What Is the Salvation Status of the Unevangelized?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 2:54pm
QUERY: Is there hope for those who have never heard the Gospel?
ANSWER: Paul’s main point in the first section of Romans (1:18-3:20) is that no one can be saved by the law system, because everyone is a lawbreaker and stands condemned by the rules of that system. In 1:18-32 he applies this even to the Gentiles (those who have never been exposed to special revelation, and who thus know God only through the general revelation of nature and of the law written on their hearts [2:14-15]).
Does this mean the Gentiles will be a special case on the Judgment Day? Paul’s answer is an emphatic NO! The Gentiles (heathen) are NOT a special case. They too are judged and condemned by the law of God, because they DO have law. They do know the law of God as given through general revelation, and they have sinned against it; thus “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20)! Why? “For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks” (1:20-21). Every Gentile is thus without a doubt under the wrath of God (1:18).
What group today would be parallel to the Gentiles about whom Paul is speaking here? With all his emphasis on general revelation, I believe that the members of the world’s population in any era that correspond to Paul’s “Gentiles” are those who know God through general revelation only, who have not been exposed to specially-given revelation of any kind, whether it be law or gospel. We sometimes call them the “unevangelized” or the “unreached” or the “heathen.”
Many Christians today, without having thought the issue through Biblically, have just assumed that the “heathen” will be saved since they have never had a chance to hear the Gospel. Their sentiment is this: “Surely God will not condemn someone for not believing in Christ if that person never even HEARD of Christ.” Such folks, however, need to pay closer attention to the specific teaching of Scripture on the issue. Paul’s whole point in Romans 1:18-32 is that the heathen are in a hopeless state as long as they have only general revelation. Other Scriptures show us that salvation comes only through faith in the Redeemer, Jesus Christ; and that knowledge of him comes only through special revelation. In the NT salvation and eternal life are always connected with knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:16-18; John 17:3; Acts 16:31).
The risen Christ’s “great commission” to Paul (Saul of Tarsus) clearly shows us that the unevangelized of the world are in a state of lostness. He tells Paul that he is being sent to the Gentiles, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). This declares or at least implies that the Gentiles have closed eyes (spiritual blindness), are in darkness (a symbol of falsehood), are under the dominion of Satan, do not have forgiveness of sins, have no inheritance in glory (heaven), and are not a part of the “set-apart” (sanctified) ones. The only thing that can set them apart is to have faith in Jesus.
In Eph. 2:12-13 Paul describes the pagan status of the Ephesian Christians before they were converted: “Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” The words “no hope,” “without God,” and “far off” are clear and decisive. Later in Ephesians Paul declares that Gentiles live “in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (4:17-18). Their ignorance is willful, growing out of the hardness of their heart; and it causes them to be excluded from the life of God.
In Romans 10 Paul explains why so many Jews are lost. The only way to be saved, he says, is to confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (10:9). After thus identifying Jesus as Lord, he quotes Joel 2:32, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (10:13). But the only way anyone can know Jesus as Lord and thus believe on him and call upon his name, in order to be saved, is this: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?… So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (10:14-17).
The conclusion is that the heathen have hope only IF someone takes them the gospel and they accept it. We have no Biblical reason to think they will be saved in any other way. The implication of all of these texts, especially Romans 1:18-32, for the necessity of missions is obvious. As long as the heathen remain heathen (without special revelation), they will be judged and condemned by their law code. Whether they are judged and saved by grace depends upon our obedience to the Great Commission and their acceptance of the gospel.
But what about the question cited above in defense of the automatic salvation of the heathen: “But how can God condemn someone for not believing in Jesus, if that person never even HEARD of Jesus?” This question misses the whole point. It is based on a false assumption, namely, that not believing in Jesus is the reason for this condemnation. But this is not the case. The heathen are NOT condemned for “not believing in Jesus.” They are condemned rather for BREAKING GOD’S LAWS. I.e., they are not judged (either for salvation or condemnation) in relation to that of which they are ignorant, but only in relation to that of which they have knowledge.
(Anyone who actually thinks this way—that the heathen without the gospel are automatically saved—should be adamantly opposed to all missions work. As long as the heathen never hear of Christ [the argument goes], they will be saved by default. But if we take the gospel to them and they reject it, they lose that salvation status. Usually a lot more pagans who hear the gospel reject it than accept it. Thus in the end a lot more people will be in hell because of missionary work than there would have been without it. I guess Jesus just did not understand this when he gave us the Great Commission!)
[The above is taken mainly from my book, “Set Free! What the Bible Says About Grace,” 145-154. One should also see my commentary on Romans 1:18-32.)