Our church has just finished our preaching series on 1 Thessalonians. We have Q&A in the service to allow the congregation to send SMS questions to the preacher to attempt to answer after the sermon. When I preached on 1 Thess. 4:13-5:11 on the return of Jesus, one question that came up was this:
In relation to the dead rising up, what about non-Christians who never heard the gospel?
Now, in the passage, Paul is trying to give comfort to the Thessalonians by assuring them that those who have died will not miss out when Jesus returns. Those who have passed away will be raised again to be with Jesus together with those who are still alive. Therefore, they must not grieve as if they have no hope. So, Paul is not dealing with the conditions or destiny of nonChristians. However, the question about those who never heard the gospel comes up rather often, both in the service and in personal conversations. So, I thought I will write some of my thoughts on this issue.
I am aware that this question has been asked from the early years of Christianity, and many experts have given their takes on it. So, what I am writing here is by no means new, and by no means will close this case once for all. People will still ask the questions. But let me offer four truths to help us navigate this difficult question. I hope that the following four points will be helpful to some, and at the very least, it helps me clarify my thinking on this.
So, here we go.
1. Everyone, who has been born since Adam and Eve, was born in sin.
Some who ask the above question usually ask this related question as well: “What about an innocent man who lived somewhere on a remote island? Would he not be saved, even if he had not heard the gospel?”
The answer should be an affirmative ‘Yes.’ If that innocent man died, he would be guaranteed to enter the kingdom of God. A good God will never condemn an innocent man to hell. However (you sort of feel that a ‘however’ is coming right?), the problem is this: there is no such thing as ‘an innocent man’ (or woman, for that matter… don’t get excited too quickly, ladies!).
The Bible is clear when it says:
The LORD looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.
Prophet Isaiah, contemplating on the condition of his people, wrote this:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
King David summarises it well:
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
So, there is no one who is born after Adam that is not born in sin. Adam and Eve’s disobedience opened the gate for sin to come into this world infecting every human being ever since (see Romans 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22). In fact, you don’t need the Biblical witness to tell you that. If you have a child or a nephew or a niece, you can see for yourself. Parents have to teach their children to share, to be kind, to say thanks, to be gentle, etc. Parents don’t need to teach their children to be selfish, to be rude, or to punch other kids. They do it themselves without any primer or a ‘Being selfish for dummies’ book. It is in their nature to be self-centred, and that is the result of sin reigning in our nature.
2. There is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ.
Just like sin has come into the world through one man, and death through sin (Romans 5:12), righteousness has also come through one man. Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:22, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”
The wages of sin is death. Everyone deserves death and eternal separation from God. God’s holy anger burns against those who sin against Him. The only thing that can save us is if someone takes our punishment in our place and bears the full weight of God’s wrath. That’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross. His death is to propitiate (read: to satisfy or to appease) God’s wrath (Romans 5:25; 1 John 4:10). There is no other thing that can adequately pay for our sins.
That is exactly why Jesus can say that He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one can come to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). That’s also why Luke can say in Acts 4:12 that there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
Of course, the question is this: What about Abraham? What about Moses? What about all the faith heroes in the Old Testament? Well, they are considered righteous before God because they believed in God, and they trusted in the means of grace that God has revealed to them. Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Moses and the Israelites trusted in the sacrificial system that God had ordained to maintain God’s relationship with them individually and as a people. However, it is not the means that saved them. It is the God who ordained the means who saved them.
However, we must not say that they are saved outside of Christ. The author of Hebrews clearly says that there is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22) and that it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). Therefore, the OT believers were saved ultimately because Jesus has spilt His blood for them too. So, chronologically speaking, God applies the saving benefit of Jesus’ death on them as well on the basis of their trust in God and His partial revelation in OT. To the timeless God, the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers are both chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and, therefore, are united in Christ and co-heirs with Christ.
3. In the New Testament, God has ordained the preaching of the gospel as the means for salvation.
Jesus is the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. God’s grand redemption plan that He gradually revealed from Old Testament time culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We, who live on this side of history, have the privilege of knowing and seeing the fuller revelation of God’s redemption plan.
Therefore, God has ordained that this good news of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed in all the world, and everyone who hears and believes in His Son shall not perish, but receive eternal life. God has ordained that He will accept those who accept His Son as their Saviour. God has determined that the saving grace of Jesus will apply to those who acknowledge that they are powerless to save themselves and that they desperately declare, upon hearing the gospel, that they need for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross to atone for their sins.
Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:9 that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Everyone who calls on the name of Jesus will be saved (Romans 10:13). However, they will not call on Jesus if they have not believed. And for them to believe, they have to hear about Him first (Romans 10:14-17).
Now, of course, does it mean that God cannot reach out to people without our help? Of course, He can. Many people have come to put their trust in Jesus because Jesus has revealed Himself to them in vision and/or dream, or through His angelic messengers. This is especially true for many Muslims in Islamic countries. However, when this happens, God usually gives them access to the Bible and even directs them to other Christians in such a way that they will eventually learn the gospel from the Bible.
So, the preaching of the gospel is indispensable when it comes to our salvation. Although God can reach out to His sheep without human agents, He has commanded us to preach the gospel. Therefore, we must preach with conviction and a sense of urgency that people will perish outside of Christ.
4. Sinners are condemned not because they do not believe in Jesus.
Many Christians would say this: If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will suffer eternal condemnation. You must respond to the gospel, you must believe, otherwise, you will not be saved.
The problem with this statement is its unintended implication. What might register in their mind is that they end up in hell because they reject the gospel. Their life was okay before the gospel was preached to them. But now that they have heard the gospel, they have to make a decision. And if they make the wrong decision, they will perish. So, to them, the gospel of Jesus is actually not good news at all because it actually complicates their life. Therefore, it is better if they have not heard the gospel at all.
However, the truth is that people perish not because they reject the gospel. Human beings are condemned because we have sinned against the Almighty God. Jesus and the gospel do not contribute to their condemnation. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God did not send His Son to condemn the world (John 3:17). Those who do not believe are condemned already because of their sin.
So, how about those who never heard the gospel? We must stand firm in the Biblical conviction that no one is born innocent, and without the saving faith in Jesus Christ, everyone has only one destiny: eternal condemnation in hell. Therefore, all the more we have the urgency tell people the bad news of their sin condition, the good news of Jesus, and to compel people to turn from their ways and to put their faith in Jesus.
Of course, this post assumes that people have the ability to hear the gospel and they have the ability to express their faith. However, what about those who don’t have the ability for whatever reasons? What about people with disabilities? What about babies? Well, that is another post for another day.
- The Longing for the King
- “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
- Blessed are those whose faith is not blind
- I am not Ashamed of the Gospel, am I?