Bill read my recent blog on middle knowledge and the fate of those who never heard (see here). He then asked this excellent follow-up question:
Some people think that if a person becomes God conscience and has a desire to known Him, then God will provide that person “a clear gospel presentation.”
I have heard some missionaries that reported that some people in remote areas have said that they have been waiting for someone to tell them about God.
Do you know if the Bible addresses this idea?
When I was on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, we were taught to answer in this way the question about the fate of those who’ve never heard: “Whatever God does with them will be fair. But you have heard. So, you need to believe in Jesus in order to be saved forever.”
That answer is fine, as far as it goes. But it does not explain what this fair treatment by God is, and it does not engage the Scriptures.
There are texts in Scripture which show that God links the saving message with people who are open and seeking. I will give a few sample passages.
Paul told the Athenian philosophers that God “has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 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).
F. F. Bruce comments on Acts 17:27:
Ever since the creation, he [Paul] says in Rom. 1:20, the things that God has made have pointed clearly to “his everlasting power and divinity.” If human beings, beguiled and confused by false worship, have failed to perceive the nature of God in the works of creation, they are without excuse. The attitude expressed in the letter to the Romans is not so widely different from that of the Areopagitica…Even some of their own teachers had realized…however dimly, how near God was to those who truly sought him (Acts, p. 338).
Paul’s statement in Rom 1:20, cited by Bruce, also shows that men are capable of responding to God’s creation by seeking Him. Failure to do so means “that they are without excuse.”
Luke gives us an example of the type of account that Bill mentioned has been heard repeatedly in the past three centuries by missionaries. An unnamed man in Macedonia appeared to Paul in a vision “and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9). Paul and his ministry team “conclude[ed] that the Lord had called [them] to preach the gospel to them [the people in Macedonia] (Acts 16:10). God provides the seeker with a clear gospel presentation.
The Lord Jesus’s famous ASK message—Ask, Seek, Knock (Matt 7:7-11)—indicates that God joins those who ask with His truth. He concluded by saying, “how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matt 7:11). Those “good things” certainly include the gift of everlasting life (cf. John 4:10-14).
I think it is important to explain to people who ask the way in which God will be fair to those who’ve never heard. He is drawing all toward Himself (John 1:9; 12:32; 16:7-11). Anyone who responds to Him by seeking Him will be given more revelation, including the promise of everlasting life to whoever believes in Him for it. God is just in all His actions. No one will ever be eternally condemned who lacked the opportunity to respond to God. Those who respond with seeking will come to faith in Christ for everlasting life if their seeking is sustained.i
i It is possible that a person might seek the Lord for a time, but when further revelation comes, abandon the search. Acts 17:11 implies this. The Bereans were already seeking. But then they searched the Scriptures to confirm that what Paul was saying was true. Acts 10 does as well. Cornelius was seeking the Lord before God sent an angel to send for Simon Peter so that they might hear the saving message. If Cornelius had not continued seeking, by sending for Simon Peter, then he and his household would not have come to faith at that time.