Appendix 1. Can Heathen Who Have Never Heard the Gospel Be Saved?

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (9:49)

The question of whether heathen who haven't heard of Jesus will be saved isn't really treated in 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9. But since Paul talks about terrible judgment upon unbelievers, the question is present in the minds of many modern-day readers nevertheless. If God condemns people to hell, is it fair to send people to hell who have never had a chance of being saved?

An Outline of How the Heathen Might Be Saved

I encourage you to purchase a book on Christian apologetics to study a more thorough discussion of the question. But let me outline the elements of what I believe is a Biblical but tentative answer. What happens to the heathen isn't fully clear in Scripture. But we know that:

1. Justice. God is just, which means that he will judge all people fairly (Genesis 18:25; Psalm 145:17).

2. Love. God loves the world (John 3:16) and desires all people to be saved (2 Peter 3:9; 1 Timothy 2:4; Ezekiel 33:11).

3. General Revelation. God has revealed some basic truths about himself to all mankind (known as "general revelation").

"What may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities -- his eternal power and divine nature -- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse." (Romans 1:19-20)

"The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world." (Psalms 19:1-4a)

In a sense, those who acknowledge and believe this general revelation can be said to "know God" (as it says in Romans 1:21, 28; and Acts 14:17). People can either accept and act on these basic truths, or reject them, distort them, and suppress them.

It is vital to understand that, while general revelation is only bare-bones information, nevertheless it is enough information on which people can act -- and God holds them responsible for this revelation. People are without excuse!

4. Natural Law. God has also given mankind a conscience, a sense of justice, a general guide to right and wrong, a natural law. Many sins are obvious to everyone (Galatians 5:19-21). Paul wrote:

"When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them." (Romans 2:14-15)

The problem, of course, is man's bent to sinning -- and the existence of a tempter who hates God and the knowledge of God. Unfortunately, we are not consistently rational beings. We tend to deceive ourselves and others (1 Corinthians 3:18; 6:9; Job 15:31; Obadiah 3). Too often, we suppress the truth we know when we don't want to act on it (Romans 1:18-19[342]). For many, becoming a Christian is not so much an intellectual challenge, as a moral challenge. Many so-called "seekers" don't want to repent and do what they know they should; thus can't be saved.

5. Sin. All have sinned (Romans 3:23), and though all sin is serious (James 2:10), there seem to be degrees of sins -- some greater, some less (Matthew 23:23; John 19:11; Luke 12:47-48; Matthew 12:31-32; Romans 3:25).

6. Light. We are judged on the basis of the light we are given. Those who don't know much are responsible to do only for what they know to do. Those who know much have a greater responsibility (1 Timothy 1:13; Romans 2:13-15; 5:15; Acts 17:30-31). "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded" (Luke 12:48b).

7. Jesus' Redemption. Christ's salvation through his death on the cross provides the basis for redemption of any person -- past, present, and future -- though we know that not all will be saved. Jesus is mankind's only hope. As he said,

"I am the way and the truth and the life.
No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)

"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,
and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

"This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance ... that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe." (1 Timothy 4:9-10)

8. Salvation. Thus, Abraham and other Old Testament saints were saved by means of Christ's atonement, even though Abraham had not received a revelation of Jesus Christ. Christ's redemption is effective for Abraham's salvation, and perhaps others who believed in and followed the light they had.

"To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life." (Romans 2:7)

The Bible isn't clear about all this. We are given hints, but not the full story about how the heathen might be saved, so I'm not trying to be dogmatic. Notice that I do not support universalism, that all humans will ultimately be saved. That is clearly false.

However, there are enough hints to suggest that it is possible for the heathen to be saved, so we can't accuse God of being unfair to people who have never heard. They have been given general revelation and are responsible. They have no excuse.[343]

So Why Preach the Gospel at All?

But if it might be possible for people to be saved without hearing about Christ, why should we preach the gospel to them? Doesn't preaching them the gospel give them a chance to reject Christ, which would result in them not being saved?

General revelation is only a general pointer to God. It reveals the existence of God and a basic sense of right and wrong, but doesn't provide a clear path to salvation. In fact, usually with only general revelation, people tend to reject God and instead worship the creation and creatures instead of the Creator himself (Romans 1:21-25). As Jesus said,

"Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
and many enter through it.
But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,
and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13b-14)

So many are left in their sins, lost and confused.

"Jesus ... had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things." (Mark 6:34)

For this reason, we're commanded to evangelize (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47-48; Acts 1:8), to tell the story of Jesus our Savior, who loved us so much that he was willing to die for us. As Paul explains:

"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" (Romans 10:14-15, quoting Isaiah 52:7)

Over the centuries, as men and women have faithfully preached the compelling story of God's love and the God-man Jesus Christ, millions have put their faith in him and found abundant life -- and eternal life!

God has given a witness of himself in creation and in the human conscience so that people may know him -- repent of their sins, and seek him. We are all without excuse before a just God.

But man in his lostness and brokenness needs a Savior, a Physician who will come to him, heal his sin-sick soul, and give him eternal life. That Savior is Jesus, whom we proclaim with joy and love.

End Notes

[342] "Suppress" (NIV, NRSV), "hold" (KJV) in Romans 1:18 is katechō, "to hold back, detain, retain," here, "to restrain, hinder." (Thayer, 1a).

[343] This argument follows the general approach of Dan Story, Defending Your Faith: How to Answer the Tough Questions (Nelson, 1992), pp. 121-129.


Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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