How can salvation be real and certain only through Jesus Christ when countless people have never even heard His name? If billions of people have no knowledge of Him, isn’t the role of Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the world exaggerated? And are there no other ways of salvation besides Him?
In childhood, we want to learn the rules by which we can win the game. In school, we discover other rules that will help us succeed in life. When we leave school, we discover that there are other standards and that each goal is achieved in a different “game” with different rules. In the course of life, it becomes paramount to find a solution to the greatest crisis: the end of life. The solution to death, or to the realities that would follow it, has always involved the most powerful forces. Faced with death, humans seek the certainty of meaning and cultivate the idea of a continuation of existence. In the human mind, as Solomon said, life demands eternity, and the mortal condition demands some kind of rescue: salvation.
How is a person saved? It is a question that is raised at every funeral. From the beginning, Christians have preached one answer: Jesus Christ—faith in Him, His resurrection and His promise to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. Millions have been happy to discover Jesus, to believe what He said, to live by His words and to put their hope of resurrection in Him.
In our time, however, many people, faced with an exclusivist proposal, become cautious. How can they believe in a salvation received exclusively through Jesus Christ when there are billions of people on the planet who do not know Him? How can God be concerned about the fate of all humanity throughout history, be loving, merciful and just to the countless billions of people who have lived, are living and probably will live without a knowledge of Jesus or His message?
First and foremost, these questions lead to a discussion about knowing God and our relationship with Him. From the pages of Genesis we learn that God promised a Saviour to the first people. Because of this promise, God made covenants of salvation with human beings—with Noah, with Abraham and with his descendants. The prospect of salvation was for “all peoples on earth”—but it was not automatic and did not bypass individual choice. Human beings could not “just happen” to be saved, but had to accept God’s terms of salvation. Informing everyone of these conditions was entrusted by God to those who had already entered into a relationship with Him (e.g. the Abrahamic covenant or the Christian covenant through baptism). Surprisingly, God takes the risk of using intermediaries. Why would God choose to communicate with human beings in this way?
The first chapter of the first written book of the Bible, Job, is enlightening. The beginning of the narrative introduces a character who questions both divine integrity and human morality, asking whether God “bribes” people to be faithful to Him. In effect, he suggests that God corrupts through benevolence and that, to be genuine, human adherence to divine principles should have absolutely no ulterior motive—only then would it be entirely free and genuine.
In the face of these accusations, how could God offer mankind the means to eternal life with Himself without forcing their choice? The very divine presence in direct dialogue would force human beings to choose by virtue of their different status. To avoid this pressure, God chose to send messengers who would intimidate the interlocutor as little as possible, but who would convey the stakes of His intentions to humanity—specifically through the biblical patriarchs and prophets, but also more generally and historically through the people with whom He made a covenant and who were to be the repository of these revelations, which today we call Holy Scripture. They function as witnesses. The authenticity of their lives makes them credible.
Testimonies of the encounter with divine revelation
In Job’s discourse we can see the divine solution in Jesus Christ, which had been foretold: Job believed that although he did not understand why he was suffering, God would do justice to him, and even if he were to die, he would be resurrected, because someone would save him from his condition—a Saviour.
Where did Job get this knowledge? Probably from the disciples of the patriarchs who preached God’s message.
God has made sure throughout history not to run out of witnesses, even among those who did not have easy access to His people. The Apostle Paul points to Epimenides and Aratus, Greek poets who had glimpses of revelation; the early Christians saw in philosophical monotheism and pagan literature fragments of revelation that served as bridges of communication for the Gospel. Much more recently, in the twentieth century, the research of the linguist and anthropologist Wilhelm Schmidt and the testimonies of Christian missionaries point to a fundamental continuity in many cultures of belief in a supremely good God who establishes the laws of the world and the universe, and the standard of moral consciousness. Some cultures and peoples have retained the promise of a saviour and revelation.
An eloquent example is the religious history of the Karen people of present-day Myanmar. Their ancestral beliefs held that the original humans lost access to God’s revelation because they were disobedient (listening to a snake instead). Proponents of Buddhism tried to persuade them to abandon this belief. Later, in the 19th century, almost by chance, the missionary Adoniram Judson brought to Christ Ko Tha Byu, a criminal sold into slavery, who saw in the Christian message the fulfilment of his people’s prophecies and then became Christ’s apostle to the Karenni. Other very telling cases are those of the Pemon Indians of the Roraima mountain range in South America, and the Bari Indians of Colombia. In both cases, years or generations before Christian missionaries reached them, these people had received prophecies that prepared them to accept Christ as Saviour.
Such examples show that the people who live in these settings can be compared to Job. They live by the fulfilment of God’s promise. However, like Job, these people have a clear awareness of the distance between God and humanity, they remember that human beings need to be reconciled to God and that disobedience is a fundamental break in their relationship with Him. The concept of harmony and connection with the divine is not absent from their minds, as it is from the minds of contemporary modern and postmodern human beings, who take a critical stance, extrapolating everything from their own perspective and their own positions on justice, salvation and, implicitly, the fallen state of humankind.
The book of Genesis anticipates such a context when it describes the break between God and humanity. Disobedience to God took place against a background of fostering mistrust of divine claims and values in the context of greater reliance on a life lived apart from the principles of His reign—this is what we call sin. In both epic and simple stories, the practice of sin is shown to be destructive. To heal this rupture, God proposes that human beings reconnect with Him.
Evidence of the beginning of salvation
In the case of the Karen, the Pemon and Bari Indians, and the Sawi tribes of Papua New Guinea, knowing the Gospel of Christ and Christianity has meant dramatic improvements in the quality of life that have been documented in recent times. The knowledge of God in Christ restores people’s understanding of divine values.
The blood of Christ has been shed for the salvation of all who believe in Him. This has elevated the status of every human being, and the sacredness of life became an aspect in which Christians early distinguished themselves.
In antiquity, this was demonstrated by Christian opposition to the practice of infanticide and the adoption of abandoned children, as well as opposition to gladiatorial combat.
The restoration of respect for women shown by Jesus Christ continued among Christians. This led to the gradual elevation of women’s status, the strengthening of monogamous marriage and the family, gender balance and respect, and social stability.
Christian concern for orphans, the sick and the vulnerable went beyond the standards of the ancient world—churches were great charitable centres. Christians offered education to all, regardless of gender or social status. These were all revolutionary influences. Christians’ general appreciation of all work developed an ethic of reward, the equality of all before God contributed to the equality of all before the law, and the importance to salvation of individual faith determined freedom of conscience. Through successive developments, this influence led to what we now call human rights. Sociologist Robert Woodberry has observed and demonstrated that the lives of people in the world are better as a result of Christian mission.
Universal access to salvation
Thus, having communicated His purposes through a number of messages, God limited Himself and became incarnate in order to reveal Himself to humanity in the form in which it could understand Him—the man Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1, 2). Regarding the possibility of anyone’s salvation through Jesus Christ, Gorden Doss’s perspective is very edifying: (1) Christ is “the apex of revelation and the norm by which all other beliefs must be critiqued”; (2) the historical incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ are “the decisive event[s] in human history”; and (3) the atonement of Christ is the only means by which a person can be saved.
The following lines of thought allow for the possibility of including everyone in salvation: first, God gave human beings free will; second, Adam’s sin placed everyone in a hopeless situation; third, God explicitly reveals His plan of salvation through special revelation, but special revelation was not available to everyone; and fourth, in His love and justice, God reveals Himself through general revelation to everyone, even to those who did not have access to special revelation, and they, though “unevangelised,” can be saved through Christ. This general picture explains the situation of those billions of people who apparently do not have the testimony of Christ.
Jesus alone affirms and provides the resurrection and the full restoration of life for all human beings. The fact that the state of humanity today is undoubtedly better because of Jesus’ teachings confirms the authenticity of His message over the millennia. All this together also confirms the reality that He is alive, fulfils His promise to be with His disciples through His Spirit throughout history, and is a prefiguration of the full restoration of the world that He will bring about when He returns.
Laurenţiu Nistor believes that meeting Jesus Christ and accepting His message restores the divine model in humans, while the moral, ethical, and social progress of the last two millennia, based on His teachings, continues to confirm it.