What About Those who Haven’t Heard?
In this article, we answer the question of those who haven’t heard the Gospel by looking at what we do know, resisting the temptation to make dogmatic statements about what we don’t know.
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“What about those who haven’t heard the Gospel?” is a question regularly asked. Of course, the immediate answer is: “Well, they need to hear. They need to witness God’s love in deed and word. Is He perhaps calling you to take His Gospel to them?”
After giving this immediate answer its dues, it is worth pausing to reflect on the depth of emotion behind this question. It is a question worthy of a more earnest answer. Why? Because as sincere as we may be in our concern for the post-mortem destiny of those who have not had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, God is much, much more concerned. Our compassion for them is the proverbial drop in the ocean compared to our loving Father who is “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9).
The question of those who haven’t heard the Gospel is worthy of a careful answer because it reflects on God’s character. At the heart of this question is yet another question: “Is God fair?”
Another reply to the question of those who haven’t heard the Gospel goes something like this: “Unfortunately, those who haven’t heard will be lost forever”. This callous response not only lacks nuisance, but it also impinges on the loving, just nature of God because of its simplistic, if not plainly arrogant, tone.
Imagine a child brought up in the jungles of South America, never given the opportunity to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Imagine for a moment that at the age of sixteen, she slips down a ravine and plunges to her tragic death. She awakes in the next moment before her Creator and Judge. Does He reject and banish her forever? Surely a dogmatic “yes” answer does bring into question the fairness of the God of love.
This article aims to answer this vital question with an honest search for truth, and a determined quest to avoid a pat, clichéd response. Towards this aim, I acknowledge that this article is neither comprehensive nor conclusive, and it may well stir up more questions than answers. I think that’s a good thing. Complex, nuanced subjects deserve probing, reflective thought.
Cards on the table: first and foremost, I believe in the justice (fairness) of God as revealed in the Scriptures. At death, every human being will face their Maker and Judge (Hebrews 9:27) and give an account to Him (Romans 2:6, 2 Corinthians 5:10). God will judge the motives of every human heart (1 Corinthians 4:5).
However, it’s worth underlying the fact that WE do NOT know the contents of any individual’s heart, nor should we guess.
God alone is our “Righteous Judge” (2 Timothy 4:8) upon whose mercy we all must fall. The Scriptures repeatedly teach us to walk in humility, rather than make dogmatic assertions, especially where it does not do so itself.
Jesus hinted that there will, in fact, be a few surprises when the accounting is done (Matthew 7:21-23). While this is not a reason for us to doubt our salvation, for assurance is ours as we place our faith in His Word (John 20:30, 31) and enjoy the indwelling witness of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:14-17), it certainly is reason for us to avoid assuming the place of judge and jury.
So, let’s stick to the facts that we do know.
Fact #1 Creator and Father of All
God is the Creator and Father of all people.
More than we can even begin to fathom, God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Afterall, He is the Father of ALL humanity.
Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?”
It is a mistake to assume that only Christians are children of God, as some imply. Yes, when we put our faith in Jesus, we unwrap the full sublime privilege (and responsibility) of what it means to walk with the Father as His child (John 1:12). However, God is both Creator and Father of all humanity.
Tellingly, Jesus’ metaphor for ‘lost people’ was that of “orphans”, whose base need was restoration with their Father (John 14:18). He also likened those lost to “chicks” He wanted to gather to Himself like a mother hen (Matthew 23:37). Matthew reveals that Jesus viewed those lost as “sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36)—in a culture, remember, where the shepherd essentially viewed his sheep as part of the family. And to the pagans in Athens, Paul quoted one of their own poets, reminding them that we are all “the offspring of God” (Acts 17:28, 29).
Until we put our faith in Jesus, the sublime blessedness of our identity as children is lost on us. That is why we’re lost. We seek to define reality (good and evil) on our own terms rather than trusting our Father. We think and behave like orphans. Yet the Father’s plan of redemption is to restore His lost children to Himself.
God’s Father-heart expressed in Jesus is the start and end point of all our theology—and the basis for how we answer all our theological questions, including the question of those who haven’t heard.
The Father’s Goodness
Before even sending Jesus, Father God gave every human being a head start, or more to the point, a ‘heart start’. Paul makes it clear that God has put in every human heart a moral compass, a “conscience”, by which we may know right and wrong (Romans 2:12-16). Yes, this conscience can be seared through persistent wilful rebellion or demonic entanglement (1 Timothy 4:1, 2); however, God is both good and just, and He has given every human being a resource in their own heart to search for truth.
A comparative study of the world’s religions reveals that they all agree on some basis for morality. For example, every world religion teaches some version of the Golden Rule: Do not do to others what you do not want done to you. While Jesus turned this negative, reciprocal morality into a proactive, love-defined morality—“just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them” (Luke 6:31)—the fact that every religion reveals some basis for morality serves to confirm that the Creator put a moral compass in our hearts. And thus, Father God enables all people to seek for truth.
Moreover, the Father displays His glory through the created world. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen” (Romans 1:20). His majesty is felt in the watching of a sunrise and heard in the cooing of an infant. His fingerprints are evident as we marvel at the cosmos through a telescope and as we wonder at the cell through a microscope. Like the father who leaves his foot dangling from beneath the curtain so that his four-year-old daughter will find him in a hide-and-seek game, the Father longs to be found by His children.
If there is hope for those who have not heard the Gospel, it’s based on the Father’s love for His children.
Fact #2 Heaven’s Population
Heaven will include people, made righteous by God, who never heard the Name of Jesus while they lived on earth.
Here I refer, of course, to Old Testament believers—and not just Abraham, Moses and David, but also people like the Canaanite prostitute Rahab (Hebrews 11:8, 23, 31, 32). They never so much as heard the Name of Jesus but were redeemed through acknowledging their need for a deliverer and their faith that God alone could redeem them. In a sense, they put their faith in the Messiah who was to come, even as we put our faith in the Messiah who has come. The writer to the Hebrews makes just this point (Hebrews 11:39-12:2).
And the implications are powerful. Their faith in God—and the salvation that they realised only He could provide—brought them redemption, even though they did not know the incarnate Jesus. God looked ahead, down the line of time, to Jesus’ work on the cross FOR them and applied His substitutionary death TO them.
Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, many years after their death, secured their post-mortem destiny when, in death, they faced their Father and Judge. It may be a mind-twister, but the scope of Jesus’ Victory transcends space and time.
If there is hope for those who have not heard the Gospel, it’s based on Jesus’ all-complete, all-sufficient work as the Saviour of the whole world.
And He Himself is the propitiation of our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.”
(1 John 2:2)
Trusting in this scope of salvation takes a faith that puts no time or space limits on the reach of Jesus’ Victory.
Fact #3 God’s Faithfulness
Father God is faithful; He reveals Himself to all who seek Him.
The Scriptures reveal above all else the incredible mercy of God to woo humanity back to Himself. From the moral compass of conscience placed in every heart (Romans 2:12-16), through the splendour and beauty of His creation (Romans 1:20), to the convincing work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), Father God tugs and draws on the hearts of all people to seek Him. To the pagans at Athens, Paul explained that God has even appointed the very times and places for each person’s existence, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each of us” (Acts 17:26, 27).
The Scriptures consistently proclaim God’s faithfulness to reveal Himself to anyone who seeks Him (see 2 Chronicles 16:9, Jeremiah 29:13, 14 and Hebrews 11:6). Two examples leap out at us from the Scriptures.
Many moons ago, a pagan man from the city of Ur was divinely invited into relationship with God. Without any clear understanding of the true and living God, this man named Abram—born five generations after the tragedy of the Tower of Babel—responded in faith to God’s wooing (Genesis 11:27-32; 12:1ff; Hebrews 11:8-12). We remember him now as the father of our faith, but let us not forget that he was simply a pagan of the Chaldeans to whom God made Himself known. God, whose “eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth”, had found a heart “loyal to Him” that He might “show Himself strong on [his] behalf” (2 Chronicles 16:9).
Many centuries later, a Roman centurion named Cornelius responded to God’s wooing and left behind the empty shell of Roman paganism. Concluding that there was only one true living God, he sought Him with all his heart (Acts 10:1, 2).
God, who “is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6), rewarded Cornelius’ faithfulness first through an angelic visitation (Acts 10:3-6). Then He called on a confused disciple named Peter to shrug off his own prejudices to reveal the Gospel to this Gentile God-seeker (Acts 10:9-33).
Peter marvelled: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:34, 35). Then while Peter was “still” preaching the good news of Jesus, “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word,” so excited was the Father to welcome this pagan Cornelius and his family into the new family of the redeemed (Acts 10:44)!
Listen again to God’s promise to all men and women:
And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ says the LORD.”
(Jeremiah 29:13, 14, italics added)
If there is hope for those who have not heard the Gospel, it’s based on the Father God’s faithfulness to reveal Himself.
Fact #4 Religion’s Two-Way Emptiness
Religion does not save us. Nor does it disqualify us.
Neither human philosophy, political ideology nor religious works can redeem the human heart. God is not a respecter of religion; He is a respecter of faith. Salvation is only found in Jesus and His completed work.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”
(Galatians 2:8, 9)
Although the above paragraph may seem completely basic to Christian doctrine, the implications for us here are not.
While a person’s religion—whether it is Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism—will not bring redemption, neither will it disqualify one from seeking God.
As Abram’s Chaldean paganism did not keep him from seeking truth, a Moslem who realises the emptiness of their inherited religion, may embark on a search for saving truth. As Cornelius’ Roman heathenism did not halt his response to God’s wooing, a Buddhist may “grope for Him and find Him”. If a Hindu, rejecting the emptiness of reincarnation and superstition, seeks forgiveness and salvation by faith, and God in some way does for him what He did for Abraham, it is only through Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice.
Yes, Paul reminded us that “the god of this age has blinded” the minds of the unbelieving “lest the light of the Gospel … should shine on them” (2 Corinthians 4:4). People don’t reject Jesus because they don’t want Him; they reject Jesus because they can’t “see” Him. And no strategy of the adversary has proven more effective in blinding humanity to the Gospel than the bondage of religion.
In deceiving people from the truth by the false promise of meaning or salvation through religious effort—a temptation that so appeals to our self-centredness—the devil enslaves people, their children and their children’s children, making it very difficult for their descendants to begin to seek Him, let alone “see” Him.
Nonetheless, Paul’s confidence lay in God’s faithfulness.
For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of the darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
(2 Corinthians 4:6)
With Genesis 1 in mind, Paul reminded us that the God who spoke light into the darkness is the one who shines in the human heart, opening our eyes to see Jesus. And just as He did in that creation moment, the brooding Holy Spirit is the one who draws the genuine seeker out from the bondage of their enslaving religion (John 16:8).
No example is better than that of Paul himself.
As Saul of Tarsus, a true-blue Pharisee, he raged threats and murder against followers of Jesus. Authorised by the high priest himself, Saul blazed a trail towards Damascus with the intent of dragging Jesus’ followers back to Jerusalem in shackles as criminals and heretics (Acts 9:1, 2).
No preacher stopped him in his tracks.
No human agent interjected.
Jesus Himself appeared to this religious captive in a divine intervention, ironically blinding him for three days. Humbled, Saul was transformed; physically blind but spiritually awakened (Acts 9:3-9 c. Acts 22:1-11).
Saul’s deep-set religious bondage did not keep him from seeing Jesus. It did not disqualify Him from an encounter with truth and a reunion with His Father.
If there is hope for those who have not heard the Gospel, it’s neither based on religion … nor limited by religion.
The Righteous Judge
To sum up what we know…
#1 God is Creator and Father of all.
#2 Heaven will include people who never heard the Name of Jesus while they lived on earth.
#3 Father God is faithful to reveal Himself to all who seek Him.
#4 Religion does not save us nor does it disqualify us.
Okay, let’s now return to the young girl born in the jungles of South America. Perhaps she was raised on the understanding that the sun was god, a religion passed on through successive generations of her tribe. As she journeys to the age of sixteen, before her premature death, she becomes convinced that the sun, which her parents worship, must be a created object. She has noted its fixed, preordained path, lacking the spontaneity of a true God. She has noted that it disappears for many hours of a day, apparently eclipsed by darkness. Could the true God really be hidden by darkness? she ponders.
The created world around her reveals evidence of a God of wonder, spontaneity and great diversity. She longs for the knowledge of the true Creator, the One who designed the sun. She finds herself praying to the One that her own heart convinces her does exist. But nobody can answer her divine frustration. The tribal elders chastise her for questioning the sun’s deity. Her shamed family demand that she put away such childish thoughts from her mind. But she continues to seek God, “in the hope that [she] might … find Him.” Then … that thoughtless slip ends her life in a tragic death.
When she stands in the next moment before her Creator and Father—“the Righteous Judge”—and her heart immediately recognises Him as the One she has sought, will He reject her for not having heard the Gospel? Or will He embrace her with the words, “My daughter, I am! I am the One your heart has longed for. I am whom your heart has sought. Finally, now, the limitations of your earthly existence are removed that you may see Me and know Me”.
Both my heart and my theologically trained mind know which scenario best represents the God of love based on the above points we’ve covered. The Gospel may not have been preached to her, but she certainly heard it!
Am I suggesting that there is no judgement when we die. Not at all. When we die, we all face our Father and Judge to whom we must give an account.
[It] is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.”
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.”
(2 Corinthians 5:10)
The Scriptures consistently reveal the truth of ultimate justice. Every human will face their Maker when they die. God is a God of justice, and His justice is fair, informed by His love and mercy. He will righteously judge every person’s heart as the ultimate conclusion of their journey to Him, or from Him.
Paul said that our “conscience … [will bear] witness … accusing or else excusing [us] in the day when God will judge the secrets of mankind by Jesus Christ” (Romans 2:15, 16).
The above four facts are truths we do know, clearly revealed in the Scriptures. How we hold together some of the tensions they create may differ from one person to the next … and that is fine. However, we do well to refrain from making dogmatic statements where the Scriptures do not. Doing so is neither loving nor wise.
A Vital Question…
Let me answer the question that often pops up in response to this article: If God justified Old Testament believers—and possibly others who haven’t heard—because of the acknowledgement of their need, and thus their faith placed in Him alone for salvation, why did Jesus have to come and die for humanity?
Simply because without the completed work of Jesus, redemption would be an empty promise. Our acknowledgement of need and our faith placed in God for salvation is only realised in the atoning work of Jesus. God could not promise a Deliverer, and then not deliver on the Promise.
From as early as Genesis 3:15, God promised the needed Deliverer, and at the God-appointed time, He sent forth His Son—the promised Redeemer—in whom all before Him and after Him are justified. Said a different way: without Jesus’ Victory (His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension), we would all still be lost—helpless and hopeless.
Moreover, Jesus came to reveal the full revelation of the Father’s heart.
Even though Old Testament believers were justified by their faith in God alone, they did not enjoy the abundant life of peace, joy and assurance we now know in Jesus (John 10:10; Romans 14:17). And they did not enjoy the full measure of partnership with God in His Kingdom project into which we’re commissioned today. What’s more, the hope of the age to come is only possible because of Jesus’ complete victory.
Indeed, our motivation to preach the Gospel lies in the good news that restoration with our Father is possible now, a love reunion that restores our identity as children of God and our destiny as custodians of all creation.
This glorious, mind-blowing promise is not reserved for the hereafter; it’s graciously available in the here and now!
A Serious Criticism
This brings up one of the anticipated criticisms of this article: Will it not steal from our motivation to evangelise? If there’s hope for those who don’t hear the Gospel, why bother preaching the Gospel?
The answer is again profoundly simple: because Jesus is so wonderful!
Restored to the Father as His child is the ultimate joy of life. Knowing and walking with Him gives life ultimate meaning. Why would we not want others to have this joy and meaning found only in Him?
We don’t preach the Gospel so people get to heaven or avoid post-mortem judgement; we preach the Gospel because knowing the Father personally, intimately and deeply is available now through what Jesus has done.
What’s more, knowing that our Father is at work in our world—that He is going ahead of us, actively seeking to reveal Himself to His lost children—greatly fuels our missionary zeal.
On the one hand, our intercessory prayer is energised to remove the blindfolds that keep people from seeing Jesus. On the other hand, we are inspired by His invitation to join Him in demonstrating His love to others.
Even when Paul motivates the need for us to preach the Gospel—“And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14)—he concludes by saying,
So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: ‘Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world’.”
(Romans 10:17, 18, italics added)
In other words, Paul first motivates the need for evangelism:
“And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?”
But he then encourages us with the inspiration for evangelism—everyone has already heard:
“…have they not heard? Yes indeed…”
He then quotes from Psalm 19:4, revealing that through God’s activity in creation, He is continually at work, wooing humanity to Himself so that they have heard. And we—you and me—have the awesome privilege of partnering with God as He lovingly reveals Himself to others.
Think about it.
Father God is actively drawing every person to Himself. Thus, every person is on a journey (back) to God.
How can you and I help?
What could be more inspiring, more thrilling?
I could be the next Peter led by God to serve a seeking Cornelius, to welcome him and his household back to their Father.
“Here I am LORD. Send me!”
[The Message of Jesus, Part 1]
Revealing God’s nature was central to the Message of Jesus. Jesus peeled back the curtain of heaven to re-reveal the Father-heart of God. In so doing, He restored humanity to God’s loving fatherhood.
[The Message of Jesus, Part 2]
Reuniting humanity to the Father, the Message of Jesus heals our broken identity, restoring us as children of God. Loved by the Father, we are both secure and significant.