But What of Those Who’ve Never Heard?1
“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. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18He 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. 19 And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
No doubt one of the questions I get asked the most while teaching the Bible is, “But what about those who haven’t heard?” They want to know what about someone who is in a remote corner of the world where no missionary has been to their village, where there has never been a Bible and no one has heard the name of Jesus. Or they’ll ask me about some Native American five centuries ago who never heard the name of Jesus. How can God be just in sending them Hell and then judge them and send them also to the Lake of Fire! This is a very valid question and the answer to it is important because at the Great White Throne Judgment many generations of individuals will fit that description. Making the matter even more confusing, Paul claims that everyone on Earth has already heard:
How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? 15 And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “LORD, who has believed our report?” 17 So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. 18 But I say, have they not heard? Yes indeed: “Their sound has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.”
How can this be? How can it be possible that the way of salvation has already been proclaimed to all mankind when many have never even heard the name of Jesus? Paul starts out by seemingly telling us that a preacher is necessary for people to believe and be saved. He assures us that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” But then he makes a strange statement, “But I say, have they not heard?” Then he answers that they have indeed all heard because the message of salvation “has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.” On the surface, this would seem to be one of the most absurd claims of all time! At the time Paul wrote this letter in or about the year 58, the Good News—that Jesus Christ had paid the ransom for sins so that all who call upon Him would be saved—probably had not even made it to most areas of Northern Europe, the British Isles, most of Africa, Asia, and certainly not to the Americas and East Indies! Yet Paul claimed everyone had already heard but yet had not believed! What could Paul possibly be talking about? The answer is nine chapters before this statement of Paul’s and contained in the same letter to the Romans in chapter 1. As Paul explains, God has revealed His eternal existence and role as the Creator to all of mankind through His very Creation, so that no man ever born has an excuse for not worshiping the Creator:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 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,
In one of the most profound Bible statements, Paul assures us that God’s wrath is coming from Heaven. It is coming from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men! But it’s not coming against all men…just those “who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.” In order to fit the category of those against whom God’s wrath is coming a man or woman has to know some Truth first and then choose to ignore the Truth that has been revealed to them. This is what Dr. Adrian Rogers years ago referred to as “The Revelation Factor.”
The Revelation Factor—All men have some Light John 14:6
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.
That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.
Jesus is Truth. Apostle John even refers to Jesus as the Light or as the revelation of God. Regarding Jesus, John assures us that Jesus gives Light/revelation of God’s Truth to every single person who has ever come into the world! That means that every man who ever lived has been given some Light as to the existence of God and that He is the Creator and way to obtain Eternal Life. This basic Light that all men have comes in two forms: Creation and Conscience. As Paul explained above, all men can plainly see in the Creation the hand and existence of a Creator. Paul says no one can truthfully look at the Creation and not recognize intelligent design, God attributes are “clearly seen” in the complexity of Creation’s design so that someone would have to deliberately ignore those attributes in order to disbelieve in God. The Native American five centuries ago who looked up at the night sky and saw the stars and the moon, who looked at the cycle of life around him, who looked at the amazing details of his newborn child, had to realize in his heart that there was a Creator. As King David assures us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). Job also tells us:
“But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this, In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?”
Job assures us that no zoologist or botanist or any scientist could possibly look at the complexity of living things or the Earth itself without finding an indisputable witness of the Creator. So no one has an excuse because all men have some Light. But as if that’s not enough, they also have the Universal Law of God programmed inside their Soul. called the Conscience:
for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them) in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.
As Paul explains here in chapter 2, even those who live among the nations or “Gentiles” who have never even heard God’s commandments nor have been taught them still know them because “the work of the law” is written “in their hearts”. Here the word “hearts” refers to the seat of the genuine desires, the dispositions, and the emotions within the Soul/Conscience. So Paul says unless a man or woman deliberately ignores their Conscience and allows it to become “seared as with a hot iron” (1 Timothy 4:2) they automatically know the Universal Law of God and what God expects of them! If they are Truth seekers then they will keep their Conscience clean by responding to the Light that God gives them. As Rogers explains, Creation is the outward objective witness and Conscience is the inward subjective witness that there must be a Creator. However, this amount of Light about God’s creative hand alone is not sufficient to save anyone. The demons have this same witness to the existence of God and yet they are eternally damned to the Lake of Fire for rejecting it!
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble!
As James reveals, just having faith that God exists is not enough faith to save you but it is enough faith to condemn you to Eternal Torment if you know He exists but then act like the demons and refuse to repent and seek His salvation! The person who receives this Light must then act upon what he or she has received by proceeding in faith to seek the Creator:
But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
As the writer of Hebrews explains, it is not enough that we “believe that He is” (that God exists). In order to please Him we must take faith a step further and have faith enough to seek Him “diligently” or make an earnest investigation to determine what He would have us do in order to be saved. It’s not a matter of whether you have doubts. I have found many of those who start out with doubts become some of the greatest Christians. I have students often tell me, “I hope you don’t get offended but I’m a skeptic.” To this I respond, “I don’t mind at all as long as you are a real skeptic—unwilling to believe secular or Christian views until they are proven to you. But I don’t like fake skeptics—those who automatically believe what they hear in the world’s media but refuse to believe God’s Word.” As Dr. Rogers explains, there are honest doubters and dishonest doubters. An honest doubter says, “I don’t know You God but I want to know You! Show me how I can come to know You!” A dishonest doubter loves His sin and has no desire to find God anymore than “a thief wants to find a policeman.” So we plainly see that even the Native American who lived 500 years ago and never heard of Jesus preached by any preacher has still been shown through the Creation and through his own Conscience the existence of God. However, this is not enough to save him. To find salvation, he must act upon the Light he has received and seek the Lord. Unfortunately, few people are saved out of the vast amount of those born because most refuse to act upon what Light has been given to them, seeking instead their own vain religions of their own creating…the gods of their own understanding rather than seeking to understand the real God and what He requires of them!
The Refusal Factor—Light Refused Increases Darkness! John 3:19-21
“And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”
because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.
What a sad picture. As Paul explains in Romans 1:18-20, every living man or woman has had the existence of the true God and His Universal Laws written on their hearts and has plainly seen in the Creation the hand of a skilled Creator (as also John 1:9). But now we discover in Romans 1:21-23 that most people purposefully “suppress the truth”—they smother their own Conscience! They ignore the way they know to seek Him because they don’t want to find Him! They do it because of their own “unrighteousness” (their own selfish and sinful ways). They don’t want to have to turn to “righteousness” (a life of seeking to please God) but prefer their own ways. Of course, salvation is not dependent upon our becoming righteous on our own effort; it is purely a free gift. However, those who suppress the Truth realize they will be changed once God becomes their God and they don’t want to do that. Sadly, this refusal of the Light they have received leads them away from God rather than toward Him. The result is “futile” thoughts or reasoning. This leads to the darkening of the heart rather than the enlightening of it (see also this principle in Mark 4:25). We see this with the atheistic scientists and intellectuals of our day. They scoff at the idea of a Creator, even as they study the very amazing intricacies of His Creation. “Professing to be wise, they became fools” Paul says. For some Native Americans and others, they decided to create their own religions and own gods, “and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.” Our museums are filled with countless examples of such paganism dug up from their sites and passed down through their corrupted cultures. In places like Asia we see animals receiving reverent worship and some treated as if they contained the spirits of the departed souls of men. Even movies in theatres right now show examples of this, where ancient gods and goddesses are portrayed—gods whose worship ancient saints refused and often suffered torture and death for that refusal. God calls them all foolish, both the followers of false religion and those who reject the true way to God to form their own:
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good.
For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. 4 They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. 5 They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, or can they do any good.” 6 Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD (You are great, and Your name is great in might),
A teenage student once brought me the above verses in Jeremiah and asked me if they were talking about a Christmas tree! I explained that it was not referring to a tree with green branches left on it but a block of wood cut from the tree by someone who ignored the truth of Creation and instead chose to create his own god by carving it out of a block of wood. Yet, as absurd as this practice might seem, it is the natural result of ignoring the true God. Man becomes completely foolish without Him.
He burns half of it in the fire; with this half he eats meat; he roasts a roast, and is satisfied. He even warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, his carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” 18 They do not know nor understand; for He has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. 19 And no one considers in his heart, nor is there knowledge nor understanding to say, “I have burned half of it in the fire, yes, I have also baked bread on its coals; I have roasted meat and eaten it; and shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?”
And so we see the picture of those who refuse to walk in the Light of God’s Truth they have naturally received, whether they are turned aside to worship animals, ancestors, or the god of their own understanding. All are condemned for ignoring the True God and refusing to seek more Light beyond what they have received naturally. God has one frightening promise for them all; He will turn them over to the Spirit of Error:
2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
The coming of the lawless one is according to the working of Satan, with all power, signs, and lying wonders, 10 and with all unrighteous deception among those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved. 11 And for this reason God will send them strong delusion, that they should believe the lie, 12 that they all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
A few months ago while researching Hell and the Lake of Fire for this book; I read with amazement the recently published book Love Wins by Rob Bell. I had never heard the Word of God so skillfully distorted in the same ways as he does in his book. What I really marveled at was his outright rejection of the existence of a literal burning place of Eternal Torment for those who reject Jesus. Then I discovered the likely reason why Rob is so deluded. In his book he bragged about going to enjoy a concert by the wicked singer Marshall Bruce Mathers III who calls himself “Eminem”. Although Eminem blasphemes God’s Holy Word and doctrine with virtually every song these days since supposedly being “born again”, Rob was able to enjoy the concert and identify with Eminem’s “spiritual awakening.” I could not imagine any born again human containing the Holy Spirit of God living within him being able to enjoy such a concert, least of all one professing like Rob does to be a preacher led of that same Holy Spirit. But then I remembered the verses above in 2 Thessalonians that warn of those who don’t love the Truth but have “pleasure in unrighteousness.” These are quite eager to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” so they may believe there will be no consequences for their sinful indulgences. Of course, our salvation is not dependent upon righteous, obedient behavior on our part. But the other side of the coin is if we have been born again then we will be grieved by any concert where God is blasphemed and practically every song is filled with profanity and degradation of women and social civility. While it is certainly not my place to judge (krino) whether Rob Bell or Eminem are born again, it is my place to judge (anakrino) whether their behavior reflects that of a born-again believer and I have to say there seems to be a total lack of conviction about sin. If there is no smoke then there probably isn’t a fire either.
However, among all these scary verses of warning, Paul also reveals there are men and women of every culture, in every age, and in every place who will be saved because they did gladly receive the Light of the Truth naturally in them and sought to get to know the only true God better. This is what Dr. Adrian Rogers refers to as:
The Reception Factor—Light Obeyed Increases Light Romans 1:16-19
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.
Paul draws a dramatic contrast between those who act receptively to the natural Light of God’s Truth given to them through Creation and Conscience on the one hand and those who reject that Light on the other. For those who accept the Light they have received and seek to know more of God’s Light, Paul assures us that “it is the power of God to salvation.” That means the Native American 500 years ago who looked up at the night sky or down at his newborn child and said, “I want to know You more, whoever You are who created all of this.” Somehow, the Creator got the Truth through to that individual about Jesus Christ. A good example of this happened just in the last year in Indonesia—the nation with more professing Muslims than any other. A devout Muslim man seeking to know Truth kept having dreams of a mysterious man in white shining clothing. The man in shining clothing in the dream never spoke to him in any of his dreams until one night in his dream when he was told that someone would come to reveal the way of salvation. He was told the bearer of this Good News would be wearing a white shirt. An American believer that same night had an Indonesian believer at his house. Both woke up that following morning and the Indonesian believer prepared to leave on his bicycle when the American noticed he wasn’t wearing a shirt and told him to grab his white one off the floor and put it on. The Indonesian put the shirt on and headed out but was soon caught in a downpour and so wound up taking shelter from the rain under the overhang of a house. The house turned out to be the home of the Indonesian who had been seeking to know who the one was in his dream. Seeing the man sheltering under his overhang, he eagerly invited him in. While waiting for the rain to stop, the Indonesian believer began to share his faith with the man. He was astonished at how receptive the man was to the message of Jesus Christ. Then he heard about the dreams and realized this man had been seeking to know God better and that it was all a Divine Appointment. The entire family surrendered to Jesus and the visiting believer baptized the man and his family in their bath that day! There are many such stories coming in from around the world and I have no doubt that, just as Paul assures us, God has revealed Jesus personally and individually to any man, woman, or child who has sought to know Him in any period of history. As Paul reveals above, the more willing a person is to believe and seek God the more God will reveal to that person. Paul calls this “from faith to faith” meaning if you have faith and act on it to seek more understanding of God, more Light will be given to you. Then if you act on that additional Light of God’s Truth you have been given, more will be given to you. This process will go on until you come to know Jesus fully. The religious leaders who doubted Jesus were told that if they would just seek to know the Truth of God they would discover that Jesus was, in fact, the spokesman of God and not a false prophet:
“If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know concerning the doctrine, whether it is from God or whether I speak on My own authority.”
Sadly, many of them loved their sin and selfishness so much that they never sought out whether Jesus was telling the Truth. However, many of the religious Jews of Jesus’ day did come to know Him as their Savior and did receive Eternal Life because, although they may have had many doubts about Him and His message, they ultimately used the Light God had given them. Thus they knew in their hearts He was the Messiah and sought to follow Him. Sadly, many others among them had enough Light that they fully realized who He was and that He was sent from God but because they loved their own sin they “suppressed the truth in unrighteousness”. They were more concerned about keeping God in a box according to their own understanding of who they wanted God to be! Thus they plotted Jesus’ death and rejected Him even knowing God had sent Him! This is the same thing their forefathers did to all the prophets who got in the way of their sin. However, the Bible says, those who pierced Him will one day see him coming in His glory and mourn. In the same way, the Native American pagan shaman or Asian Buddhist priest who may have had the man or woman murdered who stood in their village 500 years ago proclaiming the Son of God revealed to them in a dream will one day stand in horror as that persecuted saint’s blood is brought out as a testimony to the fact that they heard the Truth and rejected it. This is what Dr. Rogers refers to as:
The Reckoning Factor—God Will Judge Us By the Light We Have Rejected! Luke 12:48
“But he who did not know, yet committed things deserving of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.”
In the verse above, Jesus is issuing a warning to His own followers that they will have to give an account for the time, energy, opportunities, and teaching they have had when they stand at the Believer’s Judgment. However, the principle is the same: God will judge us by what we did with the knowledge of His will that we had. Paul further explains:
Romans 2:5, 11
But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God…For there is no partiality with God.
Romans 2:5, 11
As Dr. Rogers says so well, “God has no reason to show the way to God to the man who has no interest in the fact of God.” So whether or not someone never heard the name of Jesus, God has revealed the fact of His existence to them through Creation and Conscience. If they chose to ignore the fact of God’s existence, then He was certainly under no obligation to show them the way to find His salvation! The Way is only revealed “from faith to faith” and so it doesn’t matter if someone is raised in church and the son or daughter of the pastor, if they have no desire to seek to know God even with all that Light of the Truth. They will go to the Lake of Fire just as surely as the pagan from the jungles of Borneo who ignored the obvious witness to the Creator from Creation and his Conscience. I was one of those preacher’s kids who had walked the aisle because my sisters were doing it but it was not of faith and it wasn’t long before my “decision” to “accept Jesus as my personal savior” faded away and I eventually completely rejected God and His existence from my life. I would have joined the other rebels in the Lake of Fire even with all my church experience had it not been for His willingness to deal “once, twice, even thrice with a man to redeem his soul from the pit”! God’s Word plainly says that for those who haven’t heard He has “winked at” or “overlooked” a lot of their shortcomings but for the one who has heard there is absolutely no excuse (see especially Acts 17:22-34). I am thankful for the day I was convicted for ignoring that Light and realized if I did so any longer God would allow it to fade and for my heart to become irreparably hardened.
1 For this section I am greatly indebted to the teaching of Dr. Adrian Rogers entitled, “No Other Way to Heaven Except Through Jesus”.