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What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

Published: 20 May 2017 (GMT+10)

Charles S. United States, writes:

freeimages.com God-creation
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 Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Dear Charles,

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.

Readers’ comments

Richard C.
Romans 2: 15-16, ' in brief ', Says that, --their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them, 16 on that day when, ----God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
So even if you have not heard of Jesus, your conscious will be judged or excused by Jesus.
Martin T.
I believe that "natural consequences" should also be mentioned. What I mean is, Adam and Eve had sufficient revelation about God but some of this revelation was lost among their descendants, who descended into apostasy and unbelief.
As Paul mentions that "all Asia" turned away (2.Tim 1:15) and as the Israelites were told to teach the things of God to their children continuously, we understand that parents have a great responsibility.
It is a natural consequence that Christian parents will usually have Christian children, or Muslim parents will have Muslim children. What we teach them, sticks with them. So if an ancestor somewhere decided to reject the Gospel, this would have had consequences for his descendants, possibly centuries down the line of history.
This does not fully explain whether this is "fair" of God but since this is how the world we inhabit works (both for better and for worse), it at least explains why the world is in the state it is in.
Stefan M.
Good article. We need to bear fruit. I read this Friday night and decided that I needed to go out at 10:30pm to hand out tracts. I went to University and King St corner where there are 2 universities and lots of international students. As they walked by I told them that God loves them and wants them to know how to get to heaven. Friday night I handed out 8 tracts, Saturday night 7 tracts in about 1 hour each time. That is 15 more people who have willingly heard the gospel message. This morning I read John 15 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.  If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love;...This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. 
Carl J.
John 3:18 clearly teaches that it is not the rejecting of Jesus Christ and the gospel of salvation that condemns a person but the fact we do not believe.
"He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." NASB
I believe that this is one of Satan's greatest deceptions, to think that God "will make a way for those who have never heard" this blinds people to the urgency in reaching out to the lost.
Thank you for an informative biblical article.
Ed N.

A native boy was born in the year 400 AD near present day Kitchener. As he grew, the elders taught him of the Creator (Great Spirit) and he rejoiced in the Creator and his world. He followed his tribe's laws but died early in the year 410. A good kid. Of course, he never heard of Christ and we absolutely accept that no man enters Heaven without Jesus. So our native boy is condemned to an eternity of torture? Wait. In Zech 9:11 and 1 Pe 3:19 there are ideas of God/Jesus freeing/preaching to human prisoners. Now given that eternity is timeless, we may safely assume that Jesus, in those 3 days of preaching (preaching what?...about his sin sacrifice of course), was encountering every human that ever lived or died who was sensitive to the Lord. The ones who rejected the Creator in their lifetime wouldn't be in this holding place, only the ones sensitive to God. Wouldn't it make sense to have our little native boy, sensitive to God and his presence during his time on earth, to hear about Jesus, accept him and be welcomed into Heaven?
God is fair. Since Jesus is the only key to an eternity with himself then it stands to reason that everyone must have a chance at salvation. Otherwise, God is sending people to an eternity of suffering without giving them a fair chance at Jesus. I do not believe that is possible.
So I think John B from Oz might be on to something. If my thinking is incorrect; then that native boy unjustly was sent to Hell forever. I am 100% certain that will not be the case. I believe in a just and loving Lord who saves people like that native boy. So to recap, after Jesus' death, in the holding place beyond the tomb, Jesus preached to humans who loved God in their lifetimes.
I look forward to your answer. Sorry for the wordiness of this.
Lita Cosner
I find it revealing that everyone who argues against the clear biblical position needs to start with an unbiblical sob-story about a hypothetical person with hypothetical beliefs. We do not start out as neutral people, we start out as rebellious sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We start out as "enemies of God", to use the biblical language. And if we believe Romans 1 when it says that we all "suppress the truth in unrighteousness", we can safely say that the native boy from your hypothetical scenario doesn't exist.

Your statement, "Otherwise, God is sending people to an eternity of suffering without giving them a fair chance at Jesus" is actually really revealing. First, whatever suffering people experience in Hell will be the entirely just sentence for sin on earth. God will ensure justice, and the person suffering will know that his suffering is just. Second, God did not owe anyone salvation, so how could He owe everyone a chance at salvation? I can't find a verse for that.

I am so concerned about this because first, it shows the urgency of missions. Of course we want everyone to hear about Jesus! So if we know of someplace in the world that is unreached, do we say, "Oh well, I guess they'll get a chance after they die," or do we pray for missions to reach them and help to whatever extent we are able to do so?

Regarding John B.'s comment, my reply shows how he is misinterpreting that verse in 1 Peter by completely ignoring the context in which Peter makes that statement.
Matthew B.
Dear Lita, you have written a very perceptive and orthodox response (dare I say Lutheran) to a question most people have. Thankyou for your ongoing ministry.
George M.
Thanks so much for your response to my question. Articles like yours are helpful. I have heard something along the lines of your answer to me before. At the risk of imposing on you I have a follow up question. Is there scriptural support for your response?

Kind regards,

George Morgan
Lita Cosner
Genesis 15:6, Romans 4, Galatians 3, James 2, Hebrews 11:1-2.
david B.
I have often pondered this same question. I'm sure there were gajillions of people before christ was born who never heard of him. I'm sure there were a lot of indians that died before the gospel message ever got to the us. The bible says that no one comes to the father except by christ. That means people before,then,now and later. Jesus said himself that i and my father are one so if this is a true statement then you can't believe in one without the other. if you believe in God i.e. he has called and revealed himself to you then you believe in jesus whether you know who jesus is or not. NO ONE CAN BE SAVED WITHOUT THE BLOOD OF CHRIST before,then,now or ever. Don't worry about what someone is gonna believe if you share the gospel with them jesus said the field was already white and ripe for the picking he just needs some laborers. Don't worry about the past Charles .Gods got there back just like he's got yours. The lord gave commandment to go out and spread the good news.WHY? because he said so. Don't worry yourself with what God took care of before the foundation of the world. He's Got This.
Brandon W.
I have often responded to this question with the fact that, according to the Bible, everyone's ancestor knew about God and at some point decided to reject him. This rejection was passed to all their children. This makes passages like Deuteronomy 5:9 have much more meaning.
Caleb L.
Great, theologically spot-on answer! Thank you, CMI for being so bold as to "give an answer" in a way that honors the Lord's truth as holy!
George F.
Your articles are always very much appreciated. Thank you very much for your ministry. When presented with this kind of question, I like to include the following as part of my response: "God invented salvation and grace. How could we ever upstage Him on His passion to offer both to all, by saying, 'But God, You could have shown more grace ... You could have saved ... (this person or that person).' He knows the heart of every man intimately." How well do we ourselves understand grace. Much less be able to give the Master a masterclass.
Phil K.
First, I'd like to say that these "people in some obscure tribe" who never heard of Christ, have learned to worship idols and witch doctors without one single Baal or voodoo missionary to teach them how. We are born with a need to worship something. So, what prevents individuals from responding affirmatively to the prodding of the Holy Spirit and discover the one true God even without a Bible and without a missionary? Regarding infants and the mentally handicapped, thank you, Lita, for a great answer. God is as Merciful as he is Just. If he wants to bring them home to be with him should they die before having understanding of Christ's sacrifice, that is his decision, not ours.
Jordan C.
Jesus has certainly paid for our sins, and no one is saved apart from His grace. I do have a question; In light of these following versus, would foreknowledge of His atonement be necessary, for instance, consider a man of character like a modern day Job. Would the following verses be relevant to those who have not heard of the message still be saved through it? John15:22-24 "If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father." Romans2:6 "He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;" and Matthew11:23-24 "And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day"
Thanks Lita, I always enjoy reading your articles. God bless
Lita Cosner
It's important to pay attention to the context of biblical statements, and none of the verses you cite would apply with a 'modern day Job' (however, consider that Job was a man who had access to some revelation because he had substantial knowledge of God's character and how to live in relationship with Him).

So many people are concerned about the fate of the person who dies without hearing of Jesus and try to work around the grim fate of such a person. (And note the concern can only be hypothetical, because they are spoken of as a nebulous idea, instead of real people in desperate need of the truth.) Why aren't more people concerned with going with the Gospel so that they don't die without hearing!
Duane B.
One of the key misunderstandings we have regarding salvation is that it's about man. Redemption is about God reconciling the world to Himself. His holy righteousness has been "propitiated" (satisfied) so He is free to offer mercy and grace and forgiveness. For man's part, no one will choose God. Rpmans instructs us that nature is sufficient for man to acknowledge God and be condemned for not acknowledging the Creator. That is the root of much debate among believers - the relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility. The error is assuming that redemption depends upon man's choice, or, in particular, man having a chance to make a choice. Scripture instructs us that everyone and anyone who are able to make a choice will always choose self, not God. As has been wisely said: we're not good enough to earn salvation and we're not good enough to keep it. God did not merely make salvation possible or "see" who would choose Him. God determined before the foundation of the earth to redeem some, not all, and He brings it to pass while leaving some to experience His justice and judgment. We are called to obedience, not results. We can with confidence proclaim the gospel knowing God will bring to all He has chosen to redemption. We do not know who will come but there is no uncertainty with God about it. Salvation is not about everyone having a fair chance. The bottom line is: God has chosen. And who does not rejoice in being chosen by Almighty God?
Grahame G.
Lita makes an excellent point by bringing up General Revelation. Since Jesus is Creator, by rejecting the evidence of creation (let alone the conscience), those who are not seeking the Creator are rejecting Christ. Hearing the gospel is pointless for those who unaware of their sinfulness and have no desire to turn from sin. For the gospel to be effective, one must be under conviction of sin. And if one were responding to God's drawing, He would provide the gospel since He is a God of love.
Chris W.
I sometimes tell folk that God's default position is summarised in 1 Tim 2:4: It's the will of God that all men should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth...and Ezekiel 18:23 (NLT) 23 “Do you think that I like to see wicked people die? says the Sovereign Lord. Of course not! I want them to turn from their wicked ways and live.
Tommy S.
Good article. As you say, there are two reasons why people ask this sort of question, but the most prominent one is that they want to have a reason to reject the Gospel on the basis that God's plan for salvation is "unfair." However, what's most important is how we, who have heard the Gospel, respond to it. So if the person is asking you this question then they most certainly "have" heard the Gospel or you will surely be telling it to them when they ask. So, most important is for them to respond with repentance and trust in Jesus Christ so that they may be saved. Not to worry about whether some unknown person in some distant primitive tribe has had the opportunity. Yet, now that they know the Gospel, and if they are so concerned for those people, then go and tell them the good news.

I also think this scripture helps to understand better as well:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. And Jesus said, For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.
John 9:35-41

God bless
Morris (Mike) M.
One of the most common objections raised by skeptics and unbelievers to the Biblical doctrine of God, especially in its exclusiveness, is that God is unfair. Doubters vigorously object to the idea of a God who requires faith in Christ for salvation without giving everyone equal opportunity to hear about him. There is no doubt, however, that the great majority of human beings who are without the Gospel not only do not know about Christ but don't want to know. They vigorously resist the Gospel when they do hear it. It is not lack of opportunity to hear the truth, but unwillingness to respond if they do hear it, that is their real condemnation. God desires man to respond in a faith which is founded on love and gratitude, not on compulsion. WHEN A PERSON TRULY WANTS TO KNOW THE TRUTH - TO KNOW GOD, GOD WILL REVEAL THAT TRUTH TO HIM. HE WILL BRING IT TO HIM ONE WAY OR ANOTHER. See: 1 Samuel 23:1-13 [these verses show that God knows the results of all possibilities, even when those possibilities don't occur]; 1 Chronicles 28:9; Jeremiah 17:9-10; 1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 29:13; 2 Chronicles 16:9 [God searches the hearts]; Isaiah 43:11, 42:9, 46:9-10, 55:8-11; Acts 8:1-11 [where the Lord sends Philip to a man that Philip didn't even know existed, or was searching, but God knew], Acts 18:1-11 [same thing here, especially note the latter part of verse 11]; Acts 10:1-48 [and again here, where Peter didn't even know Cornelius existed or his household, but God knew]; Romans 8:28-30; John 6:64, 14:6; Acts 4:12, 10:43; Galatians 1:8-9. God does not predestinate anyone to be saved over others but He does foreknow those who will believe when they hear the Gospel.
Don G.
Surprised that you would say that on the last day demons and humans are sent to 'Hell', as the Word clearly says: "And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death." Revelation 20:13-15
Lita Cosner
The word 'Hell' is often used as a generic term encompassing anything from Sheol, Hades, the Lake of Fire, etc. I was using it in that generic sense.
Larry S.
I do believe that all human beings had the opportunity to believe in God the Creator. From Adam and Eve until now but throughout history we see many falling away and turning to pagan gods. In some instances it was lost to some tribes and cultures. It was not passed down from generation to generation as the Lord intended, therefore many became lost and were never taught the saving truth. Just my thoughts!
Elmarie M.
Thank you, Lita, for such a concise answer to this difficult question. It was very helpful. Please keep up the good work.
Kind regards,
Lester V.
Deuteronomy 29:29 says "The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever." Since the Bible doesn't explicitly tell us what will happen to people who have lived and died without ever hearing the name of Jesus, that subject is still "secret" and is God's concern. Since we have heard the Gospel, we are responsible for what we do with it. We can easily fret about "all those who have never heard," but God is fully able to take care of them. Consider the fact that Jesus was a 9-month baby. By that I mean that while He was in Mary's womb there must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of people who died without ever meeting the Messiah, and yet God didn't shorten His gestatian period, or have Him incarnated earlier in human history, to "save" these "lost" people. God is fair and just, and will take care of the Final Judgment properly.
Lita Cosner
Thank you for this, and we can certainly agree that God's judgment will be absolutely just. But I would argue that Scripture is clear about the urgent need for Christians to share the Gospel so that everyone has a chance to hear about the only way of salvation through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If there were some other way for those who haven't heard to be saved, why on earth would we risk 'sending them to Hell' if they reject the Gospel?
Marshall W.
Your daily publications are eagerly anticipated and thoroughly enjoyed. Many of them have been turned into topical discussions with my children. This one in particular was at first a challenging topic for my children to grasp. Hence, we did a topical study about 6 months ago, unpacking this very important question. I've attached here an article that we used that addressed this matter in a way that is easy to grasp. It was very helpful in my children's understanding. You may wish to share this with your readers. Here is the link. [link deleted per feedback rules] Thank you for your ministry. May God continue to work through you and illumine you to bring to light more about our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Arthur G.
One of the first things Jesus said when asked about His second coming, was, "Take heed that no-one deceives you." (Matt 24:4 NKJV).
Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork." This message is available to all people, everywhere, throughout history.
Assuming that this message is taken on board, then seeking out the Creator and His Gospel would be an obvious next step.
Romans 1:18ff says much the same thing about creation, together with the consequences of denying the Creator.
However, the great deception is to negate this message from God, and substitute another explanation, so that people do not even see the obvious: that our world must have a Creator. Evolution not merely substitutes for God but replaces God with nothing. The real tragedy is that many people have heard of God and His Saviour, but choose evolution in spite of this knowledge, preferring the lie to the truth.
In Romans 2:14-16, we read
"14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 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 16 in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel." NKJV
God judges perfectly, even those who have not heard of the Law or the Gospel of Christ, because of what is written on their hearts.
There is no need to worry about those who have not heard, rather worry about those who have heard and then turn to the deception of evolution.
Tom H.
Thanks for emphasizing the evangelism part of your article. Every person who has experienced the indwelling of the Creator of the universe will have a growing desire to share that Good News with all that they meet.
Glod bless you and God bless this ministry.
George M.
Thanks for the article. I've often wondered about the millions of people who were born and died before the Lord's incarnation. Any comments about them and their opportunity for salvation? I agree we will find that at the end God will have been fair. More than fair. Just trying to understand. Thanks - George
Lita Cosner
The short answer: before Christ, people were saved by believing what God had revealed about Himself, and this, from the earliest times, included the promise of a Saviour. Someone in Isaiah's day would be accountable for believing much more than someone in Abraham's day, because the revelation was progressive--i.e., God revealed more and more about Himself over time, and this revelation culminated in the coming of Christ (and then, of course, the New Testament was written in the light of Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection).

It is important to realize that the person before Christ was still saved through Christ's sacrifice.
Andrew F.
While I agree with much of your article, I have an issue with the premise regarding Heb 9:27. That verse does not specifically speak to the idea of us having only one life to accept the gospel before unending punishment in hell. It merely gives that we each live once (not restricting everyone to a single life), and that there will be judgment after that one life that we all live. How does this verse negate the following:
a) as in Revelation, after the first life, those not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire
b) yet Revelation does not ever directly speak to whether there may be life after the lake of fire for first life unbelievers
c) 1 Tim 4:10 states that Christ is the savior of all, especially of those who believe--this verse accords with the idea that, although first life unbelievers will suffer (for an unspecified length) in the lake of fire, we will all be saved eventually
If someone simply (and fully) held te belief that unbelievers will be judged (at all) in the lake of fire, that would be plenty of motivation for true evangelism. Judging from American Christianity, though, a belief in eternal conscious torment tends to do little but lead believers down the road of apathy towards hell...and disbelief in general. Who would like a God who would punish someone forever.
I would be interested in reading an article that examines the Greek word aionios (on which unending punishment hangs) from CMI.
Lita Cosner
You misinterpret Hebrews in a way that no first-century Christian could ever read it. Reincarnation is not taught in Scripture, and importing this foreign idea on to the text creates more problems than it solves (and it doesn't even solve the problems it purports to). See some of my thoughts on reincarnation at Was reincarnation removed from the Bible?
There are unfortunately professing Christians who are apathetic about missions. But I would suggest that is because we are insufficiently focused on the eternal realities at stake.
earle R.
Your articles concerning science and creation are usually very good. Your articles that delve into salvation issues and other Christian life doctrines are usually not very good. This is a prime example. What you have done here is resurrect a non-Biblical teaching on original sin that by needs led to infant baptism. Please stick to science.
Lita Cosner
Earle, without knowing what you found deficient about my response, I can't really address your criticism or even discern whether it might be valid. But CMI has never 'stuck to science', and so if you expect us to do so in the future, you are likely to be disappointed.
Renton M.
‘While the revelation in nature is sufficient to condemn people, it is not sufficient to save…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…sin has affected our minds, meaning that our ability to perceive the revelation from nature as we should is affected.'

Are any of these three propositions correct?

1. The question isn’t whether this or that revelation of God is sufficient to save or not, but how we response to the revelation God has given us. God told Abraham he was going to have a son. Abraham believed what God said and that belief was counted to him as righteousness. Regardless of the revelation of God we have, do we believe what we have? All people everywhere throughout all time have had general revelation in their face every moment of every day. However not everyone has had, or has special revelation. Today people can hear the full revelation of Christ in the Gospel. Do they believe God or not? If they do, it’s counted to them for righteousness, just as it was for Abraham. Say someone only has the testimony of general revelation. Do they believe this revelation from God, or not? If they do, why should this not be counted to them as righteousness, just as it was for Abraham?

2. General revelation is not corrupt, because it's a revelation of God. Nor is it unclear. God’s judgement of the created order has not substantially affected the clarity of general revelation.

3. Nor has sin affected our minds such that we can’t perceive general revelation as we should. The revelation is clear. People have no excuse. The issue is human beings are rebels against God and in general do not want to believe the clear revelation, either general or special.
Lita Cosner
1. God's promise to Abraham was special revelation (He actually spoke to Abraham), not general. Romans 1 seems to indicate that no one actually believes the truth discernible through general revelation, but instead suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

2. General revelation is what is knowable about God through nature. Because nature is fallen, and thus a distorted version of what God created, without special revelation (Scripture) we would not know what to make of venemous reptiles, 'bad design', thorns, death, and so on.

3. Sin certainly affects the human mind. The revelation is clear, and people have no excuse, but sin has dulled the ability of the human mind to perceive general revelation.
Chris N.
Sins done in ignorance are less sinful and incur less guilt than sins done in full knowledge of their sinful character and which, accordingly, incur greater guilt. Thus Pilate’s guilt for the crucifixion of Christ is less than that of the Jews (John 19:11); but even the Jews were not fully conscious of the nature of their act and Jesus, therefore, invoked their forgiveness, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV). The same lesser guilt and greater forgiveability of sins done in ignorance appears in Paul’s admission that he was a blasphemer and a persecutor of the Church, and indeed the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15 KJV) but that he obtained mercy because “I did it ignorantly in unbelief” (1:13 KJV). Paul speaks in a similar vein on Mars Hill when he declared that God “overlooked” (“winked at”) the “times of ignorance” during which men likened God to an idol made of stone and worshiped the idol (Acts 17:30). God in His mercy acts with forbearance on sins done in ignorance by pagans today and in all centuries past; there is a mercy of God greater than all man’s sins. Hence Paul’s prayer for Israel—who had a zeal that was not according to knowledge, for “being ignorant of God’s righteousness” they sought “to establish their own” (Rom 10:3 KJV)—is that “they may be saved” (10:1).Bible Gateway Encyclopaedia.
If Christ could forgive on the cross those who killed him could he not forgive an ignorant baby or a person ignorant of the gospel? It is up to God though. Who are we to say what he would do?
Lita Cosner
To answer your final question--we must not be so 'humble' in our theology that we refuse to take a stand on what God clearly says He does.
J. V.
Don't take me wrong. I very much appreciate the work done by the authors of this website, but this is a "Professor Dawkins"-Style answer. Totally unsatisfactory answer to a legitimate question. If you want a better answer, please let me know. Wondering if you have the courage to publish it then. God bless you and your work.
Lita Cosner
It is impossible to address your criticism without knowing what you found unsatisfactory about my response.
Philippus S.
A very difficult topic very well explained and revealed Amen for that thank you and God bless. I have posted this to 800000 friends.
John B.
Hi, I just read Lita’s response to the question below. Respectfully, I thought she might be interested in the teaching in 1 Peter 4:5-6.
I believe that when our Lord Jesus was dead for three days, that may have been the time when He preached the Gospel to those who have died, throughout all of time, never having heard the Gospel in their lifetime. (Some things of God are difficult to understand in this age) I also believe that our Father Yaweh, Who is Love, would not create people to live in sin, to face an eternal punishment for that sin, with no chance of redemption because they had never heard of the Gospel & the Lord Jesus. I don’t believe I am ‘creating’ God as I would have Him be: I know my Father & Brother through the Scriptures & the Holy Spirit. I write with the utmost respect. I pray Yaweh’s blessings over all of you at CMI & your families.
Lita Cosner
Thanks for writing in. But you are misinterpreting 1 Peter 4:5–6, because you ignore the context of Peter’s statement. Peter’s statement occurs in the middle of a discourse about suffering for righteousness’ sake and living in the light of the Gospel and eschatological realities. To have Peter randomly make a statement about a postmortem opportunity of repentance does not fit the context. What does fit the context though is that the Gospel is preached to those who are (spiritually) dead—involved in the sensuality, drinking parties, and so on described in v. 3—so that even though they will be judged in the flesh (they will suffer physical death), those who believe the Gospel will “live in the spirit”.
I also do not believe that God created people to sin and die. However, due to the Fall of Adam, that is the reality we all live in, and we can only be saved by trusting in Jesus for salvation. No one goes to Hell because they did not have a chance to believe—if someone is condemned, they are condemned for their sins, and they are judged in light of the revelation they had access to.
And to reiterate the article’s point—this should spur us on all the more to share the Gospel.

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