What about those who have never heard?

by

never-heard-good-news
Credit: Daniela Simona Temneanu/123RF

Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is the ‘good news’ which Christians are commissioned to spread through the whole world. The most vital message anyone can hear is that anyone who believes in the Son of God can be pardoned from their sin and enjoy eternity in the presence of their Creator. But some wonder, what about those who don’t get to hear the message of the Gospel?

God is completely good—and so is His Gospel

We can’t consider the Gospel apart from its Author. God is completely good—in fact, He is the standard for defining anything else as good—and His perfect standards come from His own nature. He is perfectly just, meaning that no one will be able to accuse God of being unfair when they stand before Him; and He is perfectly merciful, meaning that He generously extends unmerited favour to those who trust in Him.

So when we come to this issue, we must understand that we are considering the plan of the perfect, good Creator of humanity. While there are some hard questions to consider, to think that we could come up with something better would be extremely foolish.

God’s goodness is also what we should think about when it comes to the unborn or infants who die, or people with cognitive disabilities such that they cannot understand the Gospel. Like Abraham, we say, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25).

Everyone starts off condemned

When we think about this issue, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of putting the unreached in some ‘neutral’ category. All human beings descended from Adam start off in a position of rebellion against God. We can see this because Paul says that God’s law is written on our hearts (our conscience), yet we don’t even live up to our own fallen conscience. We do what we know to be wrong, so deserve to be judged for violating even our own consciences (Romans 2:14–16). Also, the evidence from creation is so clear that no one has any excuse for denying the Creator (Romans 1:18–32).

God wasn’t morally obliged to save anyone

The angels who sinned were all condemned—none of them was offered a chance at redemption, and there is no indication that any of them want it. That God decided to do something different with Adam’s descendants shows the greatness of His mercy. If every single sinner went to Hell for an eternity of judgment, God would have served perfect justice. When we consider the fate of those who never have a chance to hear the Gospel, we should avoid the error of thinking God owes everyone (or anyone) a chance at salvation.

Jesus died to save sinners

The fact that God didn’t have to save anyone makes His plan of salvation that much more glorious. God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, took on human nature and voluntarily laid aside the independent use of His divine attributes for the duration of His earthly life and ministry. He lived a perfectly sinless human life, obeying God’s Law that every other human has broken, meaning that Jesus has a righteousness that can be credited to those who believe in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Having perfectly obeyed God, He then voluntarily took the death penalty that our sins earned (Isaiah 53:6, 10), meaning that when we believe in Him we can be pardoned—our sin debt is cancelled and nailed to the Cross (Colossians 2:14).

The role of creation ministry

Of course, many who do hear that message reject it. Our evolutionized world has conditioned them to believe that there is no Creator who will hold us accountable for our sin, or that the whole historical context of the Gospel—Adam’s fall into sin, the bondage to decay of the cursed creation—can’t be true. And so ministries like CMI seek to supplement the mere statement of the Gospel with reasons why the Bible’s ‘big picture’ of history can be trusted. This prepares more ‘good soil’ to receive the precious Gospel seed.

But we are here considering the matter of people who have never even had the Gospel presented. People who raise this often do so in the context of doubts about or questioning of God’s criteria for being saved, or even His ‘fairness’ in this. By wondering ‘Why this way?’, it implies that maybe there is a better, or another way to be saved.

No other way

When we consider what Jesus had to do to save sinners who believe, it would be absurd to suggest that there could have been a better way, or that someone could be saved apart from Jesus (John 3:18, 14:6). Why would Jesus lay aside His divine glory, come and live a hard life in peasant society in a backwater of the Roman empire, and die on a cruel Roman cross, if there were any other way for us to be saved?

Jesus commissioned believers to spread the Gospel

Regarding people who have never heard the Gospel, it is easy to fall into the trap of pushing the problem into the hypothetical, which avoids the question of who is responsible to bring the Gospel to them. For instance, one person I corresponded with about this question insisted on using the example of a Native American boy who lived 1,000 years ago.

I responded that this is quite convenient, but what about people today who have yet to hear the Gospel? Jesus gave believers the privilege and duty of evangelism. He could have used any means, but the normative means is believers sharing the Gospel with others.

So, if someone is concerned about what happens to people who don’t hear the Gospel, the logical next question is, what is that person doing to ensure that as few people as possible fall into this group? What evangelists and missionaries do you support, perhaps through your church or mission agencies, or have you considered going yourself?

As Paul says in Romans 10:14–17:

“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.”

An urgent message

We know that all sinners stand rightly condemned before God, but that in His great mercy, He has provided salvation by grace through faith in Jesus, so that all who call on His name can be assured that we will not have to face the judgment He bore on our behalf.

The sobering reality is that those who never hear will never get the chance to respond to God’s amazing grace. So, while there are reports of some unreached peoples hearing the Gospel through dreams, or God reaching them in other ways, we should not presume that God will do this. Therefore we should redouble our efforts to evangelize the lost in our own neighbourhoods (some of whom might also never otherwise hear) and send missionaries to other parts of the world to ensure that as many as possible hear the Gospel. For readers of this magazine, the job is made that much easier in the knowledge that there are so many resources now to help answer the questions and challenges that will come.

References and notes

  1. Cosner, L., creation.com/triune-god, 18 October 2012. Return to text.
  2. Cosner, L. and Sarfati, J., creation.com/reconciled-with-god, 14 April 2017. Return to text.

Readers’ comments

Mick A.
Hello there,
Romans 2:12-16 covers those who have never heard the gospel (vs.13-14) . Salvation will come to the unevangelised who have responded rightly to their God given conscience (v.15) without having heard the gospel. Jesus' death covers their sins just as it covers those of us who have responded to the gospel. V.16 says, "This will take place on the day when God will judge men's secrets through Jesus Christ."
God bless,
Mick
Lita Cosner
Mick, the problem is that no one has responded rightly to their God-given conscience. Romans 2:12-16 is part of Paul's argument that both Jews and Gentiles stand condemned under the law, as he says in 3:9-12: "What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written, 'No one is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.'"

In context, there is no way to read Paul as saying that some unevangelized respond rightly to their consciences.
C C.
May I assume that the Native American 1000 years ago is in a similar category to Abraham?
PS - I would know this article was written by Lita even without seeing the authors name at the beginning, since ... I recognize the lioness by her claw (think Issac Newton). Thank you Lita for teaching me so much.
Lita Cosner
The Native American 1000 years ago is in the same category as everyone else--he needed to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If he did not hear it, he was condemned to die without hope. This makes the task of missions urgent, because people are dying every day, and much of the world is still unreached.
Norman P.
This is a tough question, when looked at only through human minds. Hence, how wrong the Church Fathers, and even the Reformers such as Calvin and Luther were, on matters such as the fate of the Jews. Romans 9-11 hint at dimensions to God's mercy beyond our grasp: "...without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory" (1 Tim 3:16). The angelic proclamation to the shepherds at Bethlehem was indeed the most glorious of all time: "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:10-11). As believers (former prisoners of sin, redeemed as first-fruits unto Christ), we have the wonderful privilege to proclaim the good tidings and, concerning this common salvation, to 'earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints'. God's righteous judgements throughout history will one day bear witness to Christ's once-for-all sacrifice at Calvary as the only hope for every soul of man. So, for me, the answer to such questions is to focus on the greatness of God, and His grace through the only begotten Son - whom I have mercifully come to know!
Guy W.
Well stated Lita! I do like your articles and find them stimulating and exciting. It is a sad truth that Satan's master plan of Evolutionary belief has not only launched political systems that cost multiple of millions of lives but it has also it has 'anaesthetised' all millions of Christians from being confident of their faith. Too many of our brethren are almost scared to hear the question 'do your DARE to believe that God actually made the Universe and everything in is in 6 days???' It is so fundamental that Genesis is as much part of the Bible as the Gospels and the rest. As a missionary to PNG I found it very hard to raise finances among Christians and in fact I returned to PNG with no church support at all! However, what God orders, He pays for and because we had a boatbuilding part to our ministry we got AusAID funding of $80,000. Congregations need to assault the gates of Hell to get people saved.

The Lyellian uniformitarian timescale is preached every time the age of a discovery is made and appears on TV news; however people are actually beginning to think for themselves rather than remaining couch potato fodder. I often hear that students are increasingly challenging the lie that Evolutionary theory is science. Since it is being presented in science and biology classes the students are asking for proof. Since there is no proof the questions remain unanswered. Jesus said that Satan was not only a liar but the father of lies and the assertion that Evolution is science is one of the most powerful lies ever defecated from the bowels of Hell. So do keep up the good work - I do look forward to the time when you are able to re-visit the debate on TV stations and shatter this myth which so appeals to man's rebellious human nature.
Greg A.
An additional consideration is Acts 17:26-27. God chose the time and place of a person's birth; where they would grow up and live. Then the Bible says He did this so men would seek Him (the pressures of their lives driving them to Him--for help) in the hope that they might find Him. So don't believe God determined people's salvation as it says He "hopes" men will find Him (He truly allowed us a free will); He is eternal so we could say with this verse that He thought through a trillion different times/places (He knows the end from the beginning-Isaiah 46:10 and those whom He foreknew He predestined-Romans 8:29-30) to place us in history so that we would seek Him and find Him so NO ONE, in the end, will have an excuse. Before time began, God knew; Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 speak of those whose names have not been written in the Lamb's book of life "since the beginning of time".
HENRY H.
The question is better considered from God’s perspective, rather than man’s. Is it not possible to conceive that our omniscient and omnipotent God who describes Himself as love, would ensure that every single person who would be willing to respond to the gospel, would have that gospel delivered to them? “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”. (Ezekiel 18:23-24)
Acts 17:28 informs us that before the gospel era God wanted people to “…seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him...” We have absolutely no way of discovering every single person out of those nations who through the ages cried out to God and turned to Him and yet Revelation 5:9 informs us that “you (Jesus) were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation”. (We understand that the ancients too are justified by the cross – Jesus said that “…Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." (John 8:56))
Acts 17:30 continues that since Christ, God “… commands all people everywhere to repent”. And, if God sent Philip to deliver the gospel to one man, the Ethiopian, calling him to repentance, could He not send others at appropriate times and through whatever means to declare the gospel to those who would willingly respond? Missionaries are co-workers with God, obeying the Great Commission and sent by God into the harvest field of human souls. And every Christian should “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1Peter 3:15) CMI is in the business of that work of preparation, and arming missionaries with the full and complete message of redemption.

Robert H.
A well written article on a difficult subject, and relevant in the light of the recent death of Billy Graham, who, although having a passion about reaching the world with the Gospel, also made controversial comments about people coming to know Jesus without a missionary/Evangelist reaching them. Your quotation of Romans 10 is very important to keep us involved in missions.
Phil U.
I find that this issue also provides something of an answer to the problem of Individualism that is sweeping through the contemporary church (ie - it's all about Me going to heaven, Me being 'saved', My 'relationship' with Jesus, Me feeling good, Me Me Me...).
The idea of God not providing an opportunity for salvation simply because of an unlucky birth doesn't ring true to me, given all that He has revealed about His love and mercy. Therefore I tend to side with those who suggest that God places those with an accepting heart in the path of potential salvation. This seems to fit with Paul's teaching on pre-selection.
However, if this is the case then what is the point of mission work? God need only place people in the right spot and we could leave it at that. The answer to this would be that mission work is not just about the salvation of individual souls (the Me's), but about the enlightenment of nations and bringing the glory of God to all of creation. Which is perhaps just as exciting and compelling a concept.
C C.
Lita, I am still confused about the salvation of Abraham and those (like the Native American 1000 years ago) who did not or have not heard the salvation message. May I assume that Abraham is save ..... and yet he did not hear the message. How did he know to look forward to the day of Jesus? And how should we understand the meaning of looking forward?
Lita Cosner
Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Jesus also said that Abraham looked forward to his day (John 8:56). Old Testament believers were saved through trusting in the revelation of God that they had, looking forward to Christ's sacrifice, which saved them as it saves us, though they did not have the fullness of the revelation. Today, we are believed in the same way--believing what God has revealed about Himself, which today includes salvation through Christ alone. (Christ was always the only way by which anyone could be saved, but the Old Testament saints looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecies, while we look back.)

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