Hard questions don’t always have answers. I was asked a hard question the other day, and my initial answer was essentially, “Who knows?” Then, on second thoughts, I made a suggestion for my friend to think about. Here is the question and my thoughts.
The question was about people who have died and yet had never met a Christian, or read the Bible or heard about Jesus in some ordinary way — are they necessarily lost?
For me, the question needs a context.
Firstly, it seems to imply that somehow God’s providence is unfair — unfair that people who have never heard of Jesus should be condemned. This thinking seems to ignore the reality spelled out in Psalms 14 and 53, and Romans 2 and 3 (as well as other places in the Bible) that there are no good guys on this planet. Jesus came to people who are justly condemned for sin. If God were to leave us in that condition, who are we to complain? We’d have no just complaint, anyway.
Another thing that this question seems not to have considered is what the Bible says about the attitude of sinful people to the message of Jesus. We, as sinners, are by nature opposed to good news. Without the extraordinary gift of ‘new birth’, or regeneration, no one can be a fan of Jesus or his message. ‘He came to his own [people], but they did not receive him’ (John 1). For anyone to become a Christian, a powerful and gracious (unlooked-for, unearned, undeserved) work of the Holy Spirit is needed (John 3). In short, everyone’s position is impossibly bad until God acts in mercy and love. We know, because of what the Bible says, that God does act in that way. Jesus does bring people back to God; he does give repentance to his people; he does restore them as dearly love children of God.
A last point, for context, is something that the Bible makes very clear:– no one is saved without faith in Jesus Christ.
So my tentative answer to the question is like this: God is free to work regarding his salvation with means, against means, or without means.
What do I mean? I refer to an old term, ‘means of salvation’. These are things that God ordinarily uses to bring the message of Jesus Christ to people. A ‘means of salvation’ might be someone who tells another about Jesus, or the Bible itself, which holds all we need to know about the good news of Jesus. Prayer also is a means of salvation, as is going to church and hearing the gospel there.
God may work ‘with means’. The Holy Spirit can and does use ‘means’ to inform people of Jesus and to bring some to faith by giving them new birth. The Philippian gaoler in Acts 16 is an example of this. Paul tells the man and his family about Jesus, and he believes with his whole household. This is the ordinary way that people come to faith and are saved. Telling others about Jesus is the responsibility of the church and individual Christians. We have good news, and we must not keep it to ourselves.
God may work ‘against means’. For reasons of his own, the Spirit may, and in some cases does, choose not to bring people to faith despite all the means available to them. Judas is a case in point. He had heard the message from the best of messengers, Jesus himself. He saw all the amazing things Jesus did, and yet he would not believe Jesus or trust him. The Bible says that God shows mercy to whom he wills, and some he hardens by simply leaving them to their own sinful ways and desires.
God may and does work ‘without means’. In the first two ways in which God uses means, we might see the effect in some way. We tell someone about Jesus, and they come to faith or they don’t, and they make their inner response to the Holy Spirit plain to us in one way or another. But when God works without means, we are not observers. We cannot know about particular cases. But the Bible does indicate that, at times, for his own glory, God does bring people to faith ‘without means’.
Abram (later Abraham) is a clear example of God working ‘without means’. We are told that he was a worshipper of false gods in Ur, but then the God of Glory appeared (made himself known) to Abram. There were no mission societies in Ur, no copies of the Bible, no prayer groups or tracts. God himself acted in kingly love. He brought Abram to faith in the Christ to come; to trust the message that a child of his own would bless the world. It was revealed to Abram that Jesus would come, ‘Abraham saw my day,’ said Jesus, ‘and was glad.’ All this happened to Abraham without ordinary means.
This shows that there is real hope for those outside of the reach of ‘ordinary means’. God may and does bring people to faith in Jesus Christ, even when we cannot communicate the message to them — even when we cannot see any response to the message. It is no harder for God to do this than to bring to faith a person who has heard all the preaching and has read the Bible from cover to cover. You see, by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ has saved his people from their sins no matter who they are or what their situation might be. The Holy Spirit will most certainly bring each of them to faith in Jesus at His own time.
When does God work ‘without means’? Whenever he likes. For whom does he do this? For whomever he wills. Can we know about particular cases (outside of the examples given in his word)? No.
The fact that God does work without means is for our comfort in times when hard questions come to us. This truth is not to allow the church or Christians avoid responsibility. We must use all the means that God has given to us for making Jesus known. He will bring the results according to his own will.