Question: What about the people who were born in the deepest jungles or in some rural African village? They never heard of Jesus, and no one has ever shared with them the “way to salvation” through Jesus Christ. Will they spend eternity in Hell for not believing in something they never heard about?
Answer: There are a few different positions held by Christians on this issue. I will mention just two. The Restrictivist view holds that Jesus is the only Savior for all humanity and that it is not possible to attain salvation apart from explicit knowledge of him. Thus, people must know Jesus and know that they know him. The person born in sub Sahara Africa, for example, must therefore hear the gospel and respond in order to be saved. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9). Those who never hear the gospel will be judged on the basis of what they know or should have known. What they should have known is sufficient to condemn them, for God’s general revelation of himself in creation leaves all without excuse:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness, because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse” (Rom 1:18-20).
The Inclusivist view maintains that Jesus is the only Savior for all humanity but that it is possible to attain salvation apart from explicit knowledge of him. One can be saved by expressing faith in God based on the general knowledge of him that is available to everyone. Thus, people must know Jesus but not necessarily know that they know him. All are saved through Jesus—whether they know him by name or not. Adherents of this view point out that when people do not have the written revelation of God, God works with them and judges them on the basis of the internal witness they do have. In the words of the Apostle Paul:
“When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but written on their hearts. There is something deep within them (a conscience?) that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ takes into account all these differences” (Rom 2:14-16 MSG – Parenthesis mine).
This view simply says that God sees the hearts of people perfectly and applies the reconciling work of Christ to all who have a heart to receive it—whether they know it or not.
To sum up, this is indeed a tough issue. In the end, I want to hold two things in delicate balance. First, I want to trust that God is altogether loving, just and gracious; and that he will turn away none that seek after him with whatever light they have been given. “God does not wish for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God has not left himself without a witness, as he has revealed himself through the natural creation, and has imprinted his Law within the human heart (conscience).
Second, however, the Bible and general experience reveals that many nevertheless will choose to ignore the light and remain in darkness. As Scripture teaches, “Now this is the basis for judging: that the light has come into the world and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). “For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21). We who have heard the gospel, who are aware of the reasonable evidence God has given to make Himself known are thereby without excuse.
“Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts” (Heb 4:7).
SOURCE: Gregory A. Boyd & Paul R. Eddy, Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002).