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What Happens To Those Who Die Who Have Never Heard The Gospel?

In this edition of “Theology And Culture” (T&C) we are going to tackle a theological issue that is one that we may not think about, but is discussed when it comes to the eternal state of individuals.

It revolves around the question, “What about those who have never heard the Gospel message?” What happens when they pass away? Do they get a second chance? Does God give some a pass into heaven even though they never heard the message of Christ? This is a tough question but one that is worth considering.

Before looking at what I believe Scripture teaches, let me share the views of some of the early church fathers in addition to theologians of the last couple of centuries.

Justin Martyr, for example, an early church leader, said that those who lived according to reason (“the logos” he called it) though not knowing Christ, are Christians. Clement, Origen, and Athanasia all taught that Jesus took from hell all those, both Jew and Gentile, who accepted His Gospel message. This could possibly indicate a chance for salvation after death.

Augustine stated that we must accept Christ before death. Therefore, all that are unevangelized are condemned to eternal hell. Aquinas agreed with Augustine, but believed God could miraculously deliver the Gospel to the heathen. On a sidenote, we may have heard of stories where Muslims have had dreams of Jesus calling them to salvation and they make a decision to follow Christ. This itself is a controversial topic among students of the Bible in itself but that is a topic for another time.

Over the last two hundred years, the question we asked above has become a subject of interest once again because of the worldwide missionary movement.

John Wesley believed that those without Christ could be taught by the “inward voice of God.” Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield believed there was no hope for those ignorant of the work of Christ that offers salvation. Jonathan Edwards said no one could be saved without explicit, clear knowledge of Christ. Some theologians teach post-death possibilities of salvation.

William G.T. Shedd and Augustus H. Strong believed the unevangelized would be saved if they accepted the light given to them. Lewis Sperry Chafer, Carl F.H. Henry and others believe that no unevangelized person will be saved.

One final view is that some believe that if the unevangelized repent and desire God’s mercy, they will be saved by the work of Christ though ignorant of His death, burial, and resurrection.

Before continuing with a look at Scripture, I would say that the if you are interested in this discussion the best book written on the question we are considering is by J. Oswald Sanders and is titled “What Of Those Who Have Never Heard.” It is theologically solid and actually quite easy to read and follow. Sanders happens to be one of my favorite authors and his work on this topic is fabulous.

As we look at Scripture, we must begin with a couple of facts. From the beginning of time, man has always had a cultural and social understanding of God, but people simply refused to continue the teaching of the truth about God, passing it on from generation to generation. Genesis, chapters four through six show us that.

In Romans 1:18-32, we read of man’s decision to ignore the revelation that God has given them. Through creation and our own conscience (Rom. 1:18-20; Rom. 2:14-15) we can know that God does exist. God has made Christ known to the world and it is only in Him that we can be saved (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

In fact, natural revelation (which describes the revelation of God in nature and our conscience and is taught in other Scriptures besides Romans 1) can tell us certain things about God, though it alone cannot give us what is necessary to gain salvation. But based on this type of revelation, we can know that God exists and is All-Powerful (He created all things).

We can also know that God is good, kind and merciful because He cares for the needs of mankind (Matt. 5:45). He is eternal since creation points to Him having been here before creation occurred. He is Divine, based on the fact that He created. He is above man, and is by nature perfect. Other things could be noted regarding what natural revelation reveals to us but this gives us some things to think on.

As we continue, let me share another important fact. There is evidence that by the year 400 A.D. Christianity had spread to the known world at that time. People either accepted or rejected the message of the Gospel. Decisions made throughout the centuries regarding whether to accept the Gospel or not affected following generations, but the truth of Who Jesus was and what He did was known early on. Man distorted the truth of God by his own choice.

Though God has given us information about Himself, and revealed Who He is via creation and in other ways such as through our conscience, His full revelation is that He Himself came to earth. Jesus and now the Scriptures give us the information we need to have a relationship with Christ.

We must accept the fact that faith alone saves someone (Heb. 11:6; Eph. 2:8-10), and that no one can earn their way to heaven. Every person ever born is a sinner (Rom. 3:10-23). All of us are, until we come to faith in Christ, under sin’s control.

We also know that one of the works of the Holy Spirit in the world is to convict people of sin (Jn. 16:8-11). This is not limited to just certain individuals. The Spirit is at work everywhere. This is vital to keep in mind as we discuss the question of this blog.

As we continue, we need to discuss briefly other world religions besides Christianity and then we will focus in on answering our beginning question. There are four things to keep in mind about other belief systems (Islam, Hinduism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.). First, their view of God is foreign to the Biblical teaching regarding the Triune God (Father, Son, Spirit).

Second, every other religion teaches that salvation hinges on man’s works. Third, though some of these religions may include some truth about God, Christ, and salvation, only Christianity presents the reality of these teachings in their fullness. The fourth and final point is that based on Scripture (Rom. 3:9-23) and the history of missions, what light the unevangelized and religious have received by way of Natural Revelation, they have almost completely failed to live up to it.

So, what about those who have never heard the message of Christ? Can they be saved without ever hearing about Jesus? My goal is to try and define what I believe Scripture teaches on this though I also know that my view is just one of many thoughts (as we have already noted) on this particular topic. But let me see if I can state my views clearly.

To do so, I will list a series of points followed by my thoughts.

1) I do believe that salvation is only through faith in Christ. In the Old Testament, people such as Abraham were justified by faith (Gen. 15; Rom. 4) based on what they knew of God. But they still had to put faith in what God had revealed to them to be made right with Him. Faith is vital and having knowledge of Who God is, is also crucial. Keep in mind that even Abraham was told that there would come One through His line that would bless the entire world.

2) If natural revelation alone can save someone, we still need to fit Christ into the picture. We are now under the New Covenant, the Gospel of 1 Cor. 15, and salvation through Christ is still a point that cannot be overlooked. This leads to the question of how everyone in the world will be able to hear the message. This leads to my third point, a controversial one for some but one we need to consider.

3) If someone who has never heard the Gospel looks at creation, or knows that there is a God Who made everything we see, and they are genuinely seeking to know Him, I believe that the Lord will and can make Himself known.

This happens by people who are Christ followers coming into the life of the one seeking, or through, as seems to be happening in some places, dreams, where they learn of the salvation that Christ offers. I believe God will make Himself known to those who genuinely seek Him.

4) I do not believe that natural revelation alone can save someone. This is why my third point is important in the discussion. Let me explain for a moment what others think on this. It must be noted that those who believe that general, or natural revelation, can lead someone to salvation, do not deny that Christ died and rose again. They believe it is necessary that these things happened. They simply believe that someone does not need to know about these facts.

They compare it to someone receiving a gift of new shoes from an unknown benefactor without the knowledge of what animal died to provide the leather or who gave them the shoes. Those who hold the view that natural revelation can bring someone to salvation state that all verses that indicate Christ’s death and resurrection as being necessary for salvation are taken to refer to the fact of Christ’s death, not to having explicit knowledge of that fact.

They also lean on the love and justice of God, and they argue from these attributes some insist that such a God would not condemn those who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And they look to passages from the Scriptures to support their view of someone becoming a believer through natural revelation or because of God’s love and justice (e.g., Acts 10:35; Gal. 3:8; Jonah 3:1-5). I believe that a proper understanding of these texts does not support the view held by those noted in this fourth point but do not have time to elaborate and explain these texts.

It must also be remembered that God revealed Himself progressively. This is known as progressive revelation and a view that I strongly hold to.

Let me explain what I mean. In the Old Testament, there was the promise of the coming Messiah but salvation came through faith in a Personal God and what He had revealed about Himself. Passages such as Jn. 8:56 indicate that Abraham was aware of Who Christ was, but even if he did not have that knowledge, Gen. 15:5-6 tells us that Abraham put faith in God and what was revealed to him by the Lord about Himself and Who He was.

In time, Jesus came to earth and showed us what God was like and offered salvation to anyone who puts their faith and trust in Him (Jn. 3:16). The Scriptures reveal Who God is and what is needed for us to be saved while giving us guidance for life. It is God’s final and complete revelation to man.

5) Man, on the whole, has chosen to reject the light that God has given him. That is seen in Rom. 1:18-32 and throughout Scripture. God is not obligated to give people more “light” if they choose to ignore what He has made available to them. If anyone truly seeks after God, they will find Him and He will make Himself known. That is my belief.

In our culture, no one can excuse “not knowing” about God. You can learn about Christ in so many ways - television, radio, the Internet, on and on. Man, on the whole, has rejected what God has to offer. That is why there are so many religions. Man is a spiritual being and is seeking to discover Who God is and it has opened the door for various belief systems to exist in the quest for God.

Even Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was exposed to Christianity and rejected it. But many Muslims are coming to faith in Christ as God’s Word is made available in so many ways, through phone apps, the radio, the Internet and by other means. There is no excuse for man to not have an opportunity to pursue the true God via natural revelation, conscience, or by other means.

6) There is no second chance for salvation after death. Hebrews 9:27 is clear. It is appointed for man to die once, and after that the judgment. There is no purgatory, no second chance for salvation. We make the decision to give our life to Christ while still alive. When we die, we go immediately to heaven or hell, depending on whether we have accepted Christ as Lord and Savior or not (Lk. 16:9-31; 2 Cor. 5:8).

As we mentioned at the beginning, this topic is not one that we hear discussed often. But think about it from a personal perspective. We hear of people living in parts of the world who still have no Gospel witness or copies of the Bible. What happens when they die? Though this may not be one of those doctrinal studies that is at the top of our list, as believers we need to work through why we believe the way we do, even when it comes to this.

I would encourage you to study and come to your own conclusions. As we have mentioned before, the “Theology & Culture” blogs are written to encourage us to think through why we believe what we do on various theological and ethical points.

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