Posted by Clark Bates
July 10, 2018
A fairly old, but consistent, objection to the exclusivity of the Christian faith still presented to apologists today is known as the “Fate of the Heathens”. It may be known under different formal titles, but it ultimately follows this reasoning:
Skeptic: I can’t believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
Christian: Why not?
Skeptic: It’s too narrow. What about all the people in the world that have never heard of Jesus? What about all those people living in other parts of the world before Jesus lived and after he died? Those people never heard about Jesus. How can God be just and fair and loving if the only way He lets people get into heaven is through a man that most of the world never heard about before they died?
If we allow the weight of this objection to sink in, we should realize its emotional and rhetorical force. What about those people? How does this affect our perceived nature of God? Does the Bible have anything to say about this?
While there are many philosophical solutions presented for this problem, my primary interest in this post is that last question, “Does the Bible have anything to say about this?”
Melchizedek and the Most High God
In Genesis 14:17-20 we meet a mysterious character known as Melchizedek. He is known only by his name and the title “King of Salem”. His name can be divided into two Hebrew words, מֶלֶך (meh’ · lek) and, צֶדֶק (tseh’ · dek), which can be translated “King of Righteousness”. This king meets Abraham at the end of a long battle and is said to be a “priest of the Most High God”. After this meeting, nothing is said of this man, apart from the prophetic Psalm 110:4 and the use of this figure as a foreshadowing of Christ by the author of the New Testament book to the Hebrews (5-7). While many comparisons are made to the nature of this King, who was also a priest, and the work of Jesus as the Messiah, that is not the point I want to draw upon here.
One of the more peculiar aspects of Melchizedek is that he is even aware of the “Most High God”. Up to this point in the biblical narrative concerning Abraham’s life, he’s the only one to know of this God. It’s this God that called him out of the land he was living in and told him to go to a place that was promised to him and his descendants. Yet here, we have a foreign King approach the chosen head of the Israelite people, the people who were meant to reveal this God to the world, who already serves this God.
How did Melchizedek know about God? The reason is fairly obvious, but it requires us to remember that the stories in Scripture are not exhaustive. The story of Abraham is only part of the events that unfold in the larger world. The descendants of Noah spread out among the peoples to populate the world, all of whom knew the God that Noah served; the same God that Abraham now serves. God chose to bring His Messiah to the world through the nation of Israel but that doesn’t mean that the other descendants of Noah didn’t also know of this God. Melchizedek is direct evidence of this.
How does this relate to the objection?
It provides a living example that the heathen of the Old Testament was not entirely unaware of the God of Israel, even before the nation of Israel existed to proclaim Him. We limit our understanding of God to think that because Abraham is the one described in Genesis that God had not spoken to others who also served him. This doesn’t negate the nation of Israel’s importance in the plan of God, however, for what we find is that even this priest of God comes to meet the father of the Israelite people.
But what about Jesus?
In no way am I proposing that the story of Melchizedek somehow negates the exclusivity of salvation in Christ alone. However, it moves us in the direction toward understanding God’s nature in relation to the “heathen”. In the New Testament we have a similar, albeit different, scenario. In Acts 10 we read of a man named Cornelius. He is a Roman centurion that is said to be a “fearer of God”. This classification was known in the ancient world to apply to non-Jews who worshipped the God of Israel, but failed to take the mark of circumcision upon themselves.
In this instance, we have a pagan man who has learned of the God of Israel. This is after the time of Christ, however, so this knowledge and worship of Yahweh would not justify him, were he to die. Yet the text still refers to him as a “pious man”. In response to Cornelius’ faith in Yahweh, he receives a vision that he is to send men to bring the apostle Peter to him. The angel in the vision declares that his “prayers and alms have ascended to God as a memorial” and that it’s because of his faithfulness to the revelation of God made available to him that Peter would come to reveal Christ to him.
Upon receiving this revelation, Cornelius obeys and has Peter brought to him. During this time, Peter has also received a vision, meant to prepare his heart to preach the gospel to a Gentile. Peter does so, and Cornelius’s entire household is said to receive the gospel. Again, we have a story wherein a “heathen” is made aware of the one, true God, and following his faithfulness to this revelation is brought to know the Lord Jesus Christ.
In both cases we have a heathen who, as far as we could determine, should not be aware of the God of the Bible, yet they are. In Cornelius’s case, he would have been exposed to Judaism, but in Melchizedek’s day there was no such faith. Yet even in Cornelius’s case, his exposure to Judaism would not have naturally led him to faith in Christ. Both stories reveal to us a God who knows the heathen and makes Himself known to them. In each case, God provides the means by which they can obtain saving faith. And this is not the only story. I could add that a similar experience befalls the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, and even the very Queen of Sheba in 1 Kings 10, or the Syrian commander Naaman, in 1 Kings 5. In all cases, God knows who are His and who are responding to the revelation given to them, and in all cases He sovereignly provides for them the means by which they can come to know Christ even if they are not in a location in which Christianity exists.
While the exclusive claims of the faith can be off-putting to some, they do not negate the sovereign will of God. For the Christian, there is a consistent message within Scripture that the problem of the heathen is not a problem for God. We need not leap to philosophical defenses of the nature of God immediately, because the very Word of God already provides the defense. That isn’t to say that philosophy and logic do not have their place in Christian apologetics, but it has been, and always will be, my position that the Christian apologist should start by asking, “What does the Bible say?” and allow the philosophy to follow from there. In the case of the fate of the heathen, the Bible has much to say, and provides a ready example for those sincerely asking.