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By Rudolph D. Gonzalez
The question concerning the fate of those who have never heard the gospel is
a perennial one. Since the day of Pentecost, whole populations and ethnic
groups have lived and died without ever having an opportunity to hear of Jesus
Christ's offer of salvation. Even at the dawn of the twenty-first century,
there are pockets of humanity who have yet to have the gospel delivered to
them. How does the Bible address the question concerning those who, through no
fault of their own, have never heard the gospel?
It should come as no surprise that Christendom is by no means unified on
this issue. In the wake of Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has moved in
an inclusivist direction-maintaining that people can be exposed to grace that
saves through the honest practice of a non-Christian religion. The Catholic
Church insists, however, that when people become exposed to any kind of grace,
it is, nevertheless, a grace mediated in and through the world religions
because of the presence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church in the world. Moving
even further, some liberal protestant groups go so far as to adopt
universalism-believing that all people will eventually be saved,
despite their religious beliefs or lack thereof. On the other hand, others who
believe that hearing the gospel is necessary to salvation have constructed
ingenious theologies with names such as universal sending, middle
knowledge, and eschatological evangelization to say that God spreads the
message of Jesus wherever his heralds fail to go, through miraculous means or
through non-Christian agencies.1In one view, a Biblical scholar
theorizes that God, in His infinite knowledge, knew-not to be confused with
determined or chose-who would eventually accept and reject
the gospel. Thus, He providentially placed those who would be receptive to the
gospel into circumstances that would allow them to hear the gospel and embrace
it. Those who would never accept the message simply were born into times and
places where the gospel would never reach them in their lifetime.
The above-mentioned examples do not exhaust all the views, but do illustrate
the range of opinions over the fate of people who have never been exposed to
the life-saving message of Christ. It should be apparent that people often hold
positions that resonate with their beliefs about the nature of God's mercy and
justice, rather than clear Biblical teaching. Thus, many people come to the
Bible with presuppositions about what God will or will not do and then impose
them on the Biblical evidence.
In this treatment, the aim is to offer an evidentiary perspective on this
issue. This view simply asserts that the Bible can and must be interpreted
literally, unless the context and the nature of the literary style itself calls
for something different. Barring the obvious use of symbolism, metaphor,
hyperbole, anthropomorphisms, etc., this view takes the text of Scripture at
face value and affirms its common sense and logical meaning.
A Survey of the Biblical Evidence
The biblical evidence supports the following facts:
• Lost humanity consistently distorts natural revelation that demonstrates
the fact that people live under the wrath of God (see Rom. 1:18-23).
• Thus, humanity is dead in sin and alienated from a saving knowledge of God
(see Rom. 3:9-19,23).
• All people stand condemned and are, by nature, children of wrath (see Rom.
1:18-20; 2:1; 3:9-24; 5:12-21; 11:32; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 2:1-3,12; Col. 2:13-14; 1
Pet. 1:18; 2 Pet. 1:4).
• All people without Christ are lost and without hope (see Ps. 16:1-2; Eph.
• Salvation is a good-faith offer to anyone who exercises personal faith in
Christ (see John 1:12; 14:6; Acts 4:12).
• People who fail to respond positively to the Gospel stand utterly
condemned (see John 3:18; 5:23-24; 1 Thess. 2:16).
If one takes the points above as honest Biblical statements regarding the
condition of humanity and God's offer of salvation through His Son, they lead
to a profound pessimism about the fate of those who have never heard the
gospel. About "those who have not heard of the historic Christ," John Newport
Clearly, such people cannot be expected to have placed their faith in a
story they have not heard. However, as Paul asserts in Romans 1, even people
who have never heard the gospel have a revelation of the cosmic Christ in their
conscience and nature. Paul sadly states that, for the most part, they have not
accepted even this amount of light and followed it. Therefore they, too, have
Newport's point is that all people by virtue of living in God's creation
have, in effect, been exposed to the aspect of Christ that is exhibited in the
realm of natural revelation. Whether such an exposure amounts to contact with
the gospel he does not say, but his assessment is unmistakable: a rejection of
the evidence for the cosmic Christ in nature is tantamount to the rejection of
the gospel for the person who has been exposed to it. Similarly, Carl F. H.
The world philosophies and non-biblical religions are indeed a response to
general revelation, but a response forged by humankind in revolt rather than in
obedience. A distorted view of God that consequently lies at the heart of these
schemas has reductive and distorted results involving every affirmation about
the nature of reality and the human condition.3
Of direct relevance to this issue is Paul's statement about the condemnation
of Jews and Gentiles alike in Romans 2. The thrust of his argument is that all
people will stand condemned before the judgment seat of God (see Rom. 2:3-10).
Paul lays down the firm principle of God's impartiality and goes on to state
For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law
will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be
judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before
God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not
have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law,
are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their
hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately
accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God
will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:11-16, NASB).
The overwhelming sense of this passage is sobering. Apart from any access to
the gospel, people are born into this world with a conviction of God's high
moral standards, otherwise understood to be the law written in their hearts.
This conviction is sufficient to condemn them on the Day of
Judgment.4 It is important to understand that because people have an
instinctive awareness of God's demand for righteousness as proscribed in the
law, never having heard the gospel will not be an excuse for their
unrighteousness. According to Paul, to know the law intuitively is to
potentially understand how impossible it is for humanity to fulfill every
aspect of it. In an interesting twist, God's impartiality is mentioned. This is
not meant to point to His universal offer of grace, but to remind the reader
that God is completely just in condemning those who have rejected Him. The
question this passage answers is: Will anyone be saved on the Day of Judgment
by the instinctive work of the law written in their heart? As earlier noted by
the apostle, he is very pessimistic that any witness that arises from the
person is sufficient to allay the wrath of God and escape condemnation (see
Rom. 6:12-13; Gal. 3:8-14).
In light of the evidence, we must conclude that people who never have an
opportunity to hear the gospel stand condemned. As unpalatable as this is, we
must let the clear teaching of Scripture outweigh any personal impulse to
distort the facts out of misplaced compassion. With all soberness, there
is in the Bible what some have insightfully called "a consistent pattern of
'fewness' in redemption and 'wideness' in judgment."5 In 2 Peter 3:9
(NASB), Peter declares, "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count
slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all
to come to repentance" (see also Ezek. 18:32; 33:11). This passage is both
hopeful and tragically ominous, for in spite of God's declared concern not all
will come to repentance (see Eph. 5:5-6; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; 2 Pet. 2:9) and many
will perish (see Matt. 7:13; 13:41-50).
Thus, for the sake of the perishing, we must let the full impact of
humanity's lostness grip the mind and heart of the church. Uncomfortable as it
must have been, the first century church must have understood this very
well.6 Christianity was born into a world as religiously diverse as
ours is today. Yet it was against the backdrop of the religious pluralism that
Jesus Christ was lifted as the sole Savior of humanity. Christianity was
nothing more than an offspring of Judaism, barely notable in the Roman Empire,
and yet Christians consistently elevated Christ as the only Savior of the world
Thus, it follows that the Bible places such emphasis on the need to
physically hear the gospel. Paul certainly believed as much when, speaking of
the lost, he penned the following sentiment: "How then will they call on Him in
whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not
heard? And how will they hear without a preacher" (Rom. 10:14, NASB)?
Note that the apostle offers rhetorical questions that suggest a three-fold
impossibility-all based, ultimately, on the availability of a preacher of the
gospel. Paul, in essence, says that without a gospel preacher: the lost do not
hear the gospel; thus, they cannot believe; thus, they cannot call on the Lord.
The verse is heavy with implications: humanity stands lost, but it is unable
even to call out in desperation until the lost soul is moved to repentance
through the faithful proclamation of the gospel by God's preachers (see also
In light of this critical reality, Scripture reveals at least four
motivations to share the gospel:
1. The love of God should compel us to proclaim the gospel (see Luke 10:27;
2 Cor. 5:14; Gal. 5:14).
2. Our love for sinners whose eternal destiny hangs in the balance should
compel us to proclaim the gospel (see Luke 10:27).
3. Obedience to the Great Commission should compel us to evangelize the
world (see Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8).
4. The prospect of being held accountable for failing to deliver the message
should compel us to proclaim the gospel (see Ezek. 33:1-9; Acts 10:42; Rom.
10:11-15; 1 Cor. 9:16-17).
In this brief study no attempt has been made to answer all the questions
related to all people who never hear the gospel. For example, what about the
many children who are aborted, stillborn, and miscarried? And then there is the
question about children who live, yet never reach that nebulous age of
accountability, not to mention the wrenching question about those who, because
of diminished mental capacity, are unable ever to understand the gospel. This
brief study in no way attempts to speak to such broader issues.
When it comes to people with full capacity to reason and contemplate their
condition in the world, however, there is an undeniable reality that hangs over
fallen humanity-people are lost by nature and by volitional choice. Thus, the
Bible offers the hope of redemption against the backdrop of the certainty of
Hell.8 While we know that God has not revealed the totality of His
mind, what He has revealed is quite specific: God has chosen to save people by
allowing them to hear and respond to the offer of salvation.9 He has
not made any other way explicitly known through the Bible. However, if the
world is unaware of its alarming condition, God holds the church responsible to
proclaim the gospel to the lost.
1Known as wider hope positions, the proponents insist that God
makes the offer of salvation in Christ, available even if the church never
takes part in its proclamation. John Sanders, "Evangelical Responses to
Salvation Outside the Church," Christian Scholar's Review, XXIV:I
(September 1994): 45-58.2John Newport, Life's Ultimate Questions, (Grand Rapids:
Baker, 1989), 312.3Carl F. H. Henry, "Is It Fair?" Through No Fault of Their Own?
The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard, William V. Crockett and James G.
Sigountos, eds., 252.4Paul's statement, "For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do
instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to
themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts,
their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or
else defending them" (Rom. 2:14-15, NASB), should be taken as the temporal
application of the law when intuitively understood. Thus, Paul is saying that,
judged by their own earthly standards, the fact that Gentiles both live up to
and fail to live up to this law shows they have a witness of God's holy
standards. In the end, however, their vain attempts at fashioning righteousness
according to their standards will serve to condemn them just as surely as if
they had heard the gospel of Christ and rejected it outright.5R. Douglas Geivett and W. Gray Phillips, "A Particularist View: An
Evidentialist Approach," Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic
World, D. L. Okholm and T. R. Phillips, eds., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1995), 238. The exclusivist (Particularist) position is well articulated in
this article.6Note Paul's deep concern for Israel (see Rom. 9:3-4) and Gentiles
alike (see 2 Cor. 5:18-21; 6:11-18).71 Timothy 2:4 is often cited as an example of God's purpose to
offer salvation universally. However, it must be observed that Paul makes this
statement in the midst of a call to prayer for the peaceful continuation of
civil order. In its context (see 1 Tim. 2:1-7), the verse actually is quite
clear-a tranquil world will allow believers to fulfill God's desire to extend
salvation to all through the literal proclamation of the gospel. Thus, this
verse is in harmony with Romans 10:11-15.8This writer recognizes the two prominent positions among those who
hold to Hell as a true biblical teaching-Traditionalism and Conditionalism.
While most Baptists insist that punishment is eternal-the traditional
view-there are differences of opinion as to the severity of punishment. See
Robert A. Preston, "Hell: Annihilation or Eternal Torment?" Christianity
Today (October 23, 2000), 29-37.9Other means by which the Gospel is communicated include printed
materials, radio, television, internet, etc.
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