“What about the unevangelized? What happens to those who have never heard the gospel?”
Some answer that such people are “without excuse” and reference Romans 1:18-32 and 2:14-15, Psalm 19:1-6, Romans 10:18. However…
Being without excuse only means that Gentiles, like Jews (see Romans 2:1), know right from wrong and are “under sin” (Romans 3:9-18). In Romans 1:20, Paul is not answering the question, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?” He is answering the question, “What about those who have never received the Law–can they, too, receive what was promised to Abraham?” He’s saying–hey, they know the Law without having to be told (and knowing the law is knowing God, whom the law describes and to whom the law is true), and you who ask this question are no different from them, in that you do not yourselves follow the law (God). He is pointing out that faith is not passed on by your parents–you have to choose it–he was going all Kierkegaard on them. He was saying, if you exclude the Gentiles for being in conflict with the law, then you also exclude yourselves, despite being descendants of Abraham.
In other words, the gospel (the promises given to Abraham, that the whole world would be blessed through his seed: Romans 4:13, Galatians 3:8, Genesis 12:3, 18:18, et cetera) is for everyone who has sinned, and is the complete fulfillment of the law common to both Jew and Gentile: the Golden Rule (Matthew 5:17-20; Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus fulfilled the law when he took our sin (the sin of Jew and Gentile alike) on the cross and gave us his perfection, demonstrating to everyone (Jew and Gentile alike) that God loves us as himself. Here’s my paraphrasing of Romans 11:17-23: Though this opens the door for Gentiles (actually it’s the original plan Jews failed to realize), this does not close it to Jews. The Jews had to be cut off for a time because their failure to believe the gospel (that it was for all people and not based on being legal descendants of Abraham or receivers of the Law), was preventing the Gentiles from being part of the tree (the original plan). Similarly, if Gentiles get haughty at the Jews for missing the point (the tree, the gospel is for all people), the Gentiles, too, are missing the point (entering the kingdom requires getting the point). Once the Gentiles get it, the Jews will get it (though, not every individual in each of these groups will get it). So, these verses have nothing to do with losing salvation (being broken off has been misinterpreted that way), regaining salvation (being grafted back in has been misinterpreted that way), or universal salvation (“all Israel will be saved” in 11:26 and “He may show mercy to all” in 11:32 have been misinterpreted that way). Even if many soldiers of a nation die, that does not negate the fact that they saved the whole nation, and even if many Jews or many Gentiles do not believe, that does not negate God’s faithfulness (Romans 3:3) and the fact that Jesus showed mercy to all–Jew and Gentile–and all Israel will be saved.
Why do we accept that we are saved by grace through faith, but turn around and turn faith into a work when it comes to those who have not heard the gospel? Romans 10:14-21 says that faith comes by hearing, and Paul is saying the Jews ought to know better (having heard), but they don’t believe. See Romans 3:3. “If some did not believe, their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?” That means that every lost sheep is equally eligible to be saved by grace, not just Gentiles, but also Jews who received the promises (of the gospel yet to be fulfilled), but did not believe it. Despite their unbelief, Jesus was born as a Jew, grew up among them, was crucified by them, and while he was dying said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34). What applies to Jews in their unbelief, applies equally to Gentiles in their unbelief. Jesus leaves the 99 to bring back the one that is lost (Matthew 18:12-14).Remember that before you were of the 99, you were one of the lost, and he did not leave you there. In Romans 11:30-31, Paul says, “For just as you (Gentiles) once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their (Jews’) disobedience, so these also (Jews) now have been disobedient, that because of the mercy shown to you (Gentiles) they (Jews) also may now be shown mercy.” So, just as Jews are not to look down their noses at Gentiles who have not received their Law, Gentiles are not to look down their noses at Jews who have not believed the gospel…even those Jews who have heard and yet rejected. They are still in the heart of God, they are still part of the plan, and as a nation will eventually return to him (not every individual–but as a group).
So, the Gentiles (as a group) will be saved despite not being given the Law, and the Jews (as a group) will be saved despite not believing the gospel (the fulfillment of the Law).
Some answer, “What about Jews before everyone knew what Jesus did?” with this: Believers in the Hebrew Bible who died before they heard the gospel were saved if they had anticipated the Messiah in Scriptures and sacrifices (Romans 3:25, Galatians 3:8, Luke 2:29-32). Never mind that most Jews who knew what Jesus was up to flat-out rejected him to the point of crucifixion… If Jesus-ignorant Hebrews were saved by the anticipation of the fulfillment of the Hebrew law (Matthew 5:17), then why not Jesus-ignorant Gentiles who recognize that their intuitions about moral truth point to some personal being in reality who makes those intuitions true? Why not those who realize they will never measure up to that personal being, and want to discover it? Isn’t some variation of that what happens to everyone right before they believe the gospel? Is someone to be blamed for not being able to grasp the gospel due to cultural, intellectual, or emotional obstacles (lack of access)? What if the story you’re reading gets interrupted and the drowning man is left in the river, though in the very next chapter he would have been saved–is it the drowning man’s fault…should the author have let him drown?
One might ask, “How do we know which pre-Jesus, promises-anticipating Jew would have believed in Jesus?” One might answer, “God would know.” Wouldn’t God also know which of the unevangelized would have believed in Jesus (if they’d heard the gospel)?
Some people answer the original question, with, “Well, it’s not like any of us is special and deserves redemption. The elect are just the lucky ones. It is no mystery that people go to hell–that is the default destination for a fallen race, unless God intervenes. We don’t need to explain why those who do not hear the gospel go to hell. The real mystery is why some people do get to go to heaven–and that’s because they believe the gospel.” …
But these same people say that God, in his mercy, makes an exception for the very young. Why, if they are born fallen and hell is the default destination? What about being saved by grace “through faith”–is faith not an essential factor to our salvation? Here are some verses that indicate we are only held accountable for the revelation (light) we have been given, and these don’t just apply to infants: Acts 17:30 (barring Piper’s interpretation, which is false, though I love him), Luke 23:34/Acts 3:17, 1 Timothy 1:13, Matthew 10:15 & 11:21-24, Luke 12:46-48, John 9:41 & 15:22. Why would God not make an exception for other examples of ignorance besides just being very young? Before we accepted the gospel, were we not ignorant?–did God not make an exception for us when he brought us into relationship with himself? Update 3/18/14: The Luke 12 passage just referenced would not have us say of the unevangelized that “They are without excuse.” Rather, it would have us share with them what we have been given–or else WE are without excuse.
Some people answer the original question with, “There is no other name under which we may be saved.” Granted: Whatever your fate, Jesus is the only one who redeems (Matt. 11:27, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 Tim. 2:5), but his name is not a magic word. His name is just what he stands for, like when people say, “I want to make a name for myself.” The pre-gospel Hebrews were not saved by believing in the magic word, “Jesus,” but in what that name stood for. Jesus is God’s grace. It is God’s grace that saves. Jesus came to demonstrate it — it already existed (God is unchanging), and his coming was planned before the world was made. So whether or not anyone hears the gospel, it is grace that saves. God wants us to know and experience the reward of a relationship with our Creator and Savior–as soon as possible. Hence, the Great Commission. If we fail in our Commission, does God fail? Is God’s success contingent on ours? Isn’t it only after people do their hearing, their accepting/rejecting, that they are held responsible, and only according to the light they have received (Matthew 10:15, and see above)?
One may at this point object: If they are left in the dark, in ignorance, if God has mercy on their ignorance as if they are infants, isn’t it better to keep them in the dark, so that they will never have the possibility of rejecting God? The answer is that you don’t know if they are ignorant, and you do know that if they live much longer in this world, they won’t remain ignorant, and like the rest of us, they will need to know God died to prove his forgiving love for them. I have heard people use this as an argument for abortion, believe it or not–kill them before hell becomes a possibility, ensuring their eternal bliss. Such a thought could only be conceived in a mind crowded with slime and torture, with no room for beauty and peace. If you have ever cradled a sleeping, cooing, or even an adorably crying baby, it has made room in your mind for beauty and peace. You forget the slime and torture. Hope is restored for innocence and life. Kill it? Kill it?! Kill it, and you will never know beauty, peace or innocence again, unless you receive forgiveness. Whomever he forgives more, loves more.
Paul said, “And thus I aspired to preach the gospel, not where Christ was already named, so that I would not build on another man’s foundation; but as it is written, ‘They who had no news of Him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.'” (Romans 15:20-21) That does not sound like “they are without excuse” to me.
We have more access to answers and evidence than at any other time in history, but we are trained to block it out, we are numb to it. If you have heard all the evidence of God’s demonstration of grace on the cross in Jesus, and you reject it–then you reject the light you have received, and you have made your choice. If you choose to remain in a state of “I don’t know”–that is the same as rejecting it.
Blessed is s/he who is satisfied with answers and evidence, rather than needing to be personally knocked upside the head before s/he’ll believe that God keeps his promises. I was such a person. There was a time when I rejected the evidence as far as I was aware of it. I thought it was a lot, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. He did not leave me in my ignorance.
So, I have hope for you, if you are currently in a state of rejection, or “I don’t know.” I know that God will do everything possible to get you to see the Point before he lets you choose the alternative.