If you have been serious about your faith for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the old argument that goes something like this: “You claim that hearing about Jesus and believing in Him is the only way of salvation. But if the spoken word of the Gospel of Jesus is the only way to be saved, then what happens to the innocent African tribesman when he dies? He didn’t have a chance to be saved. That is not fair. And God is always fair.”
On its surface the argument seems compelling. Why would God send innocent people to hell just because they didn’t believe a Gospel that they never heard? Wouldn’t that concept make God some kind of narcissist? Is He creating people just for the satisfaction of destroying them without giving them a hope of salvation? I believe there is a good and biblical answer to this “African Tribesman” argument. Here are a few thoughts . . .
First Things First:
As we begin to think about this subject, consider this question: Is there such a thing as a poor, innocent tribesman at all? It depends. It is all according to what you mean when you say “innocent.” Are you talking about innocent before man or innocent before God? These are two different questions. Surely by man’s standards this poor fellow may be innocent, but that is not enough. In fact, I believe the best way to answer this question is to reply, “There is no need to worry about the “innocent” African tribesman, because if he is truly innocent he will go to heaven.” The problem with that question is that there are no innocent tribesmen anywhere on this planet, nor has there ever been. Romans 3:23 plainly states that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Therefore, if you are talking about God’s innocent, then a better way to phrase the question is this: Can the truth about God that the tribesman has access to (nature and conscience) provide, by itself, saving truth for the tribesman? This is a question worth asking. When asking this question, there are a few things consider.
On one hand, one can read Psalm 19:1, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” In this we can see that creation itself cries out that there is a God. But is that enough? Does that truth produce enough evidence to provide salvation?
On the other hand, Luke writes in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Luke’s point is that salvation is found only in Christ. These two differing perspectives have become the basis for centuries of debate. Are the sun, moon, stars and the rest of creation that cries out that there is a Master Creator enough to bring someone salvation? Does someone have to hear the name of Christ and profess Him as Lord for salvation?
Two Definitions of Revelation:
“General Revelation” is the teaching that God has revealed himself through natural things that people can see, touch, and feel. A person does not have to intimately know God to see these things. This idea seems to echo the thought of passages such as Romans 1:19-20 and Psalm 19:1-2. Certainly general revelation dictates that humans have a responsibility to this revelation and to God.
“Special Revelation” is how God has chosen to reveal Himself through extraordinary means. Special revelation includes physical appearances of God, the written Word of God, and most importantly—Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14, Philippians 2:6-8, Hebrews 1:1-3).
These doctrines taken together hold that that there is at least enough revelation of God in His general revealing to condemn a person for their disbelief. The Bible claims that it takes special revelation for faith to be produced (Romans 10:17). For centuries, the Church has held as its teaching that general revelation is insufficient for salvation. This is where the Reformers came down on the issue. This is where I stand as well. There is no one who could stand before God and claim that they are innocent apart from Jesus’ blood. Without the message of the Gospel in special revelation, one cannot be saved.
A Common Question:
There is almost zero Biblical support for the African Tribesman argument. Rather, simply put, God saves through Jesus and we need to tell people about Jesus. So why is this argument so popular? It’s because it hints at the great American question. The question is, “Is God fair?” Many people feel that it is unfair of God to send a person to hell, especially this poor tribesman. But in God’s economy, if everyone got what was “fair” then we would all go to hell rightfully. We have violated a holy God and deserve nothing but His wrath. On the contrary, the Bible’s insistence on special revelation for salvation actually provides hope rather than damnation. It is out of the surpassing love of God that He gives anyone general revelation. It is out of His abundance of mercy and kindness that He reveals anything of Himself to us at all. His general love is not just given to His children alone but to all. Matthew 5:45 says, “. . . for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” His general revelation is a marvelous gift to the world. Then the question of fairness should be answered with a resounding “NO! God is NOT fair with us; He is gracious!” And I, for one, am grateful that He is this way. It is by grace that anyone is saved. It is by grace that anyone has general revelation. It is astonishing that He unfairly and graciously gives us that much.
Let’s answer the question then, “Can the truth about God that the tribesman has access to provide, by itself, saving truth for the tribesman?” The answer to that question is no. General revelation does contain within itself truth about the God of salvation; indeed general revelation points toward the truths of salvation. Just as John the Baptist was not the Messiah, but he pointed toward the Messiah. His message proclaimed the truth about the Messiah, but it was not enough to save apart from Christ. The same is true about general revelation. General revelation contains truth about God, but only enough to condemn. It takes special revelation to reveal the complete truth of salvation. This should invigorate us to spread God’s gospel truth to everyone. God has given us special revelation to share and we need to share it to every person and people group around the world.
If you would like to read a more in-depth understanding of this, please feel free to see more here The African Tribesman Debate.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B. Burrell