What about those who have never heard the gospel?
There was a tension I felt during Pastor Matt’s recent sermon on the Great Commission. It was a good tension. The kind of tension that a good sermon should have, the kind of tension that leads God’s people back to Scripture, to examine, like the Bereans in Acts 17:11, “if these things are so.”
The tension, and the question it brought about in my mind and, very likely, in the minds of many was created by this: Pastor Matt strongly reminded us of the realities of hell—the eternal horrors of hell—and then pressed on us the need to take the gospel to the nations—to the billions of people who have never heard the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Every day, he reminded us, people among these unreached groups die, never having heard the name of Jesus, never having heard of his work, never having heard of the gospel, and they enter a Christless eternity.
And that raises the important question, and incredibly difficult question: What about those who never hear?
What about those who never hear the good news of Jesus? What about those who never hear the message of the forgiveness of sins available through Christ? This is not just a theological quandary that only concerns pastors or academics. This strikes at the bedrock of our faith. Here we’re wrestling with the question: Is God just?
While this could take multiple articles, or several lengthy sermons, I’ll do my best to answer in short form here, and at the end I’ll point you to a few other resources to help you as you wrestle with the answer to this important question. To answer the question, “What about those who never hear the gospel?”, I’ll respond with four statements:
1. God is just.
I begin here because Scripture affirms this truth unequivocally and repeatedly:
- Deuteronomy 32:4 – “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.”
- Daniel 4:37 – “… all his works are right and his ways are just…”
- Revelation 15:3 – “Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!”
That God is just means that we can trust him to do what is right. We will not arrive in eternity and be able to contend that God was ever in the wrong in any of his works or his dealings with man. What that means in this conversation is that we can trust that God will never punish people for not hearing about Jesus; he will punish people for their sins.
God punishes people not for what they don’t know, but only in line with what they do know and reject (see Luke 12:47–48), and Romans 1 tells us that people willfully reject the knowledge of God that is available to them.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.Romans 1:18–23, ESV
All of mankind is “without excuse,” because all of mankind has had God’s “eternal power and divine nature” clearly made known to all of mankind in creation. The millions who turn to idols made by their hands are millions who are rejecting God. And this isn’t just about “them,” this is about our neighbors, and this is about us. I was rejecting God in my own sin when I was turning to my own ways. The same is true for our neighbors who are walking away from God. The same is true for those among the nations who do not know God.
“No one is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10); “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3); “All have sinned” (Romans 3:23). Therefore, there is no such thing as the “good person” or “innocent person” who has never heard. If that were true, that would be to say there are some who have never sinned, and who are only being punished because someone else didn’t tell them the news. On the contrary, all have sinned. God will never mete out an unjust punishment.
2. Christ’s death was necessary.
If there was any other way for people to be saved, then Christ’s death was unnecessary. If there was any other way for people to be saved, the death of the Son of God was nothing to glory in, but only an unjust death that would condemn God Himself of sin. May it never be!
As we continue through the the book of Hebrews over the coming months, we’ll see clearly the absolute necessity of the death of Christ:
- Hebrews 9:22 – “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
- Hebrews 10:4 – “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
- Hebrews 10:10 – “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.”
If people could be saved by their works, Jesus didn’t need to die. If people could be saved by the sacrifices of animals, Jesus didn’t need to die. If other religions were valid means of attaining eternal life, Jesus didn’t need to die. But Jesus died, because there is no other way for man to be saved from sin.
3. God’s promise stands.
God’s promise is this: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). And “if you seek me,” he promises in Jeremiah 29:13 and in 2 Chronicles 15:2 and in Proverbs 8:17, “you will find me.”
The truth is, in his grace and mercy God makes himself known. There are stories of God appearing in frontier missions contexts to individuals in dreams and visions, and then soon after a missionary comes with the gospel of Jesus. We cannot limit what God may do to bring the news of Christ. But people must be saved through the gospel: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The gospel must be heard and understood, and though God may use dreams and visions, far and away the typical way that occurs is by someone bringing them the good news of Jesus.
4. God’s people must bring the message of God’s Son.
All of what has been said leads to this: the work of pioneer missions is absolutely essential for the salvation of people. Pastor Matt was right, because Pastor Matt simply put forward the truth taught in Scripture. We must make disciples. We must go, we must baptize, we must teach. And we must do this because taking the gospel to the nations is the means by which people will be saved.
Paul says it like this in Romans 10:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.Romans 10:9–17, ESV
We send missionaries, we support missionaries, and we ourselves go with the message –– the message of Jesus Christ crucified for sin, risen from the grave, ascended to heaven, and returning in glory –– because this is the means that God uses to save sinners. “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” so may we always be committed to proclaiming that name to our neighbors and to the nations.
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.