Really appreciate your questions. I’ll take a shot at answering them- hope there’s some useful info here for you! Apologizing in advance for this massive post… in the words of Mark Twain, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
So, first: how could it be fair for God to let millions of people never hear the good news of Jesus? This is a pretty common objection to the Christian faith, and it can be a tough one! It seems difficult to believe that millions and millions of people could be wrong in their beliefs about God, and never given a chance to hear otherwise.
I think what’s been important for us as Christians to do first is to break down “the question behind the question.” In other words, why is this so troubling to people? In my opinion, when people ask that question, their thought process goes something like this: “Christianity teaches that people are only saved if they know about Jesus. But if God were real and fair , he would save everyone in a way that they could equally understand, no matter where they lived or what they knew. Because Jesus is only known by a few people, either the God of the Bible isn’t the real God, or he is unfair (in which case, I don’t want to worship him!)”
Let’s go through and answer some of these assumptions. Personally, I think the best way to do this is to ask questions!
First, would it be unfair for God to offer an exclusive path to eternal life?
Here’s an example I find helpful from medicine, and it has to do with the differences between colds and cancer.
If you are diagnosed with a cold, there are a lot of different things you can do to help get better. You can take some vitamin C, you can get a lot of extra sleep, etc. You could even do what my mom made us do growing up: chug about a gallon of “Mrs. Bragg’s [horrible, nasty, bad] Apple Cider Vinegar,™️” (Man, I can still taste that stuff in my imagination )
Mostly, though, because our immune systems can handle a common cold on their own, there’s not an exclusive way to fight them.
But what if you were diagnosed with a cancerous tumor? What if the problem you had was so severe that there was only one possible way to get rid of it? In the case of some cancers, the only answer that is going to work is surgery. You can’t fight cancer using whatever means you want: you have to fight it using only what works.
Here’s where I’m going with this: humanity’s problem with sin and death is a lot more like cancer than it is like a cold. We would never criticize a doctor for exclusively recommending surgery to take out cancer, if that was indeed the only way to beat it.
Likewise, if humanity’s problem is total bondage to sin and death, can we really say it is unfair of God to offer only the solution that works? If Jesus actually is who he says he is, then our problem is more cancer than cold, and trust in Jesus is the exclusive way we have to follow…. if we want to live.
This is what scripture tells us: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12 (also Romans 10:8, John 14:6)
I find that it is can be really helpful to first establish this point about exclusivity. Just because something is “exclusive” doesn’t make it untrue! In fact, the world is full of agonizing exclusive answers like this- there are a lot of examples we can bring up to prove our point!
But the bottom line is this: Jesus is the only path to eternal life because, as God’s one and only Son, he is the only one who can actually fix our problem! As one hymn puts it “He came to pay a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay.”
This is also the answer to your question about good works. If we could be saved by the good things we do, the world would be a lot more like the “I have a cold,” scenario. We could do a lot to help ourselves out, because at the end of the day, our problem would just be a tiny cold.
But I would argue strongly that our world is a lot more like the “I have cancer,” scenario. That’s an extremely difficult truth, and I’m not trying to make light of it. Most of us human beings work so hard to convince ourselves that everything is okay, but the truth is that life is deadly serious. We all have spiritual cancer. We’re all on borrowed time. To think that even our best works can save us is like taking a whole lot of Vitamin C in hopes that it will cure our cancer. In truth, no amount of vitamins can fix the problem: we need spiritual surgery!
And that is the UNBELIEVABLE news of Jesus: he is God’s bullet-proof solution to our own sin. By taking our place on the cross, he saved us from a fate we had absolutely no hope of escaping ourselves:
“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.” (1 Peter 3)
It’s important to hold on to this truth: for us as human beings, it’s Jesus or bust. If we accept him as Lord, we will be saved. If we reject him, we “stand condemned already.” (John 3:17)
So! Back to the question about the people who never hear about Jesus, or who are in a different religion Christianity. I’m going to list off a few different points others have made that have helped me answer this question.
1) God tells us his desire is to show mercy to undeserving people (even before Jesus walked the earth) Even if, at the end of the day, you and I don’t have a definitive answer to whether/how God goes about reaching people who haven’t heard, we can take comfort in who he is. The Bible is absolutely chalk-full of examples, especially in the Old Testament, where God desires to show mercy to those who seek it! Some of these examples are specific to Israel, but all of them show God’s heart for mercy:
“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” Isaiah 1:18:
“The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and great in mercy. The Lord is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” Psalm 145:8-9:
“Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” Micah 7:18-19
2) God promises that those who seek him find him.
Psalm 145: “ 17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and faithful in all he does.
18 The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth.
19 He fulfills the desires of those who fear him;
he hears their cry and saves them.
20 The Lord watches over all who love him,
but all the wicked he will destroy.”
Revelation 3:20 “ 20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”
Matthew 7:7 “ 7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Obviously, you and I might quickly ask a follow up question to these verses: “exactly how will God reveal himself to those who seek him?” In all honesty, I think what we have to say at that point is “We don’t always know!” But if scripture and even the experiences of our brothers and sisters around the world are any guide, it’s that he does- and often we get to see it! Just ask Christians in the Middle East, many of whom have come to faith in Jesus through amazing signs and miracles. Here’s one article by way of example, but a little digging will turn up way more: https://www.premierchristianity.com/Past-Issues/2014/July-2014/Undercover-miracles-in-the-Middle-East
4) The Old Testament gives us a clues about the nature of faith.
One of my favorite passages is Hebrews 11. The author of Hebrews is talking about the ways God revealed himself to people in the Old Testament (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, etc.) He writes that: “ All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:13-15)
The point of that whole section of Hebrews is clear: by faith God saved those who were looking forward to Christ, even though they didn’t know him by name. It was, and always has been, Christ’s eventual sacrifice that covered their sins- but what is incredible is that for these old testament heroes, their “faith was credited to them as righteousness.” (Romans 4:22)
To me, this is a strong clue about the how God saves people who seek him. The same God who came in the person of Christ for our sins has not left people without hope. The Bible, God’s authoritative word, gives us clues about how he can work in their lives, Old Testament and New, Jew and Gentile.
At the end of the day, I think we always want to bring it back to the person we’re talking to. It’s easy to bring up millions and millions of other people as a type of smokescreen for our own behavior. If you’re having a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe, I’d strongly encourage you to (at some point) turn the question back on them! You could say something like, “At the end of the day, we aren’t responsible for other people’s responses to God, only to our own. Have you ever thought about your own response to the message of Jesus, if it’s true?”
I hope these are helpful answers to your questions Sam! Of course, different Christians will have wider perspectives on this, so you should definitely keep asking, to gain an even better perspective.
God bless brother!