Can an isolated pagan be saved in this age?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Romans 1:18-25 says that God`s invisible attributes are so apparent in creation that we are without excuse if we miss it. But what if I am a person who lives in a culture that does not recognize that and which has not yet heard the Gospel. But I go my whole life loving false gods as my culture dictates — even to obeying Romans 1:18 with respect to my gods? If I never learned of Jesus and what he has done for us, would I spend eternity in hell? I hear reports where some isolated tribes have visions and dreams — and are saved through the Holy Spirit. Does that mean that since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit has visited every human that he knew would be isolated from the Gospel? So what about that person who continues to worship a false god as creator, or the person who has not had a spiritual revelation? Will they go to hell? The Bible says they will. I won’t ask if this is fair, because a man can’t dictate what God thinks is fair. But this is a hard question — especially when witnessing to the lost. 

Answer: You made many good points in this question. I particularly like your sensitivity to the idea that God might have a different idea of what’s fair than we humans do. As a seasoned question respondent, I can attest that people often project their own ideas of what’s fair upon God… and then blast him for his poor performance! Now, I sense that you are not one of these; you seem to be a guy who trusts in God’s provision for salvation... however he chooses to work out the details.

But you admit (like I admit) that when we must explain how salvation works to other people… and particularly that it is exclusive in Jesus Christ (that is, not universal)… that we are rebuffed; we are seen as narrow-minded, and God is seen as mean. But we believe that we do indeed have the mind of God in this, so how do we proceed? How do we justify God’s mind to others? Or more importantly, how do we justify God’s mind to ourselves?

One school of thought takes seriously the saying, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it!” This school usually subscribes to a “high” view of God’s sovereignty and a “low” view of humanity’s free-will. So its attitude toward world missions is, “Yes — exclusive salvation in Jesus Christ is a hard sell! But that’s what the Bible teaches, so get out there and work that great commission… because those who do not hear of Jesus Christ cannot be saved”… and if we combine that attitude with a vision of hellfire consuming all the lost, this should propel every Christian-of-conscience out into the mission field… and I pray that every Christian develops the zeal that such a vision requires! But there is more at play.

You referenced Romans 1:18-25 which discusses God’s revelation in his physical creation. But I would like to add Romans 2:12-16 to the discussion because this passage shows us that God reveals himself through human morality, his metaphysical creation. But please note that neither of these revelations is “the Bible”… yet… that both of these revelations have power — because, as you noted, a skewed response to God’s general revelation as Creator of the universe has the power to affirm condemnation. But this implies that the proper response to this revelation could possibly lead to life… and that’s hopeful news for the earnest-seeker pagan. Here’s why.

We cannot assume of the pagan that God never revealed himself to him… because the Bible says the opposite. And that part’s on God. Furthermore, we cannot say of the unreached that their cultural inertia is so great that it cannot be overcome — and that God should give them a pass. That’s tempting, but here’s the problem: Lack of success on the creature’s part does not imply incompetence on God’s part. Our assumption must always be that God established a program that works… and hence the “people are without excuse” part. But on the positive side, a pagan who responds rightly to God’s general revelation might not be otherwise condemned… and he may receive a specific revelation or a missionary visit if more information is required; I find this far more plausible than God restricting himself to our understanding (or misunderstanding) of his methodologies when eternal souls are at stake.

There is another revelation at work here, too. Since all humans have a God-given moral centering (Romans 2:12-16), every person has an opportunity to see God. The principal is this: even though sin is rampant in the world, people tend to obey God’s laws on some level… even those who have never even heard of Jesus Christ… let alone those who have never read Leviticus or Deuteronomy! In this passage, Paul commends the Gentiles for their obedience to the law of God which is written on their hearts… and these are neither Jews, nor Christians, nor the scripturally literate, nor those under the gospel teaching. Yet such people will be declared righteous, and God will judge then through Jesus Christ.

As Creator and Judge (Hebrews 1:2; 2 Corinthians 5:10), Christ is still at the center of these salvific forces, but I readily admit that my observations might chafe against traditional evangelical thought and methodology. But when I ask myself if a proper response to the extra-biblical revelations could be enough to save a person, I have to ask another question first: What does a saved person look like?

Well… that’s easy; a saved person looks like that guy who just responded to the altar call… you know… that guy whom God’s been “working on” — that guy who has a lot of information about salvation and who has shown proper sorrow for his sins — that guy who officially (and perhaps taking careful note of the time) “received” Christ into his heart… and for him, I say, amen! Because, after all, that is what a saved person looks like... right? Well, yes… unless you’re looking at Job.

Job wasn’t a Christian. He wasn’t even a Jew… and I doubt that he knew the moment that he became one of God’s people. But he knew, loved and served God — and all this without the Law (he pre-dated Moses), without the Prophets (he-predated all the prophets), without the crucified Christ (he pre-dated the crucifixion) and without evangelicals knocking on his door (he might have pre-dated doors). Yet there he was… a fellow so beloved of God that God used him as an example of faithfulness for all time.

But Job was not alone; he lived in a community full of God-aware people. And so I must ask, where did all that God-awareness come from? But more to your question, how would those people be any different from today’s unreached people? I ask because today’s world is not full of Christians or even full atheists; it’s a mixture full of pagans… it’s filled with products of the world, the flesh and the lies of the devil — just like back then!

Therefore, does the fact that we are on this side of the cross rather than on Job’s side of the cross have any effect on the unreached people themselves? Now, we must understand that the cross was the most important event in the history of humanity — and I am not challenging that. What I’m asking is, on the moment that Jesus died, did God flip this big theological wall-switch — instantly condemning the earnest-seeker pagans because they did not know the particulars of Jesus Christ?

This is a key question because if he did, many people have been perishing every minute since then… but in a way that they were not perishing previously. But if he did not make an abrupt operational change (as opposed to merely arriving at the theological moment of the cross) in how he saves the unreached,  then there is room at the cross for those people — and this is true whether you mark the change at the cross, at Pentecost, at the ascension… or wherever.

As previously stated I believe that the world changed fundamentally at the cross (Romans 8:1)… but I believe, too, that the operational change was more about us than about the unreached (hence Pentecost, Acts 2; hence the great commission, Matthew 28:18-20). After all, it is we who have the light — who live after the cross and who have the completed Scripture with centuries of subsequent scholarship — that have the burden of sharing that light with others (Matthew 5:14). So, I am not saying that it makes no difference whether or not we stretch towards the unreached. Indeed, there are people that might be saved or lost at our hand! — and we should always work under that assumption. But I, too, have heard reports of God’s more overt interventions in the salvation of individuals, and I believe that God “takes care of business” with a broader hand than is the idea of most evangelicals.

You have also mentioned the influence of the Holy Spirit in this, and he has a key role in the salvation process no matter what the methodology. Now, we understand that the Holy Spirit indwells every believer (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), but prior, to that he was at work on that individual (John 6:44) — as well as in the entire Church… and in the entire world! (John 16:7-11) As such, it is difficult to overstate his agency in salvation. But we must be careful not say that his universal influence results in universal salvation… because it doesn’t. As long as people have a legitimate free-will (Joshua 24:15), there will be people from every category who will choose not to be saved — even among the unreached — and if God walked all over that, creation would be for naught! For naught

Yes; if God predetermined outcomes for people, they would be mere robot-beings no matter what life felt like to them as they lived it… and how would creating a world without choice redound to his glory! It just wouldn’t. We all “get it” that God can make things — and that’s glorious. But there is a type of glory that is only available under the aegis of volition… and that necessarily involves the risk of rejection.

You see, in order for humans to have a legitimate free will, every person must be able to legitimately choose — and this puts every person at risk of making harmful choices. Since some will of their own volition chose wrongly, some will be lost… that’s an ontological hazard of being human. Therefore, choosing God is not a function of the Spirit’s wooing or of having enough information (as important as those both are). Choosing God is a function of the human will… and this pulls the doctrines of predestination and election into the fray because under some interpretations of those doctrines if these unreached pagans are lost, it could just be that they were never predestined to be among the elect… and we should therein shake our heads, be sad… and praise God that we are not among them. But let me give you a brighter interpretation.

God knows everything… that’s what we mean by the theological term omniscient. But what does “everything” include? Does God have knowledge of future events? How about every possible future event? Or does he know how every one of those future events would play-out under every possible contingency? Yes, he does. You see, to be maximally knowledgeable God would have to know such things… or else we could conceive of a state of knowledge greater than God’s… and such a state cannot exist!

But if God is indeed maximally proficient so that he knows how every future combination of contingencies works out, how does this help your pagans? God uses his knowledge of the “what-ifs” to actualize whichever life would optimize redemption for both that individual and for the world. Now, as previously discussed only those who choose to be saved will be saved… so some will be indeed be lost. But as God watches every individual live-out their every possible life, he finds that some have not come to him under any scenario. For them, none of their lives resulted in salvation, and in those cases, God actualized a lost life… which reflects just how much God honors their freedom… but which shows us the sad side of predestination. Predestination is not God choosing for an individual; it is God-honoring the individual’s choice.

Some of your unreached pagans are just like that: they would remain lost whether or not they were reached — and under the combined influences of every possible life’s variables. But the ones who responded rightly to God will get their chance to do so in real-time as God actualizes their best life. These form a category of people known as “the elect.” But either way, every pagan gets to live his full, volitional and non-determined life; he lives it in real-time, in legitimate experience and in revelatory parity.

I know that ideas like these can be confusing the first time through. If you want to see a fuller development of this idea, you may eavesdrop on another of my questions at the following links:

Got Questions Ministries takes a more central view on how election and predestination work, so visit them at the following link:

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