The question, “What about those who never heard about Christ and the gospel?,” is reasonable and is by no means easy to answer. Surprisingly, it is most often, but not invariably, asked by the unsaved, those who object to the gospel invitation. It is less frequently asked by people seriously concerned about the condition of the unsaved. I answer their challenge like this. “Would you surrender your life to Christ in faith if I answer this?” Not a single person has said, “yes.” That is not the issue which hinders them. The major issue, in my opinion, has to do with allowing Christ to control their lives. The question still deserves an answer of some sort. We cannot fully answer the doubts of some about the necessity of salvation through Christ alone unless we deal with this issue. Even believers can have honest doubts about it.
We must first face the many Scriptures that point to the lost condition of all humankind. We then must deal with the teaching of the Lord Jesus and the apostles, which emphatically states that Christ is the only way to God. It is not a matter of narrow-minded claims by those of us with a presumed religious bias. It is what God says in His Word.
Are All The Heathen Lost Without Christ?
The word heathen has been variously translated in Scripture as Gentiles or nations. It means unevangelized peoples. It is not just those in a low or ignorant social condition. The term lost means unsaved, separated from God. They are lost to God and their lives are lost on earth. Like all unsaved people they are “condemned already” (John 3:18). They are heading for a lost eternity. The Lord Jesus stated His mission in coming here in Luke 19:10. “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Without the Lord’s coming and the gospel He preached, the lost would continue to be “without hope and without God in this world” (Ephesians 2:12). The Lord called His Old Testament people to be a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, and those who sit in darkness from the prison house (Isaiah 42:6-7). That is a vivid description of the spiritual condition of the heathen.
The future of the unsaved is not that of annihilation, as many believe. The unsaved never cease to exist. They will live in eternal, conscious torment. The Biblical idea is not extinction but ruin, loss. It is not loss of existence but of well-being (Vine,
Expository Dictionary). The Lord illustrated this with His well-known account of the rich man in Hell (Luke 16:23-30). In the four Gospel accounts Jesus used the word hell, usually the word
gehenna in Hebrew, about ten times. Gehenna is the place of endless burning (Revelation 20:10,14). Jesus spoke more of Hell than Heaven, and described it as a terrible place of suffering. It is a place of eternal separation from God, a place from which there is no hope of escape. All those in the world need salvation here and now, lest they perish (John 3:16). All are “under sin” (Galatians 3:22; Romans 3:9). All are “by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). They “sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). Why? Because all of us are sinners before an absolutely holy God (Romans 3:23).
People often say, “There are many ways to God.” To them all religions are equally valid, equally true, despite the many contradictions among them. All that is necessary, they say, is that we be “sincere” in our beliefs. The Bible, however, teaches the opposite. God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites, the ancient inhabitants of the Holy Land, because of their religious practices, their idols and evil ways. God denounced the worship of the gods of the Egyptians, the Babylonians and the mythological deities of the Greeks. He brought to an end the worship of Roman deities. He condemned spiritism, and astrology. There is no teaching in Scripture of reincarnation, which is returning to earth in a different form on the basis of “karma,” or one’s good deeds. There is no “second chance” after this life.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were chosen by God to be custodians of the Holy Scriptures, showing the only way to God. To them was given the great honor of bringing forth the Deliverer, the Messiah, who would save the inhabitants of the world. We know Him as Jesus of Nazareth.
The God of Israel, the God of Abraham, is the only true God and the Creator of all things. His plan of salvation was shown in Old Testament symbols or rituals and in God’s Word. There are not many gods. “There is one God” (1 Timothy 2:5). There are not many ways to God. Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He was the Word of God who took upon Himself humanity (John 1:1-14). We must receive Him as Lord and Savior to become a child of God (John 1:12). Only if we have Him do we have eternal life (1 John 5:12). If someone does not believe in the Son and obey Him, “the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36). The Bible contradicts the doctrine of universalism, that someday all will be saved (Matthew 25:46).
This is why we send missionaries to all the world, at the specific command of our Savior (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19). This is why He commands believers to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:20). This is why the Lord warns believers against neglecting the responsibility of telling others the way of life and warning the unsaved of the consequences if they neglect to take heed (Ezekiel 3:18-19). The question is asked in Scripture, “How shall they call upon Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). This is our challenge.
We must tell others that Jesus is the only way of salvation, although others may accuse us of being intolerant or bigoted. When we proclaim that it is Jesus who said this (not us), that He is the only way to God, there is an inference made. All other religions are false (Acts 4:12).
What shall we say then about those who never have heard of the true way of salvation? Our only sure knowledge is from the Lord through His Word. Let us review thoughtfully the situation concerning these “who have never heard.”
1. There is
spiritual light from God for all. This is the true light which “enlightens every man” (John 1:9). Perhaps it is an inward awareness that comes upon everyone that there is a supreme God who made man and to whom all must be reconciled at some point. Overwhelmingly, even amid today’s atheistic propaganda, people say they still believe in God. Under the most intense pressure of communist dictatorships and atheistic government-controlled education, people still believe. That conviction is more than a fear of the unknown or an emotional dependency.
We are not responsible for what we do not know, or for what is not available for us to know. We are responsible for living up to whatever light or understanding we have. God is completely righteous, just and fair. We can trust Him to evaluate any isolated individual’s response to the spiritual light which has been given. Sadly, they seem rarely to do this. Rather, they “love darkness rather than light” (John 3:19). The unsaved usually do not like to retain the one true God in their knowledge (Romans 1:28).
Often they create their own concepts of God. “They are without excuse” (Romans 1:20). It is tragic to have “no hope” and be “without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). It is worse when people are not troubled about it.
2. There is
the witness of conscience, which is closely allied to the first point. This is what gives us the ability to differentiate right from wrong. It is called the awareness or conviction of sin, for which people will be held accountable. Romans 2:15 states “they show the work of the Law [God’s Word] written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them.” Conscience can be defiled by sin, hardened and even deadened to pain as if “seared with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2). On the other hand, we can also live, if we so choose, with a “good conscience before God” (Acts 23:1). Additional spiritual light depends on how we respond to our conscience.
3. There is the
witness of creation. The most ignorant person can look around, gaze at the heavens, and see the evidence of intelligent design in the world. It is inescapable. Some great Being made all this. That is why only a fool says, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1). There has been an enormous campaign to convince people that the intricate life and detailed design seen in the world is a random accident. Life is seen as arising uncaused out of nothing, or from a “primordial chemical soup” whose origin is undefined. Man is said to be a descendant of single cell organisms, then fish, then apes. Yet no undisputed transitional forms have yielded clear proof from the fossil record. There should be millions of those “in-betweens” if they existed. In astronomy, we have “the big bang theory” as the beginning of our universe. But what caused the bang? What was the first cause of all other causes? This makes one think of Romans 1:20-22: “For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse; because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful; but become futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened; professing to be wise, they became fools.”
How is more specific knowledge of the true God brought to those who have not heard? First, God can and does bring honest seekers to someone who can instruct them. One Biblical example of this is Cornelius, the Roman officer (Acts 10). He was unsaved, a devout man who feared God with all his household, and gave many alms (charitable gifts) to the Jewish people. He prayed to God continually (v 2). He had a vision and was told that God had noted his earnest seeking for the Lord (w 3-4). He was directed to contact Simon Peter to find the truth of salvation in Christ. At that point the apostle was taught “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness [does what is right] is accepted by Him” (w 34-35). Then Peter proclaimed Jesus to Cornelius and explained how the death and resurrection of Jesus was God’s way of dealing with his sins and that he must have faith in Him (w 38-43). Cornelius believed and was baptized. This is a case of God bringing a seeker to someone who would explain the gospel of Christ to him.
A second way is for God to bring His servants into contact with one who is open to the truth, as in the story of the Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-39). An angel of the Lord called His servant Philip to go to a desert place and speak to a solitary man reading the Scriptures and pondering their meaning (w 26-28). The Ethiopian said he could not understand what he was reading without help (w 30-31). Philip explained the prophetic passage which pointed to Jesus the Messiah (w 32-35). The Ethiopian said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (v 37) and was baptized on the spot. Thus we see that the Lord can either bring a seeker to one who can explain God’s way of salvation, or He can bring the worker to contact the seeker.
It has been suggested that God will treat the unevangelized on the basis of His omniscience. This means that He knows how people would react were the gospel presented to them, even if they had not heard it. The basis of this is Matthew 11:21-24 where the eternal fate of the inhabitants of Tyre, Sidon and even corrupt Sodom are mentioned. Jesus says, “They would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” if they had seen His miracles. He said it would be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment. But the lessening of the severity of judgment is not the same as being saved. The Lord’s comparison between wicked cities and those Israelites who rejected Him is very limited in making it a hope for the heathen. It may be true, but it is still speculation.
The fact is that when preachers and missionaries proclaim the gospel many people are saved. When the Scriptures are translated into foreign languages and then distributed, many are saved. Without these two factors, few get saved.
It does seem that today God still speaks to certain individuals by dreams or visions. This is reported among Muslims and other groups who are kept by their government and religious leaders from hearing the gospel. Presumably a special revelation is given to those who “live up to the light given them,” or who are sincere seekers. Yet the numbers are few.
Hudson Taylor, famed missionary to China said, “I do not believe the heathen are lost because they have not heard the Gospel. If the heathen are lost it is for the same reason that other men are lost, because they are sinful men.” On another occasion he said, “I would never have thought of going out to China had I not believed that the Chinese were lost and needed Christ.”
There is an unavoidable necessity to face the truth that we can only be saved through the Lord Jesus by the application of the merits of His work in dying in the place of every sinner. “He Himself is the propitiation [satisfaction] for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world” (1 John 2:2). According to the Bible, there is no salvation possible other than that provided through the Son of God (Acts 4:12).
Study Guide Lesson 9 What About Those Who Have Never Heard?
1. In the past, what has been your attitude (inner conviction) about the salvation of those who have never heard the gospel of Christ or even know much, if anything, about the Lord Jesus? How did it affect your actions, if at all?
2. Using Scripture, briefly show the evidence that all unsaved people are lost unless they are cleansed from their sins by the blood of Christ.
3. Define and then show from Scripture why these doctrines are not true to Scripture.
4. List at least three ways in which those who have not heard the gospel still have some spiritual light from God. Give supporting Scriptures.