General Revelation (Part 2): What Happens To Those Who Have Never Heard The Gospel?

REVELATION

“Revelation” can be understood in two different senses:
1. In its broad sense, “revelation” is simply a communication from God.
2. In a narrow sense, “revelation” is the disclosure of something previously unknown.

General Revelation: In our last blog, we said that general revelation is the dual witness of nature and conscience that helps us understand there is a personal creator God (rather than a pantheistic God) who has embedded a moral sense in every person.

Through general revelation, we obtain a general understanding about a personal, infinite God, we obtain a moral sense of right and wrong, and we come to understand that we are unable to always live up to that morality that we were given.

Special revelation: At this point, it might be a good idea to distinguish general revelation from special revelation. (God reveals himself in other ways as well. Some theologians call this “special revelation.” It refers to:
• the revelation of Jesus Christ, 

• scripture (i.e., the divinely inspired word of God that gives guidance to all people in all ages), and
• “particular revelation” to individuals (i.e., not intended for all persons in all ages). 


Through special revelation, we obtain an understanding of Christ and his gospel.

INTRODUCTION

Once we accept the idea that there is a personal, infinite God who tells us about himself through nature and conscience, there is a question that many people urgently want to know the answer to:
“What happens to those who lived in the most isolated conditions possible, who never heard anyone say one word about Jesus or his gospel, who never had the opportunity to read any scripture that would tell them this message?”

General revelation will not tell us the answer to that question. So this is the second lesson in which we’ll turn to scripture for some insight on this subject.

Is it possible that God would allow those who have never been taught to suffer for eternity simply because they died in ignorance? We have to understand that the Bible provides clues, but it does not give us a definitive answer.

Throughout this series of blogs, we’ve said that God is all-powerful and all-loving. Basing our argument on the nature of God, we at this website do not believe that God will allow those who die in ignorance to suffer the same fate as those who heard the gospel, rejected it and wittingly rebelled against God’s authority.

Regarding this subject of those who have never been taught the gospel, there is a difference of opinion among Christians about this issue. So this particular blog will be for our fellow Christians as much as it is for our atheist friends.

DOES THE WITNESS OF NATURE AND CONSCIENCE MEAN THAT ALL PEOPLE HAVE HEARD THE GOSPEL?

Creation or nature tells us of a higher power than ourselves. Albert Einstein said that the universe witnesses of “a spirit vastly superior to that of men.” Every person is given a moral sense. It’s a common human experience for all of us to see that we’ve failed to live up to what we know to be right.

Nature and conscience make us aware of the moral dilemma we’re in, but it doesn’t show us the way out of that situation!

At the same time, this website recognizes and affirms Jesus’ claim to exclusivity, that it is only through him that we can come to know God, find forgiveness, obtain the power to change the pattern of sin in our lives, and receive an assurance of eternal life. The Latin term for this is sola Christos, meaning that it is only through “Christ alone” that we can find a way out of the quagmire that our sinful nature has gotten us into.

We need to keep in mind that the dual witness of creation and conscience does NOT mean that people have heard the gospel of Christ!

DOES THE “WITNESS OF CREATION” IN ROMANS 1:20 MEAN THAT WE’RE “WITHOUT EXCUSE”?

Romans 1:18-32 Of The Bible

Now, we need to examine one form of “special revelation”: the Bible. The apostle Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, which today is called the book of “Romans.”

Romans 1:18-32 talks about a certain kind of wicked men. It says that they “suppress the truth because of their wickedness” despite the fact that “what may be known about God is plain to them.”

Verse 20 of that passage says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities — his eternal power and divine nature — have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

So in the middle of this commentary about “these wicked men,” verse 20 stops and makes a general statement about ALL people. Instead of referring specifically to “these wicked men,” verse 20 refers to “men” in general. It is true that, just like these wicked men, every person has the witness of creation. The verse goes on to say that because of this witness “they are without excuse.”

Some people mistakenly believe that the phrase “they are without excuse” means every person will then be damned to hell if the “witness of creation” doesn’t cause them to believe in Christ. However, that’s a leap of logic. We’ll discuss that in a moment. So then verse 21 returns to talking about this specific group of wicked men.

Verse 21 says, “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

Verses 18 to 32 go on to describe this group of wicked men who committed a long list of offenses, one of which was denying the “witness of creation,” and in verse 32 it says that they deserved death.

The “Witness of Creation” In Romans 1:20 Of The Bible

So in the middle of this narrative, verse 20 stops and makes a general statement about ALL people. There are two interpretations of the phrase “they are without excuse”:
1. One school of thought tries to inject those who “died in ignorance” into this group of “wicked men” who, verse 21 says, “knew God” and rebelled against him. It’s thought by some that the ignorant will suffer the same fate as these wicked men.
2. This website disagrees. Those who died in ignorance will NOT suffer the same fate as those who knowingly rebelled. Romans 1:20 actually says that we ALL will be held accountable to recognize God’s existence and his attributes. It doesn’t mean that we are damned to hell if this “witness of creation” doesn’t cause us to believe the gospel!

It’s true that there will be no excuse for anyone’s ignorance of God and his attributes, but this has nothing to do with condemning those who never heard the gospel to hell for eternity!

HOW ARE THEY SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE IN CHRIST IF THEY’VE NEVER HEARD OF HIM?

Using Romans 1:20 or 2:15 to condemn those ignorant of the gospel to eternal torment is a distortion of the text. We would simply draw your attention to Romans 10:13-14:
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?

The “witness of creation” is not enough to condemn those who have never heard about Christ or his gospel.

WHAT ABOUT THE “WITNESS OF CONSCIENCE” IN ROMANS 2:15?

Romans 2:15 speaks of a “witness of conscience” that is given to every person. This passage also is sometimes used as a proof-text to condemn isolated people who have never been taught.

The “witness of conscience” merely makes us aware that we are morally accountable and that we’ve fallen short of the moral standards given to us by God, but Romans 2:15 does not tell us about the way out of our lost condition!

To find our way out of this condition, we need special revelation to teach us about Christ and the gospel. The “witness of conscience” described in Romans 2:15 simply doesn’t do that!

Those who never heard the “gospel message” cannot be condemned until they’ve had a chance to hear it and reject it.

AGAIN, HOW ARE THEY SUPPOSED TO BELIEVE IN CHRIST IF THEY’VE NEVER HEARD OF HIM?

Romans 10:13-14:
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?

Our conscience does not inform us about Christ and the gospel. The witness of conscience is not enough to condemn the ignorant to hell. We cannot exercise faith in Christ if we’ve never heard of him.

DEGREES OF REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

We’ve said that the dual witness of creation and conscience can give us a general understanding about God and a sense of morality. But nature and conscience don’t inform us about Jesus Christ!

So what happens if a person has never heard the gospel? Are there only two possible outcomes: justification or condemnation? Heaven or hell? Or will there be degrees of heaven and degrees of hell?

People who are reborn and endure in faith to the end of their lives will receive an eternity of joy and peace with God. Those who are taught the gospel but reject it will experience an eternal regret. But as for souls who were never taught the gospel, a just and merciful God would NOT simply banish them to an eternity of misery.

A just God would take into account what each of us has been taught and the degree to which we responded. An all-knowing God would carefully examine even the subtlest aspects of each person’s response to the knowledge they were given. Even slight differences would have to manifest themselves in some way in eternity.

It’s entirely possible that God would allow for degrees of reward in heaven and degrees of separation from him in hell. We can’t be expected to exercise faith in Christ if we’ve never heard of him.

WITH INCREASING KNOWLEDGE, THERE IS GREATER ACCOUNTABILITY

Luke 12:47-48

In comparing a servant who knew his master’s will to one who did not know, Luke 12:47-48 (RSV) speaks metaphorically about a standard of accountability that will apply to each kind of person:
“And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

This metaphor in Luke is about two unfaithful servants. The servant who knew better received a “severe beating.” The ignorant servant received a “light beating.” So there was a clear distinction between those given knowledge and those who were ignorant.

Romans 4:15

Romans 4:15 says, “. . . but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Romans 5:13

Romans 5:13 tells us, “. . . sin is not counted where there is no law.”

Just a caveat: Don’t take these last two passages in a wooden, literal sense. The ignorant who were never taught will not simply receive a “get out of jail free” card. We’re not talking about a second gospel or another path to heaven where the ignorant enjoy the same privileges as those who have become disciples of Christ. Luke’s metaphor even says the ignorant servant received a “light beating” suggesting that there is a consequence for willfully remaining in ignorance against the impulse of God’s Spirit.

James 4:17

James 4:17 tells us: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

So the knowledge that we’ve been given will be taken into account when a sovereign God determines our place in eternity.

HOW DOES GOD’S MERCY DIFFER BETWEEN BELIEVERS AND THOSE WHO WERE NOT TAUGHT?

If the Holy Spirit impresses upon a person’s heart that Jesus is the Son of God who died to atone for his sin, the God of justice will hold that person accountable for the knowledge they’ve been given. If they’ve never heard this fact, God will show mercy.

Will that mercy take the form of:

• granting that person forgiveness of all their sins?
• crediting Christ’s righteousness to their account?
• welcoming them into the body of Christ?
• granting the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
• gving them the assurance that they will live with him in eternity? 


No, every one of these gifts is reserved for those who become disciples of Christ. However, a just and merciful God will not leave a soul in hell simply because they’ve had the witness of nature and conscience but were never taught the truth of Christ’s gospel.

WE’RE ALL ACCOUNTABLE FOR WHAT WE KNOW

Does the Bible explicitly state that God will condemn those who have witnessed nature and conscience but did not embrace the gospel? No. The condemnation that the “wicked men” received in Romans 1 was for a long list of offenses toward God. It says that these “wicked men” actually “knew God” but rebelled anyway. That is not describing those who died in ignorance.

Having never heard the gospel, will the ignorant suffer eternal torment? Based on the nature of God and the scripture passages we’ve mentioned, we at this website do not believe they will suffer the exact same fate as those who knew better but rebelled against God anyway.

It is our opinion at this website that in examining our lives, this all-knowing, all-powerful, just and merciful God will take into account the individual gifts that we were given and the opportunity that each of us had to hear Christ’s gospel.

ILLUSTRATION OF INCREASING KNOWLEDGE AND ACCOUNTABILITY

As an illustration, assume that I attend a church where they teach that I am “saved by faith” and God’s Spirit bears witness to me about the truth of that message. I am now accountable before God to determine whether I will believe this message. Let’s assume that I respond fully and exercise faith that Jesus is the Son of God and not just a good teacher. In the short message that I heard that day, they never talked about repentance. If I died at that moment, would I suffer in hell because I never heard the importance of repenting of my sins? No, because I have fully responded to the message I was taught. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

Now, say that I attend a new church where they teach that faith is not enough and “I must also repent of my sins.” My accountability before God has just increased. I embrace this message and respond with an attitude of repentance. So I now believe that Jesus is the Son of God and have repented of my past sins, but my lifestyle of unmitigated sin does not change in the least. What if I remained in this state? What if Christ were merely a Savior and never really became Lord of my life as Acts 2:36 says He should be? I’ve never had anyone teach me that he should be Lord, only a Savior. Would I suffer in hell because I had not yet submitted to Jesus as Lord? This is an oversimplified illustration, but I’ve responded fully to the message of faith and repentance that I received.

I go to a third church where they teach that “It’s not enough to simply receive Jesus as my Savior; I must also be willing to submit to his will as Lord of my life.” I’ve been further enlightened, and my accountability has just increased. Once again, I must decide if I will respond to this new knowledge. With every increase in knowledge, I am more accountable to God. If I consciously refuse to accept this added light against the impulse of the Holy Spirit, it could potentially impact my eternal destiny in heaven because Christ’s Lordship is part of the gospel of salvation. I gain an awareness that I cannot continue in unrestrained sin and, by the life that I live, lead others in that same direction. I must be willing to obey Christ as Lord. So I now know that I must have faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, I must repent of my sins and seek forgiveness through his atoning sacrifice, and I must be willing to obey Christ as Lord of my life. With each increase in knowledge, my accountability before God has increased.

In judging our lives, God will take into account the opportunities we had and what we were taught. We are all accountable before God for the opportunities we had to learn the truth and the knowledge we’ve received.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THOSE WHO WERE NEVER TAUGHT?

So we return to the original question:
“What happens to those who lived in the most isolated conditions possible, who never heard anyone say one word about Jesus or the gospel, and who never had the opportunity to read any scripture that would tell them this message?

1 Peter 3:19 tells us that Christ “went and preached to the spirits in prison.”

1 Peter 4:6 says, “For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead . . .”

These two passages suggest to us that the process of education continues in the life after this one. There is no scripture that categorically states, “Teaching and learning end when we leave this life.”

In Revelation 20:1-3, it tells us that Satan will be bound for 1,000 years: “to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time,” or as the King James Version says for “a little season.”

If Satan is bound for 1,000 years, why is he being loosed again? That would have to place some of those who are there at the end of the millennium in a similar position to what we are presently experiencing in this life. As one example, it’s possible that God could use this “little season” as a time to deliver the gospel to those remaining who have never heard the message of salvation. Perhaps they will hear it then.

Scripture does not make it crystal clear what happens to those who were never taught. We know that they do not simply receive a pass. They will be held accountable by a just and merciful God for the opportunities they had in this life. If they’ve never heard the gospel, they will be taught about that message at some point in the life hereafter.

DOESN’T THIS UNDERMINE THE URGENCY OF SPREADING THE GOSPEL?

In suggesting that God will treat the ignorant with a degree of mercy, some Christians will suggest that this gives people an excuse to feign ignorance or never investigate the gospel and thus avoid the greater accountability that knowledge would entail. Actually, for those who are intentionally slow to respond to Christ’s gospel, they will experience eternity in a way that is commensurate with their response. Nothing will escape God’s notice. Every subtle nuance in how we respond will be noticed.

In the explanation given above, we drew a distinction between those who have taken the name of Christ and become disciples versus those who have never heard the gospel. We said that God is merciful, but will the mercy he grants to the ignorant be the same as the mercy he grants to believers who have become his devoted disciples? No, it will not.

Will the mercy he has toward the ignorant take the form of:
• granting that person forgiveness of all their sins? No.
• crediting Christ’s righteousness to their account? No.
• welcoming them into the body of Christ? No.
• granting the indwelling of the Holy Spirit? No.
• giving them the assurance that they will live with him in eternity? 
No.

There will be a very clear distinction between the privileges granted to those who embraced the gospel and those who never heard the gospel. If that is true, then there is a tremendous urgency in spreading the gospel!

Do I really want to let those who were never taught the gospel to live in doubt about what their status will be, wondering exactly what their future holds, and never having the assurance of eternal salvation? Absolutely not. Spreading the gospel is just as important as ever!

The fact is that none of us knows exactly what will happen to those who were never taught, but believers have an assurance given them by the promises in scripture that they will have a place with God in eternity.

Those who remain in ignorance cannot enjoy the privileges of forgiveness, receiving Christ’s righteousness, receiving God’s indwelling Spirit, etc. Those gifts belong to the faithful who have taken upon themselves the name of Christ.

There actually should be no motivation to remain ignorant. Just reading this blog makes the reader accountable to respond accordingly.

Bottom line, teaching that God will show the ignorant some degree of mercy does not in the least undermine the urgency of spreading the gospel!

ISN’T THIS A “SECOND CHANCE” GOSPEL?

A few want to characterize this as a “second chance gospel.” But for those who never heard of Christ while on earth, hearing about him in the life hereafter will actually be their first chance to be taught.

This all goes back to the character of a just and merciful God. Throughout scripture, God draws a distinction between how he will deal with those who had knowledge and those who were never taught.

Look at the scriptures we presented above. Romans 4:15 says, “. . . but where there is no law, there is no transgression.” Romans 5:13 says, “. . . sin is not counted where there is no law.” James 4:17 tells us: “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Look at Luke 12:47-48 again:
“And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

Keep in mind that this is a metaphor about servants in New Testament times, and we’re not talking about literal beatings for those who don’t embrace the gospel. It merely says that there will be a distinction between those who knew better but defied God anyway and those who sinned in ignorance.

Notice in this case that the ignorant do not just receive a “get out of jail free” card. In this analogy, there are consequences for the servant who drags his feet or pretends he is ignorant or is slow to hear or respond to the master’s instructions. He may be ignorant, but in this case, the ignorance seems to have been partially self-inflicted because the metaphor says he still receives a “light beating.”

Those who were never taught the gospel do not have the assurance that they will be with God in eternity, they are not given the indwelling gift of the Holy Spirit to guide them in this life, they do not enjoy the fellowship of other believers as part of the body of Christ, they will wander in this life without the guidance of God’s word, and perhaps most importantly they do not enjoy the forgiveness of sin in this life and are left to carry that burden or accountability for sin themselves, without the aid of a Savior.

Is there anyone who would want to be this uncertain of their future, just to drift aimlessly without any assurance of their place in eternity? That would potentially be a miserable existence in this life and lead to an uncertain future in eternity.

SUMMARY

Once again, here is Romans 10:13-14:
For, “every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?

Scriptural passages like Luke 12:47-48, Romans 5:13, Romans 4:15, James 4:17 and Romans 10:13-14 make it clear that when God’s Spirit bears witness to our hearts and our knowledge increases, we become more accountable.

Christ’s claim to exclusivity remains intact. He is the door through which every person will eventually have to enter. He is the way and the life. No one can come unto the Father except through him. Eventually, every person will have the opportunity to hear the gospel and accept or reject that message. The only way to eternal life is by Christ alone through grace alone. In Latin, sola Christos and sola gratia.

If we are separated from God for eternity, It is because of the choices we make in this life to reject the light that we’ve been given. As you read this blog, if you sense the confirming witness of God’s Spirit your knowledge has just increased and you will be held accountable by a just and merciful God for the added knowledge you’ve received.

We hope this blog has provided some degree of insight and encouragement on this subject. God is just. He will not treat the ignorant and those who knowingly rebel against him in the same manner. As Romans says, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?”

With this added understanding, your accountability has increased. Perhaps this would be a good time to contact us to find out how you can have access directly to your Heavenly Father who loves you and desires that all will come unto him.

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