by Jared Wellman
The question, "What about those who have never heard?" is a question based on the biblical understanding that faith in Jesus is the only way to eternal life (John 14:6). In this respect, the question originates out of the unfairness that would be allegedly committed if an individual died without Christ--and therefore didn't experience eternal life--simply because faith in Jesus was never clearly communicated or revealed to him.
Romans 1 is arguably one of the clearest chapters on the revelation of God to man. In it, Paul gives a handful of ways that God has revealed Himself. These are:
- The Gospel - the power of salvation through faith in Jesus (1:16-17)
- The Gospel - the wrath of God through unbelief (1:18)
- Moral Law (1:19; 2:15)
- Creation (1:20)
Paul seems to convey two types of revelation here: General Revelation and Special Revelation. General Revelation is how God generally reveals Himself (moral law and creation), but this type of revelation doesn't necessarily provide salvation because although the existence of God can be "clearly seen," the concepts of sin, its consequences, and the need for belief in a Savior cannot. Seeing a beautiful tree, for example, and considering that there is a creator of that tree doesn't atone for sin. Special Revelation, on the other hand, is the clear revelation of God through His Son Jesus Christ and does offer the opportunity for salvation. Special Revelation in Romans is revealed in the Gospel through either the righteousness of God in salvation (which is a result of faith) or the wrath of God (which is a result of the lack of faith or "suppressing the truth").
Most scholars like to keep General Revelation and Special Revelation separate, but Paul seems to convey that there is a connection. Concerning God's revelation through creation, for example, Paul says that "men are without excuse" (1:20). The overall message that Paul is conveying here is that God has not left Himself without a witness. In light of this, we can safely conclude from Romans 1 that God is very concerned about His witness to all of mankind because He has left it everywhere. This is an important truth to remember when answering our question.
Before moving on, it is important to outline some of the other important truths that the Bible teaches concerning salvation and eternal life:
- All are sinners from birth (Romans 3:23, 5:12)
- Sin separates us from God (Romans 6:23)
- Christ died to pay the price of sin (John 4:42; 1 John 2:2)
- Belief in Jesus covers sin (John 5:24, 6:47; Acts 16:30-31)
- Jesus is the only way by which man can be saved (John 14:6; Acts 4:12)
- Being "good" does not bring eternal life (Romans 3:10,12)
- Rejecting Jesus brings eternal death (John 3:36; Revelation 20:15)
- God is just (Romans 2:11)
- Man can ignore God's revelation (Romans 1:18)
These biblical truths clearly outline the fact that when a person dies without Christ, then that person experiences eternal death. This is an unarguable point. When we pair this truth, however, with Paul's message of God's revelation in Romans 1 (and some other helpful Bible verses) then we can come to a handful of truths that help answer our question:
- God Desires that All Men Be Saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9)
- God Seeks Those who Seek Him (Luke 19:10; James 4:8)
- God Can Send Messengers to Reveal His Son (Acts 16:6-10; Romans 10:14,15)
- God Can Perform a Miracle or Reveal Himself in Special Way to Reveal His Son (Acts 9)
Concerning (4), Paul--the individual who wrote Romans--was once lost himself. He wanted nothing to do with Christ, but God sought after him and Jesus--although resurrected and ascended--came down and revealed Himself to him. Paul was, as a result, saved. This is a beautiful picture of God's grace in that He has the power to reveal Himself to any person, at any time, in order that they may have an opportunity to accept Jesus Christ for salvation.
Moreover, in Jesus' final words, He told His disciples to make disciples by "going, baptizing, and teaching" (Matt. 28:18-20), to "proclaim His name unto all the nations (Luke 24:47), and to go, "even to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). This argues for a God who is loving and who does not leave a single individual without a witness to His Son Jesus Christ.
So, the answer to the question "What about those who have never heard?" is that we can trust in the Lord and in His Word that He does not leave Himself without a witness to all of mankind. He has generally revealed Himself to all, and His General Revelation (for those in remote places) gives way for Special Revelation--be it from God or from His messengers. God never misses anyone! (John 18:9)