It is necessary for us to examine a question which has far-reaching implications in what it means to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, far-reaching implications for the church, and far-reaching implications for evangelism and missions. What about those who never hear the gospel?
You may have asked this question before. Maybe don’t really have an answer. On the other hand, you may already know the answer to the question. You may already believe correctly, that is to say, you may already believe what the Bible says about this question, but do you know how to defend the position from Scripture?
Believe it or not the answer to this question is one which has generated huge disagreement in the wider scope of the churches in America, even some who would contend they are conservative churches. So this question not only merits our time but it demands our time, because this does and will come up when you have an opportunity to proclaim the gospel, and our answer to the question says something about what we believe about God and the gospel.
My position, which I believe to be the clear biblical position, is that those who never hear the gospel die in their trespasses and sins, and are thus condemned to the wrath of God for all eternity. It isn’t the heartwarming position. It isn’t the position that gives you the warm and fuzzies. However, I believe it is what the Bible clearly teaches.
Before I begin defending my position, however, I want to share with you some things some other Bible teachers and preachers and writers who don’t hold to my position have said about this question. Some of these are men have done a great deal of good ministry. I’m quoting them because of their views on this specific question, so when I quote them don’t think I’m automatically throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But as we examine this question ourselves it is necessary, I believe, for us to know how prevalent some views are that I contend do not mesh with the Bible.
Consider this quote: “I used to believe that pagans in far countries were lost if they did not have the gospel of Christ preached to them… I no longer believe that.”
It might surprise you to know that this quote appeared in the January 1978 edition of McCall’s magazine in a story about the evangelist Billy Graham. It surprised me the first time I read it, because the quote reveals a belief that one need not even hear the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
In 1997 Graham was interviewed on the Hour of Power and was asked by Robert Schuller what he believed to be the future of Christianity. He responded,
I think there’s the body of Christ, which comes from all the Christian groups in the world, outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the body of Christ. And I don’t think we’re going to see a great sweeping revival that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time… God’s purpose in this age is to call out a people for His name, and that’s what God is doing today. He’s calling out a people for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world or the Buddhist world or the Christian world or the non-believing world. They are members of the body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their heart that they need something that they don’t have and they turn to the only light that they have and they are saved and they are going to be in heaven… I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived. (see for yourself on YouTube)
These quotes reveal, in my humble opinion, a compromise of the gospel, a belief that pretty much simply living a life that is apparently better than most according to, presumably, Judeo-Christian standards of morality, will be enough for God to save you, if you’ve never heard the gospel preached. Obviously, I wholeheartedly disagree with that assessment, and I believe the Scriptures do as well.
Another popular preacher and author, Tony Evans, wrote a book in 2002 called Totally Saved, and in the appendix of that book he tried to answer the question by putting forward what he dubbed trans-dispensationalism. He wrote that people who never hear the gospel are treated by God like Old Testament saints. If they believe all of the “light” that is available to them then God will save them on the basis of how they have responded to what they’ve been given.
Obviously, Abraham didn’t know the name of the coming Messiah. He didn’t trust in Jesus and His death, burial, and resurrection, but according to Genesis 15:6, he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Evans contends that there are people today treated the same way. Whatever revelation is given them, if they respond to it positively God, who is love, saves them. Obviously, I don’t believe this is what Scripture teaches either.
But before we get into what the Scriptures do say, I want to share one more, by an author who is very much respected and whose books have edified many believers over the years, C.S. Lewis. One of his most famous books is Mere Christianity, in which we read the following quote,
There are people in other religions who are being led by God’s secret influence to concentrate on those parts of their religion which are in agreement with Christianity and who thus belong to Christ without knowing it. For example, a Buddhist of good will may be led to concentrate more and more on the Buddhist teaching about mercy and to leave in the background (though he might still say he believed) the Buddhist teaching on certain other points. Many of the good Pagans long before Christ’s birth may have been in this position.
So again, a form of teaching which purports that a Buddhist can still be a Buddhist and belong to Christ without knowing it. And again, obviously, I disagree wholeheartedly with this assessment.
These are three very prominent, very influential men, two still living, one still influencing through his books, who have believed and still believe that, in one way or the other, those who never hear the gospel can still be saved. And when we consider how influential these men are, it is not hard to comprehend just how widespread the confusion is with regards to how we answer the question, “What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?”
But again, my answer doesn’t even matter on this, just as my answer on how old the earth is doesn’t matter. What do the Scriptures say about it?
Well let’s begin with the words of Jesus, and some of these are verses we’ve heard a lot over the past few months. In Mark 1:15 Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” So at the outset of Jesus’ Galilean ministry He is not giving people options, but proclaiming that their is a command to be obeyed. Repent and believe, and that belief is not in whatever you want it to be, but something specific, specific content: the gospel.
In Matthew 11:28, another verse I’ve reference a lot lately, and will continue to do, Jesus says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” We are to come to Him specifically, no one else.
Of course, this is perhaps most clearly seen in John 14:6, the seminal text that points to the exclusivity of Christ: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” So Jesus Himself speaks clearly and forthright about what is required to enter the kingdom of God. John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
Repentance from sins and faith in Jesus Christ are two sides of the same coin and they are what is required to enter the kingdom of God. That is the work of grace which God performs in those whom He saves. A specific turning from sins and specific faith in His specific Son, Jesus Christ.
Of course, if the words of Jesus Christ Himself are not enough, we always have the words of the apostle Paul, who himself was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Whenever we ask the question about people who never hear the gospel the argument from Scripture inevitably gets to Romans 1, and with good reason. Romans 1:18-21 says,
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Why do we need to be saved? Because the wrath of God stands revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. That’s why we need to be saved. God is holy, holy, holy, and He does not and will not tolerate sin. Every sin for all time will and must be punished with the perfect hate of God.
But how have men suppressed the truth in unrighteousness? Verse 21 tells us that even though they knew God they did not honor Him as God or give thanks. So basically God’s wrath abides against man because he knows God but doesn’t glorify God. The question becomes, “How does man know God?”
That really is at the heart of the matter, isn’t it? How does the man on some remote island with no technology, a language not known or rarely known, who has never seen a missionary… how does this man know God? Because Paul seems to indicate that God is known.
Beloved, God can and does hold people responsible because He has given them enough built-in information to drive them to the gospel. “That which is known about God is evident within them,” Paul writes. God has made it evident since the creation of the world. Man doesn’t have to look hard to find knowledge about God, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been CLEARLY SEEN, being understood through what has been made.”
Notice the juxtaposition in the language. God has made His INVISIBLE attributes visible. He has caused His INVISIBLE attributes to be clearly seen. And specifically, those attributes are His eternal power and divine nature. God’s eternal power refers to His always-ness, His never-failing omnipotence.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says that God has set eternity in the heart of the man, and I believe that one of the ways in which He has done that is by causing us to realize how small we are.
Ten years ago I lived in the mountains of North Carolina right along the Blue Ridge Parkway and I used to love to drive to the Bluff Mountain Lookout. I would hike up the trail and there was this place on the mountain where you just kind of look and realize how small you are. You could see for miles.
Who among us hasn’t had that moment when we gaze into the sky on a dark, clear night and see all of the stars and just realize how small we are? David had a moment like that in Psalm 8 and it drove him to write, “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for Him?”
God has made His eternal power evident. It is CLEARLY SEEN in His creation, and that power drives a man to realize how small he is. It drives a man to realize there is a God who made and sustains all of this. It’s evident. Clearly seen. And the fact that men today have the audacity to say out loud that this world is an accident in time and that human life is the stroke of dumb luck and an evolutionary process just goes to show you how far men go to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.
God’s divine nature is also clearly seen. It’s not merely that we can discern there is a God, simply by observing the world around us, but we can know something about His character, about who He is, what He is like. His kindness and graciousness are reflected in His creation. Paul told the people in Lystra in Acts 14:17 that God did not leave Himself without witness, “in that He did good and gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”
Charles Hodge notes that God’s “existence and perfections have ever been so manifested that his rational creatures are bound to acknowledge and worship Him as the true and only God.” God’s divine nature is clearly seen by every man, regardless of his station or location, and because His attributes are understood through what has been made, Paul says that men are without excuse. God has given enough revelation about Himself in creation to drive men toward the gospel, yet in his sinfulness man still rejects Him, and in fact, according to verse 21, has had his foolish heart darkened.
Furthermore, man is rightly judged by God because in Romans 2:15 says that the law of God is written on the hearts of men. Our conscience tells us there is one true God and our conscience reveals to us that He is a moral God who has made moral demands of men. All men everywhere must repent of their sins and believe in the gospel. Jesus is in agreement with the apostle Paul. Go back just a few verses in Romans, to 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” It is the gospel God uses to save sinners, pure and simple.
In Acts 17 Paul was in the city of Athens and it was there that he observed that Athens was a very religious city. He made note of their objects of worship, including one with an inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” The people in that city were zealously devoted to worshipping their gods and goddesses. However, their devotion to their own religious was not the least bit reassuring to Paul that these individuals were saved. Paul didn’t think that, because they were so devout in their own religion, that they belonged to God. He didn’t commend the Athenians and exhort them to keep up the good work and stay in the positive aspects of their worship of these false gods and goddesses. Paul instead declared that God was calling on all Athenians to repent, because God had set a day of judgment through “a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
Paul didn’t point them to Allah or Buddha or Zeus or some tribal god. He pointed to Jesus Christ only. B.B. Warfield notes that in religious Athens, when the gospel of Jesus Christ was preached, there were only meager results. Although a few were saved, the book of Acts does not record the establishment of a church in Athens at this time. That means that the vast majority of those who heard Paul rejected his message. Only a few joined him.
Doesn’t it makes sense that if this religious city was full of people devoted, in one way or another, to the true God through their own religious experience and practice, when they heard the gospel finally proclaimed in their city they would have responded? Of course not, because their devotion to their gods was not misplaced devotion to the one true God, anymore than the Philistines’ worship of Dagon was their way of worshipping YHWH. God didn’t save the Athenians or the Philistines based on the light they had been exposed to.
I can appreciate the heart behind the statements of men like Graham, Evans, and Lewis. Their beliefs, I believe, are borne out of a heart to see people who have never heard the gospel somehow wind up in heaven. But I believe that in their zeal to justify those beliefs they have, as a result, dumbed down what the Bible says about the ramifications of sin.
We are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are children of wrath and sons of disobedience walking according to the prince of the power of the air, according to Ephesians 2:1-3. Not one of those who is not saved is seeking Jesus in their own religions. To say otherwise would be to contradict the word of God. In Romans 3:11 we read, “There is none who understands. There is none who seeks for God.”
People come to a right standing with God on the basis of faith alone, faith in Jesus Christ, according to Romans 5:1. And that faith, according to Romans 10, “comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Faith doesn’t come from being a loving Hindu, a faithful Muslim, or just an all-around decent person. Faith comes from hearing the word of Christ. The word of CHRIST. You must respond in faith to the gospel of Jesus Christ!
Beloved, if you count yourself a Christian it is only because God gave you eyes to see and ears to hear and a heart to understand and embrace the specific good news about His Son Jesus Christ. That is amazing grace! Furthermore, think about this: If those who never hear the gospel can be saved, then isn’t the most loving thing we can do as Christians is never evangelize! Isn’t the most loving thing we can do zip our lips and NEVER proclaim the gospel? Why give light to someone who might be judged by it if they can enter the kingdom of God while still living in the darkness?
Beloved, if those who never hear the gospel can be saved, then that means the book of Acts is a greatest tragedy ever written instead of a historical record of how the gospel of Jesus Christ saved people from Jerusalem to Rome.
Other religions cannot and do not lead you to salvation. Simply recognizing there is a God from creation doesn’t save you either. It only makes you accountable. Natural theology is not the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. The righteousness of God is not revealed from faith to faith in what God has MADE, but the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith in Jesus Christ, the One whom the Father SENT who was not made, the One who existed before the foundation of the world and brought creation into being by the word of His power. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ leads you to Jesus Christ.
So, beloved, the answer to this question is very, very important. The answer to this question has to do with how you view God, how you view the gospel, and how you view His word? We can’t overlook what the Bible says about salvation just to make ourselves feel better about those who have never heard the gospel.
If anything, this truth ought to elevate the gospel in our hearts. It ought to drive us to praise God for saving us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It ought to help us realize the amazing grace God has shown us specifically. And finally, it most definitely ought to drive our missionary impulse. We ought to be supporting missionaries here and abroad, and more importantly, we ought to be missionaries ourselves, proclaiming the gospel as dying men to dying men. This question is a matter of life or death.
We praise God for the grace He has shown us in choosing us and giving us faith in His Son Jesus Christ. We pray that the gospel might be made abundantly clear to those who profess Christ and to unbelievers. We pray that God might continue to save people through the proclamation of the gospel. We pray for endeavors to reach people who have never heard. We pray that we ourselves might be missionaries, evangelists, ministers of the life-changing, life-saving message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, so that all might hear.