Is Salvation Temporally and Geographically Limited?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

A common and unfortunate misconception about Christianity is that only a temporally and geographically limited group of people will be saved. The gospel message started out in ancient Palestine, spread throughout the Roman empire over the next several hundred years, continued to spread throughout what is now modern Europe and north Africa, spread to the Americas in the 15th century, and then was brought to the rest of Africa and Asia in subsequent centuries.

Here is the problem. What about all the people who never heard the gospel over the last 2000 years solely because it took centuries for the message to be carried throughout the world (there are still many places today that have not been reached). For example, the gospel wasn’t brought to the Americas until after the 15th century, so what happened to all the native Americans who lived before the 15th century?

The Bible speaks to this issue pretty directly, but many people miss it.

First, take a look at Rev 5:9:

And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

Notice what this is saying. At least some people from every people group will be saved! This statement seems to be inclusive of all times and geographies.  

Second, take a look at Rev 7:9:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.

So it’s not just a few people from each tribe and nation, but a “great multitude that no one could count.” Again, it seems clear that a very large number of people composed of every people group that has ever lived will be saved.

Third, Jesus (a Jew) indicates that many non-Jews will be in heaven. Look at Matt 8:10-11 and Matt 24:31:

When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 8:10-11).

And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matt 24.31)

Biblical scholar Glenn Miller comments: “Notice that Jesus uses the phrases ‘many'(!) and ‘east and the west’ (a general idiom for ‘from all over the world’).”

What are we to make of these verses? Well, it seems that the idea that salvation is temporally and geographically limited is wrong. God has reached and will continue to reach people from every nation, tribe and language.

  • sean

    It seems to me then, that people telling me about Christianity has, in some sense, ruined my chance at salvation. As a generally good person who doesn’t believe in Jesus, if I were my same person without knowing about Jesus I’d have a shot at salvation. It seems then that apologists who introduce the idea of the Gospel to unbelievers are damning some people who’d otherwise be saved. I’d be curious to discuss differing viewpoints on this.

  • I think you’re looking at it the wrong way.

    Imagine you have a deadly disease and I know the cure. I am 100% confident that my cure works. Is it possible that there might be other cures out there? Yes, it is possible, but the evidence for these other cures is sketchy, at best. My cure has been through thousands of clinical trials and is proven. The other cures are pretty iffy and many, in fact, don’t work at all.

    Now, this is analogous to what I’m saying in the blog post. Christianity clearly teaches that trusting in Jesus to save us from our sins and reconcile us with God is what we need. This is the cure.

    Does a person have to know exactly who Jesus is, understand all the theology around salvation and God, to be saved? We know this was not the case before Jesus lived and we have reason to believe that some people are saved who never explicitly understand who the historical person of Jesus is. But the central thrust of the NT is to trust Jesus, so if we are counting on a different path of salvation, we are possibly making a big mistake.

    The Bible is clear about one other thing, though. The person who clearly understands who Jesus is, what he said and did, and still turns their back on him, is in trouble.

  • sean

    I’m not saying it’s objectively bad on the whole. I do get that it’s the best from your point of view, but it’s not 100% perfect. (If we define the goal as salvation)

  • There are also many theologians who argue that God ensures that anybody who would freely place her trust in Christ, given the opportunity, will be given the opportunity. There is no subset of people who would freely trust Christ, given the chance, but are simply allowed to go to hell.

  • sean

    That seems rather silly. I guess it’s unclear to me how this whole thing purportedly works. Lets say for the sake of argument I exist in two time periods/locations, one being now and one being where the Gospel has yet to appear. For the sake of argument, lets assume I’m a very moral person who does good stuff for society. In today’s era, as an atheist, I do not receive salvation. The criteria for salvation in this other place can either depend on if I would ‘trust in Christ’ or not. if it does, then it’s clear actually placing our trust in Christ is a silly exercise in nothings, as God know if we would irrespective of knowledge of Christ, so there’s no point in apologetics or anything of that nature, as this other criterion of ‘would trust’ is sufficient. If however, it’s not a part of the criterion for alternate paths to salvation, then I can hardly imagine that a maximally good person to society in all ways except that this person wouldn’t follow Christ if given the opportunity (and in this alternate scenario we’ve decided that doesn’t matter; if it does we’re back to the exercise in nothings of the other prong) would be denied entrance to Heaven by a God who is good in any sense of the word.

    The zero subset argument lays waste to the idea that what you do in your free time, something I personally consider a noble effort, means nothing. These people will come to Christ if capable without your intervention.

    The way I dice this argument you’re defending a position that logically must end in conclusions you disagree with.

  • Sean, you’ve lost me. Please re-state and simplify so that I can understand what your main point is.

  • sean

    If there’s some maximally moral person (meaning he or she has drawn all the right moral conclusions like don’t kill and lives by them) who has not heard the gospel but would reject it if they heard it, do they go to Heaven?

    Case 1: No. If so we can conclude that one must fall in that category of ‘would accept Jesus’ if it were presented to him or her. This makes the entire idea of apologetics silly, as well as Jesus’ decent to Earth. God can clearly then just apply this rule of ‘would person x accept Jesus if it were presented’ to everyone, without actually needing us to even know of Jesus, so now the entire point of what was documented in the new testament means nothing, indeed the whole religion of Christianity would seem to mean nothing, as accepting Jesus is just as valid as would accept Jesus.

    Case 2: Yes. Then we can conclude that this same person placed in a modern society where they would hear of Jesus (thus be given the opportunity to reject him) would then go to Hell. This means that while salvation isn’t temporally and geographically limited in the way you address in this article, it is in the sense that there is some person whose salvation is contingent upon where/when in space-time he or she lives.

    My question was regarding the splitting of the prongs on this question. Do you see the way I’ve done it as valid? If not, please explain why.

  • If by maximally moral, you mean a sinless person, then yes, that person would go to heaven. But that is the entire point of Christianity.

    Jesus is the only sinless (maximally moral) human being to have ever lived. He did go to heaven and his death atoned for every one else’s sins. In other words, God allowed his maximally moral life to be applied to our lives.

  • sean

    But there are people in other cultures that were saved, I just used maximum moral so as to not suggest a serial rapist from some other culture can gain entrance into heaven. I see your point that the people of other cultures that got into heaven without Jesus as we know him probably sinned. (At least I assume you held that to be the case in your above post) So some amount of sinning can occur. They can still either get to heaven or can’t though, and it’s either without respect to Jesus to with respect to him.

  • Jesus’s atoning death and resurrection is the necessary condition for any person who ever lived to be reconciled with God and go to heaven.

    The more nuanced question is what does a person have to explicitly believe in order to have Jesus’ sacrifice applied to them.

    I am arguing that the normative set of beliefs that a person has to believe today is that Jesus is God, he died for our sins, and was resurrected. But I am allowing for the fact that God may choose to save people today who do not explicitly know about Jesus, or who have been told about a false Jesus.

    But even a person who does not explicitly know about Jesus must still believe that the Creator-God exists, that his sins have separated him from that God, and that only by God’s grace can he be saved. I have a blog post coming out in a few days that deals with this more fully.

  • sean

    I look forward to it.