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Must people hear the Gospel to come to faith?

Published: 23 June 2018 (GMT+10)

The problem of the fate of those who live and die without hearing the Gospel leads some to propose that God may have other ways of revealing the knowledge of salvation to people to whom missionaries have not yet gone. Ian M., Australia, writes in response to What about those who have never heard? (Creation 40(2):38–39), claiming that God has revealed the Gospel in the constellations:

sharing-gospel

I became a Christian at 7 years of age and am still Christian 60 years later. A short time after becoming a Christian I heard a missionary talk about how so many people could not at that stage be reached for the gospel. I thought about how unfair this seemed that they would be judged by God never having had a chance to become a Christian. I prayed about it, and then forgot all about it.

A few years later I heard a missionary who had just returned from Africa relating an amazing situation she had experienced. She had gone to visit a very remote village and told the gospel to them. They were very attentive and at the end of her talk they had tears in their eyes. They thanked her very much. They said, “We know the story and believe but did not know that His name was Jesus”. How could such a remote tribe with virtually no contact with the outside world know the story of the gospel? That night they went outside and the tribal elder pointed to individual and groups of stars and told her the gospel in the stars that led to their salvation. This Gospel had been passed down to them possibly over thousands of years.

I have since heard this same situation told by Missionaries who went to remote tribal groups who had little to no contact with the outside world in Japan, the Middle East and South America. The tribe visited by missionaries in the Middle East region also related that the Magi passed through their region after seeing the baby Jesus, and when leaving by a different route to avoid King Herod. I have since read of other groups who all have a similar understanding of the Gospel that results in salvation for those who believe. There are still other peoples who have knowledge of the constellations but the meaning is lost.

When God answers our prayers so clearly, are we to deny the method of conveying His Grace because it does not fit our knowledge or understanding? No, we are to accept what God has done and accept His Grace and Mercy shown to those who may have had no eternal hope otherwise.

Psalms 147:4. “He counts the number of stars; and gives names to all of them.’’

The writer of this Bible passage definitely understood that God gave names to the stars. The names given to the stars had nothing to do with describing the star. by joining the visible stars with a line you do not get a meaningful picture. The picture is the one God named for the group of stars. For example the sign Libra has two stars yet pictures a tilted set of Scales of Justice, the same as seen associated with law courts.

Numbers 24:17. I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; A star shall come forth from Jacob.

The constellation Pisces is associated with the Jewish nation and so with Jacob.

Job 9:9 Who makes the Bear (Arcturus or Boötes), Orion, and the Pleiades…

God questioning Job and using these three constellations. God says to Job in Job 38:31–-33. ”Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Or loose the cords of Orion? Can you lead forth a constellation (or Mazzaroth) in its season? And guide the Bear with her satellites? Do you know their ordinances of the heavens? Or fix their rule over the heavens?

When God asked Job these questions, Job would have had to known what these star signs were and what they represented or the question is wasted.

[A long section on the Mazzaroth and a lengthy quote from David Catchpoole’s Aboriginal knowledge amazes evolutionist astronomer has been removed for length—Editor.]

Having the complete Word of God in the Bible there is no need to study the Mazzaroth today. However by its existence we gain a greater understanding of God and that he has a program of events fixed in time by His will and revealed in the stars.

And yes there are other sources of the same gospel that leads to salvation in Jesus Christ!

HOW GREAT IS OUR GOD!

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Dear Ian,

Thank you for writing in. I am glad you have such a long history of faith in Christ. Did you come to faith through the preaching of the Gospel, or did you find it out in the stars? I don’t ask the question to be sarcastic, but to point out that you, and every single other Christian I’ve ever spoken to or heard of, came to faith through the preaching of the Gospel.

Can God use dreams, or the ‘gospel in the stars’, or any number of other ways? Well, God could do anything that’s not logically impossible, so asking what is possible for God to do is rather a wide question. Rather, we should ask what God has told us about how He saves people in His Word. And Christians are commanded explicitly to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). Paul asks, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard?” (Romans 10:14) He doesn’t say, “Well, of course, they can figure it out through the constellations.”

If someone actually believed that lots of these unreached people already knew the Gospel through other means, it would have disastrous results for missions and for evangelism in general. The famous anecdote about William Carey comes to mind. He posed the question “Whether the command given to the apostles to ‘teach all nations’, was not obligatory on all succeeding ministers to the end of the world, seeing that the accompanying promise was of equal extent?” Another minister’s response typified many in his day. “As soon as Dr. Ryland could command sufficient composure to reply, he exclaimed, ‘Young man, sit down; when God is pleased to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.’”1

Your error is like that of the old-earth creationists who say that because a day is like a thousand years to the Lord, the days of creation can be a thousand years long. You take a verse of Scripture, which in its context is absolutely true, and apply it to something it never meant to speak about. In doing so, you ignore Scriptures which actually do speak about how people come to faith, and the related commands to Christians regarding evangelism.

Listen to the Apostle Paul, and try to defend third-hand accounts of the Gospel in the stars in light of this:

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:8–17).

God could have spread the Gospel in one day by giving every single person dreams about Jesus. Indeed, He could have sent an angel to everyone. And yes, He could have put the Gospel in the constellations if He wanted. But He has given us the Great Commission. We are privileged to be the messengers of the Gospel when we share the Good News of salvation with others, whether in our own local area, or whether we go to distant nations. We should not presume that God will work in ways other than He has revealed in Scripture.

Incidentally, God’s Word tells us why Daniel was placed at the head of the Magi. He was able to tell Nebuchadnezzar his dream and its interpretation (Daniel 2). This did not come from divining the stars, but from direct revelation from God Himself. This was a strong rebuke to the astrologers, who didn’t have the slightest idea from their stars what the king dreamed. Daniel also delivered a prophecy about the timing of the coming of the Messiah (Daniel 9). Is it possible that the Magi kept these records over hundreds of years, so that they knew when to expect the Messiah, and so were prepared to recognize the supernatural star for what it was? This explanation actually fits with what we see in Scripture.

I am so glad that someone preached the Gospel to you 60 years ago, and you were saved as a result. But emphasizing this ‘gospel in the stars’ idea makes it seem like missions and evangelism may not be that important after all, which is why we have to oppose it in no uncertain terms.

References and notes

  1. Howell, C.G., William Carey: Pioneer Baptist Missionary to India, wholesomewords.org, accessed 15 March 2018. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

One Human Family
by Dr Carl Wieland
From
US $19.00
Jesus in Genesis
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DVD
Christianity for Skeptics
by Drs Steve Kumar, Jonathan D Sarfati
From
US $12.00
From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
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US $12.00

Readers’ comments

J M.
This story is identical to the one an Indigenous Australian elder told me around a campfire during a mission trip to the Pilbara in WA four years ago. I don’t think these types of accounts detract from the preaching of the Gospel, but rather show how a just and merciful God prepared hearts and minds to receive Jesus and then sent people to preach the Good News to people in remote communities. God will judge each of us on what we’ve had opportunity to know. For some, that will be the creation itself (Psalm 19:1 and Romans 1:20). Romans 2 goes on to draw this idea out further. So yes, God’s primary way of getting the Gospel to the nations is through the preaching of the Word. There seems to be evidence though, both in Scripture and in people’s experiences, that he can and does circumvent that because of his abounding grace and mercy.
I’m looking forward to returning to the Pilbara to share the Good News about Jesus with his children in a couple of weeks time. Yet, even when his sinful delivery method fails even the rocks (or stars) will cry out and declare “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭19:38‬ ‭NIV‬‬
Pat G.
I grieve for those who have not heard. I know that we are limited by God's command to go to the world. Whether God uses other means to reach people we cannot reach, I cannot say. God hasn't told us. But Jesus died for the whole world. God is merciful. He is also just. He will not let people perish without a provision. In the book Eternity in Their Hearts, different examples of pieces of knowledge retained by oral tradition and passed down shows that everyone has some knowledge. This information would have passed down from Noah, or may have made its way because of contact with evangelized people who received the Apostles' teaching. The sense of urgency because we do not know, is what keeps us going. NONE of us deserves God's mercy. ALL would choose eternity apart from God if left to our own devices. So all we can do is our best, to bring the Gospel to all, and pray for the people who need to hear. And leave it up to God to deal with them out of His perfect justice and mercy.
Jack S.
The original poster's position is mostly anecdotal. The real questions are how did the stars come to be and what is their purpose. One does not proceed too far in the Genesis account when this question is answered. Another stated (perhaps implied) purpose is found in the first chapter of Romans and also the Psalms. They demonstrate the authorship and ability of the Creator. The Romans account also includes the proviso that failure to recognize these descriptors will lead to judgmental action by said Creator. Lita is correct in stating that God can do anything that is not contrary to His nature and character. However our (Believers) instructions, the Scriptures, are not premised on such arbitrariness. We have been told, in no uncertain terms, to preach the Word of the Gospel, for it (alone) is the power of God unto salvation.
Incidentally, the people living in the southern hemisphere get a different star distribution than those in the northern portion. Who does the translation?
Lester V.
Like the stories of the remote tribes who knew the basics of the gospel before encountering missionaries, Helen Keller's story is very similar. When Anne Sullivan was able to communicate with her, she began to share the gospel with her. Helen's response what that she already knew Him, she just didn't know His name. God's arsenal of ways and means to communicate with people is unlimited. The Old Testament people had a partial (and for them, at times, confusing) picture of the Messiah analogous to the picture of the gospel outlined in the stars. It wasn't until the New Testament times that the full revelation of Jesus was available. Even then, most of the people failed to recognize Him. Just as the sacrificial system of the Tabernacle and the Temple was explained and clarified by the death of Jesus on the cross, might it not at least be possible that the "Gospel in the Stars" message was valid (as far as it went) in the ages before the Incarnation, but was further explained and clarified by the appearance of Jesus in the flesh. Once Jesus came, the sacrificial system was no longer adequate, just as the account in the heavens is today. Now that the ultimate revelation of Jesus has been given, the incomplete revelations of the past may serve to encourage believers in their faith (as types and shadows), but are no longer adequate.
Shannon T.
I think the idea that God reveals himself to tribes who haven't heard about the gospel yet has been ruled out too quickly. It seems like it is something that requires more investigation to say. Sure we could ask why he doesn't reveal himself to everyone through a dream or in the stars but God is a mysterious God so I think there could be a deeper reason we just don't know yet. I find it conceivable that tribes whom believe in a creator may ask him to reveal himself to the tribe and receive signs and dreams about Jesus.

Regardless of whether or not this is true, one think is certain - that we can only be saved through Jesus.
Lita Cosner
But Shannon, the point I was making is that God can do anything, but what He has revealed in Scripture is clear. We are commanded to go and share the Gospel. If we believe that it's ok if some remote tribe doesn't hear about Jesus from us, because God can use a different way, that lessens the urgency to obey the command to go.
David A.
I would agree that constellations do not teach a person about the Gospel but I don't think the article comes close to properly helping the man with his concern (and he has a very legitimate concern). We go too far if we pronounce whom we believe is saved or not; it is enough to obey the Bible (tell all the world) and trust God with the rest. Abraham never heard the name of Jesus, but he believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3). God can contact a person anyway he wants to; Ravi Zacharias has an example of a man who, after 5 years, finally gave into his dreams and (for safety's sake) left Iraq and sought Christianity in Kuwait. Next, consider that God chose when and where people would be born in history (Acts 17:26-27) plus when time began, God blotted names out of the Lamb's book of Life (Revelation 13:8 and also 17:8). Thus it is, at the very least, a possibility that God allowed people to be born on a desert island, for example, and never hear the Gospel because (knowing the end from the beginning) He eternally knew they would never want Him (Cain rejected God despite knowing He existed) >we should never believe God perniciously set most people up to go to hell <THIS is the help the man needed. As I mentioned above, surely He can reach out any way He sees fit. The critical thing Jesus did was make a reconciliation between God and man; as with Abraham then also with all persons of history, the most important thing is how a person responds to God when reveals Himself to them-however, God does so. I believe we can trust He would not allow a person to unjustly be condemned. He has planted His seeds in the hearts of all people in history and has/is allowing each to either grow up into wheat or tare (Matthew 13:24-30)-He allowed us a free will.
Lita Cosner
God didn't set anyone up to go to Hell, we do that to ourselves when we sin. God graciously provided one way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, and His chosen method for spreading the Gospel is through His people. As I said in the article, God could send everyone their own personal angel to deliver the Gospel message. He could give everyone dreams or miracles or make the stars spell it out in all the languages of the earth. But He has told us how He saves people, through belief in Christ that comes through hearing the Gospel.
John D.
Perhaps Ian could have phrased his question better. God can use dreams to attract or draw people to Christ but ultimately the Gospel must be heard explicitly either by reading it directly or hearing it preached. We hear stories of thousands of Muslims having dreams sparking an interest in Christ Jesus but it is when they hear the Gospel fully it is then that they recognise that their dream drew them in .
Faith comes by hearing in that the Word must be heard first and then the gift of faith is irresistible in that eyes are opened and the person realises that Christ in His love has atoned for his/her sin and that he/she must repent and turn in faith and trust in Him.
God has used dreams in the bible for many purposes but nowhere does He bring a person directly to salvation in an actual dream as ultimately faith in Christ comes by hearing the Word.
I don't recall ever reading about persons (e.g Muslims ) being told the way of salvation in a dream or vision but I have heard of many of them receiving dreams leading them to someone who could show them the way of salvation by giving them a bible or by preaching the Word. There is a distinction and you quite correctly get the doctrine correct in that point Lita. Dreams do not save per se. Otherwise there'd be no need to preach or read the Word. People can be deceived by dreams.
However with regard to dreams
their visions can be like the one Cornelius experienced where he was told to go to Peter who then preached the Word to him. God in Christ can draw all men to Himself in whatever way He chooses. Faith then comes by hearing. Salvation comes through hearing the Scripture as people are " cut to the heart " and repent /turn.
P C.
We are not the judge of saving faith, though often more obvious than not, only God knows the relationship He has with a person. Therefore we are told to preach the Gospel in the name of Christ. I suppose most of us ponder the implications of so many not able to hear. My first inclination is to believe in predestination, that God knows who, when and where to send the Gospel. That leaves lots of clueless souls, not only without the opportunity to accept but also to reject. Still, it can be difficult to tell who does or doesn’t even in a culture with full access, not to mention the oppressed. Yet to believe and not know is frustrating, to say the least. So by God’s grace and mercy, we tell others they can know. What kindness!
I am somewhat humored by a commonly overlooked argument, though it isn’t the answer, quite suggestive. What about people in the Old Testament? They hadn’t heard, didn’t know the things like we do. Even the prophets wondered at the mystery. The apostles didn’t know until it happened, even as Jesus told them. Are we to assume they weren’t saved? That would require some interesting doctrinal acrobatics, which have already been done, I’m sure.
I have heard of missionaries telling stories that people believed just by observing creation. The rocks cry out! The heavens proclaim! Although it is difficult to judge for certain, especially and more importantly by those who need to know, so we tell them the story of Jesus Christ and bring comfort to the lost. Lost is a scary place to be. We are sent to find. Either way, those who said that they could perceive the Gospel in nature exceedingly rejoiced at the Word. Just leaving them in the dark would be neglecting the very light Who leads us.
Mitch C.
Lita Cosner and Dr. Faulkner give good responses to the question "Was the Gospel recorded in the Stars?" Even so, I am inclined to agree with Carl Wieland's advice (partially reproduced at the end of Dr. Faulkner's article), cautioning us against "throwing the baby out with the bathwater". Seiss and Bullinger surely erred on certain details, but does this invalidate their central thesis?
Who can deny that various aspects of the gospel were spoken to men prior to the giving of the written word? This would include: (1) Gen 3:15, which contains references to the virgin birth of our Lord ("seed of the woman" rather than "seed of the man and the woman"), His sufferings and death (His heel bruised by the serpent) and His victory over the serpent (the serpent's head bruised). (2) The second generation and afterward knew to offer up animal sacrifices (Gen 4:4; 8:20), though scripture records no instructions for them to do this prior to the giving of the Law on Sinai. (3) Gen 15:6 teaches that we are justified by faith alone (see Rom 4:1-5).
If God should arrange the stars and give them names to serve as illustrations and reminders of this oral tradition, how could that be considered problematic, considering that the stars in themselves have no message apart from the oral tradition which interprets them? This would not be an argument against missions, since this ancient oral tradition has been lost or hopelessly distorted in all (or nearly all) cultures, which, therefore need to hear the gospel anew.
Dr. Faulkner assumes that the gospel itself is the mystery that was not revealed in former ages (Rom 16:25; Eph 3:4-6; Col 1:26). However, Paul tells us that he taught this mystery only to those who were mature in the faith (1 Cor 2:6-10). Thus, the gospel cannot be the mystery.
King T.
Dear Lita, Thank you for pointing out the one big flaw in the story related by the writer. It does however bring up the fact that many people do not want to accept Christianity precisely because of their perception that God is unfair: For example, how can He allow a woman to be mentally and physically abused all her life and be killed by her abuser and still send her to hell just because she never heard the gospel? If God is like that, the reasoning goes, then they do not want anything to do with him because He does not meet their standard of fairness.

I have a neighbour who is stuck on this point and will not budge an inch. Ophrah Winfrey also used a similar question in one of her presentations.That exact same issue led Joel Osteen to say that there are many paths to Christ....! I would like to know what is a good answer to give to people who refuse to accept the gospel on this basis. My reasoning at the moment is as follows: Romans 1:19 : What may be known about God is plain to them....they are without excuse... Combined with Romans 9:14-16 God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy meaning he will present the gospel to whoever he pleases, even though he does not want anyone to perish.... Perhaps there is a better answer to address this stumbling block?
Lita Cosner
No one should want God to be 'fair' regarding salvation, because no one deserves to be saved, which is exactly why it is a gift of grace.

It is undeniable that people die in terrible circumstances having never believed in Christ. That should cause us to mourn, to repent of our own apathy in sharing the Gospel, and motivate us to redouble our efforts to reach as many as possible. I hate answering questions about hypothetical people, because they're hypothetical, and set up to prove a point. But no one is sent to Hell because they didn't hear the Gospel; they are sent to Hell because they have sinned knowingly. No one on the day of judgment will be able to charge God with wrongdoing in their judgment. They themselves will acknowledge that God is just--so how can we do otherwise?

If the Gospel had only gone to one person, and only that person ever benefited from Christ's sacrifice and the rest of the billions of humanity went to Hell, that one person would still be a trophy of God's grace. How much more will the innumerable multitude of people who will be saved show the greatness of the mercy He has on those who believe.
Mitch C.
We need to be clear about some possible misunderstandings regarding "the gospel in the stars" thesis.

1. No one should adopt this idea based merely on a bare wish, or the assumption that God would be unfair if he did not provide a gospel witness to all men. Our beliefs should be based on the clear testimony of scripture, and not on our fallible ideas of what God ought to do.
2. We should not imagine that the gospel, in all its New Testament clarity, is found in the stars. At most, various hints or glimpses of gospel truths are revealed there, similar to that found in the protoevangel of Gen 3:15, or in the animal sacrifices which foreshadowed Christ as the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29).
3. We should never suppose that any additional revelation, beyond what is found in the Old Testament scriptures, is recorded in the stars.

Perhaps the clearest Biblical evidence of a starry gospel witness is found in Rom 10:18, where, after discussing the gospel--i.e. the need to believe in Christ and call on him and confess him for salvation (Rom 10:9-11) and the need to hear the gospel (Rom 10:14-15), Paul then cites Psalm 19:1-4 to show that men have heard the message of Christ proclaimed to them in the heavens. In the context of Romans 10:1-17, Paul's question "Have they not heard?" appears to mean more than simply that they have had a witness of God's wrath against sin (Rom 1:18) and of His eternal power and godhead (Rom 1:20).
This is consistent with modern accounts we hear of tribes recognizing Christ as the fulfillment of their oral tradition (passed down from Noah), yet without contradicting the sufficiency and authority of God's written Word. It does not appear that the starry witness by itself is sufficient for saving faith, so people still need to hear the gospel.

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