Are We Condemning Those Who Never Heard the Gospel?

by Matthew W. Bassford

I received the following question:

"I heard one yesterday I've been pondering. The man said that unless you believe in God you will be lost. So what about all those people who have never had the opportunity? I have him some answers but I'd be interested to hear what you think."

I've run into this one before too. The argument goes like this. If we claim that only those who believe in Jesus Christ can be saved from their sins, we are implicitly condemning everyone who never has heard the gospel (say, for instance, a tribesman in the remotest Amazon basin).

If that's the case, then God is being unfair. After all, those people never had a chance. They are unavoidably lost. As a result, we should conclude that people who have never heard the gospel are somehow saved, perhaps by being good people.

Knowledge of God

Although the argument has considerable appeal (who wants to think of the poor tribesman being lost without ever having heard of Jesus?), there are several problems with it. First, it doesn't account for our universal knowledge of God. As Paul says in Acts 17:26-27, God created us with an inherent impulse to seek Him. Man is an essentially religious animal, and though some may stifle their religious yearnings, they still exist. Similarly, Paul argues in Romans 1:19-20 and Acts 14:17 that God has given us plenty of evidence for His existence, both in the creation itself and in the gifts that He showers on everyone.

Everybody, then, has a yearning for God. Everybody has all the evidence they need to embark on a search for His will. What's more, an honest search for God will always succeed. "Seek, and you will find," Jesus says in Matthew 7:7.

I believe this is true for the Amazonian tribesman too. If he really wants to find God, God will make Himself available. Far be it from me to deny the awesome potential of providence in such a situation! If he doesn't want to find God, that's his fault, not God's.

Culpability for Sin

Second, it doesn't account for our culpability for our own sin. Nobody is required to sin and be lost. We all choose to do so. It's true for us; it's true for the tribesman who (in the language of Romans 1) knows God but refuses to honor Him. We all have a moral sense, and we all violate that moral sense. As a result, the tribesman is no less guilty than we are.

In punishing guilty sinners, wherever they may be found, God isn't being unfair. Indeed, exactly the opposite is true. As Paul writes in Romans 2:9-11, "There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality." When someone who chooses to do evil receives the just punishment for that evil, they have nothing to complain about, regardless of where they live.

Similarly, when God allows us to hear the gospel, He isn't being just. He isn't giving us a fair shake. He's being merciful. He's giving us an opportunity that none of us even come close to deserving. If God is merciful to some and not to others, those who have not received mercy still can't complain. They had their opportunity to please God, and they blew it, not because anybody made them, but because they wanted to. No sinner is entitled to sympathy.

Is the Gospel the Problem?

Third, this argument makes the gospel into the problem rather than the solution. To illustrate this, let's return to our hypothetical tribesman. He's being a "good person" in the way that so many people claim to be today, and because he hasn't heard the gospel, presumably, he's safe from condemnation.

However, if a missionary shows up and preaches the gospel to him, his chances of eternal life have diminished. He was 100 percent safe before he heard the word, but now, he's only going to be safe if he obeys it. Sadly, not all "good people" do obey. Indeed, many disobey because they trust in their own goodness. What's more, even if he does obey, he has to live as a faithful disciple of Jesus, which is considerably more difficult than being a "good person." In my experience, people tend to grade their own goodness on a curve.

In short, what was supposed to be the good news has been very bad news for our tribesman! Before, he wasn't accountable to anybody. Now, he's accountable to Jesus, who demands his whole life.

If this is the nature of the gospel, rather than making sure that as many people hear it as possible, we ought to bury it as deeply as we can. What Paul said of the Law of Moses is also true of the word of Christ: though supposed to bring life, it brings only death. The best thing the human race could do would be to forget that Jesus ever existed. That way, we could all be safe in our sinful ignorance.

Dangerous Hypotheticals

Finally, I think it's worth exploring the spiritual problems that lie behind hypotheticals like this. It functions similarly to the what-ifs surrounding baptism:

  • "What if a tree falls on the guy who's on his way to get baptized?"
  • "What if somebody believes in the middle of the desert, and they don't have enough water for immersion?"

These are always pure hypotheticals. Nobody asks about these situations when they're in them. Nobody, in fact, has any evidence that these things have ever happened.

Instead, people who are not in these situations ask about them in order to provide justification for disobedience to the gospel in the situation they are in. The one who asks about tree accidents and deserts doesn't want to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. The one who asks about the tribesman doesn't want to be saved at all. They offer these questions to provide intellectual cover for their hardheartedness.

The question should never be, "What about Random Imaginary Person?" The question should be, "What about me?" What, in my circumstances, must I do to make my life right with God? The Bible's answers to this question are not always easy, but they are always clear. God is calling. It's up to us to listen.

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