(by which I mean the theological variety, not the political)
A question came my way on the Internet the other day:
Here is a theological question to consider, Scott: A five year old child, born to an HIV-infected mother, who was the victim of rape in the Algeria (not even close to a rare occurrence) dies of starvation before accepting the Lord. What is the child’s fate? I presume she is destined to eternal damnation?
That is indeed an interesting question, and one that evangelical Christians have had to contend with from the unbelieving world for centuries.
A little background. I was, in 1982, at age 19, a nominal Christian, baptized and confirmed in the United Church of Christ, and a regular churchgoer. To all outward appearances, I was a Christian. I knew just enough about the Bible to assure myself that I was okay with respect to God – that is, if He existed; the UCC wasn’t especially strict about such things.
It is the great sin of Mankind to call God a liar, to dismiss his testimony in the world, and to justify oneself before him on one’s own merits. As John wrote:
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. 1 John 1:5-10
That described me: walking in darkness, claiming to have fellowship with God, justifying myself. I imagine that churchgoers by the millions are in this sad state. Then, by God’s grace, I became a Christian. That is, I became aware of my own need for personal salvation, confessed my sin, and placed my faith in Jesus Christ. That was April 8, 1982. On April 9, I discovered that my spiritual eyes had really been opened. Suddenly the New Testament seemed to be speaking directly to me, and not as some abstraction. One may dismiss this perception; admittedly it is a subjective thing, not open to rational investigative methods. But for me, Christianity “took” at that moment and began a process that continues today.
So when I eventually returned to the UCC and heard its repeated message that personal salvation is not really necessary, everyone’s fine with their own faith-tradition, we’re all God’s children, etc., I could immediately recognize it as the useless blather that it was. I knew it was blather because this is a church that gladly labeled me a faithful Christian, which I now knew I had never been. The transformation already underway in my life was profound and real – and they had never, in all my years of attending, suggested that such a thing was even possible. This church had nothing to offer me except the same junk platitudes and false assurances it had always peddled. (The hymns were an exception. But hey, they didn’t write them.)
We return to the original question, which really consists of two different issues. The first is this: “Is there salvation for anyone outside of Jesus Christ?” On this the answer from the Bible is an emphatic “No.” The New Testament teaches that all are alike under sin, without distinction (Romans 3:23), and that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Nowhere does it teach the fatuous modern pablum that we are all God’s children by birth, or that there are many equally-valid ways to God. The disease of sin is universal, disfiguring and terminal, and requires radical action – action that we, as weakened, dying patients, cannot supply on our own. The only salvation offered in the New Testament is that offered by Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5).
The second part of the question then becomes this: “Can a person be saved by Christ without exercising personal faith?” Certainly for us who have our faculties, exercise of faith is required to secure salvation. The message preached (the kerygma) demands a response from those who do hear. As Jesus often said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Presumably this formula makes some allowance for him or her who lacks ears to hear; i.e., who lacks the ability to respond to the call of the gospel in the way we can. This is speculative, of course; the Bible is written to describe the way of redemption for those who can respond to it. As for a child not yet able to hear or understand the Gospel, I do not know. There is no definitive answer for the problem of a person who cannot exercise faith. Could God choose to save, through Jesus’ death but by some means other than conscious, personal faith, children who cannot understand a spoken message, or people living in a nation that has no access to the gospel? He may. We have no solid answer.
But this does not absolve us of the command to the disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28:18) How irrational indeed to theorize about persons who have not heard the gospel, and conclude that the best course of action is to do nothing.
In the end, we are responsible for acting on what we ourselves know, not what someone else may or may not know. A person who has heard the gospel and willfully rejects it (or pretends it doesn’t apply in his case, or actively campaigns against it) is guilty of a greater sin than the child who never hears the gospel in the first place.