What About Those Who Die Without Hearing the Message of Christ?
by Bob Wilkin
CAN THE UNREACHED BE ETERNALLY SAVED APART FROM FAITH IN CHRIST?
0ne of the big issues in missions is the fate of those who've never heard the message of everlasting life. Roman Catholicism officially holds that such people are not automatically condemned. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says,
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation (#847).
But isn't this a disincentive to missions? The Catholic Church recognizes this and thus goes on to say,
Although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him, the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men.
Of course, it is not merely Roman Catholics who hold this view. Many Evangelicals also hold out for the possibility of salvation for the unevangelized, without needing to believe in Jesus in this life.
For example, Gabriel Fackre believes that the unevangelized will have the opportunity to hear and believe the Gospel after they die: "Sinners who die outside the knowledge of the gospel will not be denied the hearing of the Word." (What About Those?, p. 84).
And John Sanders claims that Jesus' work, but not belief in Jesus' work, is necessary to be saved:
Briefly, inclusivists affirm the particularity and finality of salvation only in Christ but deny that knowledge of his work is necessary for salvation. That is to say, they hold that the work of Jesus is ontologically necessary for salvation (no one would be saved without it) but not epistemologically necessary (one not need be aware of the work in order to benefit from it). Or in other words, people can receive the gift of salvation without knowing the giver or the precise nature of the gift" (No Other Name, pp. 215-16).
The trick for those holding these views is to promote missions while at the same time suggesting that if a person does not hear about Christ, they can nevertheless be saved by being a God-fearing animist, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever.
But what does the Bible say about the fate of those who've never been evangelized?
THOSE WHO DO NOT BELIEVE IN JESUS WILL BE ETERNALLY CONDEMNED
The Lord was clear on both sides of the equation. He said that whoever believes in Him has everlasting life (John 3:14-16; 4:10-14; 5:24; 6:35, 37, 39, 47; 11:25-27). And He was equally clear that "he who does not believe in Him is condemned already" (John 3:18) continued on p. 8 and "But you are not willing to come to Me [a figure of speech for believing in Him as v 44 shows] that you may have life" (John 5:40). John the Baptist said the same thing, "he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." Similarly Paul in Rom 3:21-4:25 makes it clear that only those who believe are justified. Unbelievers will not be justified no matter how good they might appear.
The idea that unbelievers can be born again without faith in Christ, if they are somehow following the dictates of their own consciences and religions, is a direct rejection of the teaching of Scripture. No one is good. No one can merit everlasting life. No one can keep the dictates of his own conscience.
EVEN THOSE WHO NEVER HEAR STILL HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO RESPOND
The Macedonian vision of Acts 16:9 suggests that God will bring the message of life to anyone who is crying out for it. This is supported by what Paul said on Mars Hills to the Athenian philosophers, "He has made from one blood every nation ofmen ... 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 one of us" (Acts 17:26-27). While it is true that no one seeks God out of his own initiative (Rom 3:11), God is drawing all to Himself (John 12:32), so then all are free to respond to God.
Cornelius was one such man. His alms and prayers ascended to God (Acts 10:4) and led God to send Peter to him with the message oflife (Acts 10:1- 6; 11:14).
In Romans 1 Paul indicates that the general revelation of nature is sufficient to convince someone that God exists (Rom 1:18-21). If people come to that belief, they are free to cry out to God for more light as the Macedonian man did in Paul's vision.
The fact that someone dies without ever hearing about Jesus does not mean that, while alive, they were unable to hear about Jesus or that they were unable to believe in Him. The fact that multitudes of people from groups who had never heard about Jesus have come to faith shows that it is indeed possible.
Since God is sovereign and omnipotent, He matches up those who are seeking with the good news of Jesus Christ. He sends people to evangelize them, as He did when He sent Philip the evangelist to the Ethiopian eunuch, the Apostle Paul to Macedonia, and the Apostle Peter to Cornelius.
When I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ we were instructed to answer the question about those who've never heard in a different but related way. Whatever God does for the heathens in Africa, Papua New Guinea or wherever else people have never heard, He will be fair. But you have heard. You are clearly accountable even under your own premise. So the question is, what are you going to do with Jesus? Are you going to believe in Him for the life He promises? Or are you going to walk away from everlasting life?
THE FATE OF THE MENTALLY INCOMPETENT
As I've written on this subject elsewhere, I will just repeat my conclusions here.1 God only holds people accountable for what they are capable of doing (cf. Ezek 18:20-23; Jonah 4:11). Hence those incapable will not be condemned. But what will God do with the mentally incompetent?
Since Jesus shed His blood on the cross for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2), He could give everlasting life to people incapable of believing in Him. That is one possible explanation of this dilemma.
The other option, the one I favor, is that all such people will be brought back in the Millennium to live out their lives. Admittedly, this view is not taught in Scripture. But nowhere do the Scriptures address the question of the mentally incompetent. My belief is an inference, based on the Biblical notion that God only holds people accountable for those things over which they have control. The mentally incompetent never had a chance to believe in Christ's message. But if they were brought back to life in the Millennium, they could have that chance. And if they then came to faith in Christ, they would, of course, be born again. If not, they would not. This requires people to die more than once. So far that has only happened for a handful of people in the OT and a relatively small number of people in the NT (though see Matt 27:52-53). Only those who were raised from the dead (like Lazarus in John 11) are given the opportunity to live again before this life is finally over. But if this is what God does, then only those who believe in Jesus will have everlasting life, yet without the problem of people being unable to believe.
GRACE MEANS GO
Charlie Bing gave a message entitled "Grace Means Go" at our 2002 Annual Conference. The message was very moving and popular because he linked a passion for clarity in evangelism with a passion for people who've not yet heard the message of life. Free Grace people have a heart for the unevangelized.
Since people can only have everlasting life by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), then it is imperative that we know God's grace and take the message to all who will listen.
There are full-time and part-time Free Grace missionaries all around the world. Charlie Bing's ministry, Grace Life, Jody Dillow's ministry, Biblical Education by Extension (BEE), and many others do short term mission trips in Africa, Asia, and around the world.
While GES does not yet have the funding to have a separate missions department, we view our ministry as global and not merely North American. Our website, magazine, journal, books, booklets, and audio and video reach people around the world. We hear from them via letters and emails.
In the past I've spoken in Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia, and last month, Spain. Ken Yates may soon be joining our staff to be our ambassador at large. He will seek opportunities to teach around the world for one semester per year plus other short term trips overseas.
We who believe that there is but one way to everlasting life and not many ways should be highly motivated to share the grace of God far and wide. As a missionary friend shared with me recently, it is sadly true that many Americans who go on short term trips and evangelize through a translator do not actually share their faith when they are home in the States. We need to share the message of life wherever we are. And we should support others, financially and through prayer, who are relocating to other countries to share the message of life. Or we ourselves should do the relocating, or go to other countries on short term trips if we have the means to do so.
Paul heard a single man from Macedonia cry out, "Bring me the message of Jesus Christ!" That cry goes up nearly every minute of every day somewhere in the world. God will match us up-or those whom we send to other countries-with seekers, if we are available.21. See my review of Robert Lightner's "Safe in the Arms ofJesus," JOTGES (Spring 2001), pp. 85-87.
2. For an in-depth treatment of this subject, see my article, "Is Ignorance Eternal Bliss?" JOTGES (Spring 2003), pp. 3-15.