Apologetic Wednesday: What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

One question that has been repeatedly asked deals with the fate of those who have never heard about Christ. The question has been posed many different ways, but it usually takes the form of the following, “What about the people in the recesses of dark jungles that have never been exposed to the Gospel? Will they go to hell?”

Many will leverage this question against God or God’s sending people to hell by proposing that an all loving and all powerful God cannot be compatible with some people never hearing the Gospel and spending an eternity in hell. To fully address this question one must consider what is meant by the word “love” and how free will factors into the question. This topic has been addressed previously, and will not be dealt with in depth at present. For now, let’s stay focused on the question about those who have never heard of Christ.

When it comes to addressing this question, I do not find that there is a single, concise answer that squarely deals with the question and wraps it up in a neatly dressed package. I do, however, believe that there are many things to consider when this question is evoked, and that we can arrive at a meaningful answer.

One should take notice of the fact that man is a deeply religious creature. Throughout the ages man has sought to connect with God through various means. Why is this? Why does man feel the need to reach out toward God? Romans 1:19-20 answers this question. “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” Through creation and the longing in man’s heart, God has revealed himself to mankind. This is called “general revelation”.

The difficulty is, man is wicked and seeks to turn from the truth. As Romans 1:18 mentions, “But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Due to man’s natural inclination to turn from God and embrace wickedness, history is replete with example after example of man finding other objects or gods to worship. It is important to understand that those who are estranged from God and distanced from His teachings have been placed there by the suppression of truth, either directly by themselves or indirectly by their ancestors. Had mankind not embraced sin, no one would be without the direct knowledge of God.

So what happens to those that have never received the special revelation of God that we have in scripture? What happens to those who have not heard about Jesus Christ? One option is that people are only responsible for the “light that they have received.” That is, they will be judged based on what they had knowledge of. Those that understand there is a God will be judged on whether or not they sought after God. This sounds somewhat feasible, but what how does one then deal with passages like Acts 4:12 that state people can only be saved through the name of Jesus Christ? Passages like these pose somewhat of a problem for this view, although it is still tenable. Perhaps they are saved through what Christ did on the cross and by acting on what limited knowledge they have, though not knowing about Christ or fully understand what He did.

It has also been proposed that perhaps those who have not heard the Gospel message of Christ are not culpable. They are viewed as not being accountable in the same way that children or mentally ill people are seen as not being accountable. The difficulty with this view is that, unlike children or the mentally ill, people who have never heard the gospel are still able to reason and are thus “without excuse”.

Another solution that has been proposed states that God knows in advance who will and will not accept His offer of salvation when they are presented with the Gospel. Those who never hear the Gospel that would have been willing to accept it if they had will be considered saved, and those that would have rejected it if given the opportunity will be counted as lost. This argument is strongly appealing, but it has limited scriptural integrity and is more of a philosophical argument.

The aforementioned solutions to this question or very beneficial to understand and each contributes to formulating an answer to this difficult question. There is one more response to this question that is extremely meaningful and cuts to the core of the inquiry.

Based on scripture, it can be understood that God loves people, as is evidenced by passages like the familiar John 3:16. One can also know that God “does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent” (2 Peter 3:9) and He “wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). God could not create a world in which both everyone was free to accept or reject Him and everyone would be saved and spend an eternity with Him, but it is reasonable to assume that God ordered the world in such a way that those who would accept His offer of salvation would be given the opportunity to do so. In other words, God created the best possible world given the fact that man is free to choose and “suppress the truth” and gives opportunity for those who will accept Him to do so.

It is also reasonable to assume that if a person truly desires to know the God who reveals Himself through nature, God will send that person a way to do so. There have been multitudes of stories reported by people living in remote villages that made inquiry to God and were given a means to hear the Gospel message of Christ. An example of this can be seen in the book I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh, in which she recounts her experience as a Muslim woman who became dissatisfied with the answers found in Islam. As she reached out to God, she was sent a way to come to the saving knowledge of Christ.

While this is a difficult question, there are reasonable answers. Due to our understanding of God through scripture, we can know that God is good, just, and loving. He desires that all should be saved and will make a way for the most people to come to know Him through the parameters that operate in a world of free will.

Walk good. Live wise. Be blessed.
Josh

28 Comments

  • efchristi says:

    Wow, this is the best explanation of the subject I have ever heard! Thanks Josh.
    There are, however, some churches that will not agree with this. They teach if you are not a bible carrying, fully gospel believing christian – you are doomed to the fires of hell. I, personally, have a problem believing someone who attends another church, for example Jewish, will not go to heaven but that is what is being taught in our church. I have agreed to disagree with the teaching.

    I remember a story when I was just a young boy on the reservation where a man was met at the gates of heaven by Saint Peter who welcomes him and showed him around. They came to this big block wall. When asked what was behind the wall, Saint Peter said those are the Catholics – they think they are the only ones here.

    Love your post!

    Walk daily with God at your side!

    Ed

    • Mike says:

      Loved the article. Very well written and easy to understand. I also like the balance between human choice and God’s providence and sovereignty. However, let us not forget that the power of Gospel is salvation (Romans 1:16) . Christ is the only way as he stated himself (John 14:6). The bible also says that He wants us to find Him and that if we seek Him we will do so. However, the Wod is clear that those who reject the salvation offered will not receive it. However, though this is a toigh question

    • Joe OLear says:

      This question is answered in Romans. Do not attempt play pick a verse but read and study the whole text in context. A text without a context is a pretext. Failure to read and study the actual text in light of ONLY grammar, syntax, and vocabulary is where we get confused. Jkolear@ThinkLikeaChristian.com

      • Josh Fults says:

        I have a firm understanding of context, and approach scripture in a literal-grammatical-historical context. I have also read Romans many times over. I do not feel as though I have “proof texted” here, but brought out differing points of view according to scripture.

        Would love to hear more of your thoughts.

      • Mike says:

        Don’t think i was either but would love to converse with you as well … Zangao301@yahoo.com

    • Josh Fults says:

      Yea, I think there are people of all walks of life that know Christ, but it is only through the fact that they accepted Christ. Just because one is a Jew, Catholic, Baptist or Church of Christ does not mean one cannot be a Christian.

  • Kristina DeVillier says:

    I think maybe the bigger question is how are we going to be held responsible as believing Christians for those who have not heard the Gospel.

  • Duh says:

    What about the times when God sends a spirit of deceite to trick people? Or when God hardens your heart and then murders your first born son because your heart was hardened? Or when God tells you not to eat from a tree that he knew beforehand you would definitely eat from?

  • zalo says:

    Hi Josh, I would think that based on the words of Jesus himself the gospel is not “accept Christ and be saved” or “Christ died for my sins so that I can have a relationship with him and go to Heaven when I die”. You have to admit the first Christians would be appalled at such trivial language (the Roman persecutors couldn’t care less if somebody claimed to have an experience and some kind of relationship with Christ). No. The Gospel they proclaimed was “Jesus Christ is Lord!” which, ipso facto, meant that Cesar wasn’t. That was a dangerous proclamation indeed, because they were openly defying Cesar. This jives with Jesus’ words that the “good news is preached to the poor”, meaning the “Kingdom of God is already here”. Jesus himself ties salvation to behavioral criteria many times (the Good Samaritan, the parable of Sheep and Goats etc). Consequently, if those who have never heard of Jesus behave as good samaritans in their own relations with their fellow man, they can be perfectly acceptable to the Kingdom of God.

    • Josh Fults says:

      I believe the behavioral aspects are a result of salvation and not the cause. I do not believe that behavior makes one acceptable before God as is evidenced by Romans 3:19, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

  • zalo says:

    Still, I think it’s better to go by the words of Jesus rather than Paul’s.

  • Joe says:

    Great Post Josh – I just hope you dont become one of those Rev. E.R. Ticklers Like so many others have become. Teach the meat and dont hold back. (espeacially your responses to the comments on your blog; they may not literally be in the “recesses of dark jungles” but even those attending churches could spiritualy be in “recesses of dark jungles”)
    PS that was a very salty topic to pic to teach on
    In Christ
    Joe

    • Josh Fults says:

      I pray I don’t become an ear tickler either! That has never been my “modus operandi” and I hope it stays that way! If you ever see me tickling ears you have my full permission to call me out. =)

  • Joe says:

    i also must say that if we dont believe that SALVATION is by Grace through faith in Christ alone – Not by Works so that we may bost…… If we believe in any other “way” then we are lost and will not escape the righteous Judgement of God.

    • Josh Fults says:

      I agree. That is what is taught consistently throughout scripture. Both Old and New Testaments!

      • zalo says:

        Pray tell where in Old Testament a doctrine of salvation by faith alone can be found?
        I have tried to find an answer to this many times, but every single argument I come across is based mainly on Romans, then on John’s gospel, also on other Pauline epistles, adding some one-sentence quotes from the OT for good measure. OK, I give it to you, there are in fact some very rare verses in the OT that can be interpreted that way, but a doctrine? In the 5 books of Moses we have the most complete evidence of Jehovah’s dealings with humans, right? And what we see there? A consistent pattern of behavioral soteriology: if you keep my commands I will bless you, if you don’t I will curse you. And what are these blessings and curses? They are thoroughly and completely worldly things: protection from enemies, good health, good harvests etc, and the opposite thereof. Never a word about Heaven or Hell.
        That’s why I find it difficult to find anything close to ‘salvation by faith alone’ in the OT.

      • Josh Fults says:

        I guess in some ways I am confused by what you are communicating. Are you suggesting that Salvation is by works, instead of faith? If so, I would argue that it destroys grace. If you can earn salvation, then grace is no longer grace.

        Or, are you suggesting that salvation comes with faith in conjunction with works? I definitely think that works are clearly a result of salvation and closely tied to salvation. A James says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” I think it is faith that establishes the relationship and works are the outworking of that relationship.

        As far as the OT. What about Abraham? The Abrahamic covenant was established after Abraham’s faith response. Genesis 15:6, “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” I think this pattern is scene consistently throughout the OT. Did God establish the Sanaitic covenant before Israel placed their faith in Yahweh or after? He called them to Himself first. This is consistently pointed out in the NT. You also mentioned what about Jesus. During the crucifixion how did the criminal come to salvation? He had faith in Christ, and Jesus told him “today you will be with me in paradise.”

  • zalo says:

    Josh, sorry for the delayed response, but I have been travelling. I will post some quick clarifications here, hoping that even if you don’t read my them right away (because of my delay) I will have the occasion to comment about the same issues later, when this theme comes up again in the blog.
    What I’m trying to communicate is only this: salvation in the OT is clearly behavior-based. I don’t really think that it is a very terrible thing, because that’s the way it is written in the OT. Consequently, in order to present a case for the opposite (i.e. faith-based salvation), as you are trying to do, I think it’s totally insufficient to say “it destroys grace” or “grace is no longer grace”. Why? Simply because it begs the question: so what? To present any clear case for a doctrine of salvation by faith in the OT, we will have to find an explanation for all the blessings and curses mentioned in the Pentateuch and for the fact that Jehovah follows such a pattern in a very consequent manner (I don’t think I need to give chapter and verse here). And, all my good will notwithstanding, I fail to find any such credible explanation. Also, to establish such an important doctrine, we would have to go beyond a single verse (Genesis 15:6 that you quote), because there are many more verses that clearly support a behavior-based salvation, compared to the number of verses that clearly support the opposite (faith-based salvation).
    We see the same pattern in the NT. There are many more sayings of Jesus supporting a behavior-based salvation, compared to verses supporting a faith-based one, like the famous criminal crucified with Jesus (I’m talking about Jesus’ quotes here, not Paul’s).
    I think we have become too much hunged up on the Martin Luther interpretation of Romans, or in other words we have read Jesus through Paul and Paul through Luther, when the right way to go should be exactly the opposite (Paul through Jesus and Luther through Paul), but this is a long discussion for another day.

    • Josh Fults says:

      Thanks so much for weighing in. I would love to see you provide more textual support for what you are trying to argue. What passages are you building the doctrine of behavior based salvation?

      Are you trying to make a case for salvation by works? As in, we earn salvation? We have to do certain things in order to be saved? I just do not see the support for that in scripture. I believe the preponderance of scripture goes in the opposite direction.

      As far as the covenants go, many of them are unconditional covenants. That is, God honored the covenant independent of how the people behaved.The Abrahamic covenant would be an example of this.

      I agree that behavior is evidence of salvation, but not the cause. To think that we could behave our way into earning God’s favor seems like a narcissistic notion “to such a worm as I.” How could we ever be good enough?

  • zalo says:

    Josh, I’m sorry for the new delay (because of my traveling).
    There are many verses in the OT related to a behavior-based salvation (BBS) and the most comprehensive summary is Deuteronomy 27-28. There Jehovah shows He will bless or curse Israel according to their response to his law, 28:1-29:1. All blessings and curses are strictly this-worldly. And for that matter, so is salvation. Salvation here (and throughout most of the OT) means to be saved from one’s enemies and to live a good and happy life under Jehovah’s protection. No mention of an afterlife before the book of Daniel. Also in the Psalms, what David prays for is salvation from his enemies. So I believe a clear case can be made that what we have here is a BBS.
    If we look into the NT (before Paul comes along), we see the same pattern of BBS, for example:
    – The parable of the Good Samaritan
    – The Sermon on the Mount: Jesus instructs His audience to do the right things, even to go beyond the Law of Moses
    – The example of the two brothers reacting to what their father asks them to do: one says ‘I will do it’ and never does, while the other is reluctant in the beginning, but then gets up and does what the father asked him to do. Jesus clearly sides with the second brother, showing that actions matter more than words.
    – Several other examples where Jesus emphasizes the importance of fruits over mere words, or over what one may claim to believe
    Now I would agree that Jehovah honored His part of the covenant with Abraham no matter what Israel did. But on the other hand, we can’t forget how subsequent prophets interpreted Israel’s misfortunes and sufferings: as evidence of their disobeying the Law, i.e. of their not doing the right thing (or doing the wrong thing). So again the emphasis is on the actions, not beliefs.
    And again allow me to say that Genesis 15:6 is not sufficient to establish a faith based salvation (FBS) doctrine, in presence of so many examples of BBS.
    Obviously here we can delve into the concepts of Heaven and Hell and how the Church has used (and misused) them during all its history, but this would be a discussion for another day.

  • Joe says:

    7.Rom. 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,”
    8.Rom. 4:11, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also,”
    9.Rom. 4:16, “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”
    10.Rom. 5:1, “therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,”
    11.Rom. 5:9, “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
    12.Rom. 9:30, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith.”
    13.Rom. 9:33, “just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
    14.Rom. 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
    15.Rom. 10:9-10, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
    16.Rom. 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
    17.Gal. 2:16, “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified.”
    18.Gal. 2:21, “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
    19.Gal.3:5-6, “Does He then, who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 6Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
    20.Gal. 3:8, “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations shall be blessed in you.”
    21.Gal. 3:14, “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
    22.Gal. 3:22, “But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
    23.Gal. 3:24, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.”
    24.Eph. 1:13, “In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise.”
    25.Eph. 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

    Cut and Paste from – http://carm.org/verses-showing-justification-by-faith

    If you say Paul was wrong in his interpretation of Christ’s teachings you are essentialy saying Paul was not saved?? I wouldnt die on that Hill

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