23 October 1994

Unreached people

The subject of the fate of people who have never heard the gospel has been of great interest to Christians of all generations. Are they all going to Hell? Or is it possible to respond in faith to God without ever having heard the name of Jesus Christ?

I believe it is, and that the Bible makes this clear.

The Law written on the hearts

Curiously enough, the passage I most commonly cite in support of my position is the same one that others use to support the opposing position.

… since what may be known about God is plain … For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made …

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. (Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-15)

Paul explicitly states that everyone is able to see God, and everyone is able to respond to God.

True, the passage also says that "men who suppress the truth by their wickedness" have rejected what God has revealed of Himself, but I do not believe, as some do, that this universally condemns all men. For if it did, that would have to include the believer, too. Certainly, not all men have been given over "to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another." Rather, I believe this passage refers to homosexual offenders as examples of those who have rejected God's plain revelation of Himself – implying that some have also accepted Him.

Pre-Christian heroes of the faith

To take the other stance one logical step further, if one must hear the gospel of Jesus Christ to be saved, then everyone who lived before the Incarnation is in Hell, plain and simple. But this totally contradicts Hebrews 11, which lists all of these heroes of faith who were "commended for their faith" without ever having heard the gospel. (Some, I might add, were not even Jews.)

Admittedly, "none of them received what had been promised," but I hope no one reading this would seriously believe that the heroes of Hebrews 11 were denied Heaven. Without doing an in-depth study, I would tentatively interpret "what had been promised" to refer to the inauguration of the Kingdom on earth.

Okay, so we say that, "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30), meaning that up until the cross, faith in God was a sufficient way out for the ignorant, but after the cross ignorance was no longer an excuse. (I have been told this as gospel truth.) Let's see what ramifications this has for the village of Middle Nowhere. There were two brothers, both of whom saw the Creator revealed in His Creation, and responded in faith according to what they knew. One died at the very moment that Jesus was entering Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey thousands of miles away, and went to Heaven as one of the Hebrews 11 heroes of faith. Two weeks later, his brother, an equally devout man of faith, died, but because of the cross, his faith in the Creator was no longer sufficient for salvation, and he went to Hell. Two men, equally deserving or undeserving of salvation, yet because of an accident of timing, entering opposite eternal states. Forgive me if I sound like a rationalist, but this just does not make any logical sense. It is easy to see how the problem extends to members of a pagan tribe in 1000 B.C. and another pagan tribe in 1000 A.D., both unreached by the gospel.

Again, without an in-depth study, I would interpret Acts 17:30 to mean that once a person has heard the gospel, ignorance is no longer an excuse.

Every nation, tribe, people and language

But in fact, I do not need to rely on such hypothetical, rational arguments. For the Bible tells me explicitly that there will be people "from every nation, tribe, people and language" in Heaven (Revelation 7:9). Unless one seriously believes that every people in every age has heard the gospel (which makes the whole argument a moot point), or that this statement is hyperbole and doesn't really mean what it says (which is hard to justify), this is a clear statement that one need not hear the gospel to be saved.

To summarize, we see from the Bible that:

  1. God has revealed Himself to all people (Romans 1-2).
  2. People are saved through faith regardless of what they know (Hebrews 11).
  3. Individuals from every people group are saved (Revelation 7:9).


Now, I need to address some things I will be (and have been) accused of saying, and very definitely am not.

Christ the Way, Truth and Life

First of all, let me state clearly that I believe there is no saving faith, and could be no salvation, apart from Christ's death and resurrection (John 3:16; 14:6; Acts 4:12). However, as shown in Hebrews 11, saving faith can be had without awareness about Jesus Christ. How he manages this is purely a subject for speculation, since the Bible does not speak on it (as far as I know). However he does it, he somehow imparts the power of the cross to those who are unaware of the cross if their faith is credited to them as righteousness.

Call to reach the lost

Second, I firmly believe that cross-cultural missions, evangelism, and ongoing discipleship are the essential mission of the Church. One might ask, "If people can go to Heaven without hearing the gospel, then why bring it to them at all?" Good question. None of my answers are 100% convincing, but I still believe it is essential to share the gospel. Reasons I could give include:

  1. God commands us to go. Certainly, God could save mankind without the help of the Church if he so chose, but he has commanded us to go, so we must go. I am not responsible for the response of those who hear the message, but I am accountable for delivering it faithfully (Ezekiel 33:1-6).
  2. People are waiting to hear. If someone can accept the gospel and know assurance of salvation and the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, why make them wait?
  3. Good news cries out to be told. I've been saved from my sin and have a relationship with the Creator of the Universe. I couldn't keep silent if I tried.
  4. More may be saved if they are told. This is the stickiest reason of all, and the one I'm least sure of, but who's to say that God won't save more people through the power of the gospel than he would if the message were not shared? Certainly, passages such as Romans 10:13-15 seem to express some urgency, even if the people have already heard to a degree (v. 18).

In a sense, it may not matter what I believe about the fate of the unreached. The important thing is, we need to share the message, regardless of our reasons.

Ramifications for evangelism

There's also the matter of what effect our beliefs on this subject might have on the non-believer to whom we tell them. When I was a non-Christian, it seemed to me that, according to the Christian message I had picked up, everyone who died before Christ was in Hell, everyone from an unreached people group went to Hell, and 99% of those in reached nations (all but the 1% who call themselves born-again) are going to Hell. That meant that of the 10 billion people or so who have lived on this earth, only a negligible fraction of them (maybe 100,000?) are going to Heaven, and the rest are condemned to Hell, most because they never had a chance. This is not the image of a loving God in a fallen and depraved world. It was not until I realized this was not the message of the Bible that I was able to accept Christ, and even then it took me a long time to understand why a loving God sends so many people to Hell. (Answer: He doesn't; he lets them decide for themselves whether to spend eternity with Him or eternity without Him.)

1 comment:

Ollie said...

I agree with the essence of what you say and I have another important reason for every Christian to do their part in disseminating the Gospel. God's saving grace through the sacrafice of his Son saves believers from eternal punishment but this is not the most important aspect of the Christian life. It is God's greatest pleasure to see the saved dedicate their lives to serving Him and obeying his word. This is where good works come into play. As Christians, we are to obey all of God's laws, love Him and serve Him, in part, through sharing our faith with others and helping them become fruitful Christians. Escaping eternal pusnishment is great (like being rescued from certain death) but if this doesn't change the way we live and our relationship with God, we are missing out on the rewards of participating with Him in His kingdom. I am so grateful for His saving grace so freely given that I desperately want to serve Him in all that I do and this includes reaching out to everyone.

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