth that may be present in any religion, but He is not bound by such elements. Grace is directly mediated to people by Christ through the Spirit. Neither does the work of the Spirit make witnessing irrelevant. On the contrary, the work of the Holy Spirit prepares the way for the church to fulfill its mission more effectively.