What about those who have never heard?
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.
Re-posted on homepage: 20 May 2023