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People Who Never Hear the Gospel of Christ

 
 
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(By Mark Fontecchio)

Throughout the history of mankind there have been countless people who have died without hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Christians recognize that if someone rejects the gospel, they stand condemned.  This can be witnessed by looking at one of the most familiar passages in the Bible.  We read in the Gospel of John:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:16-18).

The contrast is straightforward.  Believing in the name of Christ leads to receiving eternal life.  It is important to note, “The phrase believe in His name occurs three times in the Gospel of John (1:12; 2:23; 3:18). Name does not refer to the term by which He is called, but to what His name stands for—the Lord is salvation (Ex. 3:14, 15).”[1] Those who do not receive this salvation stand condemned.

The Problem

Still, the question remains, what about those who never hear the message of salvation before they die?  Is it fair that they stand condemned before God?  Or, is it possible for them to be saved apart from hearing the Gospel of Christ?  These thorny questions need to be answered from the Word of God.

There are two predominant views that attempt to resolve these issues.  Inclusivism teaches that salvation is based on the person and work of Christ, but:

People who may have never heard of Christ can be saved by responding to God on the basis of the revelation they have received. With this understanding a Hindu, Muslim or animist, while not a follower of Christ, could nevertheless be in the kingdom of God because they have followed the light they have been given in nature and in their religious system.[2]

Standing in complete opposition to this is exclusivism.  This perspective recognizes, “the belief that only one religion is true, and the others opposed to it are false.”[3] In other words, “If Christianity is true … then Islam is false, since its truth claims oppose central doctrines of Christianity, such as the death of Christ on the cross and his resurrection three days later.”[4] Accordingly, one must hear and respond by faith to the Gospel of Christ in order to be saved.

Given the gravity of the situation we must search the Scriptures for answers.  It is in the Word of God that we will find that the Gospel of Christ is by its very nature exclusive.  First, we will look at the key scripture passages that demonstrate this truth.  Then, we will see if the exclusive nature of the gospel matches what is being taught by Christian authors of our day.  We will examine why inclusivism is not in harmony with the Word of God.  Finally, we will confirm that a correct understanding of the gospel has a profound impact on our view of God.  This, in turn, guides us into a closer walk with Jesus Christ.

The proper place to begin answering the questions surrounding the gospel is in the book of Romans, where the Apostle Paul addressed these issues roughly two thousand years ago.  To start, it is important for us to look at what Paul stated in chapter 1.  In verses 16-17 Paul declares that through the gospel men and women find salvation.  Then Paul proclaims, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).  The beloved Apostle is informing us that the wrath of God is revealed against the sins of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  This leads to a natural question, what is the truth that men are suppressing?  Paul answers our question in the next two verses.

Verse 19 boldly proclaims, “Because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.”  Here, Paul is addressing the general revelation of God that has been made known to man by the knowledge that God has put within us.  He has made it evident within us that He exists.

This is an issue that Paul would continue to address in the second chapter of Romans.  In Romans 2:14-15 we learn that even unbelievers have the moral law of God written in their hearts.  Paul also proclaimed, “Their conscience also bearing witness” (Rom. 2:15).

In these two passages Paul is instructing us that God has revealed Himself to mankind by making the knowledge of His existence known by placing His moral law in our hearts.  All of mankind has a general sense of right and wrong.  Further, this conscience that God has given us should be a warning system for choosing between right and wrong.  The knowledge of right and wrong is one of the ways in which God has revealed Himself to mankind.  If people from all societies and cultures have this knowledge, we should be able to conclude that someone greater than mankind is involved.

Another facet that God has used to reveal Himself to all of mankind is found in Romans 1:20.  It is there Paul states, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse.”  This aspect of God’s general revelation involves creation.  Within the creation of God we should be able to see two attributes of God.  According to verse 20 we should be able to see His eternal power and Godhead, or divine nature.  By looking at nature all of mankind should be able to see the power and deity of God.  David expressed this same truth, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).

The general revelation of God informs us that God has revealed Himself to all of mankind.  He has revealed His moral law to us in our hearts, and His deity and power in creation.  The question still remains, is this enough to bring a person to eternal salvation?

Paul does instruct us that the general revelation is enough to accomplish something specific.  After referring to the general revelation of God, Paul then stated that because of this information that lost men and women have about God, “they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20b).  In other words, the truth that Paul said was being suppressed by men in verse 18 is the general revelation of God.  By rejecting this knowledge men are without excuse.  Therefore, we can safely conclude that rejecting the knowledge that God has given every individual is enough to bring the condemnation of God.

This is, however, only part of the story.  The general revelation of God is enough to condemn, but not enough to save.  This is where the confusion usually exists for many people.  Salvation involves hearing the gospel and responding in faith.  This is repeatedly emphasized throughout the New Testament.

Jesus Himself said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).  The wording of this verse is central to the discussion at hand.  Eternal salvation can only be obtained one way, by faith in Jesus Christ.  Jesus did not testify that He was one of many ways to salvation.  Nor did Jesus say that He points the way to God.  A saving relationship with God the Father only comes by faith in Jesus.  A false view of Jesus or a complete lack of knowledge of Him does not lead to eternal life.  This is why we are told in Scripture, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36).  These are the only two options presented in Scripture; believe in the Son or the wrath of God abides on you.

Acts 4:12 reveals this same teaching from the Apostle Peter.  As Peter spoke to the rulers of Israel he referred to Jesus Christ and said, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  In verse 11 we see that Peter had quoted Psalm 118.  This Psalm looks forward to the deliverance of Israel at the Second Coming of Christ and the Lord Jesus establishing His reign at the start of the Millennium.  However, it is clear from verse 10 that Peter had more than just the future deliverance of Israel in mind.  The eternal salvation of men can only come through Jesus Christ.  The false gods of the world cannot reconcile a man or woman to the one, true God.

In the same manner, the Apostle Paul testified, “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).  Paul stated some powerful truth.  No matter what the world may proclaim, there is only one God.  Further, there is only one way to approach God, through Christ Jesus.

It is often suggested that if someone is sincere in their search for God they can be reconciled to Him apart from responding to the Gospel of Christ.  Under this line of reasoning, a sincere Muslim or Hindu could be reconciled to God.  As long as they were earnest in their belief and never had an opportunity to respond to the gospel, then God will welcome them into eternal fellowship with Him.  The problem is that sincerity is not the issue.  As fallen men, we can be sincerely wrong about many things.  Proverbs 14:12 teaches, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”  Nevertheless, the inclusivist message continues to be spread.

Troubling Statements

Perhaps the most notable example of an inclusivist teacher would be Billy Graham.  In 1997, the famous evangelist appeared on The Hour of Power with Robert Schuller.  When asked about the future of the Christian faith Reverend Graham made the following statement:

Well, Christianity and being a true believer–you know, I think there’s the Body of Christ. This comes from all the Christian groups around the world, outside the Christian groups. I think everybody that loves Christ, or knows Christ, whether they’re conscious of it or not, they’re members of the Body of Christ. And I don’t think that we’re going to see a great sweeping revival, that will turn the whole world to Christ at any time. I think James answered that, the Apostle James in the first council in Jerusalem, when he said that God’s purpose for this age is to call out a people for His name.

And that’s what God is doing today, He’s calling people out of the world for His name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world, or the Christian world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they’ve been called by God. They may not even know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something that they don’t have, and they turn to the only light that they have, and I think that they are saved, and that they’re going to be with us in heaven.

Schuller in turn responded:

What, I hear you saying [is] that it’s possible for Jesus Christ to come into human hearts and soul and life, even if they’ve been born in darkness and have never had exposure to the Bible. Is that a correct interpretation of what you’re saying?

Graham replied:

Yes, it is, because I believe that. I’ve met people in various parts of the world in tribal situations, that they have never seen a Bible or heard about a Bible, and never heard of Jesus, but they’ve believed in their hearts that there was a God, and they’ve tried to live a life that was quite apart from the surrounding community in which they lived.[5]

Other prominent inclusivist teachers include C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Neal Punt, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock.

C.S. Lewis used typical inclusivist language when he wrote:

Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.[6]

These words from Mere Christianity are troubling.  It echoes the usual inclusivist teaching that the death and resurrection of Christ is the basis for our salvation, but men do not have to have faith in Jesus Christ.  They must be sincere in their faith in a god, but it does not need to be in Christ.  The natural conclusion of this line of thinking leads men to believe that if a person never hears of Jesus of Nazareth they could still be saved.

Inclusivist Clark Pinnock publically stated his belief that sincere men and women of other religions can be saved in his book A Wideness in God’s Mercy.  Pinnock proclaimed:

By “inclusivism” I refer to the view upholding Christ as the Savior of humanity but also affirming God’s saving presence in the wider world and in other religions. By “pluralism” I mean the position that denies the finality of Jesus Christ and maintains that other religions are equally salvific paths to God.

Using such terms, one could say that my proposal is exclusivist in affirming a decisive redemption in Jesus Christ, although it does not deny the possible salvation of non-Christian people. Similarly, it could be called inclusivist in refusing to limit the grace of God to the confines of the church, although it hesitates to regard other religions as salvific vehicles in their own right. It might even be called pluralist insofar as it acknowledges God’s gracious work in the lives of human beings everywhere and accepts real differences in what they believe, though not pluralist in the sense of eliminating the finality of Christ or falling into relativism.[7]

Pinnock’s entire work on this subject is an example of both twisted logic and the ripping of Bible verses out of the context in which they were written.  He has constructed a theological framework that is foreign to the teaching of God’s Word that leads him to conclude:

Since God has not left anyone without witness, people are judged on the basis of the light they have received and how they have responded to that light. Faith in God is what saves, not possessing certain minimum information. … Scripture and reason both imply that no one can be held responsible for truth of which they were inculpably ignorant; they are judged on the basis of the truth they know. A person is saved by faith, even if the content of belief is deficient (and whose is not?).[8]

Sincerity of the human heart and God’s love are seen as the reasons why this interpretation is considered to be true.  In reality, it is an abandonment of the authority of God’s Word.

There are profound problems with the inclusivist position because by its very nature the Gospel of Christ is exclusive.  This is clearly demonstrated in John 3:16-18, 36; 14:6; Acts 14:6; and 1 Timothy 2:5.  These passages prove that it is not simply faith alone that saves.  It is faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ that brings eternal life.  The Apostle Paul taught, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17).  Even though this section of Scripture was written in regard to the nation of Israel, the principle remains.  Faith that leads to eternal life involves specific knowledge of the truth of Christ.

A second glaring problem with the inclusivist position is that it confuses the role of the general revelation of God.  It is clear from the book of Romans that the general revelation of God is enough to condemn a person.  However, nothing in the Word of God indicates that it is enough to bring a man or woman to individual salvation in Christ.

At the very heart of the matter is the issue of how we are to approach the religions of the world.  The inclusivist position sees the other religions of the world as a possible expression of sincere faith that can lead a person to salvation.  Is this really how the Bible views the false religions of men?

The Apostle John most certainly did not have such an indifferent attitude about the dangerous doctrines of men.  He warned:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world (1 John 4:1-3).

The doctrines of demons are opposed to Christ.  In John’s second epistle we see the same strong warning on this subject.  Believers were giving heed to the doctrines of men.  John saw the real and present danger of men traveling to homes and spreading the lies of Satan.  For this reason John cautioned, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 10-11).

Satan is the real power behind the religions of men.  The Jews of the first century had created their own religion.  If sincerity was the ultimate test of salvation, Jesus should have welcomed them as part of the redeemed.  No one was more sincere than the first century Jews, but they were sincerely wrong.  Instead, Jesus rebuked them by saying, “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44).  A few sentences later another word of correction came from the Lord, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God” (John 8:47).  Sincerity had led the Jewish people to believe the lies of Satan, which in turn meant that they stood condemned.  Without faith in the finished work of Christ there is no eternal life.

Long ago, the nation of Israel was warned about the dangers of the deception of men.  Consider these solemn words from Deuteronomy:

There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the LORD, and because of these abominations the LORD your God drives them out from before you (Deut. 18:10-12).

Inclusivists should be warned that God does not take such a light view of the false religions of men.  Israel was to have faith in Jehovah and in His promise of a Redeemer.  The continual thread throughout the Word of God is the condemnation of the worship of man-made gods.  Faith in the God of the Bible, by its very nature, is exclusive.  This is why Jesus testified, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).

The doctrine of inclusivism fundamentally misunderstands the truth of who God is.  It overemphasizes God’s love while neglecting His justice.  We learn in the Psalms, “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day” (Ps. 7:11).  The book of Job reveals, “He is excellent in power, in judgment and abundant justice” (Job 37:23).  God’s justice should not be overlooked.

Inclusivism also demonstrates a lack of trust in the sovereignty of God.  If a person responds favorably to the general revelation of God, is it too hard to believe that God will bring them into contact with the Gospel of Christ, no matter where or when they live?  Our Creator knows all things about His creation; this is simply part of His omniscience.  Isaiah declared, “Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and He who formed you from the womb: ‘I am the LORD, who makes all things, who stretches out the heavens all alone, who spreads abroad the earth by Myself’” (Isa. 44:24).  Since God knows all things, the free will of His people is not outside of His knowledge.  We must trust that God will put those individuals who will respond to His revelation in a place and time where they have the opportunity to receive the Gospel of Christ. To do otherwise, is to diminish the very nature of our God.

Application

There are profound personal applications of the differences that exist between inclusivism and exclusivism.  Inclusivism is a false gospel and those who teach it fall under the judgment that Paul described in Galatians 1.  The Apostle testified, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8-9).

A second application of understanding God’s plan of redemption is found in our individual walk with Christ.  Recognizing God’s sovereignty, love, and justice helps us to better appreciate who He is.  The more we know about our God, the more we can walk and live in fellowship with Him.  We can have unshakable confidence that God will not leave an individual stranded.  If their heart is receptive to the gospel, we can trust that God will bring them into contact with His saving message of redemption.

Before we leave this topic, I think it is important to remind ourselves of one last truth gleaned from God’s Word on this subject.  Since general revelation is not enough to bring a person to salvation, the importance of missions is plainly seen.  We must not forget the Great Commission given in Matthew 28:19-20 which says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  God’s plan for bringing the salvation message to man is through His believers.  The responsibility of the task is awesome, but it is the main reason that the Church exists.  He has equipped us with His Son, His Word, His Spirit, and His Church for this mission.  Let us be faithful to the task He has given us!

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Endnotes

[1] Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson's New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), John 1:12.

[2] Gary E. Gilley, "The Kingdom of Emergent Theology" In, Dispensationalism Tomorrow & Beyond: A Theological Collection in Honor of Charles C. Ryrie, ed. Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 428.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker reference library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 238.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ken Silva, “Apprising Ministries,” http://apprising.org/2009/05/07/mark-driscoll-to-speak-at-crystal-cathedral-of-robert-schuller/ (Accessed February 29, 2012).

[6] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Riverside, NJ: Macmillan, 1984), 65.

[7] Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 15.

[8] Ibid., 157-158.

 

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