Many Christian teachers maintain that salvation is available only to people who believe in Jesus. Some go as far as to insist that only people who belong to their “brand” of Christianity are eligible for eternal life.
The fact is that the vast majority of people who have lived on this earth have never heard of Jesus, and even those who have heard of Him have not heard anything that would cause them to believe in Him. This by itself implies that God would be arbitrary at best if only those people who happened to have been born where they could hear about Jesus were eligible for salvation (eternal life).
The apostle John had a vision in which he saw “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations tribes, peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb (Jesus), clothed with white robes” (Revelation 7:9). The vision goes on to say that they were washed in the blood of the Lamb, they serve Him day and night and Jesus will lead them to living waters (vs. 14-17). This verse is very inclusive, portraying people “clothed with white robes” (saved) who are from the most remote jungle or desert lands, from the smallest tribes with the most obscure languages.
Some Bible readers have been puzzled by Peter’s comment in Acts 4. He insisted that a lame man had been healed “by the name of Jesus Christ… nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12). These verses have been interpreted to mean that only people who know the name of Jesus and have become Christians can be saved.
First, we should be clear that no one will be saved by knowing a name. All of the faithful who are listed in Hebrews 11 died before they had a chance to hear the name “Jesus”, but they knew Him through the Holy Spirit. Moreover, Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23).
The apostle Paul, on the other hand, said that there are many people in the world who “since the creation of the world” have seen “His invisible attributes… being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20), “By nature (they) do the things in the law… although not having the law… who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness” (Romans 2:14,15). “They… seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him” and although they are in darkness “these times of ignorance God overlooked” (Acts 17:27-30).
The apostle is describing people who are not Christians, but who respond positively to the “voice of conscience”. In actuality they are responding to the Holy Spirit, “the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world” (John 1:9). Jesus said that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things” (John 14:26). From this and similar verses, we see that when people who have never heard the name of Jesus respond to the Holy Spirit, they are responding to Jesus, and their salvation will be based upon their knowledge of Him. Although they are not technically Christians, they are followers of Christ through the Spirit.
The situation will be different at the very end of time. One of the major themes of Revelation chapters 7-9 is that God has been restraining Satan from carrying out the full extent of the destruction that he would like to bring about. But at the end of time, God will release him for a short period, which is called the Time of Trouble.
This scenario is analogous to Satan’s challenge in the book of Job. Satan “showed up” at the heavenly council of the “sons of God”, claiming that he was the ruler of the earth. God reminded him that there were people like Job who had not yielded to Satan’s authority. Satan responded, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge around him, around his household, and around all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But now, stretch out Your hand and touch all that he has, and he will surely curse You to Your face!” (Job 1:9-11).
God was not willing to concede the earth and its rulership to Satan, and so He allowed Satan to bring painful trials upon Job. Although Job suffered a great deal and his faith wavered, he did not reject or abandon God and so Satan’s claim to the full sovereignty of the earth was disproved.
On a worldwide basis, Satan has demanded an opportunity to prove that those who serve God do so only for self-interest. God will allow Satan a short time to prove his point by carrying out his destructive plans (the Time of Trouble), but in all fairness to humanity, He will warn everyone on earth before he releases Satan. This is why Jesus said, “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14).
The point is that through all of human history there have been people who have never heard of Jesus, but who have responded to the Holy Spirit in their consciences; when Jesus comes again He will resurrect them to eternal life. But before the Second Coming of Christ God will inspire His faithful witnesses to share the message of salvation throughout the world. By the time He comes everyone will have had a chance to accept or reject Jesus, and the only ones who will be saved will be those who believe in Him.
In other words, throughout history, many people have been saved who were not Christians, but at the End of Time, only Christians, followers of Christ through the Spirit, will be saved.