I will never forget the day I sat across from a group of young men who had recently become Christians. They had grown-up in a country with very few Christians and with a very limited access to the gospel. They received Christ with great joy, but were then immediately struck by the reality that no-one else in their families, living or dead, had heard this message. They asked me, “What is to become of our family? No one ever told them about Jesus?”
Questions about what happens to unevangelized and the exclusivity of the gospel is more than an intellectual or theoretical exercise. It is attached to faces, names, and experiences. Honestly, I wish I could ignore the question; however, the consequences are too great. Millions have not heard and, I believe the Bible is clear, unless a person hears the gospel and personally responds in faith, there is no hope for salvation. People are not protected from God’s wrath because they have never heard. God’s mercy and justice do not allow for a broader path to forgiveness through ignorance.
Humans are found guilty and condemned because of personal sin and idolatry.
One of the reasons many want to believe that those who have never heard can be saved is based on hopeful sentimentality. Many operate under the mistaken belief that those who have not heard are innocent; however, the Bible does not allow us to maintain this belief. Some use a phrase ‘noble savage’ to describe those who live in ignorance; however the book of Romans describes the tragic human reality and shatters the myth of a pristine/innocent unbeliever. According to Romans 1, all people are idol worshipers. Men and women experience inward emptiness or guilt and are surrounded by God’s creation. Neither of these realities draw humans to God; instead, humans fashion religion (or man-made worship) to eliminate guilt or they worship the creation as divine. Both of these reactions violate God’s first and second commandment. There is not a man or a woman on the planet who has not sinned, who has not created idols and worshiped wrongly.
Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.”
Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death. . .”
One cannot claim those who have not heard must be right with God in their ignorance because the truth is, they are enemies of God because of their knowledge.
The mandate and mission of the Scriptures exposes the futility of this claim.
Many have observed, if a person is free from judgement as long as they remain ignorant, then the most wicked and cruel act anyone could commit would be to tell them the gospel. If ignorance was an excuse, then telling instantly creates culpability. By preaching, you have condemned some to hell. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows us that the original Christians were compelled to proclaim the message of Christ to the whole world, not merely those close to home who had heard. They proclaimed the message far and wide because Jesus had commanded them to. Paul writes that his passion was to, “Evangelize where Christ has not been named.” (Rom 15:20). This goal cost him his life. He sought to evangelize to the ends of the earth because he knew that God’s gift of salvation, placed him under obligation to those who had never heard. (Rom1:14-15)
It may be possible for someone who does not affirm the full authority and sufficiency of scripture to embrace a broader path of inclusivism with regards to those who have never heard. But, I do not believe that anyone who takes the Scriptures seriously can do so without denying significant parts of the New Testament.
The consequences are too great to be wrong on this issue
Philosophers refer to Pascal’s Wager as an apologetic reason to believe in God or for a person to become a Christian. In Pascal’s work Pensèes he spells out a simple bet. To summarize, a person must choose to believe (bet) there is a God or not. If a person believes in God and God exists, she has won everything. If God does not exist, she has lost nothing. However, if she does not believe in God and he does exist, she has lost everything. The wise bet, he claimed was to believe in God. Now, through the years philosophers have shown that this logical formula is problematic. For the sake of this post, we will leave these discussions to my philosopher colleagues. However, when considering the implications of our current discussion, the eternal state of the unevangelized, a similar wager could be used. If (unconvinced by my previous two points) someone believed that those who had never heard would not face God’s judgement, no harm has been done by aggressively seeking to obey Jesus’ commission to make disciples of all nations. However, if I am right, then our lack of obedience sentences millions to an eternal separation from God. This consequence is simply too great.
Sometimes, when I travel places where clear proclamation of the gospel is absent and when I talk with people who reject the message because mine is the first encounter with it, I wish I could believe differently. The numbers are so great, eternity is so long, the penalty for sin and idolatry is so severe. However, my heart and mind is captive to the Word of God, and I believe that Scripture clearly teaches that a person must hear the gospel and intentionally place their faith in Christ to be saved.
Scott Hildreth is the director of the Lewis A. Drummond Center for Great Commission Studies. He frequently speaks on issues of missions, spiritual formation, missiology, and theology. Scott also contributes to SEBTS faculty blog www.betweenthetimes.com