What Happens to Those Who Have Never Heard the Gospel?
by Michael Browne
This is a question which has divided opinion and raised serious controversy among thinking believers for years, and for that reason it has been largely neglected in both spoken and written ministry. We believe God’s “so great salvation” (Heb 2.3), appropriated by personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, is available to every member of the human race. It is pledged by God through His Son’s declaration “that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16), and repeated in such Scriptures as “God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved [God’s goodwill is intended here rather than His determination – His desire rather than His intent], and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). While these verses teach clearly the universal availability of salvation, they do not teach that all men will be saved. It is tragically possible for men to reject or neglect this “so great salvation” and be lost eternally.
When the emphasis for salvation is placed upon faith or belief, it stresses man’s responsibility to receive God’s salvation by a personal act of obedience. The salvation offered is on the ground of God’s sovereign provision of grace through the gift of His only begotten Son. God is sovereign in providing salvation, but man is responsible to believe and receive it. This then raises the question, what is the status of those heathen millions who have never heard the gospel message? How can they be responsible to believe a message they have never heard? And because they have never heard, are they lost and doomed to perish forever when judged at the Great White Throne? My mind was definitively settled on this question after I read a letter written by an old experienced missionary. That missionary was Paul the apostle, and the letter he wrote was to the assembly at Ephesus.
When Paul brought the gospel to Ephesus in Acts 18, reasoning first of all with the Jews in their synagogue, he left Priscilla and Aquila with them before leaving for Jerusalem. Then Apollos came to Ephesus (18:24), but his ministry was also restricted to the Jews. When Paul finally returned to Ephesus (19:1) he again preached to them the Kingdom of God and presented “the word of the Lord Jesus”. However, when his gospel was rejected by the Jews, he turned to the Greeks, reaching out to the idolatrous Ephesian gentiles. The idol-worshipping Ephesians had never heard the gospel at that time, and they were ardent worshippers of the great goddess Diana. The truth of Ephesians 1.4, concerning their election according to God’s eternal counsel and purpose, was written for their encouragement and confirmation after their conversion. In no way did this great doctrine affect their spiritual state before the gospel was brought to them. Election does not affect the state of the elect before they are saved. Until they are saved they are lost, and they must repent and believe the gospel just as was true for each one of us.
The spiritual state of the idolatrous, unbelieving Ephesians is spelled out by Paul in the first three verses of chapter two. Elect in God’s eternal purpose they may have been but, until the gospel was brought to them, received and believed, they were spiritually dead and in need of life. Not only were they unable to do anything toward their own salvation, they were under the domination of satanic power and the lusts of their fallen, sinful nature. Their guilt was very real, and God was perfectly just in condemning them. They were clearly doomed, subject to God’s wrath and utterly dependent upon His mercy and love. (This is the condition of all unsaved humanity, everywhere. They are lost because of what they are and whose they are. They are sinful by their own corrupt nature because they are sons of a fallen father, Adam.) The Ephesians’ salvation is seen in the action of God in three tenses in chapter two. In their past they have salvation and life (v4-5) – rich mercy, great love, and saving grace. In their present and immediate position (v6) they are raised and seated in the “heavenlies” in Christ Jesus. They are thus co-sharers in His life, victory, and holiness. In their future (v7) they will be the favourites of glory for ever.
Scripture teaches that all men are guilty before God (Rom 3:19). Three laws are applicable to men by which they will be judged, and this is true whether they have heard the gospel or not.
First, there is the law of visible creation (Rom 1:18-20), by which the glory of the works of God’s hands demonstrates the existence of an invisible but omnipotent Creator. This renders inexcusable and vain all idolatry. By following this law, men will be led from acknowledging the God of creation to finding the God of salvation. We had practical experience of this in our ministry in Hong Kong. A young woman, Yuen-king, living in Macau and brought up in a fanatical atheistic communist home, was repeatedly told there was no God. One bright evening, while looking up at the starry heavens, she had the thought “if there is no God, then where did the stars come from?” From that moment she began to secretly pray to ‘the God who made the stars’, and she continued this for some years. She was praying to the correct and true God but didn’t know who He was! One day she came to the Shatin valley in Hong Kong where our little assembly was holding gospel meetings. She was met and invited to the meetings by a young sister who explained that the God whose gospel we were proclaiming was the God who made the sun, and moon, and stars! When Yuen-king heard He was the God who made the stars, she said she too worshipped the God of the stars, so she came to the gospel meeting that night. As soon as the gospel was presented, she believed and was gloriously saved. Praise God! Whoever accepts the God of creation through the witness of His visible glory will be brought by this same divine power to know Him, through faith in His Son, as the God of everlasting salvation.
Second, there is the law of inner conscience (Rom 2:12-16), which by intuitive knowledge, or spontaneous impulse, tells a man he is sinful. His conscience will witness against him in that “day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ” (v16).
Third, there is the law of specific revelation (Rom 2:17-19), applicable particularly to the Jew who had the written commandment of God. This is true for all who have the living oracles available to them.
Abraham, concerned with the possibility of an injustice in God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah for the lack of 50 righteous people within the cities, appealed to God with the words “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). He was in doubt regarding the righteousness of God’s judgment. But God’s doing “right” was to destroy both the cities and their immoral inhabitants in an inferno of severe judgment, and His judgment will be equally righteous and severe at the Great White Throne. When speaking in the temple treasury to the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus said “I go my way, and ye shall seek me, and shall die in your sins: whither I go, ye cannot come” (John 8:21). He continued, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins: for if ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (v24). So all will not be saved, and neither will everyone’s sins be forgiven. Some men will die in their sins and be judged for their works, not because salvation was unavailable to them, nor mercy withheld from them, but solely on account of the intransigence and determined unbelief of their unrepentant hearts.