I cannot even begin to count the number of people over the years who have asked me, “What happens to people who never get to hear the gospel before they die?” They ask because they are genuinely concerned and wonder what will happen to the eternal souls of those who are never reached with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Justin Taylor deals with this subject in his study on Romans 1.18-21 entitled “What Unbelieving Pagans Know about God and Why They Are Responsible for It.” He makes it perfectly clear that each and every person is responsible for what they do with God. His study also shows us the importance of being ready to share Jesus with everyone we come into contact with.
Mr. Taylor writes:
I am continually amazed at how much dense theology Paul is able to pack into a few lines of a letter. Consider, for example, just four verses: Romans 1:18-21.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 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. 21 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.
Paul has just finished exulting in the “good news” of the gospel (Rom. 1:15-17), but he now begins to paint a contrasting backdrop of the “bad news” for those who rebel against their holy creator. Whereas “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith” to all who believe (vv. 16-17), “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven” against all who suppress God’s truth (v. 18). Paul piles up the terms in reference to the godless Gentiles: on the one hand, “ungodliness and unrighteousness” describes what they do, and on the other hand “by their unrighteousness” is the way in which they go about their work of suppressing truth. The reality of the redundancy is repulsive: by their unrighteousness they perform unrighteousness.
Paul immediately grounds this programmatic statement with the important insight that “what can be known about God is plain to them” (v. 19). Paul is not saying that these unbelievers, apparently without access to special revelation, know everything there is to know about God, but rather that they know everything that has been commonly or generally revealed to all. That is, they know “what can be known.” How does Paul himself know this? How can he claim with certainty what every man knows about God? Has he interviewed them all? In line with his God-centered theology, Paul grounds his own certainty about this universal knowledge in God’s act of common revelation: “God has shown it to them” (v. 19b).
Paul now proceeds to explain in verse 20 how this can be. Note four things.
First, the object of their knowledge is God’s “invisible attributes.” In particular, Paul points to God as Creator with eternality, power, and divinity (“eternal power and divine nature . . . creation of the world”).
Second, he explains the location of their knowledge of these invisible divine attributes: “in the things that have been made.” In other words, his invisible characteristics are found in his visible creation.
Third, he explains the duration of their knowledge, to the effect that this has always been the case: “ever since the creation of the world.”
Fourth, he points to the quality of their knowledge: it is “clearly perceived,” hearkening back to his comment that this knowledge is “plain to them.”
Paul adds all of this together and draws the inescapable conclusion (oun, so, therefore) for those who know God but suppress his truth: “they are without excuse.” None can plead ignorance, therefore none can excuse their moral responsibility and culpability.
Paul continues to explain what he means in verse 21. Their knowledge of God should lead to two appropriate responses, but instead we see two regrettable reversals: (1) they refused to honor God as God and (2) they refused to thank God for his wonderful gifts.
This then yields the two commensurate results: (1) they became futile in their thinking and (2) their foolish hearts were darkened.
In the remainder of this first chapter Paul unfolds the consequences for this knowledge-suppressing behavior, showing the further descent into the darkness of idolatry in light of God’s inaugurated eschatology of judgment.
Studying just these few verses gives us enormous insight into what the pagans know and why they are responsible. May it motivate us to bring the gospel to those who are both near and far.