Must the Whole World Hear?
As we have seen, the Lord uses people to bring the message of the gospel to others. However, throughout the ages, millions have died without knowing the biblical plan of salvation. The fact is that a majority of those who have ever lived have not heard the story of redemption or known about the good news of God’s grace as revealed in Jesus Christ. This leads to two persistent questions. First, on the day of judgment, how is God going to deal with these billions who have not known Him? Second, is there salvation outside of someone’s knowing the plan of salvation as it is in Jesus?
Some would answer that there is salvation in a single Christian denomination only; in contrast, others believe that all religions are equally valid guides to God and eternal life.
In the end, the crucial point to remember is that Jesus has revealed to us the character of God, and this tells us a lot about His love for all humanity and His desire for as many as possible to be saved. God is a God of justice, and however He works it out, the shout will be heard across heaven: “ ‘Just and true are Your ways, O King of the saints!’ ” (Rev. 15:3, NKJV).
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, September 26.
Some Christians have the conviction that only those who hear and respond positively to the Christian gospel can be saved. The people, sometimes called “exclusivists,” regard all non-Christian religions as constructs of fallen humans, which express willful rebellion against God. Non-Christians are, they believe for that reason, outside the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
Some Christians take the further step of claiming that outside their specific denomination and doctrinal structure there is no salvation, even for other confessing Christians. For them, other denominations with their divergent beliefs have placed themselves outside the care of God and have no chance of entering the kingdom of heaven. For instance, in 1302 in his papal bull Unam Sanctam, Pope Boniface VIII declared “that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” Some Protestants have taught something similar in regard to their own denominations, as well.
The words of the Scripture here are very clear: salvation is found only in Jesus Christ and in no other name under heaven. It’s important, however, not to read into these words more than they specifically say.
Imagine a man in a building that is on fire; before being able to escape, he is overcome by smoke and collapses unconscious. A firefighter finds him on the floor, grabs him, and brings him outside, where the medics take over. He is rushed to the hospital, and a few hours later he regains consciousness.
The point is that this person, who was saved, had no idea who had saved him. In the same way, anyone who is saved—either before Jesus came in the flesh or after—will be saved only through Jesus, whether or not that person had heard of His name or of the plan of salvation.
“Among the heathen are those who worship God ignorantly, those to whom the light is never brought by human instrumentality, yet they will not perish. Though ignorant of the written law of God, they have heard His voice speaking to them in nature, and have done the things that the law required. Their works are evidence that the Holy Spirit has touched their hearts, and they are recognized as the children of God.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 638.
Picking up where we left off on Sunday, we can see that although the work of Christ provides the only means of salvation, some believe that explicit knowledge of Christ is not necessary in order for one to be saved.
This does not imply that salvation is available apart from Christ but that God is able and willing to apply the merits of Christ’s work to whomever He wishes. Some believe that those who do not know Christ and have never been exposed to the gospel, but who under the influence of the Holy Spirit feel a need for deliverance, and act on it, will be saved. The quote from Ellen G. White at the end of yesterday’s study certainly implies this (think of Job and Melchizedek).
“God ‘will repay each person according to what they have done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Rom. 2:6, 7, NIV).
Paul here declares that there are some outside of Christianity who will receive eternal life as a result of an “obedience-unto-life” principle (cf. Lev. 18:5). For those “Gentiles” who “show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts” because “their consciences also bearing witness” (Rom. 2:15, NIV), it will make a difference on Judgment Day because these people have responded to the work of the Spirit in their hearts.
Some people teach that in the end God is going to save all human beings, regardless of what they believed or even how they lived. “Universalism” is the conviction that all persons are so related to God that they will be saved, even if they never heard or believed the gospel. After all, John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world.” Thus, in this thinking, if He loves everyone, how can anyone be lost, especially if being lost means eternal torment in hell? How could God burn forever someone whom He loves? Hence, we can see how one false doctrine (eternal torment) leads to another (universalism).
Related to universalism is “pluralism,” the conviction that all religions are equally valid and lead equally to God and salvation. No religion is inherently better than, or superior to, any other religion, at least according to this theology. A pastor in a church in California wrote on the church Web site that his congregation “does not believe that Christianity is superior in any way to other religious beliefs.”
For pluralists, the vast range of religious rituals and beliefs, symbols and metaphors, are mere surface differences concealing a similar core of all religions. Pluralists point out, for example, that most religions emphasize love for God and love for fellow human beings, a form of the golden rule, and hope for a blessed future life. According to them, all faiths, at the core, teach the same thing; hence, they are all valid paths to God, and it is very chauvinistic and arrogant to try to push Christian beliefs upon those who are members of non-Christian faiths.
No question, both universalism and pluralism are contrary to Scripture. Not everyone will be saved; and all faiths do not lead to salvation.
According to the Bible, we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23), and God wishes for all to repent (Acts 17:30, 26:20, 2 Pet. 3:9) and be saved (1 Tim. 2:4). From the Fall in Eden onward, God’s purpose has been to save humanity from the devastation and ultimate eternal death that sin and rebellion have brought to humanity. What more proof do we need than the Cross to show God’s love for us and His desire to save us?
However, Scripture is clear that God will not save those who openly rebel against Him.
God loves all people, but all people are sinners in need of grace, and this grace has been revealed in Jesus. He has called His church to spread the good news of this grace to the world.
“The church is God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning it has been God’s plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory. The church is the repository of the riches of the grace of Christ; and through the church will eventually be made manifest, even to ‘the principalities and powers in heavenly places,’ the final and full display of the love of God. Ephesians 3:10.”—Ellen G. White, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 9.
The Lord of missions, in His wisdom, chose to work through humans to bring the message of forgiveness and salvation to the world. God chose men and women, despite their weaknesses, to work together with the Holy Spirit and the angels. Israel was to be God’s steady “light” in Old Testament times, but too often they put their light “under a basket” (Matt. 5:15, NKJV). Too many times the blessings they received were kept inside Israel. Instead of mixing and sharing, they shut themselves away from the nations in order to escape “contamination.”
God’s next plan for world mission called for the salt method—to go “and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19, NKJV; Mark 16:15, 20; Acts 1:8). The history of Christian missions sparkles with stories of self-sacrificing missionaries who went as salt to the world, bringing the gospel of life to individuals, communities, and sometimes entire nations.
However, as with ancient Israel, too often these mission successes have been obscured by the human shortcomings of the missionaries themselves and their overall mission enterprise. These human shortcomings include (1) poor planning for outreach, inadequate understanding of the task; (2) narrow focus on mission only as education, health care, disaster relief, or development, which overshadow preaching the gospel; (3) underfunding and understaffing by the sending organizations; (4) missionaries unsuited to the task; and (5) nations that forbid the preaching of the gospel.
Of course, no one ever said that it was going to be easy. We are in the midst of a great controversy, and the enemy will work every way he can to thwart our outreach efforts, whether in our own neighborhoods or in the most “remote” corners of the world. We, though, mustn’t be discouraged, because we have been given many wonderful promises of power, and we can be sure that God will fulfill His purposes on earth. As we have been told: “ ‘So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it’ ” (Isa. 55:11, NKJV).
Further Study: Ellen G. White, “On the Mount of Olives,” in The Desire of Ages, p. 633; “Speedy Preparation,” in Fundamentals of Christian Education, p. 335; “Extension of the Work in Foreign Fields,” in Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 23.
The New Testament employs two Greek nouns, accompanied by the adjective “all,” to express the worldwide extent of Christian mission: “all the kosmos” in Matthew 26:13, Mark 14:9, and 16:15, and “all the oikoumen-e ” in Matthew 24:14. While kosmos, the more general term for the realm of orderly existence, signifies the planet (with approximately one hundred fifty New Testament occurrences), the more specific oikoumen-e focuses on the world’s human inhabitants.
How extensive was “the whole world” for the first Christians? Within a few years of the Crucifixion, they had reached modern-day Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy. There is evidence that they propagated the gospel as far as southern Russia (ancient Scythia) in the north, Ethiopia in the south, India in the east, and Spain in the west.
Did the early Christian missionaries believe they had to reach the whole world with the gospel? According to Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the “birthday” of the Christian church, began to proclaim the “mighty works of God” to visitors from a list of nations, geographic regions, and ethnic groups (Acts 2:5–11). From its first day of life, the Christian church has been aware of the worldwide extent of its mission. If they had that understanding back then, how much more so should we today?