Nobody who dies, awakens in the next world, is confronted with the inescapable fact that there is, after all, an omniscient, omnipresent and all-powerful God who created them can rightly protest they had no clue He existed. Paul expressed it well in Romans 1:20-25 when he wrote: “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. For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” The Apostle was simply stating everyone everywhere is granted at the very least some jaw-dropping eyefuls of God’s glorious existence during their lifetime. In my last essay I pointed out that people instinctively seek a religion they can latch onto as the genuine truth. All individuals are born with an undeniable urge to find and know God. That fundamental yearning has spawned a myriad of religions. But here’s the bottom line: No matter how well-intentioned, peaceful, generous, profound or attractive a humanly-conceived religion might appear to be, all of them are essentially hollow substitutes for God’s revelation if they don’t have Christ at the center of their beliefs. This raises the inevitable question, though, “What happens to the pagans who never hear about Jesus?”
That query was brought up during a Bible study I attended a few years back. Rather than try to answer the questioner with some kind of cliché rubberstamp response, pastor Kirk Shelton proposed we dedicate a couple of our upcoming meetings to exploring that subject. Ten weeks later we were still wrestling with and arguing over difficult-to-grasp concepts like predestination, election and universal reconciliation. It seemed like every door the Scriptures allowed us to open led us into the foyer of another mansion full of more dimly-lit corridors that would potentially take us who knows where. Ironically, when we finished the series we still didn’t have a definitive answer to the original question. We had plenty of opinions, attitudes and a couple of bruised egos but no definitive answer. And because there’s no definitive answer many non-Christians feel entitled to treat our faith with an “I thought you guys were supposed to have all the answers” brand of cynicism. Yet we can tell them what we do know. And one of those things we’re sure about is that everybody must someday account for the light God revealed to them. The question presents a conundrum nonetheless. On one hand 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 reads, “…Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Since every one of us has, at some point, been at least a little bit greedy then none of us can stroll through the pearly gates. What Paul’s saying is we’re all sinners underserving of spending a nanosecond in the presence of God Almighty. Thus, without being clothed in the righteousness of Christ we’re all doomed.
On the other hand we know from the Bible and from what our Savior taught us, the Father in heaven is infallibly just, patient, merciful and forgiving. Genesis 18:25 states, “Will not the judge of the whole earth do what is right?” While most of us have learned the hard way that life isn’t fair, God always is. There are lots of Scripture verses to back that statement up with. Here’s a few. Deuteronomy 4:29 avows, “But if you seek the Lord your God… you will find him, if, indeed, you seek him with all your heart and soul.” In Proverbs 8:17 God proclaims, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.” And in Luke 11:10 Jesus said, “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” I take those quotes to mean exactly what they imply. Nothing can block the path between someone and the great I AM if they sincerely want to know Him. Having a Bible on your bookshelf won’t save your soul. Long before the invention of the printing press millions of men and women gave their lives over to Christ without the benefit of ever holding in their hands a copy of the Holy Word. God revealed Himself to them through means other than reading about Him. Billy Graham wrote, “God’s nature will bear witness of a divine power and person to whom everyone will answer. On the other side, God’s justice will be exhibited against those who fail to live up to the light He’s given them.”
In the 50s the Billy Graham Crusade went to India. One man who’d never heard the Gospel message walked over 120 miles to attend because he ached with all his heart to know the true and living God. He’d heard rumors that a renowned “guru” from America would be speaking in Madras and he felt compelled to go and find out what he could learn from him. Eight months later a catholic bishop visited the man’s hometown and found that not only had the man surrendered to Christ after hearing the Good News, he’d gone back and converted his entire village to Christianity! During another India mission in ’72 Graham was informed that whole families had walked for up to ten days to get there from Nepal, Sikkim and Burma. Most of the sojourners had no knowledge of Jesus whatsoever. All they knew was a religious gathering was being held and they were seeking to know the truth about God no matter what it took to gain it. Thousands of souls were saved. Dr. Graham comments, “I’m convinced that when a person sincerely searches for God with all their heart, God will reveal Himself in some way. A person, a Bible or some experience with believers will be used by God to reach the one who seeks.” My wife and I have had intense discussions about what’ll befall a soul who spends their whole life isolated from civilization and never hears about Jesus. Are they damned by default? I confess I just don’t know because the Bible never gets that micro specific. However, I do refuse to put limits on what God’s capable of doing. I do know the last will be first. And I do know the Heavenly Father loves all His children, even the illiterate aborigine, so I’ll leave it to Him to do what’s right. I’m not privy to all of God’s methods and I’m comfortable with that. God overcomes all obstacles.
Those who consciously and deliberately reject God’s truth are another story altogether. If they develop or adopt humanistic or “natural” religions they’re usually offended by the notion the Bible is the authoritative source of truth and that only the blood of Christ can cleanse us from the ugly stains of our iniquities. I’m not talking about devil worshiping. Most of these “alternative” spiritual movements or sects contain just enough truth to present a pleasant front to the public. They revere certain elements of the truth and advocate high ethical standards. In other words, they seem harmless and benign. Thomas Paine wrote, “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” Sounds noble enough, right? And that outlook may have impressed his family, friends and neighbors no end. But those lofty aspirations and valorous intentions will never impress God or enable a person to meet His moral demands. You see, there’s a remarkably skilled deceiver who can adapt himself to any culture and can even con faithful Christians at times. Satan doesn’t show up dressed as a red monster with a pitchfork and pointy tail. Rather, he can appear to be a charming “angel of light.” He can trick people into thinking that just by attending church regularly they’re riding on the escalator to paradise even though they’ve never been born again. He’s fooled them into trusting that, by participating in certain religious ceremonies, doing good works, tithing, volunteering for charitable causes or protesting against social injustice, they’ll earn gold stars in God’s ledger. He’s blinded them to the grandeur of the forest by getting them to focus on the trees. If what we do as Christians doesn’t glorify the Father in heaven nothing we accomplish is worth a cow patty. It’s not about us and what we do. It’s always been about Him and what He does.
A couple years back a close family member who’s agnostic said to me, “So you’re saying if I don’t believe exactly as you do I’m going to hell? How dare you be so conceited!” That’s a tough corner to be painted into. First of all, I don’t expect anyone to agree with me on everything. I’m just a ragamuffin sinner struggling to live for Christ one day at a time, not a degreed scholar. Secondly, though, there’s no getting around the core fact that if a person rejects the atonement that Jesus provided on the cross for the acts of their sinful nature they’ll spend eternity separated from the source of all love, goodness and joy. (Hell? I imagine it’s the worst thing I can imagine so I’ll leave it at that.) The temptation I danced with as I prepared to respond to her accusation was to compromise the truth so she wouldn’t be offended by it. I was more concerned about her considering me a self-righteous ass than informing her of the consequences her unbelief will bring. I fear that’s what’s happening to the Christian message in general these days. We’re watering it down because of the reaction it elicits from those who are liberal and permissive when it comes to God’s laws. Cable channels are filled with documentaries that belittle the Bible. One atheist said, “The virgin birth, the raising of Lazarus and even the Old Testament miracles, all are freely used for religious propaganda, and are very effective with an audience of unsophisticates and children.” Another wrote, “Christian theism must be rejected by any person with even a shred of respect for reason.” Hogwash like this is being propagated non-stop in the media despite the fact that archaeologists still have yet to uncover anything that disproves the Scriptures. When confronted with this, skeptics usually retreat to the position of allowing the Bible to be considered somewhat accurate but only in a “historical” sense. That way they can pick and choose what they deem relevant spiritually. And some of the worst culprits are priests and ministers! C.S. Lewis commented about one pastor whom, “after swallowing the camel of Resurrection, strains at such gnats as the feeding of the multitudes.” We Christians must put our trust in the infallibility of God’s Holy Word and stand on it even in the face of ridicule and scorn. All other ground is sinking sand.
We live in a world where all the available data on any subject can be accessed by the click of a mouse. We start thinking we don’t need to rely on faith and that’s dangerous. That attitude opens the gate for all sorts of wolves costumed as sheep to waltz in and distract us with their “revised revelations” of truth. But none of these attacks are new nor do they come as a surprise to God. Christ warned in Matthew 24:24, “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Remember, I have told you ahead of time.” Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:14, “So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes.” Peter chimed in, too. “But false prophets arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. These false teachers will infiltrate your midst with destructive heresies, even to the point of denying the Master who bought them. As a result, they will bring swift destruction on themselves. And many will follow their debauched lifestyles. Because of these false teachers, the way of the truth will be slandered. And in their greed they will exploit you with deceptive words. Their condemnation pronounced long ago is not sitting idly by; their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3). It’s all happening just as predicted. Those who aim to distill the truth about our Lord will usually not come right out and blatantly condemn Christianity. They’ve found the subtle approach much more effective. They’ll present words like peace, love, tolerance and mercy in a different context to rob them of their spiritual significance. They’ll assign alternate meanings to Biblical terms like messiah, redemption, genesis, conversion, salvation, disciple, savior and even rebirth. The Apostle Paul saw right through that ploy. In 1 Timothy 4:1-2 he wrote, “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will desert the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared.” We can never let down our guard.
So what does all this have to do with the profound question of “What becomes of the uninformed?” A lot. God has clearly expressed that if anyone truly seeks Him He’ll provide a way for them to find Him. How God goes about doing that really isn’t our business. What should be our business is how God’ll use us as the means by which an individual gets introduced to the Gospel. If we don’t know the truth and abide by it in our daily living how can we possibly be a useful witness to God’s amazing grace? We need to be able to explain why Christianity is not like all the other religions and in what ways. We must be ready to defend our faith in the face of what unbelievers may regard as inconsistencies or downright cruelty on God’s part. For example, someone may bring up Cain and Abel and opine it was totally bogus of God to be “…pleased with Abel and his offering, but with Cain and his offering he was not pleased” (Genesis 4:5). They’ll gripe that poor Cain was only doing what he thought was right. We gotta be ready to reply with the truth of the matter. That incident with the brothers is in God’s Word to teach us there’s a right way and a wrong way to make contact with God. Cain’s worship was nothing but empty religiosity based on his wanting things on his terms, not God’s. And his actions following God’s rebuke revealed the darkness infecting his heart. He refused to repent and, instead, became so resentful he committed murder against his own flesh and blood. He spent the rest of his days playing the victim card, declaring, “My punishment is too great to bear” (Genesis 4:13). Cain may have been quasi-sincere when offering his sacrifice but he was still very, very wrong to go against God’s precise instructions.
However closed-minded, outdated or intolerant people may accuse Christians of being, it’s imperative we present to folks God’s truth and nothing but. If we don’t do it no one will and they’ll opt to go with a false religion that better suits their preferences instead. It’s always been that way. Immediately after God led his people out of slavery and was delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses up on Mount Sinai false religion erupted among the Israelites. Even reliable old Aaron went along with the crowd’s demands and had a calf fashioned out of gold to parade around. The rabble then exclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4). Hard to fathom their insolence, is it not? But what it tells us is that none of us are immune from being misled. There will always be alternatives available to the biblical way of approaching the great I AM. Yet we haven’t been and never will be abandoned by our Father in heaven. If we pray for His guidance and strength, if we rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit to be the fountain of truth and expose everything we see and hear to the litmus test that is the Scriptures we will not be deceived. As Dr. Graham said, “For the person who searches, the answers are available.”