We don't know how God will deal with people who have never heard the gospel, but we do know how he will deal with us who have heard.
The question – Is Jesus the only way to heaven? – put in perspective:
• If heaven is just a fairy tale, the question is irrelevant and not even worthy of consideration.
• If heaven is real, getting the answer right is the most critical issue in all of life.
For anyone who has heard the message of Jesus Christ, the New Testament is very explicit in saying that the only way to heaven for that person is to personally accept Jesus as Savior before life on earth ends.
However, the New Testament is not explicit about what happens to people who haven’t heard this message.
If God is JUST and LOVE, how can he play favorites? How can most people be excluded from the possibility of salvation through no fault of their own?
For answers, we need to understand two theological concepts: audience and impute.
Messages are intended for the persons to whom they are addressed and delivered.
The New Testament is the part of the Bible that contains the message for us, here, today. However, not everyone has received this message.
What about people who lived before Jesus? Or lived in places where this message was unknown? Are these people held accountable for not responding to a message they never received? Or might they be subject to other messages or special revelations from God that we don’t know about?
God may have other ways to heaven for people outside of the New Testament audience. For example, the New Testament names Abel, Enoch, Job and Noah as ancient people who pleased God but lived before there were Jews, Christians, Muslims or any of today’s religions and scriptures.
Other examples cited in the New Testament include Abraham, Moses, David and the prophets. And people outside of the Abrahamic line, too, like Melchizedek and Rahab.
The New Testament (Hebrews 11) says that they are all in heaven because of their faith and obedience to what they knew. They died without knowing anything about Jesus Christ.
Since these people are specifically named in the New Testament as examples, we can assume that others like them will also be in heaven.
They were accountable only for responding to what THEY knew about God in THEIR lifetime, not for what WE know TODAY.
Revelation varies according to time and place in history, and apparently people are judged according to the light God gives them.
However, Jesus said: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6-7)
There are two ways to reconcile these Bible statements:
• Audience: Jesus was not referring to all humanity but only to those who actually hear his words, directly or indirectly.
• Impute: Jesus was referring to all humanity, but the benefits of his sacrificial death are imputed to people who didn’t know about him if they were seeking God in the best way they knew with their limited knowledge.
The word impute, when used in theology, means to credit to one person the righteousness of another.
For example, Jesus’ righteousness was imputed to the thief being crucified on the adjacent cross. The thief had lived a life so bad that civil authorities sentenced him to death. He understood very little about Jesus, and apparently he was never baptized. Because of the thief’s last minute response to what little spiritual knowledge he had, Jesus said he will be in heaven, in contrast to the mocking thief on the other cross.
The Bible says: 'He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.' (I John 2:2)
We have no way of knowing how many people throughout history have had the benefits of Christ’s death imputed to them because they lacked spiritual information or capacity to understand.
Most people have never heard a clear presentation of Jesus’ death, resurrection and offer of salvation as stated in the New Testament.
Will they go to hell because they never heard ... or because what they heard was incomplete, convoluted or misleading?
Jesus said that we should not judge, that we should leave this to God, but we can’t help speculating about the question.
Among Christians, there is a wide range of opinions, from narrow conservative to broad liberal:
• A narrow conservative opinion is that heaven is granted only to those who consciously and explicitly invite Jesus Christ into their lives as personal Savior. All others – regardless of knowledge, place or time – go to hell. It doesn’t matter that we don’t understand or think it fair; God is sovereign and does whatever he wants.
• A broad liberal opinion is that God’s saving grace is operative in every culture, place and time. A person receives the grace of God on the basis of an honest search for God and obedience to God’s word as heard in heart and conscience. True God-seekers who do not have the full revelation will become members of Christ’s body and receive the grace of conversion and explicit knowledge of Jesus Christ at a later date, whether in this life or after death.
It’s clear from the Bible that everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father – see God’s trinity – but apparently there is more than one path through Jesus.
Because God is present in the whole world, God’s grace is also at work in some way among all people.
We can speculate, but we don’t know how God will judge the uninformed and misinformed or what special arrangements he may have for them. But we DO KNOW how he will judge us.
People who raise objections about the way they think God is dealing with others usually do it as a smoke screen for their own resistance to God.
Most people in the modern Western world already know about, or have been put put on notice to investigate God’s free offer of salvation through Jesus Christ.
It doesn’t matter to us how God, in his progressive revelation, has been dealing with other people.
The way he deals with us today is spelled out in the New Testament and, as explained in Heaven/hell, a response is required.
The personal response, or lack of it, is the difference between heaven and hell.