What About Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?

When I was 18 years old, somebody told me about Jesus Christ and the message of salvation.  I am so grateful that this person loved me enough to tell me that I was a sinner and needed to be saved.  But there are millions of people who have never heard the gospel, and countless others who have lived and died without ever knowing the meaning of Christ’s death.  What about them?  Are they lost and doomed for Hell, even though they never heard about Christ?

The Apostle Paul addressed this very issue in his letter to the Romans.  In presenting the theology of the gospel to the Christians at Rome, Paul spends the first three chapters of his letter proving that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).  Putting both the Jewish people and the Gentiles on trial, the Apostle condemns both groups for failing to live up to the truths of God that were revealed to them.  Gentiles know instinctively God’s standards of right and wrong, yet they don’t live up to the light of their conscience (2:1-16).  Jewish people also fail to live up to the light they have been given, because they fail to obey God’s written Law (2:17-29).

However, it is in Romans chapter one where Paul’s words helps us understand whether or not those who die without ever hearing about Jesus Christ are eternally lost.  Reaching back in time to the early days of human history, Paul declares that ancient man suppressed the truth that God was His Creator (Rom. 1:18-19).  Even though he could clearly see the evidence of God’s creative power in nature, he stubbornly refused to glorify Him by acknowledging His supremacy and giving Him thanks (Rom. 1:20-21).  And as a result of refusing to worship God as Creator, mankind was plunged into the darkness of worshipping created beings (Rom. 1:21b-23).  In other words, when man turned away from the truth that God was his Creator, he became an idolater and worshipper of false religion.  No wonder Paul states that ancient man (and by implication anyone who rejects the light that God has given them) “is without excuse” (Rom. 1:20b).

In declaring mankind inexcusable, Paul is clearly asserting that all men are lost regardless of how much they know or don’t know about God.  And the reason for this is because whatever light God reveals to man about Himself—whether it be the light within a man’s conscience, the light of His written Word, or the light of creation—mankind rejects it!  Therefore since all men suppress the truth about God—regardless of the form or content of divine revelation—they would certainly reject the revelation about Jesus Christ and His salvation, if they heard it.

However, if someone who has never heard about Jesus Christ would respond positively to the light of divine revelation, it is reasonable to believe that God would give this person more light until He eventually sent a witness with the message of the gospel.  But the Bible teaches that no man naturally seeks after God, meaning that no one is interested in pursuing a true understanding of God by humbly submitting to Him (Rom. 3:10).  All individuals come into this world dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1-3).  Therefore if someone is to be saved, God must take the initiative by opening their hearts so that they see their need for Christ and come to Him for salvation.

It is important to understand that no one is lost because they don’t believe in Jesus whom they have never heard about.  They are lost because they are rebellious sinners, and God’s holiness and justice demands that their sins be eternally punished.  But Christ was punished on behalf of sinners.  Therefore, those who have come to know and believe in the light of the glorious gospel of Christ are obligated to witness to those who are still in darkness.