Can people such as the early American Indians, who lived before the missionaries came to America, or people who are living in some remote tribe in the world who have never heard of Jesus still be saved? I believe and understand that God has put into their hearts some knowledge about Himself. Many people did not know about the “Good News” until the missionaries came. I have heard Christian leaders explain that God has shown His “Light” by the amazing wonders in His creation of the planets and the human body; if anyone will recognize and acknowledge this “Light, ” then God will reveal His Son to them. How can this be true since the purpose of the apostles and missionaries of today is to tell others about Jesus? Is it possible that they can be saved by only believing in God the Creator? It seems that one must believe in the complete Trinity of God to be saved.
We have summarized your concerns into three questions: 1) Were people saved before the apostles? 2) Must one believe in the complete Trinity to be saved? 3) Can people be saved by just believing in God the Father or Creator? You may be interested in a previous question and answer that is related to your concerns.
Before The Apostles
God has saved people who lived before the apostles. God has used many people including the Jewish prophets to tell others about Himself and the coming Messiah. Jonah is one such Old Testament prophet. The people who lived in the city of Nineveh were wicked men and women and God wanted to save them. So He told Jonah to go to the city and warn them to repent.
Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. (NASB) Jonah 3:2-5
Many listened to Jonah and believed God. God responded by not punishing them. Now we need to ask, “What did they believe?” We are told that they believed in God. That was the turning point. They had to turn away from their numerous Babylonian gods. Today, more and more people believe that it does not matter which god a person worships as long as he or she is sincere. But this is not true, since the God of the Bible says there is no other god.
. . . And there is no other God besides Me, A righteous God and a Savior; There is none except Me. Turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. (NASB) Isaiah 45:21-22
He says that one must believe in Jesus and only in Jesus.
. . . the name of Jesus Christ . . . 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. (NASB) Acts 4:10-12
Did they believe in Jesus? We are not given enough information, but it appears that God has saved people in the past as long as they lived up to the “Light” that they had. That is the message of the apostle Paul to some Greek men at the Areopagus in Athens, Greece.
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (NASB) Acts 17:30-31
God sent the prophet Jonah to Nineveh and He sent other prophets to other parts of the ancient world. Yes, people before the apostles were saved.
Believe in the Trinity?
Must one believe in the Trinity? The answer is no! Today, all that God requires for us to be right with Him is that a person believe that Jesus Christ died and returned to life in order to forgive our sins; that is the “gospel message.” The word “gospel” means “Good News.”
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you . . . that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . . (NASB) 1 Corinthians 15:1, 3-4
Nothing more is required. Baptism is not required; penance is not required; there is no purgatory, and self-abuse of any kind is not required. All one must do is believe in Jesus. But what does it mean to believe in Jesus? Some think it means to believe intellectual facts; but that cannot be true since the apostle Paul said,
. . . if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved . . . (NASB) Rom. 10:9
Just Believe In God?
When God asks us to believe in Jesus some people assume that means they have accepted some facts. But when the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he appealed to them by using the facts that they knew about Jesus’ death and return to life (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) to call them to believe. That implies something more than just an intellectual belief. The medical doctor Luke provided Theophilus an entire book of facts about Jesus to help him believe in Jesus.
. . . it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught. (NASB) Luke 1:2-4
Belief means that we start with some facts about Jesus and then entrust ourselves to Him. That is, we must trust or depend that He is God. He died for our sins, and can and will forgive our sins if we want Him to do that. There is no other person who can do this.
Before Jesus Christ, God saved men and women as long as they believed in God with what little understanding they had. They had to believe in the true God and not in some idol or general divine knowledge as the Hindus and others would have us believe. I believe they also had to have some understanding about the coming Messiah – Jesus Christ. We know that Job knew about the Messiah.
. . . I know that my Redeemer lives . . . (NASB) Job 19:25
Today, God requires that we believe Jesus was the God-man, that He died and returned to life, and that only through Him can we have our sins forgiven. God wants to save every man and woman, but He leaves that choice to each of us. Learn more on the page Searching for God.
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. (NASB) 2 Peter 3:9