People can perform righteousness without having heard about the Bible content
The common question about the inhabitants in the jungle ”What about those who live in the jungle and who have never heard about the gospel?”
People are certainly not doomed due to the unfortunate circumstances of having been born in the jungle with no chance to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Romans 2 tells us:
Rom. 2:13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)
1 Tim. 1:5 Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a PURE HEART, and of a GOOD CONSCIENCE, and of faith unfeigned:
Apparently people are able to naturally do the things contained in the law even though they do not have it written down for them. In this case it does not mean all the 613 Jewish laws containing many ceremonial aspects, but it does mean the law of love, or the law of God that has existed ever since the days of Adam and Eve. It has always been against nature to murder, steal, lie and commit adultery. On the question (from a young man) what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus did not say ”Just believe in me”, but he said:
Mark. 10:19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.
Other versions of the same story:
Matt. 19:17 — if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Luke 10:26 — What is written in the law? how readest thou?27 And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.28 And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
If you love God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself, then you automatically also follow the other detailed commandments, to not murder, steal, lie, commit adultery and dishonor your parents. Adam and Eve were not only expected to not eat of the tree of knowledge, but both prior to their sin and afterwards they were expected to stand with their Creator and by doing so obey the basic commandments. The promise for us today is ”Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). If we truly walk with God, we automatically obey his commandments. If we truly love God, we naturally obey him.
Also the people in the jungle know that there is a Creator (his divine attributes can clearly be seen in nature) and that it is wrong to treat others in a way that we would not like to be treated ourselves. To take another person’s life, or to steal, lie and cause someone to be jealous and sad, are things that our conscience will tell us are wrong. It is true that we can learn to make our conscience more flexible with time, but this does not change the fact that we are deviating from the law of love. Our upbringing, traditions and culture can affect our understanding and reasoning, but in the end we have all been given a conscience and God will judge us based on our thoughts and actions.
Rom. 1:18-32 makes it very clear that we have no excuse if we do not seek our Creator and do good:
Rom. 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness;19 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them.20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: —28 And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;29 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers,30 Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents,31 Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful:32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
Romans 2 and sinning without the law
It says in Rom. 2:1-3 that God will pay attention to how we judge others, and he will judge us accordingly – and most of all righteously. God can see the whole truth about our hearts. v. 5-8 continues to explain how God will judge us. If we want to escape his wrath on the day judgment (or the day of wrath), we must obey the truth and patiently do good. If we harden our hearts and do not obey the truth, we will be in big trouble unless we repent. This is about a spiritual life or death:
Rom. 2:5 But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God. 6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds:7 To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, ETERNAL LIFE:8 But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and WRATH
Paul continues to explain that it is actually the doers of the law who will be justified. Also gentiles can ”do” the law (without having the law) and this includes also people in the jungle:
Rom. 2:12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
The NKJV renders v. 15: ”who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)”.
Paul made a clear distinction between the Jewish law and the law of love (which has always been in force):
1 Cor. 7:19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, BUT KEEPING OF THE COMMANDMENTS OF GOD.
Rom. 2 ends with Paul explaining to the Jews (who are the ones in focus in his letter since they are confused about the law) that gentiles can indeed fulfill the law – people who might not be circumcised but who do what the law says. It is the heart that counts (the inside) and not an outwardly circumcision.
Rom. 2:25 For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision.26 Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision?27 And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law?28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh:29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.
Jesus said (of course without suggesting that circumcision is a sin):
Matt. 23:25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.26 Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also.
So do we not need Jesus since we could be saved without him? Yes of course we do. There is no forgiveness without the blood, and Jesus shed his blood for us as a final sacrifice once and for all (more in Hebrews). We have no authority to forgive ourselves for our own sins. The gospel about Jesus Christ urges people to repent from their sin and live in the light. People need to hear about Jesus and what he did for humanity. They need to understand the love that God has for us. Jesus is the living bread!
John 6:51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Naturally we cannot believe in Jesus Christ if we have not heard about him:
Rom. 10:14 How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?15 And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?17 So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.18 But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.19 But I say, Did not Israel know? First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you.20 But Esaias is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.21 But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people.
The law was the Jews’ schoolmaster to bring them to Christ, and when Christ came this detailed schoolmaster was no longer needed. Now our guide is rather the holy Spirit.
Gal. 3:19 Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.—23 But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.
Rom. 13:8 Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.
Ja. 2:8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well
Being saved prior to Jesus, in the Old Testament
People who lived prior to Jesus Christ made an entrance to earth as God in flesh could of course be saved without having heard about him. Naturally the people of Israel had heard about God their Creator, but Paul’s explanation in Romans 1-2 applies both for them and for the gentiles. Moreover, people who lived prior to Moses could of course be saved as well without having heard about the son of God. They too had laws to obey, despite the absence of commandments written on stone tablets. God said early about sin:
Gen. 4:7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, SIN lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and THOU SHALT RULE OVER HIM.
In Ezekiel we can find a good explanation how we can be saved. By believing in God and do good (just like in the New Testament):
Ez. 18:4 Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: THE SOUL THAT SINNETH, IT SHALL DIE.5 But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right,— 8 He that hath not given forth upon usury, neither hath taken any increase, that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, hath executed true judgment between man and man,9 Hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgments, to deal truly; he is just, HE SHALL SURELY LIVE, saith the Lord God.—13 Hath given forth upon usury, and hath taken increase: shall he then live? he shall not live: he hath done all these abominations; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon him.—17 That hath taken off his hand from the poor, that hath not received usury nor increase, hath executed my judgments, hath walked in my statutes; he shall not die for the iniquity of his father, he shall surely live.18 As for his father, because he cruelly oppressed, spoiled his brother by violence, and did that which is not good among his people, lo, even he shall die in his iniquity.19 Yet say ye, Why? doth not the son bear the iniquity of the father? When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.20 The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.21 But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die.22 All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live.23 Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?24 But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.25 Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not my way equal? are not your ways unequal?26 When a righteous man turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and dieth in them; for his iniquity that he hath done shall he die.27 Again, when the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.28 Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.29 Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not my ways equal? are not your ways unequal?30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.31 Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.
You can see the same story in Ez. 33.