What about those who never hear the gospel?
Along with the concern of one losing their salvation, this has to be the most asked question I receive from students of the Bible. If Jesus is the only way for salvation, then what does that mean for those who have never heard about Him? It is one thing to hear and reject the gospel truth, but to be condemned for rejecting a message you never heard just does not seem fair.
There is just one problem with that reasoning. Mankind is not condemned for rejecting the gospel message. They are condemned for sin. Our sin is an offense against an eternally holy God, thus the only just punishment must likewise be eternal, which the scripture describes in horrific terms as a place called hell (Mt. 25:31-46). Justice demands hell for all who sin against God.
The gospel is an appeal to repent and believe in Christ, so as to be rescued from this much-deserved just punishment. God does not owe salvation, or even the means to be saved to anyone. It is wrong minded to approach this question as if any sinner deserves more than divine justice.
Our heavenly Father desires mercy over justice (Mt. 5:38-48, Mt. 12:7). He is a loving and gracious God who does not want any to perish but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9, Ezk. 18:30-32). God is all-loving and perfect in every way so we can trust that He will always do what is right, even when we do not understand.
While scripture may not give us perfect clarity on this topic, we do have some strong biblical insight that helps guide our thinking.
GOD IS KNOWABLE
God’s eternal power, divine nature, and all that may be known about God’s invisible qualities, is plain for everyone to see and understand. This is referred to as God’s “general revelation,” which renders all people “without excuse” for their unbelief (Rom. 1:19-20, Acts 14:17, Heb. 3:4, Ps. 19:1). While this revelation is not sufficient to lead someone to saving faith in Christ, there is strong biblical evidence to support that it is sufficient to lead to the acknowledgement of God and the potential of further revelation (Lk. 16:10-12).
J.I. Packer, a notable Calvinistic scholar, taught “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). While this is certainly true, nothing in the text suggests that mankind is unable to respond to such revelation by either “exchanging the truth for lies” (Rm. 1:25) or “retaining the knowledge of God” (Rm. 1:28). Such inability to respond to this revelation would nullify the point of the apostle in verse 20 in declaring that all are “without excuse.” (i.e. “I was born unable to respond to God’s revelation.”)
THE PROBLEM OF SIN REMAINS
This ability to respond (responsibility) in light of God’s clear revelation does not solve the problem of sin and the need for redemption, however. Even those who acknowledge what they know of God to be true still deserve condemnation for their sin. Sinners who respond in reverent fear and attempt to be faithful to His laws (or their conscience) are still sinners. They still deserve hell and condemnation (Rom. 3:10-11, 23). Even their good deeds would be as worthless as filthy rags given the penalty due for their sin (Is. 64:6) (i.e. Cornelius prior to hearing the gospel was a worshipper who feared the Lord and someone who God expressed favor toward, but his sin debt remained.)
Throughout the scriptures we see examples of God “finding favor” in believing individuals (Job, Enoch, Noah, Abram, etc), but these men, like all of humanity, still fell short of God’s glory and were unrighteous according to the demands of God’s law. They needed a savior. They needed redemption and reconciliation. Even those who believe the truth of God’s revelation deserve eternal punishment for their sin.
What must be understood is that no one was righteous according to the demands of the law. However, that does NOT mean that all people are unable to believe God’s revealed truth so as to be credited as righteous by God’s grace. Paul taught that no one was righteous in Romans 3, yet he turns around and declares in the very next chapter that, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3).
How can that be? Has Paul contradicted himself? First he declares that no one is righteous and then he tells us that Abraham was righteous? Which is it?
Paul is drawing the distinction between righteousness by works (Rm. 3:10-11) and righteousness by grace through faith (Rm. 3:21-24). The former is unattainable but the latter has always been very much attainable by anyone, which again, is why ALL ARE “WITHOUT EXCUSE” (Rm. 1:20).
Without excuse for what? For their unbelief in God’s revelation.
THE ROLE OF REVELATION
When it comes to revelation, scholars speak in terms of two distinct kinds: God’s general and special revelation. General revelation is just that, God making Himself known generally through the natural world and moral conscience. Special revelation consists of His Word, the Messiah and His inspired message.
God certainly holds man responsible to all His revelation, yet there are some biblical scholars who teach that mankind is born unable to respond to any revelation of God without first being born again. (see pre-faith regeneration of Calvinism)
Is it right to hold someone responsible to something for which they are unable to respond? If a man had a dog that was born deaf and he punished it harshly for her lack of response to his verbal commands, would anyone consider such actions good or just? Not even for a dog is this kind of treatment deemed acceptable. Should we conclude that God would act in this manner toward his own image bearers, those He loves? I cannot fathom that our perfect Father would treat people in this manner. And I have yet found anyone who can show me an example from scripture of God holding men responsible for that which they were never given the moral ability to respond.*
But, one may object at this point and remind me of my earlier statements regarding man’s sinful condition and the fact that fallen humanity deserves nothing more that what is just, the punishment of hell. However, I am not talking about man being held accountable for his sin. I am specifically addressing sinful man’s response-ability to God’s revelation. Some scholars confound this issue by speaking of man’s responsibility to God’s revelation when really they are referencing man’s culpability for their sin. Let’s unpack this point:
- All humanity is guilty for sin and deserves hell. (We can agree on this point.)
- Sinners are held responsible to God’s revelation. (Here is where some disagree.)
When some scholars speak of man being “responsible to God’s revelation” they really mean that man is “justly punished due to their sinfulness even though they cannot morally respond to God’s revelation.” This is confounding two separate issues causing much confusion over this topic. We must separate each point in order to understand the truth as revealed in scripture.
While it is certainly true that all fallen man is deserving of hell, it is certainly untrue that fallen man is born unable to respond to God because of that fall. Let’s look in Genesis 3 and see if the first man is able to respond to God after he sinned:
9 But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” 10 He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
Adam answered God even after he had fallen revealing his ability to do so. Did God have to regenerate Adam to grant him the ability to respond in a positive way? The text certainly never indicates that need. Let us look at another example:
Acts 28:23: They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe. 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:
26“‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.” 27 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ 28 “Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!” (Acts 28:27-28; emphasis added)
Some people ridicule pastors who allow their invitations to go on too long, yet in this passage we witness Paul earnestly attempting to persuade his fellow countryman for the entire day. Some were persuaded while others refused to believe. What does Paul conclude about the condition of these people?
- They had become calloused. The problem is not a lack of revelation. They have one of the greatest biblical teachers in the world pouring out SPECIAL revelation all day long. So, what is the problem according to Paul? Maybe the Calvinists are right and all men are born total unable to see, hear, understand and turn in light of the revelation?
That is not what Paul concluded. Paul does not teach that these men were born calloused, but they had become such by ignoring God’s truth and replacing it with their man-made self-righteous dogma. Babies are not born with callouses on their hands or their hearts. Scripture warns all of us not to allow our hearts to grow hardened in this manner (Heb. 3:8). They were calloused by their own doing, not God’s rejection or lack of revelation (Rm. 10:21, Mt. 23:37).
- Otherwise they might see, hear, understand and turn. What is the ability of someone who has not yet grown calloused? Paul spells it out very clearly in this passage: “they might turn.” These men have no excuse for their unbelief because they have rejected the truth for so long that they have grown calloused to it; otherwise they might turn and be healed.
Notice the contrast with the Gentiles in verse 28, “they will listen.” Why does Paul draw this conclusion? Is it because Gentiles are more moral or less fallen in their sin? Are Gentiles less deserving of hell? Of course not. Gentiles were known to be grossly immoral in this day. We must understand that there is a difference in being culpable for sinful immorality and growing calloused to divine revelation sent to rescue us from our sinful condition. The former doesn’t necessarily imply the latter. This is why we can affirm the concept of “Original Sin” (man is born with a sinful nature and in need of a savior) while denying the doctrinal teaching of Total Inability (man is born unable to see, hear, understand or turn in light of God’s clear revelation).
Why is all this relevant to the question at hand? Because it speaks to the natural man’s abilities to respond to the light of God’s revelation, IN CONTRAST TO their culpability for sin. When one confounds those two doctrines it becomes as difficult as untangling a wad of fishing line to correct.
(Warning: Beware of the “Pelagian Heresy Police” if you dare take on the challenge of untangling this mess. Pelagianism is the “boogie man” of Calvinism. Some Calvinists pull out this label anytime they do not want to deal with the substance of the argument but rather label and dismiss it as heretical. This serves to scare off the undiscerning from being willing to dive below the surface level of the argument. In my opinion, it is a lazy approach to biblical study and strong theological dialogue. )
KEY POINT: Both the Jews and the Gentiles are equally culpable for being sinful (Rom 1-3). Both Jews and Gentiles are NOT equally calloused in their self-righteousness, which is what makes it so difficult for the Israelites to respond to God’s clear revelation.
Why do you suppose Jesus referred to a child as an example of what we must become like to enter His kingdom (Mt. 18:3)? What is the difference in the condition of a child’s heart and the heart of an older man? Are they both equally “hardened” from birth as some impose onto the text? Clearly not. The heart of a child, while fully culpable for sin, has not yet grown calloused and stubborn in his rebellion. A child, like the Gentiles referenced above, “will listen” because they are able to “see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and turn” (Acts 28:27-28).
Now, that addresses the ability of man to respond to the special revelation, but what about the general revelation? Is there any biblical reason to suggest that man is not “able to respond” for that which God holds him “response-able?” Paul’s declaration of no one having any excuses in light of God’s clear revelation certainly suggests no good excuse exists. Any doctrine that teaches man is born unable, by God’s own decree, to respond to His clear revelation certainly seems to be giving back the very excuse that Paul is attempting to remove. For what better excuse is there for not responding than an innate inability to do so as determined by one’s own creator?
Keep in mind that Calvinists must conclude that God has never desired the salvation of those who do not hear the gospel, which is biblically indefensible (1 Tim. 2:4, Ez. 18:30-31, 2 Pt. 3:9). Non-Calvinists believe God genuinely desires for all to come to repentance, as scripture clearly states, which is why we are not so quick to dismiss the concept of human responsibility (the ability to respond willingly to God’s revelation).
BECAME HARDENED OR BORN HATED?
In Romans 1, Paul taught that men’s “thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened…therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires” (vs. 21, 24). They were not born futile, darkened and given over. Paul is revealing the natural result of those who continue to ignore God’s revelation and “trade the truth in for lies.” Not everyone who has ever lived would match the description of the apostle. Some people feared the Lord, worshipped Him in earnest and believed in the revelation they received (Heb. 11).
OBJECTION ANTICIPATED: Professor, are you suggesting that people were able to respond to God’s general revelation in faith? That is the heresy of pelagianism!
That objection is confounding two separate points. Please go back and re-read the article until you understand the distinction between a sinful man’s culpability for sin and a sinful man’s responsibility to God’s revelation.
As explained above, Paul is addressing two types of righteousness being pursued: One is by works and the other is by faith. All have fallen in regard to the former, but not the latter. No one is able to attain righteousness by works, but that does not mean that no one is able to attain righteousness by faith (Rom. 9:30-32).
In Romans 1:1 – 3:20, Paul is attempting to demonstrate that both Jews and Gentiles have fallen short of the demands of God’s law. He IS NOT attempting to teach that man is born unable to respond in faith to the revelation of God. That would give them back the very excuse he took away in verse 20 of chapter 1.
The reason this has become such a perplexing question for so many students of the bible, is because some have confounded Paul’s teaching to suggest that man is unable to acknowledge God in light of His general revelation and yet we are to believe He holds mankind “responsible” for their response to that revelation.
It is one thing for parents to discipline their children for lying by grounding them to their room. It is a whole other thing for parents to lock the door from the outside and then hold the children responsible for not coming out when called. Likewise, it is possible for us to affirm man’s complete culpability for sin (i.e. being sent to their room) while still rejecting the notion that God has disabled sinners from responding to his own revelation all the while holding them responsible (i.e. locking the door so as to disable one from responding to an appeal for reconciliation).
So, what is the answer to the question, “What about those who never hear the gospel?”
Everyone has what they need to respond to God.
No one anywhere in this world has any excuse for his or her unbelief. Mankind is responsible to all of God’s revelation because they are able to respond to all of God’s revelation. If they acknowledge the truth of the little revelation that they have received then God is faithful to entrust them with more (Mt. 25:21). If they trade the truth in for lies then they have no excuse (Rm. 1:20).
In short, the general revelation is sufficient to lead any one to know God’s special revelation, thus no one has any excuse for their unbelief. Paige Patterson recorded a statement, endorsed by many Southern Baptist leaders, that put it this way, “…whenever or wherever in the world there is a man or woman who cries out to God with all of his heart, ‘Lord I want to know you, I want to know what kind of a God you are,’ then I [God] will make it possible for him to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news is that God is so loving and so merciful that He makes Himself available to everyman who seeks Him, which is why the Bible says, ‘You shall find Me when you seek for Me with all your heart’” (Jer. 29:13). <link>
By the way, I think it takes more work to get to hell than to get to heaven. I do not believe in works salvation, but I do believe in works damnation. It takes work to trade the clear truth of God in for lies. CLICK HERE to read more
Brian Wagner, a New Testament Professor and regular contributor on this blog, sent me this list of passages for consideration on this subject:
John 1:9 [That] was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
John 12:32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.
John 16:8-9 And when he is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me;
Acts 17:24-27 God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
Romans 1:19-21 Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed [it] unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: Because that, when they knew God, they glorified [him] not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
Romans 1:32 Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them.
Romans 2:14-16 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and [their] thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
Romans 10:17-18 So then faith [cometh] by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.
Colossians 1:5-6 For the hope which is laid up for you in heaven, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, as [it is] in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as [it doth] also in you, since the day ye heard [of it], and knew the grace of God in truth:
Colossians 1:23 If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and [be] not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, [and] which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men.
*(Note: Please do not reference our inability to keep the law as proof for the false notion that God readily holds men responsible for that which they cannot do. Why? Because its begs the question to presume that because we are unable to fulfill the demands of the law that we also are unable to admit that fact and believe in the one who fulfilled the law on our behalf.)
Packer, J.I. (1973), “Are Non-Christian Faiths Ways of Salvation?,” [Part IV of a series titled, “The Way of Salvation”], Bibliotheca Sacra, April.