What about those who never heard the gospel?

Imagine there are ten people in prison for the most gruesome of murders. However the President has found a way to grant a Presidential Pardon that in no way compromises the need for justice. So he releases a number of the prisoners. Now can those who remain in prison complain that they are behind bars? Not really! They are getting something of what they deserve.

In some ways that provides a picture of what happens when God saves people. He is perfectly holy and must act with justice in the face of human rebellion and all the evil that stems from living for ourselves rather for him. However in his mercy he has provided a way whereby he can pardon us without compromising his justice. Jesus has taken our punishment so that we might know his forgiveness and acceptance. Now if God saves anyone that is more than any one deserves. The fact that he saves many is simply awesome. Those who aren’t saved are merely getting what human rebellion deserves. Who are we to question God’s right to show or withhold mercy as he pleases?

Christians have given a variety of answers to this question. My aim is simply to offer some biblical principles that should be kept in mind when seeking to address this issue.

1. Universal guilt:In the first few chapters of his epistle to the Roman Christians the Apostle Paul refers both to Jew and Gentile. The Jews had the Law, our Old Testament, but demonstrated their rebellion by disregarding its commands. While the gentiles did not have the Law God has given every person a conscience, they demonstrated their rebellion by doing what their consciences knew to be wrong. Therefore Paul concludes that Jew and gentile alike are without excuse before God. We have all wilfully demonstrated our rebellion against his rightful rule over our lives. Indeed the Apostle writes, ‘. . . all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:23). Without exception every person has deserved the wrath of God.

2. God does take into account people’s exposure to the gospelIn Matthew 11 Jesus denounces those cities in which he had preformed most miracles: ‘It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon [cities that had been known for their wickedness] on the day of judgement than for you . . . If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom [as in Sodom and Gomorrah], it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgement than for you’ (Matthew 11:20-24). They had been given a great opportunity. They had witnessed Jesus performing miracles. But still they refused to repent. This will be taken into account on the day of judgement. God does take into account the exposure people have been given to the gospel, however, this is meant as a warning to those who have been given a great opportunity to respond rather than a comfort to those who have had less.

We are thinking about those who have not heard the gospel but what about those of us who have? We live in a society where Bibles are freely available. We may have had many opportunities to hear the gospel. Have we responded? If we haven’t the many opportunities that we have been given will stand against us on the day of judgement!

3. Salvation is through Jesus
We can affirm that the Bible presents us with a God who promises people that if they seek him they will find him (Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7), problem is in our sinful nature we don’t truly seek God (Rom. 8:7)—it takes a work of grace to cause us to want him. We can also affirm that God truly does desire for all people to be saved (1. Tim. 2:2; 2 Peter 3:9), which should provide a great incentive to get out and share the gospel with the world. And whatever answer we might want to give to this question it should be pointed out that if anyone is saved it is on the basis of what Jesus has done on the cross.

I am going to give the last word to Dr. J. I. Packer who wrote the following in 1969:
‘Our job, after all, is to spread the gospel, not to guess what might happen to those to whom it never comes. Dealing with them is God’s business: he is just, and also merciful, and when we learn, as one day we shall, how he has treated them we shall have no cause to complain. Meantime, let us keep before our minds mankind’s universal need of forgiveness and new birth, and the gracious ‘whosoever will’ invitations of the gospel. And let us redouble our efforts to make known the Christ who saves to the uttermost all who come to God by him.’