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What about those who have never heard the Gospel?
Charles S. United States, writes:
It is my understanding that everyone will have an opportunity to accept or reject Christ. I am sure that down through history and even today there are people who have never had that opportunity. People in some obscure tribe who may have never even knew who Christ was. Young children and babies who had no understanding of who Christ is. My question is what happens to those people? Will they, at some future time be given the opportunity to accept or reject Christ? Will they again be born to live again as humans to have that opportunity to accept or reject Christ. I understand that once we die we no longer have that chance to accept or reject Christ. Thank you for allowing me to ask this question. I look forward to your answer.
Lita Sanders, CMI-US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. Scripture says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). This indicates that we all only have one life in which to respond to the Gospel. As I’ve said before, while the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we’d like to know about salvation, it tells us everything we need to know. With that in mind, here are a few principles which help us to think through this difficult issue.
We are all born in rebellion against God
Scripture teaches that we do not enter the world as morally neutral entities, but we are sinful from our very conception (Psalm 51:5). One of my colleagues points out that any parent of small children sees this in action! You don’t have to teach your little boy to be selfish with his toys or pull his sister’s hair, these sinful behaviors come naturally.
This sinfulness is not so much what we do, as who we are. We sin because we’re sinners. We were born that way, because our parents were born that way, all the way back to the children of Adam and Eve, who were the only human beings not born in sin, but they became sinful (of course, Jesus was without sin. Jesus is also God).
Because God is good, He must judge sin. And even on a human level, we can think of horrendous crimes for which we would demand judgment. God sees all sin like that. God is perfectly righteous so He must judge perfectly—every sin must receive a proportional judgment.
Nature gives enough revelation to condemn but not to save
Romans 1 tells us clearly that we should be able to tell from nature that God is the Creator and some basic things about His power and divine nature. The revelation that is present in nature is called “general revelation”. That should cause us to worship him and be thankful, but instead people decide to rebel against the Creator and engage in various forms of idolatry. This sets off a cascade of sinful consequences which are both the results of logically prior sins, and sins which deserve judgment in and of themselves.
While the revelation in nature is sufficient to condemn people, it is not sufficient to save, for at least two reasons. First, the revelation in nature is corrupted by sin’s effects on the world, meaning that the revelation is not as clear as it would have been when God originally created. Second, sin has affected our minds, meaning that our ability to perceive the revelation from nature as we should is affected.
God did not owe salvation to anyone
When a portion of the angels fell alongside Satan, God did not offer any of them a chance at redemption. They will all be judged and condemned on the last day and sentenced to an eternity in Hell (they are not the jailers in Hell; they are prisoners), and God is perfectly just to do so. In the same way, God does not owe salvation to anyone. Yet God wanted to demonstrate both His justice and His mercy, so He set in place the plan of salvation through Christ.
Does God have to reveal this plan to everyone? Well, if we establish that God doesn’t owe anybody salvation, we can’t turn around and say that if He saves, everybody must know how He does, especially since these people are already sinners who rebel against the revelation in nature that they have.
Yet when Scripture speaks of God’s saving work, its vastness is what is emphasized, and His great generosity. In Heaven there will be a vast multitude of people from every people and nation. The scope of salvation is vast.
The correct response to the Gospel is evangelism
There are two reasons why someone might wonder about those who have never heard. One is the type of person who wants to find flaws in the way God has chosen to offer salvation to mankind. The other is the type of person who is genuinely concerned that there are people who have never heard about the wondrous news of salvation through Christ.
This of course is why Jesus commanded Christians to spread the Gospel. If you’re concerned about people alive today having never heard the Gospel, the correct response is to support a missionary, or maybe go and be a missionary yourself. Yes, there are people in the past who lived and died without ever hearing the Gospel. The Bible suggests they will be judged according to the amount of revelation they had (Luke 12:47–48), and we can trust that the Judge of the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25).
What about infants and the mentally handicapped?
Others ask about what happens to babies, the mentally handicapped, and others who never reached a point where they were able to understand the Gospel and accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. This is a difficult question. One part of the answer is that the Gospel message is for those who are able to understand it. If God wants to have mercy on babies and the mentally handicapped, then that is certainly His prerogative. The only way they could be saved is through the death of Christ, and if He wants to do that, He is able to. Theologians from practically every soteriological viewpoint affirm this.
Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved
When we realize the vastness of the sin problem, that only the death of the Son of God could provide atonement, our response should be amazement, gratitude, and worship because God has provided such a costly payment to save us. And then we should go out and tell others. Paul expresses the urgency of the call to evangelism:
“… 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 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 10:9–17).
I think my colleague Dr Jonathan Sarfati lays out the biblical statement on this issue in his article on death and suffering:
- People go to hell because they have sinned against the infinitely holy God, as explained above, not because ‘they haven’t heard’.
- Romans 1:18–28 points out that some truth about God is obvious (in the heart) from creation, so that all people are ‘without excuse’.
- Romans 2:14–16 says that people also have a conscience, and don’t even live up to their own standards, let alone God’s.
- Romans 10:9–13 explains the only way out: belief in Jesus as YHWH (aka Yahweh, Jehovah, the Lord), who died for our sins.
- Thus Romans 10:14–18 explains the urgency of getting this message to everyone, so they will have a chance to hear.
Evangelism from a creation foundation
When we understand the Bible’s big story of creation, fall, and restoration, we have a good foundation for evangelizing those who have never heard. Paul used creation evangelism in Lystra (Acts 14:8–18) and Athens (Acts 17:16–34), two Greek cities that had little to no knowledge of the God of the Bible. Explaining that God is our Creator who provides everything we have, and that we need to be in a right relationship with Him, and God has provided a way for reconciliation through Christ is an important theme in Scripture.
So when we think about those who have never heard, our response should not be to wonder what God is doing about that, but what are we doing about that? And then we trust God with the results, including with the people who for whatever reason never heard.
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