What happens to those who have never heard of Christ?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I have been debating free will lately with some friends, and the same question in opposition to my defense against it always comes up. I believe the Bible teaches that the truth of God is made plain to everyone and that all people, (except those in the age of innocence) are without excuse before God. Everyone was given a “taste” of God via his creation — enough where they should seek him further. Yet, they ignore or reject that revelation. I base this on Romans 1:18-20.

I find myself being confronted with the same question each time I discuss this. If what I’ve said is true — that all are without excuse... and that all who do not accept the Gospel are destined for hell — what about unreached people groups? What about the rainforest dwellers who kill and think nothing of it? What about those who have no knowledge of the truth, and no desire to even seek after such a thing? What about those who have no access to the Gospel, and don't have a clue that there is a holy God… and that we humans are fallen… totally depraved (Romans 3:23) … and cannot stand before this God: are they going to hell?

I sat yes because we all are without excuses — but I am only speculating. So, I am open to any thoughts. I find this subject challenging and am not quite settled on an answer. I do not doubt the age of innocence when it comes to children, but what about fully-thinking, understanding but unreached adults? Are they innocent too?

Answer: Greetings friend. The good news is you are right where you should be concerning Romans 1:18-20, so my objective is to help you continue down that road to the place where salvation through Christ is preserved and where God is not seen as unjust.

One of your statements confuses me, though. You said, “And, it seems as though the same question in opposition to my defense against it always comes up.” This sentence sounds like you are against free will… while the rest of your question seems to argue for it. I am more committed to human free will than I am to any other doctrine. But this is a personal distinctive; it’s not one held by every ministry. Just keep this in mind as I answer.

You revealed one of the foundations of your worldview in your question: you take God at his word — that the things he created reveal enough about him so that people are without excuse if they miss creation’s testimony to his power and deity. You get that information from the Bible... so I know that you respect the Scripture. But before we go too far down this road, let me add one more leg to this stool so it doesn’t fall over: the human conscience.

“(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)” (Romans 2:14–15, NIV)

Although we humans are technically part of creation and can come under Romans 1:18-20, it will be more helpful going forward to separate humanity so we can see what special beings we are. We are primarily souls... so this means that our “essential selves” are metaphysical. We are not bodies that have souls; we are souls that have bodies.

But it happens that we are biological entities too — so this makes us “part” of the physical creation… but if I may boast, we are one of its wonders! We are also the purpose for creation... and for this reason alone, we should consider human beings separately.

But what really separates us in the animal kingdom is that we are the only creatures that have consciences, and these consciences account for the ubiquitous morality found among all cultures throughout all time. The fact that we all possess and can recognize this moral centering is itself a revelation from God.

Even the person who has talked himself into ignoring the probability that an all-powerful being created the physical universe finds a connection to the Creator within himself in the form of the human conscience. Every one of the unreached people in your question has one — and that’s merely one of God’s revelations to them.

Now, whether or not people listen to their consciences is another question, but every human is “stuck” with that revelation and every human being is, therefore, without excuse.

The apparentness of the human conscience is the basis for The Moral Argument for the Existence of God — one of the many pro-theistic arguments from philosophy. I will give you a link later to more information on this argument. It is another one you can use to support your “no excuses” stand.

In a similar vein to God and equipping us with the moral compass, he has also put eternity in our hearts. Even the isolated pagan wrestles with the idea that he is more than his physical self. And if he is more than his physical self, then what kind of being might he be? At this point, the pagan is confronted with transcendence. There is existence beyond the physical creation… and, therefore, we exist after death.

You see, we were not created as blank slates. We were created optimized in certain ways to have fellowship with God — and understanding eternity is one of them! Since this too is a revelation from God, it is a type of light... and it is another reason why the pagan is without excuse.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11–13, NIV)

I’ve been a Christian and a Bible student for fifty years now, and I am convinced that God is in the revealing business more than he is in the concealing business. In fact, I find him to be quite a proactive revealer. In the following two verses, note that the Father “imposes” his revelation on people. Note also that he is busy “drawing” people to Jesus.

“I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’” (Isaiah 65:1, NIV)

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:44, NIV)

As you can see, Scripture and the cosmos are not God’s only revelations. I’ve been compiling a list of them that includes the four I’ve already mentioned, and at this time, I have isolated eight ways that God reveals himself. Now, the list is growing, but at eight, I don’t think God has to apologize to anyone — including the pagans.

  1. We have written revelation in the Scripture (Psalm 119:105; Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16).
  2. We have a salvific revelation in the Gospel (Mark 16:15; John 3:16; Acts 16:31).
  3. We have a living revelation in Jesus Christ (John 1:1; John 4:13-14; 1 John 5:11-13).
  4. We have a spiritual revelation in the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; Romans 8:14; Revelation 2:7; 22:17).
  5. We have a general revelation in the created universe (Genesis 1:1; Romans 1:18-20; Hebrews 11:3).
  6. We have a philosophical revelation in human intelligence (Isaiah 1:18; Romans 1:20; James 1:5).
  7. We have a moral revelation in human morality (Jeremiah 31:33; Matthew 5:48; Romans 2:14-15).
  8. We have a revelation of the transcendent in human sensitivity to the eternal (Ecclesiastes 3:11-15).

So far, I have made the argument that God’s revelation is sufficient — which is (what I consider to be) a complete answer. But I would like to add a Molinist’s perspective to this answer because Molinism helps a person maintain robust support of human free will — but while still subscribing to God’s election. It also answers the question, should pagans who have never heard the gospel receive a pass on salvation?

Most Christians agree that God knows everything. But what does “everything” include? Every actual thing? Or every possible thing? I say the latter. If that were not true, then there would be things that our “omniscient” God did not know!

But you can’t just nod in agreement here: if God knows every possible thing, then he knows the infinite number of things that would happen when acted upon by an infinite number of variables. That’s an astounding feat — and that’s the basis of Molinism. So, let’s take a moment to look at knowledge per se.

God knows what has happened and is happening; that’s simple knowledge. He also knows what will happen; that is foreknowledge! But he also knows what would happen under certain circumstances. We Molinists call that his “middle knowledge” ... and this is the secret to how God can elect us while we maintain our libertarian free will.

You see, God knows how every individual would respond in every circumstance. This means that he knows how an individual will respond to the gospel, to the cosmos, to his own conscience — and all the other revelations we’ve already talked about — and find his way to God via the light they give. He also knows under what circumstances a person will or will not respond to that light.

Look at me for instance. God arranged things so I would be born in the USA on a certain date where I would — on my own accord — respond positively to the gospel. I guess that there is an infinite number of scenarios where I would not have responded positively to God! But God did not actuate any of those lives. He actuated the life I’m in the process of living, and the choices I’m making along the way are not predetermined, just pre-known.

Where the rubber meets the road, I make real choices in real-time, and these choices determine my future. God saw the particular life I am living... but he did not cause it. He actuated it… and what I do with my life is all on me.

There you have it — a one-two punch: God has revealed himself in many more ways than people usually give him credit for, and God tested every individual under every circumstance to see what they would freely do with the gospel or the light of his various revelations. As such, the lost are without an excuse for missing salvation, and all the saved people have no excuse for not living what would have been their optimal spiritual life.

William Lane Craig of Reasonable Faith Ministries is the credentialed champion of Molinism. I’ll include links to his introductory video about Molinism, a video about the Moral Argument and a link to a list of five-minute videos that cover a bunch of topics that I’m guessing a guy like you would be interested in.

I enjoyed our time together. Here are the links. God bless you.

Introduction to Molinism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IurPYaB0JGs

The Moral Argument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OxiAikEk2vU&t=5s 

A list of videos that might pique your interest: https://mainsailministries.org/index.php/handy-data/756-a-list-of-short-videos-from-reasonable-faith-ministries.html

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20210111 What happens to those who have never heard of Christ?).

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