Letter Re: Pagan in deepest darkest Africa
Subject: Guru question
In class today, we were studying Christian doctrine and the teacher made a statement that the only way to be saved is through hearing the gospel or through reading it. I asked him to clarify what he meant by asking an example, ” the people in deep dark Africa that have never come into contact with a missionary or a Bible-what will happen to them?” He answered that they will go to hell and then went on to state that all people living in Old Testament times except for the Israelites would not be saved either.
This really seem to go against what I believe (about God looking at the heart) but I understand that I could have a wrong/mistaken belief. I came home late tonight wanting to talk to Dad but he was sick in bed so I decided to ask you. Would you please be able to give me an answer on what you believe would be the case. My next class is on Wednesday so if it’s possible, I would like to have everything clear in my own mind before then.
I was very glad to receive your email last evening. Let me just underscore one or two things. Firstly, I also wanted to encourage you not to go down the argumentative road with your teacher. Not just so that you can stay in his good books or because you want to respect him as your teacher but also because arguing about “religious questions & issues” too often results in negative outcomes. (See 2 Tim.2:24.) The role of a teacher at church or in a Christian school is (or should be) to motivate us to work out our own convictions on different points of truth. Sometimes teachers can be dogmatic (for varying reasons — both for reasons of personality and experience with a particular truth) and so may communicate the message that unless you agree with their point of view, “you’re definitely wrong!” = your views are not in keeping with God’s Word.
On major issues of doctrine, eg the deity of Christ, the inspiration of the Bible etc., we need to be absolutely sure and firmly rooted in our beliefs. But there are other issues of God’s revealed truth about which there are a variety of viewpoints among God’s people including scholars of the Word. So whenever someone speaks very dogmatically on such an issue (= one not so clearly stated in the Scriptures), my own response is to listen with interest but not to engage that person in any debate or argument. In my own mind, I realise that his or her viewpoint is one possible way to interpret the biblical data but I also know that other equally knowledgeable and spiritual people hold other viewpoints. Instead of making that person feel small by showing him how much I know, I’d encourage you to work for unity and peace among God’s people. That I sense is God’s way and the way that brings Him most honour within His family. (See John 17:21,23; Eph.4:3-6; Phil.2:1-2.)
I’d also encourage you to learn to be a good listener and learner. However, in the final analysis, with the help of the Scriptures, develop your own convictions on different issues in fellowship with God’s people — which is really a life-long experience, so take your time!! What you have done is to be highly commended, ie you aren’t isolating yourself from God’s family but seeking to understand truth “in community” with brothers and sisters, especially other teachers of the Christian faith. Well done!
Secondly, your teacher has made a statement “that the only way to be saved is through hearing the gospel or through reading it.” Let’s recognise first of all that he is basing his teaching on the Word of God. Take Acts 4:12 & Rom.10:9-15 as examples. Perhaps your struggle and mine intellectually is sometimes with the exclusive claims of Christ (John 14:6), “the narrow door/way” (Matt.7:13-14) etc. It sounds too harsh to us. We think people should be saved. Sometimes it seems to me as if some Christians are almost embarrassed because of these clear statements of Christ and the apostles. Think of God’s Word as CH Spurgeon (I think) once said: The Bible is like a lion. A lion hardly needs others to defend it! So I’d encourage you to look for “the meeting point” in your teacher’s argument rather than the points where you think he is “wrong.” Always people react very defensively when we come against them trying to prove that their beliefs are wrong, especially if it’s a teenage student trying to tell a teacher he or she is wrong. I’m not insinuating that you are doing that or want to do that. What I am saying is that it is always wise in such discussions to look for points of agreement, to approach the subject positively, rather than see only the points where you disagree.
But the subject of “salvation” is bigger than anyone of us realise. About ten years ago, I did a word study of the NT use of the word “save” (and related words, eg Saviour, salvation, etc.). Just to reflect on the meaning of this word within the wide variety of NT contexts shows one how extensive and amazingly rich is our “salvation” through Christ and the awesome power of God to save. When you go into depth in the Scriptures, you soon see that our salvation is a sheer miracle. When we Christians talk about it as if it’s just “old hat” and easy to understand stuff, I think we’ve lost the plot really! We have reduced a divine miracle to something we think we can master with our human minds. Andy, always give place in your thinking and believing to LOTS of divine mystery in His truth. If you think at any stage along the way that you have mastered truth (intellectually), you’ve gone even further away from the truth than when you begun the search!!
I make this point because too easily when we talk about the Bible and God’s truth, including such grand themes as “salvation” in our academic institutions, we talk, think and act like “know-alls” who with our minds can master God’s divine truth. Truly, Andy, we know soooooooo very little about what there is to know about God and His ways of dealing with the human race. It is so wise to continually acknowledge the finiteness and limitations of our human minds. The only way we can ever hope to even begin to scratch the surface of God’s great truths in the truest sense of the word is to do so on our knees = putting aside every manifestation of our stinkin’ pride and putting on a humble spirit, bowing before Him in worship and adoration. That’s the place where we begin to “know” in the ultimate sense of the word.
Andy, let me make a quick reference to those people who die without hearing the Gospel message, such as the pagans in darkest Africa. (How “dark” is Africa really? Perhaps we should say the pagans in darkest Hornsby are just as “dark”!?? Isn’t “spiritual darkness” caused by Satan’s blinding people to the glorious Gospel of Christ (2 Cor.4:4), connected to their rebellion and ignorance of the Gospel, just as dark among the high flyers of the sophisticated Sydney-ites as it is among the nomads of Africa?) Pastor Ian has given you an excellent overview of Paul’s answer from the book of Romans.
There are various ways of thinking about how God deals with those who die without ever hearing the Gospel. Ultimately, and this is not the most popular subject among some believers, in thinking through these issues, we cannot escape from the biblical doctrine of election. I personally am firmly convinced based on the whole of Scripture that this is one of the greatest truths in all Scripture. And my experiences on the mission field have only served to strengthen my conviction about how God chooses some to be saved. (Notice I do not go as far as to say that He chooses the rest to go for eternal damnation. All men are given “light” and by their response to the light that God gave to them, they will be judged.) How often I have passed through villages and towns in Indonesia and in other places around the world where there is no Gospel light shining. For example, I’ve watched little children from other religious backgrounds playing by the side of the road and thought to myself how much more difficult it is for them to know the Gospel when compared with the opportunities that you and I have been given. That is utterly and entirely GOD’S GRACE. But let’s not talk only about people in another country. Let’s think of similar situations right close to home. We cannot escape these difficult “dark Africa” realities right at our own doorstep.
Recognising the complexities of this issue on the macro level should never cause us to become complacent, or to look for some easy way out, eg a belief that there must be some other way for these people to be saved other than Jesus. The truth is = there is only ONE WAY, and His name is Jesus. Instead of our trying to rationalise this BIG problem away and make it easier for ourselves, these very realities must drive us to our knees and compel us like Paul to work hard to bring the Gospel to the peoples of this world.
And then… we must leave the rest (the unanswered questions) with God. We know that God knows what He’s doing.
In closing, let me suggest a few conclusions:
1) God calls us to live / walk by faith. There are MANY questions we don’t have easy answers for though none of these are what we would call “ultimate issues”. God has made clear how man may know Him. Where God has not revealed His mind of certain points through His Word, our part is to keep walking by faith = believing that this all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God knows exactly what He is doing about those millions upon millions who every year pass from this earthly life into the eternal after-life without ever having heard a clear presentation of the Gospel. I’d encourage you to be very careful in your pursuit of rational solutions for these very difficult issues that really are in the realm of “divine mystery”.
2) God has only ONE WAY = Jesus, the Saviour of the world. Only through Him are people saved. Let’s not water this message down in any way, shape or form. The world always responds negatively to the exclusive claims of Christ. God’s Saviour is never the world’s popular solution to man’s need to be reconciled with God.
3) We need to rejoice in the fact that God has revealed His truth to us personally — and to hold firmly to our salvation, even though we are so unworthy of it. At the same time, we also need to recognise that each one of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor.5:10). We won’t be asked to give an accounting for the response of the pagan in darkest Epping or Africa but for our own response to God’s truth. It’s often not what we don’t know that is our problem but rather what we do know but we aren’t doing anything about!!
4) But having said that, let’s recognise the grave responsibility that God has committed to all of us, His church, to take His Good News to the nearest and farthest corners of the globe. Ultimately, Andy, the issue isn’t a theological one for you and me but a personal one = what will you and I personally do about those who remain lost in their moral and spiritual darkness? The Lord knows that we can’t be everywhere witnessing to all points of the globe. But He knows we aren’t the Holy Spirit. We are His servants called to go where He sends us. And that’s what we need to respond to = to be willing and ready to go wherever God wants to send us with His saving message for the unsaved and lost.
I hope the above may offer a little help for you. I hope you aren’t too tired from reading my longer than expected answer.
Your brother in Christ,
Thank you for your reply. I’m really grateful that there are people like you that I can ask questions of. Thank you for taking the time to answer me. What you said is very helpful.
I’m grateful that I can ask you if I have other questions in the future.