Question: What do we do with the fact that there have been billions of people who died before Christ came to be among us on this earth? Or what about those who never learned about the saving power of Christ? How is it fair that these never had a chance for salvation? What guidance do the Scriptures give us on this issue, and what has the historic Church said about it?
For many years I have been fascinated by the Wesleyan theological tradition — which happens to be the theological tradition of the United Methodist Church and many other denominations. And in studying this, I discovered that the historic Methodist approach to this issue is a bit different from the ideas commonly heard in the evangelical world today.
As evidence I point to these paragraphs from Bishop Mallalieu’s article “Some Things That Methodism Stands For” published in 1903. He is discussing Methodist beliefs about the atonement. Bear in mind that Bishop Mallalieu’s whole thesis in this article (and the book from which it was drawn) is “back to the Bible and the Wesleys”. In the second paragraph he addresses these issues. (The bold type was added by me.)
Again, Methodism has always had a theory of the atonement. At least it has steadfastly believed that in the fall of Adam all his posterity has been disastrously affected; that moral depravity has touched every soul; that this depravity has been universal rather than total. Then it has held that the atonement is coextensive with the needs of man, and that the claims of Divine justice have been so fully satisfied that God can be just, the moral government of the universe vindicated, and at the same time all can be saved who comply with the easy terms of redemption’s plan. All prison doors are open, all chains and shackles unloosed, so that any soul may be delivered from the bondage of Satan, and come to enjoy the freedom of the sons of God.
Experimentally, Methodism, from the very first, has had a plain, practical, Scriptural faith. Starting on the assumption that salvation was possible for every redeemed soul, and that all souls are redeemed, it has held fast to the fundamental doctrine that repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ are the divinely-ordained conditions upon which all complying therewith may be saved, who are intelligent enough to be morally responsible, and have heard the glad tidings of salvation. At the same time Methodism has insisted that all children who are not willing transgressors, and all irresponsible persons, are saved by the grace of God manifest in the atoning work of Christ; and, further, that all in every nation, who fear God and work righteousness, are accepted of him, through the Christ that died for them, though they have not heard of him. This view of the atonement has been held and defended by Methodist theologians from the very first. And it may be said with ever-increasing emphasis that it commends itself to all sensible and unprejudiced thinkers, for this, that it is rational and Scriptural, and at the same time honorable to God and gracious and merciful to man.
The basis for this view is here:
- “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20 NIV)
- “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law…” (Romans 2:12 NIV)
- “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'” (Acts 10:34, 35 NIV)
- “God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done.’ To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” (Romans 2:6-11 NIV).
While all people do not know of Christ, all people are recipients of God’s prevenient grace. Thus, in John 1:9 Christ is referred to as “The true light, which enlightens everyone.” If we stand in a lighted room, we need not know where the light is, what kind of bulb it is, or how light bulbs work in the first place, to benefit from being in the light. God will judge people on the basis of what they do know and how they responded to the grace and knowledge available to them. All lives are in God’s hand and God’s judgment will be just and fair.
Thus, the prayers & fasting of Cornelius (Acts 10) were recognized by God to be his sincere response to God’s prevenient grace. As Adam Clarke remarks: “And as there is no iniquity (decisions contrary to equity) with God, so He could not shut out the pious prayers, sincere fasting, and benevolent alms-giving of Cornelius; because the very spring whence they proceeded was His own grace and mercy.”
Of Cornelius Peter remarks: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.’ (see above). And, thus Peter tells Cornelius and his household the message of Jesus and has them baptized. But, imagine this scenario: Cornelius is run over by a horse and chariot on the way to see Peter. Would he go to Hell? Scripture gives us reason to think he wouldn’t.
Or consider Jesus’ executioners at the Cross. We are told Jesus prayed that God would forgive them, for “they know not what they do.” I think God honored Jesus’ prayer.
As the old hymn said:
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea…”
Now, the primary Scripture quoted against this view is the following:
- “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” (John 14:6 NIV)
But, this means that no one can come to God the Father except through the grace & mediation of Christ! And, of course, this is true. There is only one source of light and grace for all people. From Jesus these words can be taken to mean: “there is no access to God except through my mediation.” Modern evangelicals commonly take it to mean: “there is no access to God except through consciousness of Christ.” From this misconception, the question arises: well, what about all the people who lived before Christ, what about the who were killed in Old Testament times, what about those who have never heard of Christ, etc.
The older Methodist writers did not get into this tangle. They believed that God’s grace was for all and that Christ was the one and only source of salvation and life for all. And, the more we know of Christ the better off we are.