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What About Those Who Have Never Heard?

By Clete Hux –

Today we are told we must be tolerant of other people’s beliefs.  Of course, what this means, in politically correct terms, is that, as a Christian, I cannot claim to have found the “only” truth in Christ.  If I do, then obviously I’m biased and am disqualified from rendering an impartial judgment as to the validity of any religious claims.  The contemporary mindset says that we should “live and let live”, viewing all religions as having been approved by God as “equal access” to Him.

With such religious pluralism Christianity loses its unique claims and becomes just one of many paths to God.  Sophy Burnham, a New Age guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show, explained it this way:  “God is like the center or hub of the wagon wheel and each spoke leads to God.  For someone who thinks Buddha is God, that’s very special.  For someone who thinks Allah is God, that is very special.  Fore someone who thinks Jesus is God, that’s very special; we must see each respect one another’s entry into God.”^[1]^ Obviously, if this were the correct position to hold, we would have to rephrase Jesus’ words in John 14:6 to read:  “I am a way, a truth, and a life.  Anyone can come to the God of his own personal choice in any way he or she wants.”

But since there is only one God, it is reasonable that this one God would have only one way He can be approached salvifically.  Scripture supports this.  As a Christian, I believe that, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Cor. 5:19), and that Christ is the “only mediator between God and man” (I Tim. 2:15).   To this end, Jesus was an exclusivist in matters of truth.  He said, “the way is broad that leads to destruction, and many are those who enter by it.  For the gate is small, and the way is narrow that leads to life, and few are those who find it” (Matt. 7:13-14; see also John 10:1-11; 14:6; Acts 4:12).  From such statements we can conclude that any broad accommodation of other paths to God is ruled out, and only “those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13).  God has revealed that faith in His Son is crucial (Eph. 2:8-9) and that this faith comes by “hearing” the Word of God (Rom. 10:17).

The Question of the “Heathen”

Of course, this can lead skeptics to raise a very common objection.  If faith in Christ is the only way to God, what about those who have never heard that He is the only way?  What about those who have never heard the gospel and have never had the opportunity to respond to Christ in faith—the so-called “heathen” in unreached people groups?  Can a person get to God without hearing?

The objection is typically couched in terms of what one thinks is fair or unfair.  It goes this way:  “It’s not fair for God to send someone to hell simply because they haven’t heard that Jesus is the only way a person can get to heaven.”  Reason tells them that such a person will never have the opportunity to accept or reject the gospel.  They will never see a Bible or hear a missionary bringing such a message.  So, how would it be fair for God to judge people by sending them to hell if they haven’t heard?

This concern for justice leads some to adopt inclusivism which tries to open the door of salvation wider through “general revelation” (See Ron Nash’s discussion of inclusivism elsewhere in this issue).  It is assumed that unreached people can recognize a single moral supreme being as their Creator and that they may honor and worship Him according to the light shown them through the world of creation and conscience.  Francis Schaeffer has remarked that such people have been called “noble savages,” people capable of living up to the light that’s been shown to them.^[2]^

Even if general revelation was sufficient to produce salvation, we still have to ask the question:  Has the “heathen” or anyone really lived up to that light in creation and conscience?  The answer is quite obvious: no—they haven’t.  If there is any possibility whatsoever to live up to that light, then we wouldn’t need Christ, because in the end we would have two competing ways of salvation.  One by general revelation; the other by special revelation.

Not that there is anything deficient in general revelation.  In and of itself it is perfectly capable of doing what it is designed to do.  Its post-Fall purpose is to confirm God’s existence through conscience and creation and to render us without excuse (Rom. 1:19-20).  In cooperation with God’s law written upon the heart of every man (Rom. 2:17), general revelation creates the need for salvation, but cannot produce it.  It is incapable of producing salvation because God never designed it to do so.  What it does do is reveal to us very clearly our fallen condition.

The Scriptures teach that man, in any culture, suppresses the truth of God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:18).  For instance, the head-hunter hunts heads, but resents his own head being hunted; the pick-pocket picks pockets, but resents his own pocket being picked.  Each suppresses the truth in his unrighteousness in that he recognizes God’s moral law when he is wronged, but excuses his own immoral behavior.  This shows they are sinners in need of a Savior.  God has to do something for them that the light of conscience and creation could never do.  General revelation, with it’s inability to verbally communicate God’s redemptive plan to man, must give way to “word” or special revelation.  Just as God did not intend for man to be saved by general revelation, He did not intend for man to be condemned by special revelation (John 3:17-18).  His intention is to save by the “spoken word” of special revelation (Rom. 10:17), and to use fallible human beings as His instruments to accomplish this (Rom. 10:19-20).

If this seems too narrowly exclusive a way, we must ultimately deal with God’s word.  The Bible is our rule for faith and practice.  And it is the Bible that teaches that faith in Christ is the only way.  But, we can clarify a few things to show that what the Bible teaches on this matter is not unfair.  First, God doesn’t send people to hell because they haven’t heard.  He sends people to hell because of sin (Rom. 6:23), and since “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23), God would be just in condemning all, including the one who hasn’t heard.  An analogy may help.  A terminally ill person dies of disease, not ignorance of its cure.  It is the sickness that kills him, not the fact that he has no access to the right medicine.  Likewise, the sinner perishes because of his sin, not because he hasn’t heard.

Second, we must not forget that salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9).  Anyone who is saved is saved not because he deserves it, not because he is innocent, but because God has decided to be merciful.  This means also that if God chose not to save anyone he would be perfectly just.  And if he chose to save only some, and allowed others to perish as they deserve, he would still be just.  God is not unjust or unfair if he doesn’t give everyone an equal opportunity to be saved.  As God himself puts it, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Rom. 9:15).

Can What You Don’t Know Hurt You?

“Ignorance is bliss” is the obvious presupposition of some who raise the fairness issue.  It is argued that since those without special revelation from God don’t know about God’s redemptive plan, they can’t be “lost” for not accepting it.  “After all,” someone might say, “how can we hold them accountable for what they don’t know?”  It’s the old cliché “what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”  But human beings are lost because of what they are, not because of what they know.

Such is the effect of the gospel: it separates and divides (Heb. 4:12; Matt. 25:31-33).  But it doesn’t endanger the souls of blissfully ignorant noble savages.  All souls are in danger prior to hearing the gospel just as a sick person is in danger prior to hearing about or receiving the cure.  The gospel brings salvation to those endangered souls who believe it.  And those who don’t believe it were already infected with the deadly disease of sin before they heard it

Pragmatically, if this “ignorance is bliss” approach is correct, we should discourage missionary efforts, because the less people know about the gospel, the better off they are.  They are all the more safe before God in their ignorance.  Let me explain what I mean: If we sent a missionary with the good news, could we expect any shake-up in the ignorant heathens’ salvific security?  Let’s say that he has great success with his message.  He wins half of them.  But, before we sent him, the assumption was that they were all safe before God.  Now only half of them are safe.  The half that responded to the message are now secure in their saving knowledge of Christ; but the half that heard but rejected the gospel are now in spiritual danger.  Are we to conclude that the missionary’s “good news” was really all that good?  It seems that he creates insecurity for as many people as he does security.  If this were the case, then to insure the safety of those not hearing we should discourage missions altogether.  In fact, we should do all that is possible to rid all societies of its influence.  We should destroy all Bibles and churches, and make it illegal for such to exist.  Then in a matter of a hundred years or so, everyone would be safe.

But all aren’t safe—none are (Rom. 2:11-12; 3:10).  The “safety of the heathen” theory is a fallacy.  They are sinners just like everyone else.  Peoples’ souls are in jeopardy and they need to be told so and given hope that there is real safety in Christ, who is God’s last word to man (Heb. 1:1-2), who became flesh (John. 1:14), and when people receive Him, they receive life (John. 1:12; I John. 5:11-13).

The apostle Paul in Romans 10:13-15 expresses it this way:

For whosoever will call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.  How then shall they call upon Him in who they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him, whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?  Just as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring glad tidings of good things!”

Did you notice how the apostle answers each rhetorical question with another?  At last, he says that there is no substitute for the messenger and the message.  Therefore, we must not be like the reluctant preacher, Jonah, who apparently didn’t think highly enough of the souls of God’s enemies.  I like what one Radio Bible Class teacher said years ago:

We have our own “enemies” that we aren’t interested in telling about Jesus.  Fear of rejection, skepticism, or mocking can cripple us.  We are often more concerned about our own comfort and “our own kind” of people than we are in taking a risk and proclaiming Jesus to a needy world.  And we can become so wrapped up in God’s hatred of sin that we forget His great love for the sinner.^[3]^

We should never forget the risk of rejection that God took by sending His Son.  But He “so loved the world” that He took the risk.  He wants us to do the same, promising that the gospel is not only good news, but the power of God for salvation (Rom. 1:16-17).  It is our own commission from God and it is a “great” one too (Matt. 28:19-20).

What About Those Who Can’t Hear?

Closely related to the question of the heathen, there is another group that appears to be unreachable as far as “hearing” is concerned.  What about those dying in infancy or the mentally incapable?  Are they elect and is Jesus their Savior too?  Or do they perish?  This is harder to answer than the “heathen” question because the Bible says so little about it.  However, the Westminster Confession of Faith states what I take to be the biblical view:

Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth.  So also are all other elect persons, who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word (Chap. X, Section III).

G.I. Williamson, in his commentary on this confession says,

Except in such cases as these, regeneration takes place in connection with the use of the means of grace which God himself has appointed.  But there are some who are incapable of understanding the Spirit’s word, not merely for reasons of spiritual inability but also from natural incapacity.  That is, because of dying in infancy or being mentally deficient, they would not be able to understand the gospel even though regenerated.  It must be admitted, of course, that the data of Scripture concerning the salvation of such is meager in comparison with that provided for many other subjects.  Christ said that little children and even tiny infants are, as such, members of the Kingdom (Luke 18:15,16 and parallel passages).  And David seems to express the view that infants dying in infancy may be saved (II Sam. 12:33).  But beyond these few statements, and good and necessary inferences which may be drawn from Scripture, there is strict limitation placed upon what we may legitimately say in this matter. It is important to note, therefore, that the original formulation of the Westminster Confession does carefully observe this limitation.  It only says “elect infants, dying in infancy,” without attempting to speculate as to how many or few there may be of such persons.  And the same is true of “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the word.”  Conceivably these could be very few in number, or very many.   The important thing is that since Scripture does not say, we may and dare not either.^[4]^

Williamson concludes,

All men sinned in Adam and fell with him in his first transgression (Rom. 5:12). It is wholly within the just administration of God therefore to condemn all to everlasting punishment.  If infants dying in infancy are human, they are also such as sinned in Adam and they are therefore guilty and liable to damnation.  If they are to be saved it can never be ‘because it would be unjust for God to condemn them’, but only because he has elected them to eternal life which they do not deserve.

We can assert that there are elect infants who die in infancy.  We can also assert that believers have special warrant to hope that their infants who die in infancy are such (Lk. 18:15, 16, II Sam. 12:23; Acts 2:28, 39, Ezek. 16:20,21).  Beyond this we may not go. We may legitimately hope, but we may not demand.^[5]^

In the end, if God decides to reveal himself to some, none can say that He’s done wrong (Rom. 9:15-16).  The amazing thing is that he saves any.  We should be thankful that He has been gracious, and go and extend the gospel to all so that they may hear and be saved.

Rev. Clete Hux (M.Div., Birmingham Theological Seminary) is the Cult Specialist for the Apologetics Resource Center.

This article may be found in the Areopagus Journal Politically Incorrect Faith Volume 1 Number 3

NOTES

i Quote from the Oprah Winfrey Show (Date unknown); tape on file at ARC.
ii Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Westchester: Crossway, 1986), 154.
iii Robert A. Morey, A Christian Handbook for Defending the Faith(Phillipsberg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979), 43.

iv Martin R. DeHaan II, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1988), 29.

v G.I. Williamson, Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1964), 92.

vi Ibid.


[1] Quote from the Oprah Winfrey Show (Date unknown); tape on file at ARC.

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (Westchester: Crossway, 1986), 154.

[3] Martin R. DeHaan II, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Grand Rapids: Radio Bible Class, 1988), 29.

[4] G.I. Williamson, Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1964), 92.

[5] Ibid.

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