Q&A: What About Those Who Haven’t Heard the Gospel? Do Christians and Muslims believe the same thing?

A recent “Ask a Pastor” asked the following:

This fall I’ve been sitting in with the senior youth Sunday school class and last week I filled in as teacher. A couple of times the question has come up about people who never get a chance to hear the gospel or about people of religions similar to Christianity and their salvation. The kids don’t like the idea of anyone going to hell, especially someone who has never heard the gospel. One girl even talked about reading Muslim beliefs and thinking that, since they were similar to Christian beliefs, she had hope to see Muslims in heaven. Are there any BJS articles regarding how to approach this? I think that if we don’t give the kids an answer, they will form their own answer, probably using the world’s opinions about tolerance as a basis. I’m digging in the Book of Concord, but realized the topic could be covered anywhere or not at all.

 

Let’s take this question in two parts. When it comes to the first question – “What about those who never heard the gospel?” – there are several answers people have given.

Some have attempted to answer the question by saying that eventually all people will be saved when it comes to the final judgment, regardless of whether they had faith in Christ or not. This is different from the Scriptural teaching of universal grace and objective justification because it also ignores Scripture’s clear teaching on hell and eternal condemnation for those who reject the gospel. The Universalist has no problem answering this question. In fact this isn’t even a question for them. What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel? According to the Universalist, they’re saved, simple as that. This is where the so-called “righteous pagan” argument often comes up. Clearly the Universalist hasn’t read Romans 1-3…no one is righteous, no not one.

Still others have swung the theological pendulum the other direction and answered the question by saying that God has predestined from all eternity those who will be saved (the elect) and those who will be condemned (the reprobate). This is known as double predestination and was taught by John Calvin and later intensified by his followers, including the infamous five points of Calvinism (TULIP). Within this theological system, there is no need to ask or answer this question either. According to strict Calvinists, it matters not if the person has heard the gospel at all, but rather, whether or not they have been predestined to heaven or hell.

Problem is, none of the aforementioned examples are revealed in, or supported by Scripture. Most of man’s attempts to answer this difficult question apart from the clear Word of God fall into some kind of system of works righteousness. This is how we operate by our default setting, run to the Law. Look to our works, ourselves and somehow God will favor that. The Universalist will argue that people get in, in part, because man is essentially good. The Calvinist will argue that the only way to know if you are one of the elect is by looking at your good works. Either way, the Christian is turned inward on the self, which is always a dangerous spiritual position. And yet people across the religious spectrum argue, “But it’s simply not fair; how could a loving God send all those people to hell just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time?” Our sense of fairness is quite different from God’s. We think of fairness in terms of what we deserve. You work; you get paid. Quid pro quo. Don’t work; you don’t get paid. But if we take Scripture’s teaching on sin seriously, no one deserves salvation. If God were fair according to our rules, no one would be in heaven. And yet it’s exactly the opposite. Christianity preaches outrageous forgiveness for undeserving sinners. Christ dies for the ungodly. Jesus reckons his righteousness to our account, not because we deserve it or have earned it or because it’s fair, but simply and exclusively by Christ’s death on the cross on our behalf. Thank God he isn’t fair!

Before giving people an answer to this question, perhaps you should start with the best reply possible: “Why do you ask?” I’ve been asked this question on numerous occasions. And frequently the reason people ask is that many people want to hold out some kind of hope for those who have not heard the gospel. In Romans 1-2 Scripture clearly tells us that man’s natural knowledge of God is enough to condemn. But natural law is not enough to save. The God revealed in the book of nature is powerful and omnipotent and the creator. But man knows no Savior or salvation through natural law – the Law always accuses.The Law shows us our sin. The Gospel shows us our Savior. And for divine rescue and redemption, we must flee to the Gospel, to Christ’s death on the cross in our place and to His revealed Word in the Word made flesh. For faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).

Very often the question behind the question – what about those who haven’t heard the gospel? – goes something like this: “Has God provided some other way of salvation for those who have not heard the gospel…what about the righteous pagan, etc.?”  The simplest answer, according to the revealed will of God is, “No, God has provided us no other way except through Christ’s death and resurrection. His death is both inclusive – he died for all – and exclusive – he’s the way, the truth and the life and no one comes to Father except through him. This is why Jesus not only came to be born, die, rise and ascend for us but also left the Church with the authority to forgive sin and to spread the gospel to all nations, even ones in the middle of the jungle. Not to mention there is no such thing as a righteous pagan, not if we take Scripture seriously.”

Now, when it comes to the hidden will of God, we may be tempted to say, “I don’t know.”  But when it comes to the hidden will of God, the best we can hope for is wishful thinking and the worst is the Law of a wrathful God. Either way, looking into the hidden will of God for an answer to this or any other question will yield only ghosts. Or, as my youth kids like to say, “don’t go there.”  “I don’t know” breads uncertainty in the gospel and for that reason the hidden will of God is no place to look for answers here.

Instead, go to the cross. Flee to Christ. Look not into the hidden msyteries of God but into the mysteries of God revealed on the cross. Look to the glory of the Crucified one arrayed in blood for us men and our salvation. That is the only way to know whether we are saved or not. Look to your Baptism. Look to the Word. Look to the Absolution. Look to the Supper.

We can only say as much as Scripture says, no more, no less. In summary, if we’re in heaven, Christ gets the credit; if we are in hell, it’s our own fault. When it comes to answering this question, don’t run to the Law. But take refuge in the gospel. Lean on Christ’s mercy. And look to Scripture’s clear revelation.

So, what does God reveal to us in Scripture concerning sin, judgment and salvation? Here are a few verses that will help you out:

  • All people are sinners (Romans 3:23).
  • The penalty of sin is death – eternal separation from God (Romans 6:23).
  • Christ died to pay the penalty for the sin of the whole world (John 4:42; 1 John 2:2; etc.).
  • People are saved from eternal judgment when they put their trust (“believe”) in Christ’s death on the cross for their sin (John 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; Acts 16:30,31; Ephesians 7:8,9; etc.).
  • Not all are saved; those who reject Christ’s payment for sin will eternally endure God’s wrath on sin in hell (John 3:18,36; Revelation 20:15).
  • God has put within people a basic awareness of Himself and of the requirement to do right (Romans 1:19,32; 2:15).
  • God has revealed Himself (as eternal, as all-powerful, as good, etc.) to all by means of the created world (Romans 1:20).
  • Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
  • “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
  • “There is salvation in no one else…no other name under heaven…by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
  • God desires that all men be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9).
  • John 1:29 – “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
  • Thus, in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4) the Word became flesh (John 1:14) in order to suffer, die and rise again (Mark 10:32-34) undoing the sin of Adam and bringing salvation to all through his death (Romans 5:12-21).

Furthermore, Jesus has clearly told us to take the Gospel to those who have not heard, and He told us to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:15).  God has revealed a great deal to us in Scripture.

In particular, he has revealed for us the command to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:45-49; Matthew 28:16-20). And he has given us the clear promises of life and salvation in his name that faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17), that his Word does not go out and return void but does what he accomplishes (Isaiah 55:10-11) and that he is with us always (Matthew 28:28).

Hopefully this has helped address your question. I also recommend listening to an interview on Issues Etc. by Pastor Joel Baseley on this very topic. You can follow this link here to find it in the archives or listen to the podcast below.

[podcast]http://www.podtrac.com/pts/redirect.mp3/issuesetc.org/podcast/897120611H1S1.mp3[/podcast]

 

With regards to the second question – “Are Christian and Muslim beliefs similar and will we see Muslims in heaven? – we must begin by addressing this with a little bit of logic. In fact, the one thing that all the world’s religions actually have in common is their mutual incompatibility.

Islam and Christianity cannot both be true. They both could be false, but they cannot both be true. Here we apply the law of non-contradiction: “A” cannot equal “not-A”. Islam and Christianity both say mutually contradictory things about the nature of God, man, salvation, Jesus, etc. Let’s take just one example: Muslims believe and teach that Jesus was not God, did not die on the cross and did not rise from the dead. The Christian claim is exactly the opposite. Christ not only claimed to be God but vindicated this claim by suffering, dying on the cross and rising again three days later. Jesus is in the best possible position to save you and I from sin, death and the grave since he has alone has done something about it.

The question is, what evidence is there for any religious position to be true? And in this case, Christianity comes in clear response with overwhelming evidence that Christ lived, died and rose again in human history and he did it for you. Check out any number of the articles in the Steadfast in Defense category for some recent articles that teach the defense of the Christian faith, also known as Christian apologetics.

But does that mean that there will be no Muslims in heaven? Well, that depends on your definition of Muslim. If, by Muslim you mean, those who have followed the teachings of Muhammad and the Qur’an, the answer, according to the Bible is no. But, if we mean Muslims who have converted to Christianity, then yes. Thanks be to God for the grace and salvation already brought to countless Muslims who have been rescued from the terror of judgment and death by Christ’s death and judgment on the cross.

 

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