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.
This became a topic in a class I attended recently on The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. The question came up about people who had never heard the gospel and their ability to be saved. Our leader, to our shock, said He thought that God would provide another way for them. So, here is my question from your blog. What if a person accepts creations testimony about God? If these people can “know what can be known” about God – His invisible attributes, and if they do give Him honor and thanks, then is that salvation for them if they never hear about Jesus? Can you accept Jesus, yet never know His name? Can they by faith accept that God provided a way for them without knowing the details? I believe Jesus is the only way- that there can not be another way to God except through Him.
I too believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and I believe that God is the dispenser of His grace. God does not have a “Plan B” in case Christians fail to share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. If it were possible to go to heaven because someone had never heard for whatever reason, then the most cruel thing we could ever do is talk about Jesus. Our evangelistic efforts would move them from the uninformed and heaven-bound into the the informed and damned. However the truth is, everyone is separated from God because they are born a sinner; therefore, they must be forgiven of their sin nature. Jesus is the one and only sacrifice for sin which God has accepted as payment in full for our salvation.
So, what do we do with someone on an island that has never heard of Jesus and yet they know there is Creator? Abraham didn’t know Jesus, but he knew God’s promise. He didn’t know or understand God’s plan for salvation, but he believed God. I use these examples to say this, God knows the heart of man, God moves the heart of man, grace is God’s unmerited gift; therefore it is God who dispenses grace. God will save those who have a repentant heart. Can a native who has never heard the gospel come to the realization that there is a holy Creator to be worshipped, but cannot be approachable because of personal sin? Can he pursue a God who has only revealed Himself through creation as well as His written law on the heart of man? Can he really be saved by only crying out to God (not knowing God is Father, Son, and Spirit)? The only answer I know is that He moved me. I was a rebel raised knowing the Word of God and yet I lived for myself. God showed me my sin and need for forgiveness. There is no greater sinner or a more disobedient rebel than the person we see in the mirror each morning. If God can reach me then He is able to reach anyone.
Thanks. Your answer reflected what I was trying to say in my heart. You have put it to words for me.
I just read CS Lewis’s autobiography on his conversion. At first Lewis thought of us as being part of a drama before God and that God would not want to meet one of the characters any more than Shakespeare wanted to meet Hamlet. Then, as God worked in his heart he realized that if Hamlet was to meet Shakespeare that it would be totally up to Shakespeare to negotiate the meeting…therefore God set up the meeting for us to meet Him through Jesus. It was the same way with you and with me, God initiated our meeting Him by reavealing Himself to us…an act of grace and mercy. Again Thanks.
We have to go and tell.
Thanks for the quote from CS Lewis, it fit perfectly with what we were saying.
I absolutely believe that one could be saved without ever hearing the name “Jesus”. Remember, the name of Jesus is not what saves man, it is the man Jesus Himself that saves. I believe that everyone is responsible for the knowledge and information they have. For us in America, we have no excuses by saying we have never heard of Jesus. But for others who live in countries whose governments are corrupt and disallow christian bibles or missionaries to enter those areas. In that case, I believe that God saves them based on their response to whatever knowledge they have in Him. Therefore, if I was a person living in an area where no missionaries were allowed and no bibles were allowed, if I had even a hint that there was some being that was great an mighty and I believed in that, then I would have to say that God would save them. It is not their fault that they are in an area where no bibles or missionaries are allowed. Thus, I again think that it is based on what knowledge they might have about some being.
Obviously there are differing opinions on this subject; however, I think we can get too caught up discussing the “Straw man on an island” and forget what is important. We don’t know if the straw man has any idea of God, Jesus, salvation, sin, heaven, or hell; therefore we need to make sure we are doing everything possible to find the man, woman, or child on the island and tell them the good news. Speculating on what he may or may not know might give us hope for his eternal soul. However, what we know for certain is this, without any knowledge of God, Christ, salvation, or sin he will spend eternity in Hell.
No, I disagree with you regarding the fact that someone has to have knowledge of God or Jesus. What I believe for those who have never heard of Jesus or God, or the Bible is that whatever knowledge is given to them, if they have a mindset that there is some being out there and embrace this, I believe they are saved because God is merciful. There are many tribes that have “spirit gods” that live in the middle of nowhere. These tribes depend on their god for their provision such as food and water, much like we depend on God for ours. Even though they may not know the name Jesus or know that He died for sins, the fact that they depend on something greater, I believe God saves them based on that limited knowledge. What would you say about kids who are born with down syndrome and end up in this same condition into adulthood. I personally know folks with down syndrome that are unable to care for themselves and have IQ’s equivalent to two to as high as eight year olds. Would you say that these people go to hell not ever really hearing or understanding the gospel or God, or Jesus? What about the old testament saints who did not know the name, Jesus? What about babies who never understand the gospel? I’d have to believe that God is merciful and saves those who are incapable of hearing or understanding God or Jesus or salvation and that includes babies, those with mental or chemical issues, and those who never hear the gospel.
Babies and adults with Downs are in a completely different catagory – they are not held accountable for sin.
As I said in an earlier reply, “God is the dispenser of grace.” I am not sure how He deals with those who respond to Him with repentant hearts who have never heard about Jesus. However, I am sure those who do not repent and have never turned to God will most certainly go to Hell. So my point was, we need to make every effort to get the good news of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. This will make sure that everyone knows about God.
In regard to your statements about babies and those with special needs, here is a link to a video by John Piper on the age of accountability that I believe answers your questions.
Thanks for the reply!