Will Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel Be Lost?
||Bert Thompson, Ph.D.
We live on a planet populated by approximately six billion people. Six billion! And most of those, it probably would be safe to say, never have been afforded the opportunity of hearing the gospel message about the salvation that comes through Jesus Christ. Therefore, obviously, they cannot respond in obedience to that saving message—even though they might be willing to do so if presented with the prospect. What will happen to these people? Will they be lost eternally? Or will God make some kind of “special allowance” so that they can be saved and thereby enjoy eternity in heaven with Him and His Son?
As we examine these kinds of questions, it is vitally important that we remember two points. First, “the Judge of all the Earth” will “do right” (Genesis 18:25). God is every bit as infinite in His mercy and His grace (Hosea 6:6; Matthew 9:13) as He is in His justice and His severity (Hebrews 10:31). Second, since it is the Word of God that instructs us regarding man’s eternal destiny, and since all men eventually will be judged by that Word (John 12:48), it is to God’s Word that we must go to find answers to inquiries concerning mankind’s ultimate destiny. Fortunately, in His wisdom, God has not left us to our own devices concerning matters that relate to our salvation. As Jeremiah wisely observed: “It is not in man that walketh to direct his steps” (10:23).
WILL A “LOVING GOD” CONDEMN PEOPLE
WHO HAVE NEVER HEARD THE GOSPEL?
There are those who suggest that surely God would not banish from His presence for eternity those who never had an opportunity to hear and obey the gospel message in the first place. Consider the following examples. In his 1909 volume, Systematic Theology, A.H. Strong wrote:
Since Christ is the Word of God and the Truth of God, he may be received even by those who have not heard of his manifestation in the flesh.... We have, therefore, the hope that even among the heathen there may be some...who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit working through the truth of nature and conscience, have found the way to life and salvation (p. 843, emp. added).
Approximately fifty years later, popular evangelical theologian Karl Barth defended such a concept via what he called his “biblical universalism.” He wrote: “We have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the lovingkindness of God” (as quoted in Dyrness, 1983, p. 105). In commenting on Barth’s viewpoint, apologist Cornelius Van Til wrote:
For Barth, man, as sinner, is, to be sure, under the wrath of God, but this wrath is, itself, a form of the all-overreaching grace of God. There is no eternal punishment for those who are in Christ [because] there are no men who are not in Christ (1965, p. 38, emp. added).
Another modern-day evangelical, Neil Punt, invoked Barthian ideas in his book, Unconditional Good News, wherein he rejected the idea that sinners actually must believe and obey the gospel in order to be saved because “It is an error to think that there is anything that must be done to inherit eternal life” (1980, p. 135, emp. added). In What the Bible Says about Salvation, Virgil Warren wrote:
Even some two thousand years after the Great Commission, more people in the world have not heard the gospel than have heard it. The secret things do belong to God, but Christians and non-Christians alike cannot help wondering about the justice as well as the compassion of a God who assigns to eternal torment people who, for reasons beyond their control, never heard about fellowship with him through Jesus Christ.... Our opinion is that scripture does not automatically assign the unevangelized to endless hell (1982, pp. 104-105, first emp. in orig., last emp. added).
In their book, Answers to Tough Questions, Josh McDowell and Don Stewart stated:
Although the Scriptures never explicitly teach that someone who has never heard of Jesus can be saved, we do not believe that it infers [sic] this. We do believe that every person will have an opportunity to repent, and that God will not exclude anyone because he happened to be born at the wrong place and at the wrong time (1993, p. 137).
Statements such as these certainly could cause some to conclude that God simply will not judge the lost, but instead will deem them worthy of eternal salvation merely (or solely!) because they never had an opportunity in their lifetimes to hear the “good news” made available to humankind through the gospel of Christ. While at first glance such a notion may appear comforting, and may appease our human sensitivities, the truth of the matter is that it has monstrous theological and spiritual implications. Consider these facts.
CHRIST’S GREAT COMMISSION AND MAN’S
ALIENATION FROM GOD BECAUSE OF HIS SIN
First—in light of the commands inherent in the Great Commission given by the Lord Himself prior to His ascension back into heaven—how can we entertain any suggestion that the “unevangelized” will be saved? Christ’s instructions were crystal clear: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you...” (Matthew 28:19-20). If the view is correct that the unevangelized peoples of the world will be redeemed without ever having been exposed to (and obeying) the gospel, then potentially we could be doing them great harm if we carry out the Lord’s command and teach them the truth. By introducing them to the gospel, we might well be condemning those who otherwise would have been saved. When R.C. Sproul wrote his book, Reason to Believe, he expended considerable effort in explaining why such a position is unscriptural. He prefaced his discussion with the following statements:
The unspoken assumption at this point is that the only damnable offense against God is the rejection of Christ. Since the native is not guilty of this, we ought to let him alone. In fact, letting him alone would be the most helpful thing we could do for him. If we go to the native and inform him of Christ, we place his soul in eternal jeopardy. For now he knows of Christ, and if he refuses to respond to Him, he can no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. Hence, the best service we can render is silence (1981, p. 50).
Ponder the situation of a person who never has the opportunity to hear the gospel. If the ideas expressed in some of the above quotations are correct, then that person will be saved necessarily. But what about the person to whom we present the gospel message, and who then, of his or her own personal volition, chooses (for whatever reason) to reject it? Having spurned God’s offer of salvation through His Son, can such a one then be saved? Not according to God’s Word!
The writer of the book of Hebrews noted: “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more a sacrifice for sins” (10:26). In Luke 13:34-35, Christ Himself lamented the rejection of the gospel message by His own Jewish brethren (who had been presented with the gospel message, but had rebuffed it repeatedly).
Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem,...how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her own brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate: and I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until ye shall say, “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:34-35, emp. added).
Consider, too, the important spiritual principle set forth in Hebrews 6:4-6, which, although admittedly speaking about people who once had accepted Christ as their Savior and then had abandoned their faith in Him, nevertheless mentions those who at one time were “enlightened” about Who He was and the salvation He offered—only to reject both Him and that salvation. Would it not, then (if the views discussed above are correct), be better simply to keep the Word of God “a secret” from the heathen and the unevangelized so that they—as a result of their ignorance—can be saved and not be put in the position of knowing the gospel message and possibly rejecting it? In their book, I’m Glad You Asked, authors Kenneth Boa and Larry Moody correctly observed:
Those who have heard the Gospel and rejected it are doubly guilty—they have rejected not only the Father but also the Son. And the Scriptures are clear about the judgment which awaits those who have refused God’s offer of salvation. The wrath of God abides on them (John 3:36; cf. Heb. 2:3; 10:26-31) [1982, p. 160].
Second, those who suggest that the heathen and unevangelized will be saved “as a result of their ignorance” of God’s law have failed to realize that such people are lost, not because they are ignorant of God’s law, but because they have sinned against Him. Almost all humans recognize (albeit begrudgingly, at times) that ignorance of the law does not excuse us from the law’s penalties and/or punishments. [“But officer, I didn’t know the speed limit was 15 miles per hour in the school zone.” “Yes, sir. The courthouse is open 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. You may pay the $150 speeding citation at any time during those hours. Have a nice day.”] One must distinguish between knowledge of a law and the existence of a law. If one must know the law before he can transgress the law, then there would be no such thing as a “sin of ignorance.” Yet the Bible speaks plainly of that very thing (Leviticus 4:2,22, 27; Acts 3:17; 17:30-31). Ignorance of the law is neither a legitimate excuse nor an effective guarantee of salvation.
Paul wrote in Romans 2:12: “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without the law: and as many as have sinned under the law shall be judged by the law.” In his commentary on the book of Romans, R.C.H. Lenski discussed Paul’s statement about those who “perish without the law” when he wrote:
The only difference will be that those without the law will merely perish without the law, while those with law will be judged by means of law—two routes that lead to the same goal. Justice will be prominent in both instances; for the Judge will not apply law to those who ended as nothing but sinners without using anything like real law—that would be unfair. Nor will he need law in the case of these—they merely perish as the sinners that they are. The only fair thing in the case of others who made law their boast will be that the Judge uses this means when he pronounces judgment on them; and the fact that this judgment will be one of condemnation is plain: “they did sin” exactly as those “did sin” of whom Paul just said “they will perish” (1961, p. 158, emp. added).
When people are lost, it is due to their having sinned against God. Isaiah wrote:
Behold, Jehovah’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, so that he will not hear (59:1-2).
Boa and Moody commented:
Sin is a universal human condition (1 Kings 8:46; Ps. 51:5, Romans 3:9,23; 1 John 1:8), and it causes a breach between man and God (Isa. 59:2). Sin leads to death (Romans 6:23), and the wrath of God abides on all who are separate from Christ (John 3:18,36). All have sinned, and those who have not been “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24) are under divine condemnation (Romans 3:10-20; 5:16-19) and must stand before God in judgment, because apart from Christ we are enemies of God (Romans 5:10).... People are not lost because they have not heard. They are lost because they are sinners. We die because of disease, not because of ignorance of the proper cure (1982, p. 147, emp. added).
Man is lost as a result of being afflicted with the horrible “disease” of sin—a condition that, unless treated, always is fatal (Romans 6:23). Because God is depicted within Scripture not only as loving (2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 John 4:7-16) and merciful (James 5:11), but also as holy (Psalm 22:3) and just (Psalm 89:14; Isaiah 45:19; Revelation 16:7), He cannot (and will not!) overlook sin. It must be (and will be!) punished. But is there a remedy for this terminal disease known as “sin”? And if so, what is it?
Yes, fortunately there is a remedy for mankind’s otherwise lethal condition. He can have his sins forgiven. The great Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool, if ye be willing and obedient” (Isaiah 1:18-19). The key phrase, of course, is “willing and obedient.” But willing to do what? And obedient to what command? To be washed in the cleansing blood of Jesus Christ as God has decreed! The blood of bulls and goats never was able to take away man’s sins, no matter how unblemished the sacrificial animal(s) may have been. But the blood of Christ can (Hebrews 10:4-18). And it is the only thing that will! The Scriptures speak clearly to this fact when they state that Christ shed His blood on the cross for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; Romans 5:8-9), and that He is the “lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Furthermore, it is only through Christ that a person can be saved from the wrath of God (cf. Romans 5:1, 8:1, and Hebrews 10:31).
The inspired writers of the New Testament placed great emphasis upon the necessity of being “in Christ.” In the American Standard Version of the Bible, the phrase “in Christ” appears 89 times in 88 verses. The New Testament makes it clear that it is only when a person is “in Christ” that he has “redemption” (Romans 3:24), “eternal life” (Romans 6:23), “every spiritual blessing” (Ephesians 1:3), “forgiveness” (Colossians 1:14), and “salvation” (2 Timothy 2:10). Those who have been baptized “into Christ” (which is how the Bible tells us we get into Christ—Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3-4) will not be condemned (Romans 8:1). What is the logical implication? Those outside of Christ will not have forgiveness, salvation, or eternal life, but will be condemned for their sins. Whether a person has never heard of Christ or whether he simply has heard of Him but not obeyed Him, that person is outside of Christ. According to the apostle Paul, any person who fits into either category will be lost eternally. He said that Jesus will render “vengeance to them that know not God” and to those who “obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:8). He further described these unbelievers as those “who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
While it is true that knowledge of both God’s existence and His “everlasting power and divinity” may be gleaned from the general revelation He has provided of Himself in nature (cf. Romans 1:19-20, Psalm 19:1, Acts 14:17, and Hebrews 3:4), that revelation is limited, and cannot explain to man what to do to be saved. As impressive, as powerful, and as pervasive as general revelation is, it nevertheless is deficient in and of itself. For many, nature has ceased to be a perspicuous revelation of God. It may have been so before sin entered the world, but even if it were, man’s nature now has become so polluted that he steadfastly refuses to read the divine script around him. General revelation simply is not enough. It never was intended to be. It does not afford man the reliable knowledge of the nature of God, of his sin against God, of his need for Jesus Christ as his Savior, and other important spiritual information that he absolutely must know in order to be saved. It therefore is inadequate (by itself) as the sole foundation of a person’s faith. From nature alone, man never would be able to infer the need for a personal Savior.
That fact—that from nature alone man never would be able to infer the need for a personal Savior—is critically important in the present discussion. As J.I. Packer noted: “The Bible says that God’s general revelation, even when correctly grasped, yields knowledge of creation, providence, and judgment only, not of grace that restores sinners to fellowship with God” (1973, p. 115, emp. added). This assessment is correct. If a person does not know that he stands in need of a personal Savior; if he does not know Who that Savior is; if he does not know how to be “willingly obedient” to that Savior; and if he does not know how to appropriate the salvation that comes only through that Savior, then how can he possibly know how to get rid of his sins in order to stand sanctified before God? Jesus Himself said in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” (emp. added). In a discussion of this verse, Gene Burgett noted:
The phrase “no one cometh unto the Father, but by me” is clearly a universal negative which states in positive terms, “all men who come to the Father, come by me.” If the only ones who come to the Father are those who come by way of Jesus Christ, then it is apparent that all who do not know Jesus will be lost. There can be no salvation in Buddha, Mohammed, Hari Krishna, or any other name other than the name of Jesus (Acts 4:12) [1993, p. 176, emp. in orig.].
If people could be saved in times past—and can be saved today—without the sacrifice of God’s Son (and they cannot—cf. Hebrews 10:4-10 and Acts 4:12), then why would God have sent Him to Earth in the first place?!
The fact of the matter is, God promised salvation only to those who hear the gospel message (Romans 10:17), believe on His Son (John 3:16), confess Christ’s name (Matthew 10:32-33), repent of their sins (Luke 13:3), have those sins remitted through baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21), and remain faithful (Revelation 2:10). Subsequent to the Day of Pentecost, Peter called upon his listeners to: “Repent ye therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). The word for “blotted out” derives from a Greek word meaning to “wipe out, erase, or obliterate.” The New Testament uses the word to refer to “blotting out” the old law (Colossians 2:14) and to “blotting out” a person’s name from the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5). One of the great prophetical utterances of the Old Testament was that “their sin will I remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).
There was no happy solution to the justice/mercy dilemma. There was no way that God could remain just (since justice demands that the wages of sin be paid) and yet save His Son from death. Christ was abandoned to the cross so that mercy could be extended to sinners who stood condemned (Romans 3:23; 6:23). God could not save sinners by fiat—upon the ground of mere authority alone—without violating His own attribute of divine justice. Paul discussed God’s response to this problem in Romans 3:24-26 when he stated that those who are saved are
...justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood...for the showing of his righteousness...that he might himself be just and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus.
Mankind’s salvation was no arbitrary arrangement. God did not decide merely to consider men sinners, and then determine to save them via a principle of mercy and grace. Sin had placed men in a state of antagonism toward God that was so severe, men were referred to by inspiration as God’s “enemies” (Romans 5:10). Mankind’s sin could be forgiven, and men once again could become God’s friends, only as a result of the vicarious death of God’s Son.
Some have suggested that Christians are narrow-minded when they suggest that mankind’s salvation can be found only in Jesus Christ. Truth, however, is narrow! In addressing this point, Kurt DeHaan wrote:
Would you call a nutritionist narrow-minded if he said that a human can’t survive very long without food or water? Is an aerospace engineer pigheaded to propose that the only way to fly to the moon is by spacecraft, not by hang glider? Is it scientific bigotry to say that gasoline can burn but water cannot? Is it mathematical prejudice to claim that two plus two equals four, not three, five, or twenty-two? The issue is a matter of truth, not a matter of bigotry or prejudice (1988, p. 4).
Truth is a precious and priceless commodity—which no doubt explains why the Proverbs writer admonished: “Buy the truth, and sell it not” (23:23). Jesus Himself said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32, emp. added).
But what about sincerity? Does it count for nothing? While sincerity certainly is important in a relationship with God, the fact of the matter is that God does not want just sincerity; He wants obedience. Saul (who later would be called Paul) was “sincere” in his persecution of Christ’s church, and even did what he did to oppose it “in all good conscience” (Acts 23:1; 22:19-20; Galatians 1:13; 1 Corinthians 15:9), yet God struck him blind (Acts 9:3-9). Paul later would admit in his own writings that he was sincere, but sincerely wrong. DeHaan observed:
Isn’t it enough to be sincere? No, it’s not. Sincerity is important, but it’s not an adequate substitute for knowing the truth. Sincerity doesn’t pass a college entrance exam. Sincerity doesn’t win an automobile race. Sincerity doesn’t repair a broken washing machine. Sincerity won’t bake the perfect cake. And sincerity won’t pay your rent or mortgage. Sincerity will not fill the gap when there is a lack of skill or knowledge, nor will all the sincerity in the world transform error into truth (1988, p. 8, emp. added).
While the Lord certainly wants us to be sincere, He also requires something else, which is why He instructed: “If ye love me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The truth of the Lord is narrow, as Jesus made clear in His beautiful Sermon on the Mount (read specifically Matthew 7:13-14). In fact, Christ observed: “Not everyone that saith unto me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Jesus later commented on the attitude of the people of His day when He said: “This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).
Consider, for example, the account related in 2 Samuel 6 about Uzzah. God had given the Israelites explicit instructions about the construction of the Ark of the Covenant (see Exodus 25:10-22). It was to be made of acacia wood and covered with gold. It was to have two gold-covered, acacia-wood rings on each side, through which two gold-covered, acacia-wood staves could be placed in the event that it had to be moved (Exodus 37:1-5). But He also had given the Israelites explicit instructions about the transportation of the Ark. It was to be carried only by those from the priestly tribe of Levi, specifically the Kohathites (Numbers 7:9). [The Kohathites descended from Kohath, the second son of Levi; the other two groups were the Gershonites and Merarites (cf. Numbers 3:17ff.). The members of the tribe of Levi also were charged with carrying other items of religious significance, including the altars, lampstand, sanctuary vessels, etc., associated with the Tabernacle (see Numbers 3:31).] The Ark was to be moved only after it had been appropriately covered by a blue cloth. And the Israelites (even the Kohathites) were commanded—upon penalty of death—never to touch the Ark (Numbers 4:15,19-20).
King David had ignored each of God’s commands in regard to the transportation of the Ark. God had not commanded that the Ark be moved, and it certainly was not being moved in the manner prescribed by His law. The Ark had been placed on an ox cart being tended by two brothers—Uzzah and Ahio (the latter of whom, apparently, was driving the cart). The text says simply: “the oxen stumbled.” Uzzah—no doubt believing that the precious cargo was about to tumble from the cart and be dashed to bits—reached up to steady the Ark. And the moment Uzzah touched the Ark, God struck him dead!
Was Uzzah sincere in his attempt to protect one of the Israelites’ most priceless and treasured possessions? Undoubtedly he was. But his sincerity was for nought because he disobeyed. Note specifically the Bible’s statement that “God smote him there for his error” (2 Samuel 6:7). God’s commands were explicit; His truth was narrow. Uzzah ignored that truth—and died for having done so.
Will those who never have heard the gospel be lost—even though they might be “sincere”? Indeed they will be! Their separation from God throughout eternity will have been caused by two factors: (1) they sinned against God; and (2) they had not been taught—and thus were not able to take advantage of—the gospel plan of salvation that was offered to all men as the free gift of God (Romans 5:15-21; 6:23b) to restore them to a covenant relationship with Him.
For those of us who do know the truth regarding what men must do to be saved, the burden to share that truth with those who do not know it presses down with unrelenting fury. When Philip stood in the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch who had been to Jerusalem to worship, he asked: “Understandest thou what thou readest?” That Ethiopian gentleman’s response still burns in our ears over two thousand years later: “How can I, except some one shall guide me?” (Acts 8:30-31). That is the Christian’s job—to gently guide the lost into “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). In 2 Corinthians 4:5-7, Paul wrote:
For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.... But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.
A chapter earlier, the apostle had reminded those first-century Christians at Corinth: “Ye are...an epistle of Christ...written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in tables that are hearts of flesh” (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
What a blessed opportunity—and onerous responsibility—to be the “earthen vessel,” the “living epistle,” used by the Lord to bring another soul back into His fold. Realizing that “he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20), and knowing the “goodness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22), dare we countenance failure? No! Speaking on God’s behalf, the prophet Ezekiel warned:
I have made thee a watchman.... Therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, “Thou shalt surely die,” and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul (Ezekiel 3:17-19, emp. added).
Those who never have heard—and thus never have obeyed—the truth of the gospel message will be lost! And if we do not do our utmost to get that message to them—so will we! While the unevangelized may be lost, they do not have to remain lost. And we may be all that stands between them and an eternity of separation from God.
Boa, Kenneth and Larry Moody (1982), I’m Glad you Asked (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).
Burgett, Gene (1993), “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?,” Whatever Happened to Heaven and Hell?, ed. Terry M. Hightower (San Antonio, TX: Shenandoah Church of Christ).
DeHaan, Kurt (1988), What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Grand Rapids, MI: Radio Bible Class), [a tract].
Dyrness, William (1983), Christian Apologetics in a World Community (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press).
Lenski, R.C.H. (1961), The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg).
McDowell, Josh and Don Stewart (1993), Answers to Tough Questions (Nashville, TN: Nelson).
Packer, J.I. (1973), “Are Non-Christian Faiths Ways of Salvation?,” [Part IV of a series titled, “The Way of Salvation”], Bibliotheca Sacra, April.
Punt, Neil (1980), Unconditional Good News (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Sproul, R.C. (1981), Reason to Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Strong, A.H. (1909), Systematic Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press).
Van Til, Cornelius (1965), Karl Barth and Evangelicalism (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed).
Warren, Virgil (1982), What the Bible Says about Salvation (Joplin, MO: College Press).