What happens to people who never get a chance to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ? Are they lost and outside of the plan of God, never to see the blessings of heaven? Many skeptics and atheists will pour scorn, noting that not just millions but billions of humans, past and present, have never even had the chance to hear the name of Jesus, but are instead born into a totally different culture and belief system, or a different time before the life of Christ. Christians often attempt to dodge the question, believing that there is no good answer to it.
British comedians “Pete and Dud” mocked the preaching of the gospel on TV, assuming that it was the hearing of the gospel which condemns people when they choose not to respond to it. In this case, the gospel should not be preached. “I haven’t told anyone Dud”, said Pete in his usual wry fashion, suggesting that it was only common sense, missed by the ignorant evangelist, not to condemn a man by telling him the gospel.
The truth is that we are already condemned apart from the mercy of God, and it’s the gospel which can rescue us from that condemnation.
The apostle Paul was a man locked into a hard and fast commitment to the Law of the Old Testament, and his anger against anyone deviating from that Law. But then he had a very remarkable conversion experience. This was one of the things he observed about his own conversion:
“Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief… Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the worst.” (1Timothy 1:13-16).
There are three important things to notice here:
1/ Paul was shown mercy because he had acted in ignorance (lack of knowledge);
2/ Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;
3/ Paul didn’t have to fulfill any formula or to get his theology right before God showed him mercy through the gospel.
SALVATION IS A GIFT, NOT SOMETHING ANY OF US EARN
God showed Paul mercy even before Paul responded positively to the gospel. If this were not the case, a positive response would itself be a work and not an act of faith, and according to Paul and Jesus works have nothing to do with salvation (they are an evidence of salvation, not the means of salvation). Paul said:
“…it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God- not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is not an evidence that we should all be followers of Calvin’s theology. Jesus said:
“…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Jesus, when talking about salvation, frequently contrasted those who believe and so are saved, with those who do not believe and so are condemned (example, John 3:16-20). When reading the book of Revelation I’ve noticed that the people who will be recipients of God’s wrath are those who have rejected the gospel and refused to know God, not those who never heard it:
“…they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him” (Revelation16:9).
So it’s my contention here that the hearing of the gospel is not a work, required of every human before they can be reconciled to God, but the means by which those who do hear it have the chance to be made aware of their lost condition, to repent of it, and then to find mercy and forgiveness. It’s a beautiful message which offers us a “free ticket” out of spiritual darkness and condemnation, without which we are completely lost. Hearing the gospel provides us with the opportunity we need to repent of our way of life, and to be reconciled to our heavenly Father. Without this opportunity, many people, for whatever reason, may never seek God.
Are some people “good enough” to find salvation without responding to the gospel?
“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
And there is no way to make ourselves acceptable to God:
“…no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (verse 20).
It’s by the mercy of God that anyone finds salvation and forgiveness.
NOT ONLY BUT ALSO…
Jesus died for the whole world:
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John2:2).
“…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).
Christ’s sacrifice made it possible for “the whole world” to be saved from condemnation. This does not mean that everyone is automatically going to heaven- Jesus made that clear (John 3:18). And not everyone wants to be saved from their sin. Not everyone loves God, and many people hate Him. If God were to take everyone to heaven, heaven would be as the world is now- full of violence, hatred, unfaithfulness, bigotry and division.
THE DANGER AND THE BLESSING OF KNOWLEDGE
From our example of Paul’s salvation from ignorance and unbelief, does it not seem possible also that others, in “ignorance”, can be the recipients of God’s mercy?
In God’s economy humans are judged according to what they are given, and not a fixed set of criteria:
“The servant who knows his masters will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 14:47-48).
This is why the Pharisees-full of pride and the knowledge of their history, their laws and traditions and the writings of Moses and the prophets- were the subject of Jesus’ scorn, since they did not actually live godly lives. In contrast Jesus associated with “sinners”, drunks, and prostitutes, the poor and the lowly, and the common thief on the cross next to him was told, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
If we extrapolate backwards, perhaps we can consider those who have not benefitted from Scripture or from hearing the message of the gospel. They have been given little, so little is expected of them. Old Testament characters such as Abram and Jacob were called by God when they had very little or no knowledge of Him except perhaps some awareness from nature and from history, and from the spoken word which had been passed down to them through the centuries and millennia since creation. They had certainly never heard about Jesus Christ.
So, to stick my neck out a little here, my view is that many people over the millennia, although probably a small percentage, who had never heard the gospel or the writings of the Hebrew prophets, will be there in heaven when we get there. Although they knew little compared to what we know from Scripture, they searched for truth and wisdom, and they wanted, in the best way they knew, to understand and know the One who had originated all that they saw around them:
“…he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
This is not a way of excusing sin or idolatry, or the worship of animals or stars or people: I’m not saying that humans can live as they want just so long as they don’t hear the gospel. I’m saying that those who respond to what they are given, potentially can be shown mercy.
SILENT TESTIMONY FOR ALL PEOPLE OF ALL TIME
So what, you may ask is anyone given, spiritually, who has not read the Scriptures or been told the message of Jesus? Once again, Paul enlightens us:
“…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).
Elsewhere in scripture we are told that nature shows us that God is there, and shows us many of his attributes:
“The heavens declare the glory of God;
The skies proclaim the works of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
Night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
Their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm19:1-4).
Nature also speaks to us on matters of morality and lifestyle:
“The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like…” Galatians 5:19-21).
“…God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” (Romans 1:26-27).
So mankind does have a revealed set of standards and signs to live by, even when not blessed with the revelation of scripture or the gospel.
What I’m saying is that someone on the other side of the world from the Middle-East in the fifth century BC was not left without a witness: he had an idea that there is a God, and also of what that God is like. All he had to do was seek God and to look around. He only had to look to the skies to see that God could not be represented by a little hand-made idol in the shape of a dog or a snake; that He could not be manipulated to perform tricks and miracles and acts of service; that He was and is uncontrollable, un-representable, and unimaginably powerful, and that He is holy, separate from and higher than any human thought or deed. It would have been clear to the seeker that God was merciful, caring and loving to make such a beautiful world and to provide food and water and air and family and friends. God is unmistakably there, and anyone looking could not help noticing.
THE ETERNAL GOSPEL
Not only did Christ die for the sins of the whole world, but he also died for those who lived before him and after him:
“…by that will (God’s will) we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
“But when this priest (Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (verse 14).
David, centuries before Jesus, observed:
“If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness;
Therefore you are feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).
So the rule has always been that we look to what we can know about God, we repent of sin and find forgiveness- the forgiveness afforded by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, even in times and places when men knew very little or nothing of the suffering Messiah.
And here’s the last but not least point to consider- there is no other gospel which is able to save us from our sin. This is the message of the apostles of Jesus:
“…then know this…It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead”…”Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
We spread the gospel, much to the annoyance of the skeptic and the atheist, because some people will never repent of their sin and seek the Lord until they learn that they are required to, and that there is a way-one way- to find forgiveness and acceptance with God the Father. To many people this is a liberating and an exhilarating experience, and not at all oppressive or offensive. Yes, to some the gospel is offensive, as it must be (Galatians 5:11), but as Paul wrote:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Ignorance of the gospel is not a viable excuse for those who reject it, and who use that excuse to try to silence it:
“In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).