April 10th, 2011 by Dale Fincher
Deep in the bush, across mysterious valleys, and in ancient civilizations are those who have never heard of Jesus. If we take Peter for his word (Acts 4:12), on the surface, we would have to conclude that unless you know the name of Jesus you cannot know God.
No matter how we answer, we believe we must steer between these two buoys: 1) That Jesus is the only Savior (John 14:1-6; Acts 4:12) and 2) That God does not unjustly ignore those who have never heard (2 Pet 3:9; Romans 1:18-32).
It would be easiest to say all religions are the same. But, not only is this incoherent, its insults every religion and violates the first buoy. Others say God is still good even if he sends people ignorant of Jesus to hell, but that violates the second buoy. Some say “just take it by faith” but that doesn’t answer the question.
To proceed we first need some ideas about how we identify things. One way is by pointing at it. A child without words can still point intelligently at daddy. Another is by names. We know who I mean when I say, “Mom.” Yet we can use that same word, “Mom” and apply it to billions of women. After all, I’d describe my mom differently than you’d describe your mom (unless we were siblings). Just because we label something with the same word doesn’t mean it’s the same thing. This second way is the least helpful because it is the least clear. Yet this is also the most common way we talk about God in popular culture.
This is important to note. Examine how each religion describes God. Not all “Moms” are the same, neither are all “Gods.” Buddha and Jesus and Allah and Krishna are different beings, described differently in essential ways. To call all of them “God” is not helpful. Mere labels are not clear enough for something of such cosmic and deeply human importance.
Because of this, we need a third way to identify what God we’re talking about: descriptions.
As we grow in our knowledge of God, it is important we examine our descriptions about him and be willing to humbly shift our perspectives to the truth. If someone said Allah is God but then entrenched themselves in Quranic doctrine, he will never describe God as “Father” and will adamantly deny Allah would become human flesh in Jesus. The same is true for the Buddhist who describes God as lacking personhood, unable to love or hear prayers. Our descriptions clarify who or what we are talking about and who or what we are worshipping.
Yet someone in the outback of South America might have very little knowledge of God and might only know him by pointing or his short list of descriptions: person, loving, creator, helper. He may have never heard of Jesus but cries out to his Maker and Deliverer, maybe giving him a name unfamilier to us. Would he have to say the word “Jesus”? Or would he only have to reach out to the Person behind the word, like the child who cannot speak but holds out his arms to his mother? No loving mother requires the child say “Mommy, you with the brown hair and a spoon, feed me!” before offering her help.
God is not concerned we have our theology perfect before we can be his friend. Rather, God asks we bring ourselves with humility and contrition as a creature to our creator.
However, the larger point is to grow in love for him, that love would allow the truth to guide us. After all this is part of why the gospel is called good. Jesus didn’t come to make converts to solve salvation puzzles. He came to make us make us appropriately human, living his life. Yet the darkness of our hearts, even in the hearts of Christians, can twist our view of God into something he is not. We can use our theology to hide from him rather than reveal him. It is our openness to God’s love that counts for so much. This is one reason, I believe, many religions get God wrong. They do not see God as a being that loves in relationship, and, in essence, deliberately push him away.
Identifying the right God is necessary; entering into love with him is vital.
It is the same for the one in the outback as it is for us: God holds humans responsible for the knowledge they have and how they have followed it into loving God. He will not lead anyone astray who seeks him as his friend (Jer 29:13). God has given us every human faculty to know him which is why Paul says we are without excuse based on nature alone (Rom 1:20). God must be very open to honest, elementary views of him.
Yet consider this: the ones in greatest danger, perhaps, are not the ones who have never heard of Jesus, but the ones who have legitimately heard and turned up their noses.
We think Peter was not teaching we have to get the name of Jesus right. But he was deeply committed to the One behind the name, convinced that only one Savior exists. If we’re to be delivered, it has to be through the Deliverer. If we’re to be loved by God, it has to be through the only Cosmic Lover out there.
So what about those who have never heard? God is with them and they can hear his voice. Just like with us all, they need only to reach up with humility and take baby steps to find a loving Father with welcoming arms.