Often when Christians talk about missions to non-Christians, they are confronted with this question. If people who don’t know about Jesus die and go to heaven, why bother converting them? (Or anyone else, for that matter?) If they don’t go to heaven, how is God just?
“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 people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness.” – Romans 2:14-15
While people across the world may die without ever having heard the name “Jesus”, they have not gone through their lives without knowing about God. He shows Himself through creation; his work is seen in plants and animals, the sky and the stars. Everyone has the option of saying, “Yes, there is a God,” or “No, this happened without reason or purpose.” Paul says there is no excuse, for all have the opportunity to believe who God is.
Paul also says in Romans that those who obey the law are the ones who will be “declared righteous” – and expands that from those who obey Jewish law to Gentiles who obey their conscience. So in this matter, humankind is given another mode of knowing God – the conscience. Even if you have not heard of Jesus, you have a moral compass. This gives you the capacity to follow the commands God spoke without a Bible or a missionary at your side.
These people seek God, even when they don’t know quite what or who they are seeking. Yet, God is seeking them. He is calling them to Him and preparing them to hear His word.
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” – Jeremiah 29:13
God seeks, and He will not be held back. If God can appear to Saul in a vision on the road, can He not appear to people today in dreams or visions? He will pursue those who are searching for Him. It is the Spirit that makes conversions, not us. We may plant the seed in one who hasn’t begun their journey yet, or we may teach one who is prepared for God but doesn’t yet know how to proceed. Those who desire God will find him, often by having the gospel brought to them.
From studying these scriptures, we are able to see that all can know of God. But does knowing God provide the gift of salvation and eternal life?
“Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” – John 14:6
Jesus is clear throughout the Bible. He is the only way. This is a statement that Christians sometimes like to gloss over. It is not well-liked in our culture. And yet, it is fundamental to Christianity and its mission. It is the critical part of this question. After all, if there are multiple ways to God, what was the point of Jesus’ death? If we hope to see salvation for our neighbors, they need to know who Jesus is.
The great news is that “the harvest is plentiful”! Often people find that there are members of the community already prepared to receive the news of Jesus once they are reached.
“He is the Rock, his works are perfect,
and all his ways are just.” – Deut. 32:4
Is God just? The verse from Deuteronomy is only one scripture of many that says yes, God is a just God. Since we are all sinners, the just response would be for all of us to suffer the punishment of our sins. It is by the grace of God that we receive entrance to heaven, not the justness of God. God’s justice causes our separation – God’s grace causes our reconciliation.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” – Matthew 28:19-20 (emphasis added)
The second question we should ask when confronted is this: Is our role in ministry solely to create converts? Jesus said to “go and make disciples,” not just “go and make conversions.” John 10:10 says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Teaching others about Jesus brings glory to God and those who repent are rejoiced over in heaven, but the story of God’s salvation does not end there. God didn’t just redeem humanity at the cross; He began a process of redeeming all of creation.
As new disciples of Jesus are revealed, they work in their homes and communities to show the glory of God. They give comfort to the brokenhearted, protection to the weak, help to the poor, and hope to those without. They work to restore creation as caretakers, seeking to preserve God’s creation.
Knowing God means knowing wholeness and peace in life. Bringing that peace to the world is a mission to be excited about!
For a list of more scriptures on this subject go here, and other sites addressing this argument can be found here and here.