I added a 4th part to answer the questions: What if a person has never heard of Jesus? Are they doomed to hell because an 'accident of birth' caused them to be born in the wrong time or place?
God must be fair to all, so how does He give someone who grew up in a culture that never heard of Jesus the same opportunity for eternal life as we who grew up in a Judeo-Christian culture? What if they lived long ago, even before Abraham or Moses or before Israel existed, or a nation other than Israel? What about people today who have never heard of Jesus? What has God provided for them to make a choice for Life?
We live in a culture of prepackaged spiritualities
We understand God through those prepackaged spiritualities we personally experience. Many long-time believers can click off the movements of God they've seen or been part of in a sort of spiritual resume': Charismatic Movement check. Word of Faith movement, check. Shepherding, check. Prosperity movement, check. Visiting 'hot spots' like TACF, Brownsville, IHOP, Bethel, check. Jesus coming in 1988, check. Oops, Jesus coming in 1989, check. Apostolic, check, Blood moon scare, check. Messianic movement, check.
Millions have lived their whole Christian lives going from one prepackaged spirituality to the next knowing more about Him than knowing Him, and never thinking outside the spiritual flavor of the month!
Good friends of ours have been ministering to the (at that time very remote) Choco Indians of the Darien jungle in Panama since the early 1980's. When they first arrived and lived among the people they told them of Jesus. They had good success and didn't know why until some of the elders told them in so many words:
"When we first became a people (estimated to be about 900AD) a being in white appeared to our forefathers and told them to worship the Creator who gave them the jungle and all the plants and animals in it, and to love one another; that was what He required. So we've done that, we just didn't know His name until you told us it is Jesus."
(It is not given in the 'church age' for angels to preach the gospel because Jesus didn't die for them, but as a man for man. This is why in Acts 10: 1-6 the angel tells Cornelius how to find Peter 'and he will tell you what you must do', and why the 'being in white' could not preach the gospel to the Choco's.)
The year 900 AD means 900 years after Jesus was in Israel, yet before the Spanish brought Christian religion to the America's in the 1500's. All they knew was to worship the Creator and to love one another. So do we believe all those Choco people who lived between the time the angel appeared in roughly 900, and when my friends told them His name in 1984, who worshipped the Creator and loved one another, are in hell?
Jesus is the means of salvation, but what if they know Him as Creator and not by His Judeo-Christian transliterated name of Jesus? Aren't they still worshipping Jesus? Aren't they still believers in Him, knowing Him as Creator?
Hebrews 1:1 tells us, "God spoke in many ways and in many parts in times past to the fathers...but in these last days has spoken to us by His Son..." What if someone in history knew Him only through one of those ways or parts? Aren't they still counted as believers?
I'm NOT suggesting universalism, for Jesus is the way, truth and life and no one comes to the Father but by Him. I'm merely suggesting ancient people's who lived before Jesus, and those in lands of ignorance, are still given the chance Adam and Eve had, to choose Life or death.
Creator, life or death - the choice - Romans 1: 20-22:
"For ever since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through His workmanship, so that they are without excuse and without defense. For even though they knew God as the Creator, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks. On the contrary, they became worthless in their thinking, and their foolish heart was darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools"
Notice that Paul says the most basic way of knowing God is to know Him as Creator. When they knew about God, or knew God as Creator, some turned from that knowledge and then and only then, was their 'foolish heart darkened'. But others it is clear, did and do acknowledge Him as Creator. Many of us can relate because we loved nature first, and thought there had to be Someone, God, who designed it all in a general sense, and so believed in God on that level - which had the effect unknown to us of laying a foundation to know this Creator - to know Jesus.
Paul is building the case in Romans that if one acknowledges Him as Creator, it can lead to knowing Jesus. The hearts of those who refuse to know and/or acknowledge Him as Creator have their hearts darkened.
Don Richardson, in his excellent book, Eternity in Their Hearts, details ancient cultures all over the world who worshipped the benevolent Creator. In Inca He was known as Viracocha, but cultures from Alaska to the tip of South America it has been discovered, originally worshipped the benevolent Creator under different names according to their tribe or clan. The Incan king Paschacuti described the Creator he called Viracocha:
"He is ancient, remote, supreme, and uncreated. Nor does He need the satisfaction of a consort. He manifests Himself as a trinity when He wishes, otherwise only heavenly warriors and archangels surround His loneliness. He created all peoples by His word, as well as all huacas (spirits). He is indeed the very principle of life, for He warms the people through His created Son, Punchao (the sun disk). He is a bringer of peace and order. He is in His own being blessed and has pity on men's wretchedness. He alone judges and absolves them and enables them to combat their evil tendencies." (Eternity in Their Hearts, p32-34)
In 1867 Norwegian missionaries went to the Santal people of northern India to preach Jesus. The Santal were amazed that the God they knew as Thakur Jiu (Thakur - genuine; Jiu - God) was known as Jesus. This 'genuine God' was originally worshipped by their forefathers, believing He created the first man and woman, Haram and Ayo, and placed them west of India in a region known as Hihiri Pipiri. But a being named Lita tempted them. "...the forefathers taught us Thakur is distinct. He is not to be seen with fleshly eyes, but He sees all. He has created all things. He has set everything in its place, and He nourishes all, great and small."
In more recent times Geronimo (1829-1909), the famous Apache Indian medicine man who worshipped the Great Spirit and healed people and prophesied and had prophetic dreams, became a strong believer in Jesus having learned the name of the One who had been speaking to him his whole life.
I could go on and on about ancient people's and their worship of Who anthropologists call 'the sky god', but always, before each culture started introducing other gods and goddesses into their lives, the ancients retained the knowledge of the Creator, who is good and the giver of life.
Other Non-Jewish believers in God in the Bible
The Bible is full of examples of non-Jewish prophets, priests, and believers in God, though many remained outside the covenant of Israel - but were still believers:
Melchizedek, Job and 3 friends, Elihu who spoke rightly of God, Jethro the priest of Midian, Moses' father in law, Balaam, Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba, the widow of Zarapeth, Naaman the Syrian, the people of Nineveh who repented, and so on. All were outside the covenant of Israel but believed, and were accepted by the Lord.
And there were many not born Jewish who were 'grafted' into Israel by their faith, including Caleb (Numbers 32:12 says Caleb's father was a Kenezite, not Jewish, Genesis 15: 19), Othniel (1st Judge of Israel, and Caleb's younger brother), Shamgar of Anath (3rd Judge of Israel), Rahab from Jericho in Moab, Ruth from Moab, Uriah the Hittite, and so on.
Wouldn't we consider Nebuchadnezzar who repented and worshipped God to be in heaven, though he was outside the Mosaic covenant? Of course. The widow of Zarapeth who helped Elijah certainly believed, yet was outside the covenant.
I certainly don't have all the answers, but the Bible does have plenty of examples of people in times past who believed in Him even though there weren't Israelites. Beyond that, modern stories abound of people dying and being pulled down into hell, but remembering what a praying mom or grandmother said, or a Sunday school teacher, and though unconscious, call out to Jesus and their descent is immediately stopped and their motion reversed.
Those who wake up tell us about their conversion experience, but we must conclude there are many others who don't wake up, but continue to heaven. I think we'll be surprised who is in heaven, from some native from a far off land who only knew to worship the Creator and love one another, to the last second change of heart on the death bed. It is pointless to argue what we cannot ascertain for certain, but we can know God is fair, and all get to choose between Life or death.
I will add some final thoughts to this subject next week. Until then, blessings,
www.cwowi.org and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org