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Pygmies in Africa (Can the "Heathen" Go To Heaven?)


You may have heard something like this in some conversation with a nonChristian:

Them: You say that Jesus is the only way?
You: Yeah.
Them: And for someone to go to heaven, that person has to believe in Jesus, right?
You: Yes.
Them: Well, then, what about those who have never HEARD about Jesus, huh? Do they go to heaven?
You: Uhh, well·
Them: What about people like that? Huh? What about people like... like... THE PYGMIES IN AFRICA???!!!

I first heard this conversation in high school and things haven't changed much since then. The target group may have changed from pygmies to some tribe in the Amazon or Bangladesh or wherever, but the question remains: What happens to those who have never heard about Jesus? Can they be saved or not?
It's a valid set of questions because

  • the Bible seems to clearly indicate that Jesus is the Way, not a Way, and
  • it says that there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we are saved.

So far, it's pretty clear as far as Jesus' role is concerned. But what about those who never had the opportunity to hear about Jesus? If they can't be saved, is that fair? Is it their fault they haven't heard of Jesus? Will God actually send people to eternal separation from Him because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time? What a dilemma! Well, let's look at some more data the Bible gives us and see if they can shed some light on the fate of the "heathen"·

The Bible also says that

  • Jesus was the true light, "which enlightens every man," (Jn 1:9)
  • "since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so they are without excuse" (Romans 1), and
  • Abraham, Moses, and Elijah were saved although they didn't know about Jesus of Nazareth. (Thought question: What would Abraham, Moses, and Elijah have said if you had asked them, "Do you believe Jesus is your Savior?")

Alright, so there's some more info from the Bible, but can all this be resolved? Can we weave a coherent fabric from all these threads? I think so - let's try!

Let's start with this clarification: Which is the Way, the Truth, and the Life - the name of Jesus or the person of Jesus? Of course we would say the person of Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. Then how about we take another look at the Pygmy problem in that light?

Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, God in the Flesh, is the Light which enlightens all men, whether they have heard the name of Jesus or not. He reveals Himself through His invisible attributes in His creation which is seen by all humans through all ages, so that all are without excuse, whether they have heard the name of Jesus or not. Moreover, they are all responsible for only what they have been shown - remember, "to whom much has been given, much will be required; to whom less has been given, less will be required." How we humans respond to this Light, our God, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Way, Truth, & Life is of the greatest importance. It doesn't matter if we receive much light or a little, if we live in a big European city or in the jungles of the Amazon, or if we actually hear the name of Jesus or not - if we receive the Light, we are saved, if we put out the Light, we are lost.

Is there evidence of any people who have been "enlightened," who have received a message similar to the revelations to the Jews and Christians, but have never heard of the name of Jesus? The Bible says that He has not left Himself without testimony (Acts 14:16-17) so there had better be some evidence somewhere, and there is - in abundance. Here's one example of many:

Pachacuti ruled the Incas from AD 1438 to 1471. He built many magnificent cities, palaces, forts, and temples. One famous fortress of his was Machu Picchu which still stands. Most Incas were satisfied worshiping the sun god, Inti. Not Pachacuti. At first he was a serious follower of Inti, but later he began to question Inti's godhood. How could a god be blocked out with a raised human hand? Why did Inti follow the same old beaten path day after day, year after year? Why didn't he ever do anything original as a god should? It was then that Pachacuti searched for and discovered an almost entirely forgotten Inca deity - Viracocha, the Lord of all things, the Creator. Pachacuti revived the memory of Viracocha to the Incas. Read just some of the attributes that Pachacuti gives to Viracocha:

  • He is ancient, remote, supreme, and uncreated.
  • He created all peoples by his word as well as all huacas [spirits].
  • He ordains man's years and nourishes him.
  • He is the very principle of life.
  • He is a bringer of peace and an orderer.
  • He is blessed in his own being and has pity on men's wretchedness.
  • He alone judges and absolves men and enables them to combat their evil tendencies.

A perfect description of the God of the Bible? No, but pretty close; and all this comes from a man who had no contact with Jews or Christians, yet he still sought after God and found Him ("Seek and you will..."). This is indeed evidence that Jesus is the True Light that enlightens all men.

There are hundreds of stories of peoples like this whose descriptions of their god, although vague, are extraordinarily like the God of the Bible. And there's more: There are tribes which tell of a Lost Book which they believe will lead their people to a greater understanding of God. They wait now for someone to bring them that Book. Some peoples have rituals which are so like Judaeo-Christian ritual, they defy belief: rituals such as sacrifice for the sins of the people, customs that require an acting out of being born again in order to bring peace, etc. To be sure, some of these peoples have contaminated their stories over time or spoiled the purity of their rituals. Some have ignored the Light altogether and are willingly worshiping demons in place of the one, true God. (Satan doesn't let up on you; he is not ignoring these people, either.)

What I pray you get out of this very short treatment of an important subject is this: There are people out there, outside of Judaeo-Christian influences, who are truly and sincerely seeking God, responding to His limited revelation to them, repenting of their ways, and following Him as best they know how. Is heaven open to these people? You bet; don't be surprised to see some there. Just as Abraham was saved by faith before he had a clear concept of the Man from Galilee, there are those who, like him, are saved by faith through the grace and mercy of the Second Person of the Trinity and His holy, blessed Sacrifice.

Are all "pagans" going to heaven? No, just as not all who claim to be Christian are. That is not our call to make. That decision is entirely between the individual and the Righteous Judge. Then why send missionaries? We send missionaries because there are those who are waiting for us to reveal the whole Truth, because there those who see now through a glass very dimly and long to see more clearly, because there are some who are worshiping the Enemy and need to hear and see the Truth. But most importantly, we go because He commands us to go.

If you are interested in how our loving God has left a witness with all people, get this book: Eternity in Their Hearts by Don Richardson. You will read incredible stories of how our Lord has opened up the hearts and minds of humans throughout the world and has used missionaries to bring them to a better understanding of our Beautiful Savior.
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